Q&A with “River Run” Author Anthony Doerr

Transcript of Interview with Anthony Doerr

CWI English 211 Class, Friday, December 8, 2023

Thanks to the project manager, Rebecca Young, the team in charge of analyzing Anthony Doerr’s early short story entitled “River Run” were given the opportunity to ask Doerr questions regarding this work. The questions were phrased to gain a better understanding of  “River Run” through the lenses of new criticism, reader response, deconstruction, and psychological. The end of the interview consists of Anthony Doerr’s thoughts in regards to the use of A.I. in writing. This conversation has been condensed and edited for grammar and clarity.

Young: We are the “Casting the Currents” group, and we are analyzing your story “River Run” with four different critical lenses. The questions that we wanted to ask you have to do with our analysis. We are a class of English majors at CWI, College of Western Idaho, with Liza Long as our professor.

Doerr: Do you meet in person or are you always online?

Young: We, we meet in person. It’s a hybrid class. Some of us go to class, and then some of us live far away, so they attend fully online. Adrianna is our publisher. She is analyzing your piece using a psychological lens. Ava King couldn’t be with us, but she’s our annotated bibliography editor. We have a little summary for each essay we are writing on your story, so we’ve summarized you many times now. You’re very much part of our family whether you like it or not.

Doerr: You’re writing on the meaning of this one story, that I wrote 25 years ago, right?

Young: Well, guess what? I’ve read almost all your stories, so, and we love you so much. You’re such a genius. Finally, we have Erica, our editor. You can blame her if you don’t like something we write (I’m kidding!). Her lens is Reader Response. I’m the project manager. I’m analyzing your piece using deconstruction. So I’m kind of tearing you up a little bit and blowing the story’s meaning apart.

Doerr: This is great! I reread the short story yesterday, and I’m like, oh, I’ve got thoughts. I’m just here to talk with you guys. It’s great. So you are more coming to the story as readers rather than from being creative writers?

Long: The class is required for all English majors, so we have creative writing majors in the group, and we also have literature majors. It’s great to bring everyone together. They’re studying the story for craft as well as looking at it through critical lenses. It’s an intro course to critical theory.

Young: I know that the original story, “River Run,” was published in 2001 and later published in your Shell Collector book. Do you remember when you wrote it? What year you wrote it in?

Doerr: Maybe in the late nineties? It probably took me a bunch of drafts, but I was definitely working on it through graduate school. I think The Shell Collector had eight stories, and I wrote five of them after graduate school and three during graduate school. “River Run” was published in the Sewanee Review, but I gave it a different title: “Tangled by the Rapid River” is how I thought of it. The name “River Run” was suggested by an old editor at the Review. He wanted to change the title. I was so young and clueless, I said, sure, whatever you want. I was just excited to get published.

Young: That was actually my next question: Why did you change the title? So it was just because the editor wanted to change it.

Doerr: Yeah. That was one of those situations where a senior editor said to change it, and I was like, sure, whatever. I don’t really like “River Run.” That makes me think of the Sun Valley Lodge at the base of Baldy, which is not what the story is about at all. I think the stuff I’m proud of when I go back and look at the story two and a half decades later is that I slipped the adultery letter into the newspaper in a clever way. But the ending is a total punt. I was like, I want to see this guy go home and confront his marriage. But instead, I just leave him out there.

I was just seeing if I could play with this idea of a big tangle—making a big tangle out of your life. I’ve always been always obsessed with fracturing, using a structure that moves back and forth in time. I wanted to see if I could just tell an A to B chronology without disrupting time and still suggest a large back story, but just move through one person’s day from sunup to sundown or a little before sunup to a little after sundown. That’s the kind of challenge I was giving myself in graduate school.

In the years after I found myself in love with some of the stuff I’m still doing in my writing, where I’m like, I’ll give you three pages of this story, then go back 30 years and dive into a whole back story, or I’m going to move back and forth between multiple characters. Occasionally you can feel insecure about those more complicated narrative structures and think, can I just do the basic fundamental story telling of “So and so wakes up; so and so has an interesting day; so and so goes to bed.” Can I pull that off? I think that was one of the challenges I was giving myself in this story. It was semi-exercise, semi-finished story.

Young: Thank you. That’s so interesting! The next question that I have is from Erica. She would like to know if you really like Mulligan.

