Interview: Anthony Doerr
Anthony Doerr was on the Best Young American Novelists list in 2007 with his story ‘Procreate, Generate’. In Memory Wall, the title novella of his new fiction collection, an elderly woman undergoes an experimental procedure to have her evaporating memories stored onto cartridges – only to have the cartridges stolen. Patrick Ryan spoke to Anthony about some of the more troubling themes in the work, and the problems of the novella form.
PR: Have you had any direct experience with someone who’s suffered major memory loss? You handle it with such delicacy and respect, despite some of the horrible things that happen.
AD: When I was around seventeen, my grandmother, who was beginning to suffer from dementia, came to live with us. Over the course of a couple of years, I watched her identity slowly get stripped away as she forgot who her family was, where she was, and eventually who she herself was. A few years later, in college, during rugby practice, I was tackled into a goal post and got a concussion that erased about an entire day of memories: I looked at notes I had taken that day in class, for example, and had no idea who took them. It made me feel sick and disorientated; I still feel strange, remembering it.
In many ways, Memory Wall was an attempt to understand both my grandmother’s last years, and my own mother’s pain during that time.
The ‘memory cartridges’ make a rich and haunting premise for a work of fiction. How did you come up with the idea?
One pseudo-scientific question in particular has always interested me: If the molecules in our body are consistently being replaced – that is, if we are renewing many of our cells, including neurons – throughout our lifetimes, then how can, say, a seventy-year-old woman remember things she did when she was eight years old? A few years ago, I came across a passage in a book called What We Believe But Cannot Prove, that attempted an answer. A neuroscientist named Terrence Sejnowski wondered if ‘the substrate of old memories is located not inside the cells but outside, in the extracellular space’. He went on to say, ‘It might be possible someday to stain this memory exoskeleton and see what our memories look like.’
So that was the permission I needed to try the conceit in Memory Wall – that someday, in the not-too-distant future, we might be able to record and extract individual memories. I thought it’d be interesting, too, to introduce class issues into the equation: clearly, if such a technology existed, it would be expensive, and only the wealthy would have access to it.
Your narrator wonders if memories are ‘ways of trying to defy erasure’. What do you mean by ‘erasure’?
The natural world is full of records and erasures: the tracks of leaf miners on leaves, big granite boulders standing in the middle of fields, glacial scarring on cliffsides … The world is always changing, healing itself – and memories are always being swallowed. All of us are trying to defy erasure, to leave marks that we hope will last – whether that’s by scratching our names into tree trunks, writing symphonies or having children. So yes, I strongly believe that to lose one’s memory is to die a premature death – to erase your history is to render your present meaningless.
Your character Alma has her memories stolen from her. You’ve no doubt forgotten some of what it was like to write this book. I’ve already forgotten my favorite sentences from it. Memory Wall is, in part, about trying to stop forgetting. Do you think we value the memories of our experiences or more than the experiences themselves?
That’s such an interesting question and, like all really interesting questions, I have no proper answer to it. I will say that with every passing year, I see more and more people carrying cameras. Visit any obviously photogenic site – the Taj Mahal, say – and all you see are people recording their visits. It is as if they are already creating memories of an event, even as they experience it. This happens everywhere, and not just in Times Square or at the Eiffel Tower. Look around at the next kid’s birthday party you attend and count the lenses.
My own sons’ lives have been so much more intensively recorded than mine, and all the generations that have preceded them! I have probably 3,000 images of them from their first six years. How many images do I have from my father’s first six years? One. So in some ways I think you’re right – more and more, lately, as people tweet about their trips to the zoo and post pictures of their vacations on Facebook, I wonder if we value the records of our experiences more than the experiences themselves.
For some readers, the novella form begs the question, Does this want to be a short story or a novel? Yet it’s a form some writers use very effectively. Do projects ever surprise you by morphing from one form into another? As in, something that’s a short story actually wants and needs to be a novella, or the other way around?
Yes, forms are always morphing into one another. Often I really want to write a short story (because a magazine like Granta, for example, has been nice enough to ask for one), but the story ends up getting very long. As in 20,000 or 30,000 words long. That’s a dangerous length for a writers, because in the back of one’s mind, one knows that you’ll need a very, very brave publisher to take on that kind of length.
Ultimately, though, I’m learning that my narratives – stories, novellas, or novels – have to be as long as they need to be, and I’m not entirely in charge of them; their shapes and trajectories will dictate their length. Part of maturing as an artist, I think, is learning to isolate all those fears and worries about the marketplace and shut them inside a little box somewhere. Ultimately it’s up to a critic and a reader to decide what to call a work of fiction. It’s up to us as writers merely to be as faithful to its own particular universe as we can.