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How Multi-award Winning Author Anthony Doerr wrote the Pulitzer Prize-Winning Book, All the Light We Cannot See

Mona is a veteran writer for Pressenza, columnist for Enrich Magazine, and life coach. She holds webinars on writing and emotional health.

Pulitzer Book All the Light We Cannot See

The New York Times bestseller, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, is just one book from a complete oeuvre of his award-winning works. Doerr has won four O'Henry prizes, the 2010 story prize, the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2010, the National Magazine Award for fiction, the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. In this article, we want to not only review the book, All the Light We Cannot See, but also investigate the author's writing process for this book which was probably different from his other award-winning works that came before. We culled this information by reviewing several interviews he did in educational institutions.

All the Light We Cannot See is 544 pages long, making it thick in size. But it's quick and easy to read and rather compelling. 117 chapters in the book are less than one page long, some are even half a page, and the longest chapter is five pages. Doerr completed the book in 10 years, and in between, he published other books, other short stories. This tome was written over 10 years, and not because he wrote slowly, but because he wrote about a topic he was unfamiliar with.

It took him 30 hours to sufficiently research topics that would comprise a single paragraph in the final book. It was like this for many such paragraphs, in fact. He also visited museums, studied period photos intensively, and oftentimes read through original documents that were written decades earlier.

all-the-light-we-cannot-see

The unfolding of this bestseller:

Looking back, Doerr says his book is about two children, but it's also about more than that. It's about the power of propaganda, in this case, "Nazi propaganda and how it invaded the minds of poor, under-educated people to change how they feel about the world; and also as a tool of resistance against the Nazis, particularly in occupied France and how people would risk their lives not necessarily even to broadcast resistance messages as much as just music just to play music to have some autonomy over what they were listening to," Doerr said.



Propaganda

A Nazi Party Poster reading "The Struggle for Germany". Posters like this one were key in creating the Hitler myth, portraying Hitler as a strong and patriotic leader who would save Germany.

A Nazi Party Poster reading "The Struggle for Germany". Posters like this one were key in creating the Hitler myth, portraying Hitler as a strong and patriotic leader who would save Germany.

Choosing a Title

Doerr said the title of the book came to him shortly after the train ride in 2004 where he began to plan his book. He told Peppa, "Those first days after that train ride, all the light we cannot see suggested first and foremost to me [that there is] all the electromagnetic light that's circulating all around us, especially now. I think about all the text messages that are being sent, like 'I'll be late honey' 'get avocados' 'you know I hate you'. All these things are digging past us, that's all carried on the light that we cannot see. But then of course I think it's also hopefully a metaphor for these stories of these children. You know, all these stories from the war that we can't see, I worry a lot."


The making of the All The Light We Cannot See


  • It all began at 80 ft. underground in Penn Station, New York City. The year was 2004. A man was obnoxiously complaining loudly and lengthily because his phone fell to the ground and broke.
  • Doerr saw the irony in the situation. They were traveling 40 miles an hour, and here was this man, very angry and totally unaware that his phone was a beautiful miracle. It ran on all the radiation that this man couldn't see. The online world magically conveyed communication. In fact, most people don't think about the fact that messages from phones are carried by invisible radiation. He then decided to write a book about the magic of communication.
  • He envisioned a German boy in an orphanage and a blind girl in France who is reading a story on the radio which he listens to in secret.
  • But Doerr needed a suitable backdrop to visually articulate the world these two main characters inhabited. He discovered it one year later, in 2005. He was being interviewed for a previous book in a restaurant in the French port, Saint-Malo, in Brittany, France.
  • Afterward, he went outside the restaurant to the rampart and was awestruck at the sheer beauty of its old buildings. The entire city, someone told him, was bombed during WW2. They stood on a replica of what came before. Doerr decided that Saint-Malo would be the scene of his story, and the time frame would be WW2.
  • Doerr's main character, Marie, would lose her eyesight at age six. Her father, a master locksmith of the National Museum of Paris, finds ways to stimulate her mind, building a miniature wooden copy of her neighborhood so she can travel independently; carving puzzle boxes for her, and when she learns to read braille, he buys her many books. These books open Marie to vast worlds of magnificent possibilities.
  • In 2006, Doerr read about the 1940 German invasion in Paris. The information helped him form his second main character, Werner Pfennig, an 8-year-old orphan boy with a younger sister, Jutte age 6. They live in the coal mining town of Zollverein, Germany. Their father died from an accident in the mines.
  • One day Werner and his sister discover a broken radio on the ground. Werner figures out a way to fix it, and he and Jutta use the radio to listen to programs from France, including a science lesson that is told in a way that is understandable to young children. In this way, Werner develops a passion for science and discovers his special gift for radio circuitry. This lands him in a Nazi Military elite school – an escape ticket for him from the mines (where all boys at age 15 are obligated to work).