Doerr: Well, he’s cheating on his wife! That’s not very cool. I don’t want to suggest you should like your protagonist. I think a good novelist comes from a good short story writer, or characters you have made. You have to know where they’re coming from. You can have a murderer as a character. But I think you owe it to them. Do you understand them?

Did I do that well in this story? I thought I was kind of unfair to the wife at home. I was troubled by this phrase “rotten ankles” he uses to describe her. I didn’t like that. I’m old enough now to know marriages aren’t perfect, and sometimes stuff happens. I do wish I had dived into that a little more, but you can see my energy. Can I mimic what’s going on inside? With the natural world, can I show you this turmoil? Things like picking the end of the summer season when the winter is about to come; picking this guy later in life. He’s retired. What is it like to be in a marriage for this long when you know that death is coming? Are there still romantic options for folks who are retired?

I guess I am glad I played with some of those ideas, and maybe that can lend some sympathy to Mulligan, but also, he’s an adult who is avoiding his girlfriend and his wife by going fishing. So he’s got some problems.

Young: Thank you. The next question Erica has is whether Raymond Carver influenced your writing.

Doerr: Good question. Certainly when I was that age, Carver was an influence. Has your class studied the relationship Raymond Carver and his editor Gordon Lish? There’s this kind of classic American-ish mythology about writers, men or women, that they’re doing it all by themselves. There’s only one name on the cover of the book, and it’s Pauline Hoover against the world, and she did all by herself. But you know writing can be a collaborative art. It’s obviously not the kind of collaborative art that putting on plays or making movies is. But in the case of Carver, it’s incredibly interesting to read some of his drafts of his stories before his editor, Gordon Lish gets ahold of them. Gordon would take a knife to these almost maximalist drafts that Raymond Carver was sending. I got so interested in studying that process

and looking at those drafts and the changes his editor was making to the point where maybe his editor was almost a co-author of the stories. This was right around the time that I was working on “River Run” or “Tangled by the Rapid River.” I was really engaged with the sound of language, in particular the sound of language that describes nature.

I think in that story too, I was really falling in love with using the rhythms of language to just talk about action, like what the character does moment by moment. If I had been a more mature writer, I think I would have used Carver’s confrontational scenes of dialogue, so Mulligan probably would end up driving home in the dark and facing his wife or swing by his girlfriend’s, and you would have some dialogue. You could tell I was afraid to write those complex scenes, but still, Carver was an influence during that era in my mid to late twenties: Raymond Carver, Andy Poole, Joy Williams, Richard Ford, those were the writers that I was reading at this time.

Monsivais (Project Publisher): This one’s kind of a longer question, because I’m coming at this story through a psychological lens. Throughout the story of “River Run” or “Tangle by the River,” there are many symbols which appear in Mulligan’s environment which seem to allude to his emotional state, which we’ve already touched on earlier. These symbols seem to convey the emotional conflict Mulligan feels towards a struggling marriage and his emotions towards his mistress. However, he tends to display more tenderness towards his mistress, which he doesn’t show toward his wife, like there’s a sentimentality he shows towards the letter versus describing his wife with rotten ankles. Considering these symbols and how they differ between the two women, is it a fair assessment that Mulligan is maybe more in love with his girlfriend in a way which he has never loved his wife before, and this is where the main conflict lies?

Doerr: Yes, absolutely, Adrianna. I think that’s fair. I think. Maybe he once loved his wife, but I am staying so exterior and in the present that I’m not giving you flash back to wedding night or something. I’m using all kinds of little things, particularly though the fly line of his rod, to try to suggest that you think your life is going to be a straight line, and then you make decisions, and you tangle all your stuff up.

Young: I have a question from Ava, who couldn’t join us today. She says, “I noticed a lot of symbolism. For example, the fly rod, the fish, the river, the weather—how long does it take and how much thought goes into connecting the symbols for you?” This doesn’t have to be just for this story but in general. I think she’d like to know how you put the meaning and the symbols together, and is this a process that you have, or does this just happen naturally?

Doerr: That is a really, really great question. It’s a great question for you if you want to do creative work. Usually, especially when I visit high schools, I want to try to disabuse students of the notion that this stuff comes to you fully formed and you’re just sitting there at your laptop funneling the muses. It’s all really slow for me and it all has to do with branching out. I start with ugly-ish sentences. Hopefully, I get 7-8 hours of sleep and don’t wake up to read some negative news like something about Israel. Then I start reading through what I’ve got. It’s only through the process of revision that I start to heighten that relationship between meaning and symbolism. I don’t know if it ever really comes naturally, but sometimes you do notice you can heighten certain things that are in place.

