'Memory Wall': Short Stories At All Points In Time

If we're lucky, our mind occupies a lot of places at once; our present-day reality, our painfully or happily remembered past, and our hopeful future. Throughout the day, we're sent from one point in time to the other so fast, that we can occupy all at once. Guest host Rachel Martin talks with award-winning writer Anthony Doerr about his new short story collection, Memory Wall.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

If we're lucky, our mind occupies a lot of places at once; our present-day reality, our painfully or happily remembered past, and our hopeful future. And throughout the day, we're sent from one point in time to the other, so fast that we can occupy all at once. Virginia Woolf took us there in her fiction. So, too, has Anthony Doerr.

The O. Henry Award-winning writer has a new collection of short stories out called "Memory Wall." And Anthony joins us from the studios of Boise State Public Radio in Boise, Idaho. Welcome to the program, Anthony.

Mr. ANTHONY DOERR (Author, "Memory Wall"): Thanks, Rachel. It's lovely to be here.

MARTIN: Thank you. So, as I described, this is a collection of short stories and they are not at linked in any kind of deliberate way in narrative. But the theme of memory clearly plays a role in each one of these stories. What is it about that idea, that idea of memory and how we make and use memories that drew you in?

Mr. DOERR: I originally got very interested in memory in high school when my grandmother came to live with us. She had been diagnosed with dementia. It was the first time I had heard the word Alzheimer's disease. And, you know, to watch my grandmother slowly lose herself and yet still be very much alive was an amazing and terrifying experience in a lot of ways. She didnt know who I was but she could beat me in Gin Rummy. You know, and that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DOERR: That, you know, I think it took me a couple decades to start to really appreciate what that meant to my family and how to address that with my writing.

MARTIN: You talk about your grandmother. How has writing this collection affected your own perception or your experiences with your own memories? Are you more attuned to how you remember things and when you conjure them up, and how you use the memories?

Mr. DOERR: You know, I have two little boys. Theyre six years old, they're twins. And their lives are so much more documented than my own. And it's fascinating for me to watch them look at photos of themselves and now videos. You know, my wife has a flip camera. And their experiences of those documents are already altering their actual memories. You know, they remember trips we've taken because theyve seen videos or photographs of them.

And Im learning that as documentation literally gets carried around in people's pockets, something kind of terrifying about that. You know, everything gets cemented in a way that is from one perspective and the Internet, in a sense, disallows forgetting.

MARTIN: Anthony, I want about the protagonists in each story because they're so different, and you easily kind of move back and forth from these folks. You assume the voice of a teenage American living in Lithuania in one story, and in another, a 50 or 60-year-old Chinese woman living in rural China, and several others. And they are so disconnected. Their lives are so very different. How do these disparate personalities and perspectives, how do they come to you?

Mr. DOERR: You know, what I tell my students who are interested in writing is they always get this piece of advice: write what you know. And I feel like fundamentally, we are writing what we know: we're writing about heartbreak, or being lost, or falling in love. But that doesnt mean you should limit yourself to being a 40-year-old, white Caucasian woman in America.

You know, I feel like you are allowed in fiction to embrace imagination and try to enter other worlds. And I feel like you should push yourself to try to persuade your reader that you have the authority to engage with people who, you know, lived in the past, who live in the future, other genders, other places, other cultures. And it's just a matter of research and time and imagination.

MARTIN: And imagination; so speaking of which, let's hear a little bit of "Village 113." There's a passage on page 145 I'd love for you to read.

Mr. DOERR: (Reading) She cannot remember a spring more colorful. Flowers seem to be exploding out of the mud. By April, there is scarlet and lavender and jade everywhere. Behind the government house, zinnias are coming up with a deep, almost unnatural vigor, as if they were pouring up out of the Earth. She kneels over them for a half hour studying the smooth stout stems of the seedlings. Soon, so many plants in her garden are coming up she has to start pulling them. It's as if someone is underneath the Earth pushing her vegetables up with his fingers. Has spring always been like this; startling, overpowering? Maybe she is more sensitive to it this year. Bees drift through the allies with their heavy baskets, seemingly drunk. To stand beneath the sycamores is to stand in a blizzard of seeds.

MARTIN: Hmm. That is a passage where the main character in the story is - she knows something serious is going to happen in her village, and she's essentially witnessing springtime with this new kind of longing. And you have such vivid descriptions of the world around her and the natural elements. I was wondering if you think there is a connection between memory and our projection of experiences in the natural world.

Mr. DOERR: I do. For me, the natural world is always telling big stories about humungous scales of time. And I often feel simultaneously terrified and humbled by those scales and in awe, and delighted that I get to be here; that Im lucky enough, that we are lucky enough to get experience these things for the tiny finger snap of time that we get to be on Earth.

So, in a lot of ways, my fiction is about trying to pay homage to the grandeur of the scales of time in the natural world. And I feel like memory is a part of that. Memory is this one attempt to not be erased by time. And I think that ties back to what I learned watching my grandmother lose her memories is, you know, we are all facing erasure eventually. And, you know, how do we choose to spend our hours on this Earth?

MARTIN: Anthony Doerr is the author of "Memory Wall." He joined us from Boise State Public Radio in Boise, Idaho - my home state. Shout-out to the state of Idaho. Anthony, thanks so much for being here. We appreciate it.

Mr. DOERR: Thanks for having me, Rachel

MARTIN: This NPR's WEEKEND EDITION. Liane Hansen will be back next week. Im Rachel Martin.

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