Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Poetic novel grapples with science and magic

Idaho author visits Ketchum

Express Staff Writer

Anthony Doerr

A man grows up in a town called Novelty and becomes an author.

A woman is reading a book when a stranger says, ?I am in there, on page 199.?

Both of these things are true.
Happenstance and pattern, exile and home, heat and cold, dark and light, sleep and wakefulness love and hate. It?s all in Anthony Doerr?s new book and first novel, ?About Grace.?

The author will be at Iconoclast Books in Ketchum 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 18. It is the first stop on his nationwide book tour.

Doerr, 30, who lives in Boise, became a literary sensation with his 2002 collection of short stories, ?The Shell Collector.? Along with two O?Henry Awards for short stories, he won the Houghton Fellowship to Princeton University, where he spent nine months completing ?About Grace.?

?About Grace? was just picked as an October 2004 Book Sense Pick by the nationwide network of independent booksellers.

Doerr writes a bimonthly science related column for the Boston Globe, short stories for a myriad of publications and has recently won a literature fellowship to the American Academy in Rome. He, his wife and twin baby boys will be in Rome from October through June 2005. Until spending the school year in Princeton, he was a Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at Boise State University.

?My mom was a science teacher. We lived in Novelty, Ohio,? he said. ?I?m very interested in the environment.?

Doerr loves science and nature but said he?s not necessarily political about it. ?I enjoy reading about it,? and, obviously, he enjoys writing about it. His stories embrace the natural world with wonder and an eye for the unexplainable.

In ?About Grace? he refers to a book the protagonist, David Winkler, is fascinated with as a child. The book by a farmer named Wilson Bentley is "Snow Crystals" and was published in 1931. Remarkable for it?s time, it contains more than 2,400 snow crystal images. It was Bentley who discovered that no two are alike when he photographed them over the course of 50 years with a bellows camera.

?I had seen that Bentley book when I was a kid. I wish I could tell you how it came back to me, but I ordered it from Amazon. He had such patience and love for beauty. Who knows what his motivations were,? he said.

At Princeton, Doerr felt pampered. He worked in his own office and had free rein of the library for research purposes. In that exalted library he discovered a first edition of the Bentley work, from 1931. Indeed the book resonated for him; snow crystals are a recurring theme in ?About Grace.?

?I thought it would be an interesting way to explore free will,? Doerr added.

The free will to which he refers is complex. In ?About Grace? Winkler, a man with extremely poor eyesight and no family, acts not on the facts of his waking life but on his strange and prophetic dreams. At first he cannot act at all, letting nature take its often disastrous course. Then he acts upon them, trying to prevent the dreams from becoming reality by acting in superhuman ways to prevent catastrophes he has foreseen. At last he finds a way to work with them. His journey is long and multi-faceted, from a snow crystal-laden Alaska to a flooded Cleveland neighborhood to a somnolent island in the Caribbean and back to Alaska. ?As if the snow had been waiting all this time for him to come back,? Doerr writes.

Winkler is a sleepwalker, both in reality and metaphorically. He knows not what he does, only what the clouds are and what they say. But all around him there is beauty and good will and a touch of the mysterious. His characters aren?t ebullient, but are rife with grace and an abiding awareness of nature, and ultimately of love.

?The story is compelling enough that people who don?t necessarily love science will still find an interest in it. The people who like my books often have an interest in being outside,? he said. ?I try to put my characters in the natural world and ask about the divides that modern life has. We are the natural world it?s where we came from.?

For such an unassuming, natural guy, how does he deal with his success?

?You have to believe in the work and have faith,? he said and then added, ?more sleep would help.?

A woman is reading a book and people who are in it told her so. She returns to work and writes about their friend, the author.

Symbiosis is everywhere.

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