I’m thinking of another story in this book called “The Hunter’s Wife.” I remember that in revision 3 or 4 I started to notice that hands were really prevalent. I was really trying to build the story up to this moment where this man holds hands with his estranged wife. So I started to play up hands a little more

as a symbol of connection. That connection doesn’t come out until you’re on your third or fourth read- through, and you’re changing things the whole way. Then later on in the day, hopefully your subconscious will start to operate on the work you did earlier that morning. Maybe you’re walking the dog or you’re in the shower or you’re doing the dishes.

It’s really important, I think, to always find times that Emily Dickinson called “reverie times,” daydreaming when you’re not looking at your phone. I think the phones in particular can kind of rob us of these chances to think through some of these harder questions: How do I heighten? How do point upwards to a few of these things? How do I trim away some of these things? For me, those all come in the quieter parts of the day when the paint is still really wet on a project. Sometimes even a weekend can dry the paint where you stop thinking about those things. The best, most joyful, creative periods of my life are when I’m really working on something that I can get into for a 3 or 4 or 5 hour day.

You also have to pay attention to what you see and hear all around you. Think of sounds and sights like you see downtown Boise: a nun crying in her Toyota Corolla, or a student coming out of Boise High School and just crushing his vape pen. That stuff suddenly becomes relevant immediately to your work. Maybe you go to the movies, and some of that filters in, or you’re reading something in The Atlantic and that filters in. Those are the most exciting parts of creation because the whole world starts to become relevant and kind of pulses with this meaning. That’s the slow accretion. That’s the beauty, the generosity of work. For example, you read something like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. And you realize that this work is the process of months, of years of wisdom being masoned into these sentences that you can experience in the course of one night. It’s this great act of generosity that you get this compressed wisdom and all this contemplation. That all comes out of revision. With those early drafts, just be kind to yourself, work through them. Just the act of sharing your work with your classmates or sharing it with your editor—that’s the stuff that starts to de-familiarize it. You’ll start to see it more as a reader and less as the creator of the work. I think that’s when you could start to heighten. Camp stuff up, eliminate stuff that feels more extraneous.

Young: Wow, that’s great. I’m so glad that we’re transcribing this. I think you really started to answer another question that I have because it’s late at night when I going to bed and I’m almost asleep that all these thoughts and ideas start coming, and that’s when I’m writing things down but I don’t sleep very well. I want to find another process there. Your short stories like “The Hunter’s Wife,” which I’ve read so many times, and “Tangled by the River” and others explore the complexity of human relationships, and you really get into the depths of the human emotions. What techniques or strategies do you employ to create these relatable yet unusual well-rounded characters? They are relatable, but there’s still some unusual activity that’s always going on that readers connect with on an emotional level. How do you balance the character development with the overall thematic elements of your stories?

Doerr: That’s a big question. Thanks, Rebecca. Compression is part of it, to go back to Erica’s question about Ray Carver. It takes you a while to get to know these people that you’re making. Depth of character often just comes from spending time with them and writing a lot of semi crappy scenes that may not end up in the final version of a story. But they might help you understand a character’s childhood or what a character might do in certain situations.

All those sorts of silly exercises that you do in the beginning of creative writing classes like asking what your character will carry in her pockets—those are important kind of things to be able to answer by the time you’re halfway through the process of telling a narrative. What would the character do in certain situations? How does she speak? You’re not going to necessarily know all those things at first, but, is she a confrontational person or non-confrontational person, and does she fall in love easily, or is she really guarded?

Those are things that you have to work out, and then you’re always toggling back and forth between the macro view of the whole narrative and where those scenes might fit and the micro view of being like a jeweler where you’re literally just working on the sentence level, the music of these paragraphs. So much of maturity as an artist is about spending 4 to 6 hours on these little paragraphs or in the case of novels, 4 to 6 months, and then realizing you still are going to have to exclude them from the final version. It doesn’t mean that work wasn’t valuable. You know, in America, we worship efficiency so much. But you have to find the most secure path through the garden to the finished product. And often, even in the stuff that you don’t include, you learn enough about these characters to allow that depth to appear. Though a scene may not appear on the page, it shows that you’ve taken the time to learn and understand these people.