Nazis were recruited early in their youth

16-year-old Willi Hübner being awarded the Iron Cross in March 1945

16-year-old Willi Hübner being awarded the Iron Cross in March 1945

Getting The Facts

Doerr's quest for facts in order to write with authenticity didn't come easy. There weren't many documents in Germany from 1934. And much had changed from then till now. But he consulted piles of old photographs in Germany. He even looked through Sears Catalogues in the United States, trying to imagine what bedrooms looked like in that time, looking for the image of a hairbrush and trying to imagine what would be placed on top of a dresser.

He also had to find information about orphans and orphanages in 1934. He had to look for their support systems if any. And he wanted to know the cost of a carton of eggs at the time when Germany experienced the depression. His novel is well researched, he didn't make anything up.

Kidnapping of children

Letter from Lebensborn office to Reichsdeutsche family of Herr Müller in Germany informing that two perfect boys have been found for them to choose one they like. The boys' names have already been Germanized, 18 December 1943 Foreign children abducte

Letter from Lebensborn office to Reichsdeutsche family of Herr Müller in Germany informing that two perfect boys have been found for them to choose one they like. The boys' names have already been Germanized, 18 December 1943 Foreign children abducte

Werner and Marie

  1. But the elite school is a double-edged sword. He is taught military skills, proper engineering courses and science -- but an hour later he is taught racism, genocide and propaganda such as, “You will all surge in the same direction at the same pace toward the same cause ... You will eat country and breathe nation.”
  2. Werner is later transferred to Wehrmacht, where he is tasked to find illegal radio transmissions. He loses heart when he sees that a child hiding in a closet was killed in their search for an illegal radio, perhaps reflective of himself and Jutte when they first enjoyed listening to the radio together.
  3. Meanwhile, in Paris, treasures from the National Museum in Paris are hidden in various locations. Marie and her father hide a precious gemstone and go to Saint Malo to live with an agoraphobic granduncle in his tall, slim house with an attic.
Bombing of Saint Malo

Bombing of Saint Malo

Nazi Children and Their Aftermath

Doerr takes a lot of risks in this award-winning book. For example, in this 544-page tome, the main characters only intersect at the 400th page. Also, he hopes that readers can sympathize with a Nazi, Werner.

Definitely, the book is easier to read than to write. There are single paragraphs in the book which required up to 30 hours of research, including visits to museums and libraries, and looking through old photographs. One photograph that helped him to form Werner’s character appeared in an old issue of Life Magazine, of a 15-year-old Nazi soldier crying because he learned that the war was over. The boy in the photo, Hans-Georg Henke’s father died in 1938 and his mother died in 1944. Doerr noted that the boy’s uniform was too big, and it was as if someone had put a dead man’s uniform on him.

Hans-Georg Henke – 15 Year Old German Soldier crying

Hans-Georg Henke – 15 Year Old German Soldier crying

Some principles are tackled in this book:


  1. Is it right to be doing something, only because somebody else is doing it? This is the question that Jutta, at the age of 12, asked Werner who was about to leave for school. The discussion arose because by 1937-1938 it was illegal in Germany to listen to foreign broadcasts, a crime punishable initially by hard labor and later, death. Werner caught Jutta listening to the radio, and he destroyed it to save her, but for her and in a way for him, it was a betrayal.
  2. Moral Choices. Jutta’s question also deals with moral choices. Doerr, in one interview, said that the issue of moral choices is something that can apply to anything, such as bullying, or whether to sip water from a plastic bottle. He noted that he wasn’t sure if he would do the right thing if he were in Werner’s situation. However, there is a minor character, Frederick, a German boy who does not capitulate. To the question, ‘is it right to do something because everybody else is doing it?” Frederick says no, it’s right to make your own decisions. Werner, at that point in the novel, isn’t strong enough to do the same, and the school is constructed to winnow out all children who think differently.
Author Anthony Doerr

Author Anthony Doerr

I really appreciated the Doer's book. It is so easy to read, and you end up with your heart dancing. Because it's easy to read, your heart can dance as long as you want it to by reading it over and over again, so that your heart can dance over and over again.

