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In Anthony Doerr’s novel, About Grace, David Winkler is an Alaskan hydrologist imbued with a love of snow and a strange gift of foresight. He is outwardly ordinary, but when he falls in love with a married woman and flees with her to Ohio, a drastic chain of events is set in place. While working as a weather forecaster, he has a recurring vision in which harm comes to his family. Though he tries to find a way to avoid the terrible death he foresees, he feels certain that “the future waited for him to keep his appointment” (p. 59). In desperation, he flees in the hope of tricking fate and saving the life of his newborn daughter, Grace.
Grief-stricken and bewildered, David leaves the country, heedless of his destination. Eventually marooned on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, he is adopted by a family of Chilean refugees. Sheltered by Felix and Soma Orellana, their three sons, and their remarkable daughter Naaliyah, he slowly builds a new life. Warm water replaces ice and snow, and his inner torment is gradually eased. When a new vision results in his emergence as a hero, David finally decides to leave his place of exile, in the hope that he can be forgiven by those he abandoned and rewrite his own destiny.
Science and the observation of nature are the counterweight to the unpredictable pathways of memory and to David’s mysterious visions. Naaliyah grows into a brilliant young woman, a scientist following in his path, who leaves the islands to research the effects of cold on insect behavior. It is in her footsteps that David returns at last to Alaska after twenty-five years. He redevotes himself to his first passion, investigating the formation of snow crystals, trying to capture tiny snowflakes and photograph them before they melt. In such minute ways throughout the novel, Doerr reminds us that the magical and intangible are found in the mundane, and that science and spirituality share deep connections.
A snowflake, Doerr informs us, in spite of its precise structure, is constantly in motion: “On the outside the crystal looks stable, but on the inside, it’s like an earthquake all the time.” Such is the reality of David Winkler, whose outer passivity is at war with his inner passions, who suffers from the paralyzing effects of focusing on what could be, instead of what is, in a world where “time is like water, endlessly cycling through its states.” When David finally finds the courage to search out the family he had lost, he finds no more than fragments. At first tentatively, and then with absolute determination, David devotes himself to gathering up the shards of the life he had left behind, in a quiet struggle for personal rehabilitation.
With his debut, the award-winning story collection The Shell Collector, Anthony Doerr established himself as a major literary voice. In About Grace he has delivered another great work in exacting and lyrical prose, using luminous description to evoke the miracles of nature and locate the salvation to be found in the everyday world. Doerr reminds us of the virtues of persistence and passion, of familial bonds and the generosity of strangers, and of the endless possibility for renewal found inside each of us.
Anthony Doerr is a fiction writer whose stories have appeared in numerous publications, including the O. Henry Prize Stories, Atlantic Monthly, Zoetrope: All Story, and The Paris Review. His first book, The Shell Collector, was published in 2002 and recently was awarded the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize and the New York Public Library's Young Lions Award. He lives in Boise, Idaho where he teaches M.F.A. students at Boise State University and is finishing a novel.
This is your first novel; how did it get started? Did you begin with a short story idea, or did you know all along that David’s story would take a book to tell?
I found the germ of the novel when I rediscovered Wilson Bentley’s book of images of snowflakes (Snow Crystals) at my parents’ house. I had had it as a child, and I was leafing through it, trying to get my mind around what kind of a man would do this insanely meticulous work, and that’s where the character of Winkler started. I mean, think about it: for fifty years a farmer in Vermont caught snowflakes on a black tray and took photomicrographs of them. Can you imagine the patience? The strain on his eyes? The dedication to beauty? In all that time he managed about 5,000 successful prints and he sold basically none of them. Some winters he’d only get a few dozen usable photographs. He was a bachelor, taking care of his elderly mother, the butt of village jokes.
“Oh, I guess they’ve always believed I was crazy, or a fool, or both,” he said in 1910. He spent most of his money on it. And to top it all off, he died of pneumonia after staying out in a storm too long. The last entry in his weather diary was: Cold north wind afternoon. Snow Flying. That kind of perseverance, the mix of assiduousness and wonder you find in certain scientists, the way it borders on what might be thought of as crazy—that interested me.
The writing started slowly, and indeed became a big, unruly short story for a while. In an early draft I intended to rewrite “Rip Van Winkle,” and there are still elements of that lingering in the final version: Winkler’s name, the way he stays frozen/asleep for so many years and then reemerges to find his whole life has moved on without him.
The locations in this book are vivid and distinct: the Caribbean and Alaska, with a little Ohio thrown in. How did you choose where to set the novel? Did you spend time in each of these places?
