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How A Subway Ride Sparked The Idea For Idaho Author Anthony Doerr's Newest Book

Isabelle Selby

When we spoke to Idaho author Anthony Doerr in 2010 about his award winning book "Memory Wall," we asked him what his next novel would be about. 

“It’s about radio of all things,” Doerr answered. “It’s about the power of radio. I’m just trying to bring a reader back to that time when it was still kind of a miracle to hear the voice of a stranger in your home.”

Doerr’s latest book hit shelves Tuesday. “All The Light We Cannot See” tells the story of two children growing up before and during World War II. The story of Marie, a blind French girl alternates with a German orphan named Werner. For most of the book, their lives are separate until Werner hears Marie’s voice in the darkness as the war destroys the city around them.   

Doerr says, though the story has evolved over the last four years, radio is still a big part of it. 

“Both for good and for evil,” Doerr says. “In the way nationalism was hammered into the minds of these young, poor orphans in Werner’s life. And the way that radio is used in Maries life both to literally liberate her and also to teach her about the world.”

But he says it’s about a lot more as well.

“It’s about people trying to be good to each other under extremely difficult circumstances,” Doerr says. “And it’s about a fabled diamond that’s carried out of the National History Museum in Paris in 1940. And it’s about brainwashing little boys to do a nations deeds. And it’s about love and family and heartbreak and snails and radio.”

Doerr says the story that would become “All The Light We Cannot See,” had been evolving in his head for 10 years. The seed was planted on a New York City subway car. When it went through a tunnel a man near Doerr talking on a cell phone lost the signal and got very mad.

“And I remember thinking that’s not right,” Doerr says. “He’s forgetting, and we all forget all the time what a miracle it is to carry this little receiver and transmitter in our pocket that can talk to people in Australia or Madagascar or Thailand.”

Hear an extended version of Anthony Doerr's conversation with Adam Cotterell.

He says for a long time all he had was one scene. A boy was trapped in a dark cellar. Through a radio he hears the voice of a girl reading a story. He knew the girl was also trapped, but in an attic. He also knew she was blind but not much else. From there the story evolved.

“Month after month, year after year it becomes this accretion of experiences mixed with imagination,” Doerr says. “Then you start dreaming out this thing you’re making. It never comes to me fully formed.”

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