Here are more pointers on Doerr’s writing process:

  1. Hard research, hard choices. Doerr said that among others, one reason it took him 10 years to write the book was because reading the eyewitness accounts and narratives of survivors was, for him, psychologically difficult and even damaging. He chose to honor the holocaust but let it live beneath his sentences. He had to trust that readers were educated enough to know the surrounding circumstances.
  2. Characters. Doerr said it takes years for him to figure out his characters, to figure out what lies deep in their hearts, to know their parents, their bedrooms, and what they keep in their pockets. He says aside from looking at photographs and reading books, he has to dream a lot about his characters.
  3. Writing blind. Doerr said writing sometimes requires you to be a character actor. He writes like a blind person, then he transfers to Werner and suddenly realizes that he can see what Marie looks like.
  4. Revisions. He will revise a chapter at least twice.
  5. Doing a book for 10 years. Doerr said some books need “life support” over time. He wrote books in between and magazine articles and short stories. Sometimes he would just spend 10 or 15 minutes a day on All the Light We Cannot See. Then there comes a point when so much has accumulated and this is a book he can’t give up.
  6. Telling stories responsibly. Doerr said you can’t just say all Nazis are evil, nor that all Americans are good. You must tell stories responsibly, and focus on individuals.

All the Light We Cannot See Book Trailer

Conclusion

All The Light We Cannot See is written during perhaps one of the darkest times in global history, when Hitler deigned to rule the world and the Holocaust was its end result. Amid such horror, Doerr irradiates pathways; the love between Marie and her father, the love of Werner for his sister, ways under difficult circumstances that people display innumerable dimensions of the heart. He shows how, against all odds, people are good to each other.

Note: Aside from the actual book, the author’s points of view are taken from interviews he did with Marcia Franklin of Idaho Television Network, a talk that Doerr did at The John Adams Institute, and an interview with Paul Peppa, interim director, Oregon Humanities Center.

Comments

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on April 17, 2017:

Hi Gilbert,

Thank you for reading this post and I'm glad you are interested in the book. I keep reading my copy over and over. There's one part near the end when I get really upset, but to tell you would be a spoiler. This is a beautiful book:).

Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on April 15, 2017:

Thank you, Mona, for directing me to a quality World War II novel. The plot and character concept is intriguing. I like the time you took to give us a perspective of the author's work-in-progress journey.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on August 16, 2016:

Hi Deborah, wonderful to meet you here on Hub Pages. Believe it or not, we had the same reaction!!!! Because my book is a number of years late. So it's given me hope. Which resulted in chapter 3. Well, at least I got that far, hahahaha.

Deborah Reno from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD on August 15, 2016:

This is a great article, and I found hope in my own novel, which so far has only taken me 4 years. Looks like I'll have plenty of time to finish!

Thanks for writing.

Namaste

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on March 29, 2016:

Hi Flourish Anyway, it really is a beautiful and complex book, I very much agree.

FlourishAnyway from USA on March 28, 2016:

Very interesting hub, Mona. It's such a complex book and one I truly enjoyed.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on March 27, 2016:

Dear Ms. Dora,

Thank you for liking the review. The book is really beautiful. No matter what I do, I always go back to Hub Pages so I can read what my friends here are doing of late. It is so wonderful to hear from you. Hub pages is where you really feel connected, and you heart can really pass through electronically. I guess because we read each other, and so we like each other so much more for that.

Sincerely,

Mona

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on March 26, 2016:

Great review, Mona. Always interesting to reed how the book develops and you detailed that very well. sounds like a really good read! Thank you.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on March 26, 2016:

Hello Mr. Billybuc, how wonderful to hear from the man who inspired me and made me feel passionate about writing fiction. I know I have yet to finish something but the dream is always there. You have shown a grounded pathway to writing and getting published, the only thing I need to do is do it. But, FYI, I wrote one horrible book (I still thank you for the effort) and two children's books (which live in my laptop and which I am afraid to show anyone). Well, I would never have done it without you and maybe one day, I will actually have a book thanks to you. If that ever happens, I promise to put your name in it to thank you for relentlessly reminding me and tens of thousands of other hubbers about the fact that we can write fiction if we try hard enough. God bless you and thanks for reading my article:)

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 25, 2016:

I really am so out of touch with current and new authors....a deficiency of mine, for sure, so I really appreciate reviews like this one from a person I trust...so thank you and Happy Easter!

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on March 25, 2016:

Thank you Devika, I always find it interesting to learn of the work habits of bestseller writers. New thing I learned today, you can do a 10 year book by writing just 15 minutes a day. That is a revelation for me.

Thank you Blonde Logic, I think more than reviewing a book, it is always interesting to see a writer's process. It's a way to learn from those who excel in the field:)

Mary Wickison from Brazil on March 25, 2016:

Hello Mona,

I had heard the title of this book but nothing more.

This is a fascinating way to review a book. It is especially interesting for writers who feel a time pressure to crank out books.

I love the part about how he will know everything about his characters, even down to what they are carrying in their pockets.

Thank you for this glimpse at the creative process of a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on March 25, 2016:

A very interesting review! You enlightened me on a new author.

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