The settings in my work are almost always based on visits to various places: whatever limited observational skills I have, I think I use them best when I find myself in a strange place, slightly uncomfortable. So, yes, I spent time in each of these places, but not necessarily with this novel in mind. I lived in Alaska for three summers when I was in my twenties; I grew up in Ohio; I’d traveled in the Windward Islands twice before I started writing.
Settings and stories usually come to me simultaneously. That is: the landscapes and the stories grow out of each other. Like real human beings, characters make marks on their respective environments, but environments make marks on their characters, too, and I tried to present each character’s story as inseparable from the place(s) where it occurs. That said, I don’t necessarily feel like I’m always presenting a real, actual place in my work—often the settings are more like mythic versions of real places. In About Grace this is especially true of Camp Nowhere and of the unnamed Grenadine island where Winkler maroons himself. I tried to render places that are as much of very precise dreams as of reality. And I liked the contrasts they posed, the way Winkler is expelled not into paradise, but into a sort of anti-paradise, a place our culture usually thinks of as paradise.
The descriptions of snow are really compelling, as are all your descriptions of water. The idea that snowflakes, and water in all of its forms, is constantly in motion, seems central to the themes of the book. Can you explain this a little bit? How is this idea reflected in David Winkler?
I love the fact that adults are about 60 percent water (newborns are almost 80 percent water). If you take our water away we die, and that water is infinitely recycled—the water in our faces and thighs and bladders is water that was on the Earth 400 million years ago, in the ocean, or locked up in Antarctica—seawater that trilobites swam through. If we think about a human life in terms of in terms of the age of water, the size of geologic time, time as it exists to a snowflake, maybe we might start to get a more accurate understanding of not only how small and brief our lifetimes are, but how miraculous it is that we get to be here at all, what a wonder it is to be able to see any of the world at all. I tried to build this into the book in every way I could, from making David a meek character beneath vast, overarching landscapes, to trying to remind a reader of the tiny miracles around us, in the frost, in the insects, to playing with all sorts of notions of what grace can be.
Science, both theory and practice, continues to be very present in your work. How did this come about? Do you research and study or is your interest more amorphous? Research. I love to read science books and I try to look at the world like an amateur naturalist. I write reviews of science books for the Boston Globe, and that keeps me reading and working to stay up to date. My favorite writers are the ones whose work embraces both accuracy and wonder, because you can’t help but feel how much they love the world and how the more they learn about it, the more mysterious it becomes. This is something I try to work on every single day.
Plus, research makes for great procrastination.
Naaliyah is the character who changes the most and the one who seems most self-realized. What enables her, as opposed to so many other people in the book, to escape, to roam free in pursuit of her interests?
Her family? Her own strength? She certainly isn’t crippled with the curse of precognition like Winkler. I’m not sure Naaliyah is the character who changes the most, but perhaps she is. Like many of us, she is someone who is trying to balance her loyalty to her family with an urge to strike out.
David really struggles with passivity. Why do you think he has such a hard time with action? Does it have something to do with his visions and the sense of predetermination that they give him? Was a more passive character hard to write about?
The more I thought about what it would really be like—to dream a man will get hit by a bus when you’re nine years old, and then to see it happen in front of your eyes three days later—the more I realized how terrifying every single moment of your life would become. Just think how awful it would be to go to bed at night, not knowing what you might dream. If everything or everyone that could come through the door, or round the corner, or jogging past, could derail the entire course of your life, of course you would become hesitant and frightened and passive. Particularly someone already predisposed to introversion like David Winkler. I thought, I hoped, that by making him reluctant, I was rendering him plausibly.
Sure, a passive character was difficult to write about. The biggest challenge was that Winkler was my only protagonist, and I had no other point-of-view characters I could visit for a few dozen pages, to build tension, to give my readers a break. I had to rely on Winkler to be on stage on every page.
What do you think David’s visions are? Are you interested in the idea that time is flexible in a real way or just as a novelistic device?
I am interested in the notion that the way we conceive of time is just one way of thinking, not the right or wrong way. What is a one o’clock lunch appointment to a tree? What is a Tuesday to a rock? A snowflake lives for maybe thirty seconds, or a billion years, depending on how you define what makes a snowflake. In the universe time can indeed expand and fold over itself and it is the role of fiction, I think, to try to get a reader to step outside of him or herself. Manipulating time is one small way to try to accomplish that. So yes, I’m interested in it in a real way and in a fictive way.
David is an odd kind of hero: he saves his family by absconding, he rescues Naaliyah after a kind of obsessive stalking. To others, his actions often seem suspect, even threatening. Were you interested in exploring this idea of having a character who is well-intentioned but misunderstood?
Yes. He is probably not a protagonist many Americans are used to seeing in stories. He is an antihero: nerdy, reticent, not possessed of grand gestures. But in other ways he really is a traditional hero: in that he is unwilling, and that he “prevails” over an impossible predicament.
