About a dozen years ago, Anthony Doerr went to Rome on a prestigious fellowship to the American Academy. He and his wife packed their six-month-old twin boys to spend a year in the Eternal City. (He received news of the fellowship the day they got home from the hospital!) He had been given the gift every writer dreams of: time. He would be able to devote himself to writing whatever he wanted, no strings attached. His main project was an epic WWII novel with alternating characters: a blind Parisian girl fleeing the Nazi occupation and a German boy whose knack for radio electronics brought him the attention of the Hitler Youth.
Doerr would eventually finish that novel and win the Pulitzer Prize. But that lay years into the future. For now, he was in Italy and recording his thoughts into a memoir called Four Seasons in Rome. Note: if you loved the descriptions in All the Light We Cannot See, this book will delight you. I mean, it’s ROME!
But…it’s also Rome. It’s difficult to convince me that there is something new to uncover. People have been writing about Rome since the Etruscans. How will I not be pummeled with meaningless adjectives and cliches I’ve read a thousand times? How will I not drown in melodrama?
The answer, I’ve come to realize, is that the writer has to change my relationship to the subject in a surprising and convincing way. To do this, she first has to develop a unique relationship to the subject herself. I think Doerr often does a terrific job with this. Rome is, he writes, “an iceberg floating beneath our terrace, all its ballast hidden beneath the surface.”
The next step is to select the right details and put them into the right places in the story. Easier said than done, I know. Later in Four Seasons in Rome, Doerr writes:
Every story seeks, in Emerson’s words, the invisible and imponderable: faith, loss, emotional contact. But to get there, oddly enough, the storyteller must use the visible, the physical, the eminently tangible. The reader, first and foremost, must be convinced.
And details, the right details in the right places are what do the convincing…These details are carefully chosen. They are there to reinforce majesty, divinity, to ensure us that what is said to be happening actually is happening.
[The writer] hunts down the most vivid details and links them in sequences that will let her reader see, smell, and hear a world that seems complete in itself. She builds a stage set and painstakingly hides the struts and wires and nail holes. Then she stands back and hopes that whoever might come to see it will believe.
I come to a novel, short story, memoir or essay because I want to be surprised and convinced. I’m ready to give the writer every benefit of the doubt, so I’m willing to suspend my disbelief. In other words, I’m hoping to make a new discovery, even about a place, a time, an event I know. And, let’s face it, in this Internet age, knowing is a few mouse clicks away. Every story has been told. How can the writer make something commonplace new again? That’s the promise of what lies beneath the cover of every book.
As a reader, what surprises and convinces you?
Have a great weekend, everyone!