Ask the American Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Anthony Doerr if he writes fables – engaging stories designed to convey useful truths – and he pauses to think.
His second novel, All the Light We Cannot See, had an edge of the fantastic and the eternal. Set in World War II, it involved a blind French girl, a missing gemstone called the Sea of Flames, and a young Nazi radio technician. It sold more than 10 million copies, spending 130 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
Doerr's third novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, has just been released. It follows three stories. Anna and Omeir are two young people living on opposite sides during the 1453 Siege of Constantinople. Another narrative line takes place in 2020, in a public library in Idaho, where an old man, Zeno, interrupts a misfit teenager, Seymour, placing an improvised bomb. The third occurs on an interstellar spaceship on a generations-long journey to a distant exoplanet and focuses on the relationship between a young girl, Konstance, and the ship's artificial intelligence, Sybil.
Each of the characters has some involvement with the single surviving copy of an ancient Greek text by Diogenes, which told of the adventures of Aethon during his search for the paradise of Cloud Cuckoo Land.
"Obviously I am working really hard with getting historical details correct," Doerr eventually answers, "but ultimately a fable is a drug. You can capture a reader's attention and keep it because of the power of narrative. You connect him or her with character, which is, of course, false but hopefully true at the same time, if you render it well enough.
"That is a paradox I know. And then you put that character in some kind of danger but because you care about their fate – which is true in almost all fables, whether they have animal or human characters – you are compelled to find out what happens."
Cloud Cuckoo Land conveys lessons amid its skilful entertainment.
"It is about interconnectedness. It is about how story and books – and literary culture – are a vehicle, just one vehicle, of how we communicate between generations.
"I think it is my middle-age book. I am trying to come to terms – and failing – with my effervescence and my own ephemerality. It is about watching my kids who were babies just one second ago becoming hairy-legged, big-footed high-school boys, and they are working jobs and they don't need me as much.
"When I was working on the book, I had two kidney stones and my eyesight started to go and, for the first time, I needed glasses. All of these things that happen to everyone are just reminders that we are not here forever and – what I concluded anyway, although I hope the book doesn't give any answers – I concluded that being a steward of the things we care about is the most important thing.
"So I tried to pick characters who were stewards. Of course, in a literal sense in this book, of the Diogenes text, and they are the reasons it can survive to the next generation. But also stewards in other ways, as a librarian is a steward of culture, of the way we could all be better stewards of the planet … A reminder that we are not only connected to the generations before us and the generations to come, but also the creatures with which we share this big, beautiful, green space."
Appropriately in an age of lockdowns and border restrictions, Cloud Cuckoo Land is also a novel about walls. It took Doerr seven years to write, and had its germ in an illustration of the huge medieval walls surrounding the great city of Constantinople, which he pinned above his desk.
"It was all because of those walls that generational wealth could be built up." Doerr says, describing the four acres of gold in the ceilings of the Church of Hagia Sophia, "But there weren't only materials. There were the emperor's libraries … as well as vast monastic libraries and private libraries – also lending libraries - and it seems both men and women could take books out of them.
"Without this huge defensive technology, before gunpowder arrived, all these ancient texts would not have survived. All these books are so fragile. They are handwritten." He cites Greek writers like Sappho, Euripides, and Aeschylus. "About 75 per cent exist only because of the walls of Constantinople where these libraries were protected over the generations and they could be recopied and preserved.
"I just started thinking, 'Okay, I'm going to start here.' I started with Anna. I had a girl in love with books later in the Byzantine Empire when girls were not encouraged to be literate. And then I had the huge cannon – the death-star machine, if you will – that the sultan was making to invade Byzantium … Then I had to dramatise how a book can survive down the generations."
Doerr is talking from his home in Boise, Idaho, but he has his own memories of New Zealand, where he spent seven months in the mid-1990s, based in Timaru but roaming from Cape Reinga to Stewart Island. While he says he is under-informed about the present strategy of New Zealand's National Library to divest itself of 600,000 overseas-published books, he finds it a "little frightening".
"I think there is so much wisdom to be had from reading Heraclitus: The Cosmic Fragments, for example, or any of the ancient writers. It is a miracle that they are still
there and to make them as accessible as possible to a bored 17-year-old is really important. And I think there is still such joy in library research because of the serendipity of finding books around the books you are looking for.
"We tend to think of all this digital stuff as permanent. We have lost our ability to believe in erasure anymore, and it is so important to remember. This is what they said about CD-Rom 25 years ago – 'CD-Rom, that's permanent, you'll never not use these.' And, also, with one electrical pulse from the sun, we'd all be reading paper again."
Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr (4th Estate, $35), is out now.