Think of it this way: In the beginning of the book I put poor Winkler in this horrible dilemma where on one hand he will fulfill the worst thing he could imagine (drowning his baby daughter) and on the other hand he’ll commit the ultimate cultural transgression—maybe the biggest transgression apart from murder—by abandoning his family. But if he really believes he is a danger to his daughter, isn’t he then heroic to abandon her?
Perhaps. I still felt that he needed to suffer somehow for abandoning her, too. To find whatever grace there is at the end of the book, to make the resolution fulfilling, I needed to send him away. It’s about moving the narrative into dissonance, and then trying to turn everything slowly back toward resonance.
Have you been traveling lately? Are there any new locations or interests that you think may appear in upcoming work?
My family and I just returned to the States from living in Rome for a year, so Italy will probably emerge at some point. I’m very interested in medieval villages, particularly in Umbria, these little missives from the past, and how they’re trying to fit into a world of cell phones and tourism and cultural migration.
What have you been working on recently? Will we see another novel from you soon?
Thanks for asking. I’m working on a project that I think will become a novel, because it’s too long to be a story, about France in World War II. So far it’s about radio, and piano making, and the enormous air bombing campaigns that the Allies unleashed on Normandy before D-Day. It’s still got a long way to go, but hopefully I can finish it one of these days.
- In David’s early life, he suffers the loneliness of the gifted. He struggles with the terror that his visions instill in him and is almost overwhelmed at the intensity of the natural world. What does he love and appreciate in his childhood? Do those elements remain in his life? Do you think he grows more or less lonely?
- David’s mother is the only person who seems unafraid when David’s visions reveal themselves. Describe her approach to mothering an unusual child, one who sleepwalks and foresees terrible events. How does she help instill in him a sense of being loved? How do you think her loss affects him?
- Sandy is searching for meaning in her life. She is bored and disappointed by her marriage and job, and a new life with David is a way to escape that. Ultimately, their affair leads to outcomes both good and bad. How does David help her find her identity? What do you think the rest of her life is like after David flees? If you were in her position, could you find a way to understand why David left?
- When David leaves his family in Ohio, he is convinced that he must do so in order to save his daughter’s life. Later, he wonders if he might have acted differently, if he could have stayed and altered the future as he saw it. What do you think? Was his running away an act of cowardice or of courage? What does he later learn about his visions that changes how he thinks of their inevitability?
- David ends up in the Caribbean purely by chance. Why does David stay on the islands as he does? Why does he choose manual labor over work that would utilize his Ph.D.? Try to think of how his exile changes him. What does he gain by adopting this new lifestyle, and what does he lose?
- Water is everywhere in the novel, from frozen Alaska, to flooding Ohio, to the gentle seas of the Caribbean islands. Doerr writes that “Water was a wild, capricious substance: nothing solid, nothing permanent, nothing as it appeared.” In what ways does water heal and in what ways does it destroy? Think over some of the scenes in which water plays a major part. Why is David so fascinated by it?
- How do the locations in the book represent different stages of David’s evolution? Who is he in Alaska? In Ohio? In the Caribbean? How does the landscape around him reflect or affect his inner state? Think about how the natural world interacts with the narrative events of the book and the changing lives of the characters.
- Consider some of the unexpected friendships that David acquires. Who is kind to him? Why do you think people such as Herman and the Orellanas help him? Is it simply out of compassion or is there something that he gives in return? Try to think about acts of kindness by David himself; is there a balance between what he receives and what he offers?
- Naaliyah lives an extraordinary life, one that certainly exceeds what one might expect from a poor refugee from a remote island. What qualities aid her in her quest to become a scientist? What is her motivation to achieve so much? Consider what her success means to her family, and how her relationship with them is both damaged and strengthened along the way.
- Naaliyah is David’s muse and the guide back into his old life. Yet David’s relationship with Naaliyah is tinged with sexual confusion and other potential dangers. How would you define their relationship? What role does David want her to have in his life? What role does she want to have? How do they help each other find their way in the world?
- David’s gift warps time, making it seem as though present and future are interchangeable. How does this knowledge affect the way he looks at the world? How does the added burden of memory, of the past, affect the way that he lives? Consider how focusing on the past or on the future affects his ability to live well at different points of the book. At the end of the book, what is he concentrating on? What place do his visions have in his new life?
- From the perspective of others, David did something unforgivable: he abandoned his wife with their newborn daughter. At various points in the novel, he runs away rather than confronts, or chooses an indirect approach, or fails to take action. After twenty-five years, is David redeemed by his return? Does his persistence help as he tries to find a place in his family’s life? What role does his family finally allow? Would you forgive him?