“I love to use my work as a way to rectify my ignorances.” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anthony Doerr joins Zibby to talk about Cloud Cuckoo Land, which is out in paperback today! The two discuss the piece of often forgotten history that inspired one-third of this story, how the pandemic and our current political climate impacted Anthony’s reading and writing, and why he wanted to depict the power of storytelling. Zibby also asks Anthony about the experiences depicted in his 2007 memoir, Four Season in Rome, and what life is like now that his twin sons have left for college.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Anthony. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I’m so excited to have you.

Anthony Doerr: Thanks so much, Zibby. It’s a joy to be here.

Zibby: Thank you. Your latest book is Cloud Cuckoo Land, as basically everybody in the planet already knows. I’m tempted to ask you to describe it. I’ve read most of it. Maybe you could give a summary in case there is someone out there who is not that familiar.

Anthony: Of course. Summarizing this book is a total nightmare.

Zibby: I’m like, good luck with that.

Anthony: I understand why you punted on that. The book is set in the past, present, and the future. It’s a kind of triptych that’s all shattered and re-pieced together and a moving back and forth between the fifteenth century, now, the present day, the moments right before the coronavirus pandemic, and also the future, which was this big gulp of courage that it took for me to try this. I have one character in the future. Two live in the fifteenth century around the siege of Constantinople, which happened in 1453. Constantinople was kind of like a Noah’s ark of books, of old Greek and Roman texts. These walls around the city really helped all these old texts survive. About seventy-five percent of the ancient Greek texts that we can read today survived because they were protected inside libraries, monastic and imperial and even private libraries inside of Constantinople. We’ve got two characters back then. Fifteenth century was this time of crazy technological change. The printing press is about to arrive on the scene. Europeans are adopting gun powder from China. That’s really making all these old defensive walled cities obsolete because cannons are able to knock down all these walls.

Of course, navigational techniques are really improving, so Europeans are “discovering” the New World or, depending on your point of view, bringing terrible diseases to the New World in another point of view. That’s all going down. Then I’ve also chosen two other times of just intense technological change. One is right now. I feel like we’re living through this really intense period as disruptive as the printing press. The way we can access information, the way you and I are talking right now a thousand miles apart, the way we’re bringing this podcast to people, it’s just incredible. The way you and I can carry all of Agatha Christie’s novels on our phone, it’s just astounding. I’m asking questions about, what does it mean to live at this time when all this technology is disrupting existing power structures? Of course, in the future, I’m asking questions about artificial intelligence and climate change and the disruption of those two. What does it mean to the future humans, to our great-grandkids, when there’s going to be very, very interesting powers that artificial intelligence has and also the planet is under extreme duress?

Zibby: Did you set out to write this with all these different pieces? Were you like, I’m going to see if I can pull this off? How did you end up with this as the backbone?

Anthony: Great question. I think for beginning writers of any age, they have this idea from the cartoons of, a light bulb appears over the head. You just funnel the muses down onto the page. That’s not how it works for me at all. You come to these ideas slowly through time. Writing’s like farming. It’s just takes forever for these little things to grow. You’re always tweaking things. No, in the beginning, I started just with Constantinople. My previous book, All the Light We Cannot See, was set primarily — maybe sixty percent of it is set in a walled city called Saint-Malo in Coastal France in Brittany. Everything I’d read about the history of walls would mention Constantinople. I knew nothing about it. I felt like in high school in the United States, the teacher would get to the fall of Rome in Western history and take a sip of water, and then suddenly, we’re at the Renaissance. This whole eleven hundred years just gets skipped. I love to use my work as a way to rectify my ignorances. I’m going to die ignorant of so many things. Just like this amazing project you’re doing, you’re learning every day, I think that’s what I love about my job so much. I get to go find these pockets of things I know nothing about and try to educate myself a little bit. It just started with this idea about Constantinople.

I realized to really dramatize the power of stewardship, of what it means to protect a text through time, to protect what might be the very last copy of a very old book, you have to show it land in the laps of readers long after you’re gone. I was a parent the whole time, just like you, the time I was working on this book. One of the coolest things about parenting is it kind of removes you from the center of your life and gets you thinking about, what can I pass down? What will this place look like for my kids when they’re my age or when they’re older than me and I’m gone? What kind of skills should I equip them with? I had stewardship on my mind the whole time I was working on the novel. About two months into this project of just the two characters in the fifteenth century I realized I’ve got to show this book tumble down through the pegs of history and land in other times. Then you’ll really feel the effects. By the end of the novel anyway, you’ll feel the effects of what this small, humble act of courage of saving this one old copy of one old book from Constantinople can mean. Hopefully, it inspires folks to think, what small things can I do now that might really impact a life, might really change somebody’s life after I’m gone?

Zibby: I feel like it’s interesting the way you show things that back in day were huge deals that now are fine, even surgery for cleft palates, for example. That was enough to have your whole family be ostracized and basically driven out of a village and have somebody believed to be this demon. Whereas today, it’s like, okay, this is how you fix that. What does it mean? What is it today that will be fixed later that feels like an intractable problem now and making people think differently about the people we’re around?

