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The Shell Collector
Anthony Doerr
Paperback

 

INTRODUCTION

The Shell Collector, Anthony Doerr's first collection of stories, ranges from Liberia and Tanzania to Montana and Maine. Traversing the vast terrain of the world, Doerr shows an extraordinary empathy in stories that most often concern themselves with the interaction between humans and nature. He writes with delicious specificity about natural science and displays a talent for evoking landscape through poetic language. In these stories, the call of natureto know its wildness and bow before itis inseparable from the need to capture and tame it through activities like gardening, fishing, photography, or hunting. He describes the communion that seems to come through the interaction between peopleeager, suffering, and full of desireand a nature that is cruel and unmanageable but also an extravagant conveyor of the divine. As grounded as Doerr's stories are in the physical world, magic and the supernatural appear as powerful forces in many of the stories. In the O'Henry Award-winning "The Hunter's Wife," nature's ferocious and awesome powers are matched by the truly unexplainable gifts of the title character. Doerr traces the briefly intersecting paths of a hunter in Montana and the young magician's assistant who first becomes his wife and then learns that she is a kind of medium between life and death, a link to the supernatural. As the hunter's wife struggles to understand her gift, the couple finds a rift between what each is willing to accept is possible in the world. In the extraordinary epic "The Caretaker," a Liberian man survives terrifying carnage in his homeland and flees to the United States. As the caretaker for a summer home of rich people who have "something to do with computers," Joseph witnesses the beaching of five whales on the Oregon coast. In an astonishing act of guilt and repentance, the refugee buries the hearts of the dead whales; even those gigantic organs do not seem large enough to encompass the vastness of his grief. Joseph loses his job but stays to cultivate the plot of land atop the hearts, befriending the deaf and depressed daughter of the house's owners. Together they search for redemption in the garden and through their tentative new friendship. The title story is a lyrical and somber tale constructed of achingly beautiful, precise language. The shell collector is a blind former professor who is attempting a retreat from the human world by retiring to the coast of Tanzania to live out his days wading in a quiet lagoon and collecting shells with fingers that seem to see. His world is simple and empirical: "Ignorance was, in the end, and in so many ways, a privilege: to find a shell, to feel it, to understand only on some unspeakable level why it bothered to be so lovely. What joy he found in that, what utter mystery." Yet the world intrudes on the shell collector, asking him to be a father, a guide, and a savior; reluctantly, and with devastating and then surprisingly hopeful consequences, he is drawn in. Doerr's greatest gift is to see an equal humanity in people belonging to all ages, cultures, and countries. He applies his empathy to a retired professor ("The Shell Collector") and a Latina high school girl ("So Many Chances"), to a morally questionable African immigrant ("The Caretaker") and an average American suburbanite ("For a Long Time This Was Griselda's Story"). He demonstrates how immersion in the natural world, far from limiting the scope of these lives, allows them to be truly free individuals, to be themselves in the purest sense. His characters seem to find comfort in necessity, in simplicity, and in isolation. The hunter says damningly of cities: "There is no order in that world." Yet even as Doerr evokes the lure of the natural world and seems to espouse its virtues over those of civilization, he also subtly advocates for the irreplaceable value of human relations, however fragile and ephemeral those might be. In this dazzling collection, Doerr achieves a humane resonance for his haunting and original stories. His characters trip over the line between nature and magic, between what we can collect, catalogue, and know and what lies beyond the human capacity to understand, to which we can only surrender. In taking us around the planet with these intriguing and thoroughly modern characters, Doerr insists on nature's relevance in a fractured world, reveling in the one experience that all human beings across the planet have in common: the rapturous apprehension of nature.

 

ABOUT ANTHONY DOERR

Anthony DoerrAnthony 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.

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH ANTHONY DOERR

There are so many locations in this book, in Europe, Africa, and America. Have you been to each of these places, and how much do particular locales inspire your stories?

I've been to all of them but Liberia, where the first half-dozen pages of "The Caretaker" takes place, and Belorussia, where maybe a page of "July Fourth" occurs. In many ways, though, the locales didn't quite inspire the stories: I think maybe the stories and their settings came to me simultaneously. That is, the landscapes and the narratives grew out of each other. Like real human beings, fictional 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. In terms of my process, I didn't write "The Shell Collector" in Kenya, and "The Caretaker" in Oregon, or anything like that. But as I wrote the story, I'd look back through my journals, or look at photos, or Web sites, or travel brochures, or naturalists' accounts, or whatever else I could use to help me evoke the places I was writing about. So in the end the settings are products of memory, research, imagination, and of course the psyche of the point-of-view character.

You have also lived abroad, though you currently live in Idaho. How does travel and firsthand experience with different cultures affect you as a writer? Do you consciously cultivate this expansive lens?