The last part of your question about thematic stuff is really good. I think that’s the same kind of answer I would give where you’re stepping back, trying to understand what is it like. In All the Light We Cannot See, what is it I’m addressing? A new technology comes into the world, radio, and really changes the way people can multiply a lie a million times over. Then maybe you’re on a walk and you think, is that like what we’re going through with the internet? That’s thinking thematically—thinking about this big stuff.

But the next day, the problem you have to solve is this: what does the radio actually look like that this boy is repairing, and what is he wearing, and what do you think they would eat in an orphanage in Germany in 1938? Then you’re down in this micro world. It’s so important once in a while to make sure that beyond all the research about, for example, what did their shoes look like? And what kind of services would there be for a blind girl in 1937 in Paris? Suddenly you have to remember, how relevant is all this to a reader right now?

That’s when you pull back to think about those larger thematic questions. What does it mean to be alive at a time when people in power can control the information that comes into our homes? In our time, this is maybe more corporations and governments, at least in the United States, but certainly, it’s incredibly relevant for those of us who lived through the pandemic. Think about how much random weird stuff you’d see about vaccines, for example. If corporations are allowing that stuff for profit onto their platforms, it’s pretty similar to the way the Germans were using the radio for information, and that was almost 80 years before. Those thoughts come kind of later when you’re asking, what is this thing I’m making? Because usually when you’re making something, you’re stuck in the problem-solving elements of it.

Long: I have one quick question for you. What are you thinking about generative AI and its role with writing?

Doerr: Oh boy. Yeah, I would love to hear what you think. Are you talking about it in class much?

Long: We are. I co-wrote the textbook we are using for the class with AI this semester.

Doerr: Wow, okay. And when you say you co-wrote, what does that mean?

Long: Well, it’d be hard for me to explain quickly, but I’ve linked to all my chats in the book. I had to write a critical theory textbook in a semester. I think the most fun part of it is where I have it write literary analysis essays, and then I argue with it about what it’s getting wrong. That’s been pretty fun. Then I had students do the same thing. So we are engaging with it. But we’re not sure what it’s going to look like. I can tell you I couldn’t have written a textbook in a semester without it.

Doerr: That’s super fascinating and wonderful. I taught for 8 weeks at the University of Michigan this fall, and I realized early on that you can’t just pretend it doesn’t exist. That’s totally useless to people. These tools are out there; they’re brand new. We don’t understand how powerful they are or will become. I’m so excited that you did that. It would be so fun to teach a fiction writing class where you’re like, let’s have AI generate a story and critique it.

You know, I have some paranoia late at night about it and I mostly feel for teachers, especially high school teachers. What tools are they being given to sort through the piles of writing that are being turned in?

Long: Nothing. There are no reliable tools to catch this. And think about that too—what they need.

Doerr: These are absolutely profitable companies, so outrageously profitable. You know, I have a copyright issue with it where they’re training themselves on texts that are copyrighted. You know, you can task ChatGPT to write a story in the style of Anthony Doerr. Did it pay me to read my book?

Long: Have you checked it? It did train on my book. You can check in The Atlantic.

Doerr: Did it? Right, that doesn’t seem fair. And then there’s the whole fear that maybe we are becoming obsolete. That little fear can creep in like late at night. But mostly I’m also excited by the promises of it. I do think that coders are benefitting. My son is a sophomore in computer science, and it is really interesting to hear how they collaborate with it to get through some of the grunt work of coding. They can really bang out code quickly, and then their job is more to debug it than it is creative. But I don’t have a strong opinion yet. I’m nervous about it. Anything that Elon Musk is involved in, I get a little skeptical of.

Long: That seems fair. I just was curious if you had played with it. We’ve been using it a lot in the class. The other question I have for you is not about “River Run.” Cloud Cuckooland might have been one of my favorite books I’ve ever read because I’m an erstwhile classicist and I’m also the mom of a kid who had mental illness, so the narrative just like really meshed for me, and I also love speculative fiction so everything about it was just delightful. I was really curious that the story seems to be about the very tenuous nature of text transmission and story, how much story matters to us, but how hard it can be for a story to make it to us and last. And there are so many different stories that you weave together. Which one came first? And how did you hit on that idea of the ancient manuscript to tie it all together?