Anthony: Totally. Really astute observation, Zibby. I think it’s so interesting to see what continuities exist and what fundamental disparities exist when you’re studying history. One of the characters back in the fifteenth century, Omeir, has a cleft palate. It totally alters the trajectory of his entire life. That’s one of those things that can be repaired now easily. Yet there’s other continuities through time. What was so interesting researching this novel is how many different generations of people have been convinced that they live kind of at the end of history. I think during the pandemic, even during when Trump was disputing the results of the election, there’s this feeling like, oh, my gosh, we’re living the end of something right now. It’s reassuring to read during the Cuban Missile Crisis people felt this way. Certainly, during the siege of Constantinople pretty much all the residents of the city believed this. The end of humans of earth had arrived. The anti-Christ is at the gates. You learn at the end of Rome, all these Roman officials thought, oh, boy, this is it. The humans are over.

Yet human culture persists. I really wanted to explore that in the book. I’m playing a lot with dystopias and utopias. The phase cloud cuckoo land is 2,400 years old. It vastly predates English. It was a utopia imagined by this silly playwright Aristophanes in ancient Greece. He had a play called The Birds. These two guys think there are too many lawyers in Athens in the play The Birds. They go, with the help of birds, to found a new city in the sky called Cloud Cuckoo Land. It’s maybe the first written Western utopia anyway. As I was working on this book, my kids were taking in so many dystopian narratives. I felt like every time I’d go downstairs, there’s another flaming city or a melting planet on TV. I just wanted to see, what is the difference between a utopia and dystopia narrative? Where do they meet? Often, my characters are faced with these feelings, this syndrome of living at the end of history. I felt like that was this one continuity through time. Yet each time, hopefully, the novel proves that human culture and humans and the earth persists.

Zibby: I think it also taps into fear, perhaps fear as a parent, fear in general, fear of the world. I’m sure you were writing it during this period of complete upheaval. Someone who is essentially autistic or a sensory processing disorder, what happens when there is this room of innocent kids and something horrible is coming their way? What does that mean? What are the shots below? The show must go on. What does that really mean these days anyway? What threats do we have lurking beneath us that we don’t really know?

Anthony: Good question, Zibby. The novel opens with, these kids are trapped in a library. Each of the main characters is confined, usually within walls in some way. There’s these five kids. These elementary school kids are rehearsing a play of this old manuscript, Cloud Cuckoo Land. Upstairs in the library, one young, really sensitive boy comes in and fires a gun. Then of course, Anna, this girl in Constantinople, she’s trapped within the walls as this siege is occurring. Then in the future, this girl I’ve invented, Konstance, she’s trapped. Really, it doesn’t give too much away to say there’s a pathogen. There’s a pandemic occurring around her. She’s trapped in this circular vault. Each of them uses literature as a way to kind of slip the bounds of the walls around them. That was what I felt during the pandemic. Thank god for books, especially in those first weeks when you’re like, are we going to be dragging Grandpa to the curb? What’s going to be happening here? I just felt like books gave me two or three hours a day when I could slip the trap of my own problems. The ironic thing is, when you read, you often read alone, and yet it makes you feel so much less alone. When I was finishing this novel, I wanted to somehow pay tribute to that magic, that simple, ancient magic of translating black marks on the white page into image and color and feeling, just the way you did it in your memoir, Zibby. It’s such this old magic. Tapping into it is such a privilege. I wanted to not take it for granted. Hopefully, throughout this novel, you’re reminded of the power of reading and storytelling.

Zibby: I think about this all the time, by the way, the power of books and story. Sometimes thinking about how long it’s been that books have been this common language for all of us is very reassuring in today’s day where it’s impossible to read all the books that come out. Even curation is an issue. People are still going to read. Sometimes I think about it, and I’m like, if we introduced reading today and books today, would anyone think this was a good idea? Sit still for ten hours. Don’t do anything else. There are no pictures. There’s nothing else. You have to think the whole time. You have to use your brain. People would be like, oh, god, I don’t have time for that.

Anthony: Except if you sat them down and read to them the first three pages of an extremely compelling story. They’d feel that old magic come over them. Just like that end-of-history syndrome that’s occurring through time, same thing you hear all the time. Books are dying. Books are dead. The whole process of reading is going to go away. Every time, that old magic drags humans back. We crave narrative. We are just like drug addicts looking for story all the time. I feel that at night. I’m like, what shows are on? I got to pick up a book. Every day, I want to be living my life and maybe the life of some characters I’m inventing. Also, I just want to be immersed in these worlds that other people have created. That’s when I feel like my life is in balance, when I get to live in these three separate places.

Zibby: I totally relate to that. Is there anything amazing that you love and read and that feels like a huge escape for you that maybe you want to recommend? You don’t have to because I just put you on the spot.

