It started like this. On the day that Anthony Doerr and his wife Shauna return from the hospital with newborn twins Henry and Owen, he learns from the American Academy of Arts and Letters that he will receive a Rome Prize in Literature for 2004-2005.
And so “we are moving from Boise, Idaho, to Rome, Italy, a place I’ve never been.”
Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World (Scribner 2007; also UK edition by Fourth Estate Ltd 2008) is Doerr’s captivating, acutely observed memoir of that fellowship year at the American Academy.
Boyd Tonkin in reviewing this book for The Independent described Doerr’s writing here as “fleet and sharp, fixing monuments, neighbours, dishes and Popes (John Paul II dies during his stay) with a radiant image, not a purple passage.” You can listen to a NPR interview with Anthony Doerr here, in which he discusses Four Seasons in Rome.
After an except from the book (entitled “Starlings”) appeared in the Winter 2008/9 number of the SOF News (p. 7), the SOF Weblog wrote to Doerr (first on vacation in Mexico, then back home in Idaho) to ask a few follow-up questions.
SOF: Four Seasons has received many great reviews, in both the established press and the more freewheeling world of amazon.com posts. What are some of the most—and least—gratifying things you’ve seen and heard about your memoir?
Doerr: Oh, gosh, I deal with reviews by trying not to read them, not being able to stop myself from reading them, and then hating myself for reading them. I don’t typically get too gratified by them, not matter how nice the reviews might be. Fundamentally, I’m happy any time someone is reading one of my books. There are a lot of wonderful books out there, and all I can control are a few things: to try be as generous as I can with my sentences, and to keep moving forward to new projects so that I don’t get unreasonably attached to my completed ones.
SOF: Can you say a few words about the process of “habitualization”, an important concept for Four Seasons?
Doerr: Well, I’m fascinated by the dynamism of language: how it changes, how it evolves, how it’s prostituted. I believe that (in most cases) verbal repetition has a blunting, sleep-inducing effect. When a writer writes that, say, a character has her “heart in her mouth” or “a surge of adrenaline” or her “eyes sparkle,” then a reader, seeing combinations of words she has seen thousands of times before, glosses over the phrase, rather than seeing a vivid image. She doesn’t see an actual eye, sparkling away like mad. Over time a reader gets “habitualized” to commonly-seen combinations of words like these, you know, sidelong glances, glinting eyes, “a chill ran up my spine.” I think this is as true in human lives as it is in human language. We get habitualized to our toasters and our cars and our offices and our shoes. Even our families. Even raging, improbable, sudden beauty.
Habitual things (cliches, the route to work, Starbucks) offer something safe and comfortable and sometimes our brains crave safe and comfortable. But, and this is massively oversimplifying the idea, I think that the role of art, and the role of travel are similar: they show us the familiar world in an unfamiliar way. They shake us up.
The guy I usually quote when I get asked about this stuff is a Russian ex-commisar named Victor Shklovsky, in an 1917 essay he wrote called “Art as Technique.” “Art exists,” Shklovsky says, “that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.”
People like us, writers, we’re trying to use words, maybe the most used and familiar elements of daily life, and we’re trying to combine them to create transcendent aesthetic structures. We’re trying to employ language in ways that helps a reader see life in some—forgive the awkward word—dehabitualized way. Always, for me, art is slightly strange. So are new places. Strangeness is what helps us crack apart our old eyes and see the world in a slightly new way. Fundamentally, maybe, this is about empathy: strangeness helps us step outside of ourselves and into a the other.
As Flannery O’Connor said, “A certain distortion is used to get at the truth.”
SOF: What are you doing now? To what extent has your AAR experience changed the way you think, work, write?
Doerr: I’m writing a very, very long story for a literary magazine called McSweeney’s that’s set in South Africa in 2024. And I’m still working away on the war novel that I mention in Four Seasons, a project I started (and stopped, and started again) at the Academy.
Living in Rome changed us in a lot of ways—our appreciation for olive oil, for classical architecture, for the gaps and blanks in history, for the superiority of European Kit-Kats.
But maybe no change has been more pronounced than my new awareness of the preposterousness of designing cities around the automobile. In Rome, cars have forced themselves into a city that didn’t see them coming. Even though it’s difficult, it’s still possible to imagine certain corners of the historic center as they were before cars. In America everything seems to be built around the car. Suburbs, parking lots, drive-thrus, car washes, repair garages. Why? I know we need petroleum, I understand that I benefit hugely from cars, that my clothes and vegetables get floated and driven and trucked into my life, but I can’t help but wonder why we can’t have a few more areas in our cities protected from them.
SOF: Four Seasons is Doerr’s third book, following upon The Shell Collector (2003) and About Grace (2005). In addition to his Rome Prize, Anthony Doerr has received three O. Henry Prizes, two Ohioana Book Awards, a grant from the NEH, the Barnes & Noble Discover Award for Fiction, and (shared) the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award.
Anthony Doerr currently teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times and Der Spiegel, and he writes a regular column on science books for the Boston Globe. From 2007 to 2010, Anthony Doerr is the Writer-in-Residence for the State of Idaho.