Travel definitely affects me as a writer. Whatever limited observational skills I have, I use them best and most when I find myself in a strange place, slightly uncomfortable. Especially if the people around me aren't speaking in English. It helps me remember that the United States is just a small, isolated, wildly privileged corner of the world. In many ways travel is the easiest way to get myself out of the routine and commonplace, but it's not the only way. I mean, you can go out into your backyard right now and peer into the grass and witness a dozen unfamiliar, astounding things in ten minutes: ants ambushing each other, worms aerating the soil, beetles having sex in your rosebushes. So yes, I consciously cultivate it. But if we can't afford the time or the plane ticket at the moment, I try to get outside and find something unfamiliar, some tiny miracle a half-mile from the front door.

Do you fish or hunt? Why do you think there is this connection between fishing and philosophical rumination? Will you keep writing about it?

I don't hunt. I do fish. I think there is a connection between thinking and fishing mostly because you spend a lot of time up to your waist in water without a whole lot to keep your mind busy. You're alone (even if you're with someone, you're usually far apart, or standing quietly) and you either turn inward, to your thoughts, or you turn outward and look at things: light on the river, a gnat on your sleeve, clouds all lit up with sunlight. For me fishing is, in a lot of ways, an excuse to go to a river or a lake or the ocean and just spend a whole day seeing. I don't know if I'll keep writing about it; I probably will.

"For a Long Time This Was Griselda's Story" is particularly interesting because it follows two charactersDuck and Rosemarywho find a normal, good life in the suburbs; they don't seem to have the desperate need to commune with the natural that most of your other characters have. The heroine turns out to be not the dramatic magician's assistant with the glamorous life, but her dull, plain sister. Can you tell us a little bit about writing this story and about why you decided to shift your focus with these characters? Does the title itself reveal something of the process?

The title does indeed very much reveal the process; for a long time, it was Griselda's story, and I was stuck on it. The plot seemed too fanciful, the ending was horrific, and I nearly abandoned it. But around that time a student of mine asked me about all the places I'd lived since leaving high school, and she seemed so impressed with my brief travel history and dissatisfied with her own "mundane" life in comparison. I told her that my life thus far sure didn't seem very glamorous, and that I wasn't sure I learned anything very special just because I had traveled a bit. My feeling is that you can learn just as much (or more!) and have just as rewarding and important a life (or more important!) if you never leave the confines of your hometown. As I talked with her, I realized that was the key to revising my story: of the two sisters, Rosemary's life was the truly interesting one, not Griselda's. After that the revisions sort of fell into place.

The hunter's wife also has a mysterious gift that can only be described as magical; what exactly do you imagine this gift to be? Can you describe it for us? And did you intend to suggest that the gift is as costly to her as it is precious to others?

I suppose I'd describe her gift as an extremely sensitive empathy. Does that sound about right? And, sure, I think her gift was costly to her. It thrilled her, of course, and broadened her understanding of the world, but it also destroyed her marriage. I'm fascinated by the idea that any supernatural giftflying, say, or being able to predict the futuremust also carry with it a balance, an antigift. Often, I'd think, it would be the curse of isolation. I mean, think about it: If you were the only twelve-year-old in the world who could fly, at first it would be so exhilarating, absolutely incredible, drifting over the rooftops. But after a while, say a year or so, of drifting among the clouds, maybe playing pranks on your friends, wouldn't you get tired of it? Wouldn't you feel lonely? Wouldn't you wish, more than anything, that someone else could fly with you? Or that you never learned to fly at all?

Many of your characters face dangers, even death, through the happenstance events of nature and its creations. In "The Hunter's Wife," the couple comes close to death in a hard winter. The shell collector lives in a word filled with incipient danger, in part because of his blindness but also because of the facts: just as the cone shells promise ecstasy and healing, they also kill. One gets the sense that nature threatens as much as it enthralls. Were you conscious of trying to get this across, and was it hard to write about both? Was it tempting to simply vaunt the glories of the natural world, especially at a time when it is so threatened?

I was conscious of trying to get that idea across, yes. For me it wasn't tempting to hype the glory of wilderness without balancing it, without trying to emphasize how small one human is in the face of the evolution of the entire planet. Anyone who has spent a few nights in a tent during a storm can tell you: The world doesn't care all that much if you live or die. But then, in the morning, the weather lifts, and you see new snow everywhere, and you feel the utter glory of being allowed to stand there and look at it. Or just walk outside some clear night and look up at the stars. All that ancient, huge energy up thereit's gorgeous, but the scale is so humbling, too.

Dorotea, Joseph, and even Seema, the little girl saved by the shell collector, are each able to find some peace through experiences with the physical world. Were you aware of emphasizing, over the course of these stories, the fact that all people from all backgrounds, experience nature in similar ways? Do you see this is an important political or moral point? I'd say I wanted to emphasize that human experiencesthe truly important ones, like falling in love, having your heart broken, and dyingare shared by all people; that is, independent of culture. I thought a short-story collection was particularly well suited to making this point, since by nature it can range more widely than a novel. I certainly believe that there are commonalities that supercede culture, so, yes, I feel it is a very important political and moral pointprobably the most important one. But as you sit down to write, you don't really think consciously: "Now I'll design a group of stories that emphasize a continuum of human emotion across a range of possible experiences." You just try to write a story and make it plausible, moving, and cleanly told. In many ways any political element takes care of itself: in the design of the narrative, in what I'm interested in writing about to begin with. We're all political creatures, so the stories we tell will be inescapably political.