Doerr: Thanks, Liza. I’m glad you enjoyed it. “Walls” came first. I was finishing All the Light We Cannot See, which is set in this town in France called Saint Malo. It’s got almost two kilometers of defensive walls around it, and it formed this tiny fraction of Hitler’s huge Atlantic wall, this enormous 2,000 kilometer long series of fortifications all the way down to the Spanish border to try to prevent what did eventually happen, an invasion from the Atlantic.

I finished this in 2014, and I was doing a lot of promotion and started thinking about this new idea and around that time, 2015, we had this presidential candidate going around the United States leading crowds and chanting, “Build that wall.” I just started thinking about what walls mean and wondering, where did they originate? There are interesting theories that maybe the patriarchy and walls arrive around the same time because this is the first time we can go raid other villages or other cities, take their stuff, and then bring it back behind our walls, and then you have wealth, and you can pass it on.

Private property emerges around the same time. You can pass that property down to the next generation, usually the sons. That made me curious—that idea that patriarchy and walls and fear and us and them are all linked together, and all these texts discussed in the history of walls would talk about the walls surrounding Constantinople that stood for a thousand years—I listed 23 sieges. And I didn’t know anything about them in my high school history classes! We got to the fall of Rome, and then this teacher would take a sip of water, and suddenly, we are reading about Da Vinci in the Renaissance. And you’re like, well, didn’t some stuff happen in between?

I just got that crazy electrical feeling that you have when you’re on to something, and then I learned about libraries and what the libraries inside Constantinople were able to do, protecting the last copies of all these texts. You were talking about the fragility of all these manuscripts because you know, copies are elsewhere in Europe, all through North Africa until the Arabs really started seeking them out, around 1000 or 1100 C.E. Those texts had to be recopied by hand every 80 years or so, and the libraries inside Constantinople allowed that to happen. Because of these defensive walls, the libraries were able to build some content. And really about 75% of the ancient Greek texts that we have today exist only because librarians and schoolteachers and monks inside the walls inside libraries of Constantinople chose to protect those texts.

I was also thinking about how when I was a kid, my mom was a teacher, and she took me and my brother to the public library. She would drop us off. I think I took it for granted. I just thought, oh, every community has a place that’s warm in the winter and cool in the summer that you can go to for free and get books. I mean, imagine going to the U.S. Congress right now and saying, let’s put buildings in every community in the United States that are free, and you can go and use the bathroom, and there’s books in there and video tapes.

I just wanted to rectify my ignorance about all that stuff, so I started with “Walls,” but I soon learned that to tell the story of those is telling the story of the transmission of text through time. Do you ever watch “The Price Is Right?” I imagine the Plinko board with the chip bouncing down through the board and landing in the $10,000 slot. That’s kind of what I thought it’s like for a text to survive. There are so many things coming at text through time: Mold, tyrants.

We’re seeing it right now in Idaho. People are attacking these texts from 1997 because there’s one page about masturbation in them or something. There’s always some freak with a Twitter account who wants to eliminate books from the world, and through time, the whole idea of a book, the idea that there are bookworms, creatures that go through vellum or eat paper. So many things are working against cultural transmission. It really is a kind of heroic act, I think, to be a steward of human culture.

At the same time, I’m thinking about climate change and my own kids and conservation. I’ve tried to play both the stewardship of the planet and stewardship of books and book culture through libraries. I realized that’s when I had to use separate time period. That’s why I start playing with the past, the

present, and the future with that speculative stuff. That’s a really scary day when you realize that you have to move the story out of just the fifteenth century, which is already terrifying, and add some events in the present and some in the future. That’s like a tough phone call with your agent—to say “now I’m in the future in this book. Don’t worry, it’s going to be fine.”

Long: It worked. It really worked. And I love the way the manuscript was so similar to The Golden Ass, Apuleis’s book. It was just delightful. You did you did a great job. Yeah.

Doerr: Oh, thanks. That’s so nice. Not many people would know that. I was trying to play with that whole idea of utopia. My kids, the whole time I was working on that book, would be watching TV, and it was like another city is in flames, planets are exploding, while like superheroes fly around. What is it about dystopias that these companies love to make stories about them? I wanted to invert that idea. It’s not just the Greek idea of heroes who slash and Achilles, who is a slasher or a cutter. I wanted to try something with utopia instead. How do I play with utopias? I appreciate that really Earth is our utopia. We’re not going to travel to some other magical far away place. This is as good as it’s going to get.


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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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