How do you balance your interactions with civilizationand your writing lifewith encounters with nature? Do you get to spend as much time outdoors as you like? What are some other things that inspire you?

I have a fairly normal life: I go to the grocery store; I watch SportsCenter. I do try to get outdoors as much as possible, and a few times a year my wife and I feel the travel lust coming on and start searching the Internet like crazy for cheap plane tickets. Because I teach as well as write, I don't spend as much time away from a desk as I would like, but compared to many of my friends I get out a fair amount. Living in Idaho is, in many ways, a gift, because there are dazzling, roadless mountains literally in our front yard.

What writers have been most important to you? Can you tell us something about the novel you are writing?

Gosh, so many writers have been important to me: J. M. Coetzee, Rick Bass, Joseph Conrad, Andrea Barrett, Denis Johnson, Cormac McCarthy. Each of them continues to expand my ideas about what is possible in fiction. Thanks for asking about my novel. I haven't said much about it because I routinely change it pretty drastically, but let's see . . . I can tell you that it's set, for the most part, in the Caribbean and in Alaska. The main character is a hydrologist who studies snow, so there's lots of snow and ice in the book. Early in the story he dreams he will inadvertently drown his infant daughter, and he begins to believe that his dream will come true, so he, of course, fights like heck to stop it from happening. I probably ought to stop there.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Natureoften at its most lush and wildis the most dominant trope of these stories. In "The Caretaker," the smell of the earth is described as "sweet, wealthy." Think over some of your favorite scenes and characters. What part does nature play, for the characters and the events that take place? Is it just a backdrop or is it a catalyst for action?

  2. Some of the women have a particularly strong relationship to nature: Naima in "Mkondo" is depicted as a wild creature who is driven nearly mad by American civilization; the hunter's wife, Mary Roberts, first learns of her supernatural gift through communion with dead animals. Compare the way that men in some of the stories feel about nature with the attitude of the women. Do you detect a pattern or theme in the way that the sexes apprehend the physical world, or is their appreciation similar in intensity and method? What do you think of the symbolic association between women and nature?

  3. Even as Doerr's characters seem to fall ravishingly in love with the natural world, over and over again they seek to tame, control, or capture it. Collecting and cataloguing are ways that Doerr's characters deal with nature. There is a hunter, numerous fishers, a photographer, and an archaeologist. Why do you think these characters feel so compelled to take stock of nature in this way? Would you categorize gardening with these other activities, as another means of controlling the wild?

  4. Doerr suggests through juxtaposition that it is possible to reconcile hunting and fishing with loving nature. The hunter, when a city person asks him whether he minds killing animals, thinks to himself: "Was that what hunting meant to people? Killing animals?" He is puzzled, and Doerr demonstrates a difficult conflict between having an abstract idea about what an activity means and the actual practice. To the hunter, it seems that hunting is part of a lifestyle that is very much about loving nature and animals and choosing them over human civilization. Is this a tenable position? Are there different ways of hunting that might be more "humane" than others? Can you understand the hunter's confusion?

  5. Doerr also uses nature as a bridge between cultural differences. The hunter impresses his new love by showing her a sleeping grizzly, Dorotea in "So Many Chances" is integrated into a small community in Maine through fly-fishing, and Ward woos Naima in "Mkondo" in races through the dense jungle. What does the appreciation of the outdoors and its scenes and activities offer that other interactions might not? Think of examples in which characters who are radically different from each other come to a more sympathetic, peaceful, or intimate understanding through time spent in nature. Does nature also cause conflict?

  6. The supernatural and spiritual infuse many of these stories and seem to be placed on even ground with the unknowable forces of nature. Do you think that Doerr is suggesting that nature, vast, complex, and mysterious, is equivalent to the magical? What does this suggest about how we judge what is knowable and what is not? Do you think that the magical abilities that some of his characters possessthink of Naima, Mary Roberts, the metal eaterare meant as real possibilities in the world, or are their talents meant to be more metaphoric? Does it matter?

  7. What are some of the conflicts between more traditional lifestyles and the realities of Western modernity? Think of the discussions of medicine in "The Shell Collector," the discomfort of the hunter in a university setting, and the differences Naima finds between her life in Mkondo and the life that Ward brings her to in America. What are some of the virtues that Doerr finds in simpler, nonurban lifestyles, and what are some of the fascinations that the modern provides? Can you come to some conclusions about the moral value of different lifestyle choices? What conclusions do some of these characters come to?

  8. In "Mkondo," Naima notes that "she was learning that in her life everythinghealth, happiness, even lovewas subject to the landscape; the weathers of the world were inseparable from the weathers of her soul." Is there a kind of politics inherent in this knowledge, a kind of obligation to the environment to both appreciate and preserve it? Can you find implicitor overtpolitical themes in these stories?