Anthony: No, that’s fine. It’s funny. The writer Maile Meloy, years ago, told me about the Patrick O’Brian series to talk about addictive stuff. He wrote a series of books about British Navy. Master and Commander was made into a movie with Russell Crowe. This is the first one. She’s like, “They’re crack. These books are crack.” I just did a publicity tour in France and was like, I need something to get me through long flights. I’m only halfway through the very first book, but it’s exactly what she said. The detailing is unbelievable. It’s a great work of historical fiction, but it’s also an adventure story. You’re just hooked. That same magic trick occurs where you leave — you’re sitting in an airplane seat going five hundred miles an hour at 34,000 feet, but you’re also somehow simultaneously living the life of this British naval captain. That magic doesn’t get old. It may have been a little stronger and more powerful when we were kids, but I still chase those feelings and that immersion into another world.

Zibby: Me too. I read your memoir, Four Seasons in Rome, which was amazing. You made a joke, speaking of flying and reading and escaping. You’re like, in the time it took me to watch two Lindsay Lohan movies and an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, my twins and Shauna and I, here we are in Italy. It’s funny because it’s true. All these things we take for granted, oh, my gosh, it’s so funny. I loved your memoir so much. I know we’re supposed to talk about Cloud Cuckoo Land, which is also — all your stuff is amazing. All the Light We Cannot See was one of my absolute, all-time favorite books. I feel like I learned so much about you in your memoir too, how you are as a father and what it’s like — I have twins also, so I’ve been in a plane with six-month-old twins. It is not a moment I wish on anybody else. I remember walking. I had the two car seats over my arms going through this really narrow plane at one point. I heard somebody whisper, “Oh, my gosh, she’s got twins.” I was like, this is terrible. I totally related to the whole thing. I loved the way you wrote about your life and the way that you used language, even for the simplest things, to make things come to life. You say sentences like, “A palm tree out the window traps the sunset.” Beautiful. Not that many words. Everything is very clear. An immediate picture comes out. Then even the way you talk about writing when you’re like, “All morning, I lay down sentences, erase them, and try new ones.” That paints a picture of a whole day and all those experiences. Talk to me about writing your memoir and what that experience was like.

Anthony: Thanks, Zibby. Thanks so much. In 2004, there’s something — it’s amazing. It’s this lightning bolt from the sky called the Rome Prize, the Prix de Rome. Back then anyway, you didn’t apply for it in literature. You would just get nominated anonymously and get a letter saying, hey, would you like to go to Rome for a year? The day we found out that we were offered that, my wife gave birth to twins. I had this fellowship at Princeton. I ride my bike back from the hospital to get her bag after she’s finished delivery. I get the mail. They’re like, hey, would you like to move to Rome? I come back. I’m like, “Hey, how are you feeling? Who are these boys you just birthed? Would you like to read this letter?” Thankfully, she had the courage to say yes. We had this really transformative experience. It was so good for our marriage because it was just the two of us. We each basically had a baby all the time. I had never lived in a city that big. I live in Idaho.

It was so engrossing. Every street corner was so interesting. There’s so many stories spiraling up out of every piazza that I couldn’t write fiction. I was just totally absorbed by learning about where I was. I kept notebooks. Usually, I might write in a notebook for a few minutes before I start writing fiction. The notebooks really took over that experience. When we got home, I just wanted to see if I could transform those. It felt like this dream when we got back. Suddenly, you’re immersed back into habit. I wanted to try to capture that sense of having your habits all disrupted. I was living in a new country of Italy, in the new country of fatherhood all at once. I wanted to see if I could use language to somehow capture that. We all live in habit. Habit can be an extremely useful thing. It helps Zibby find the light switch in the bathroom in the middle of the night. Habit can really be paralyzing too. There’s a Chinese proverb that says habits are cobwebs at first, cables at last. I do feel like sometimes there’s days when I ride my bike to work to start writing, and I don’t even remember my bike ride to work because I just was so stuck in my own head.

I don’t want to sleepwalk through life. I became a writer. I got interested in art because it helps wake you up to the wonder and the grandeur of being alive at all. Of course, it’s okay occasionally when you’re tired at night to take in a Disney movie where you know everything that’s going to happen. Of course, it’s fine. I want sometimes to seek out narratives and descriptions that startle you again, that remind you what it looks like when the sun is slipping down behind a palm tree. I love writers and painters and musicians, anybody who’s taking habit or structures that are a little familiar and disrupting them. Sometimes it’s a little more challenging, but it always wakes you up and reminds you, oh, a bowl of fruit has never been painted like this before. My favorite painters are always showing you the new world, the word in this new, almost childlike way so that you see it again, so that you feel habits are disrupted a little bit.

Zibby: That’s such an interesting way to talk about it. Even when you talk about the size of the fridge or all these little things, you’re like, the dial tone is a different tenor. It’s a different tone. The police sirens are just a little bit different. That’s what’s so unique about travel. I just read somewhere — it was something like, your life is a book, and if you don’t travel, then you stay in chapter one your whole life.

Anthony: That’s amazing.

Zibby: Isn’t that a good one? I would quote the person if I could even remember where I found it. I totally relate to going through life like that. I actually went to a doctor. I went to a neurologist at one point when I was deep in the not sleeping with twins early on. I was like, “I think I’m losing my memory. I never know if I’ve washed my hair or not. Sometimes I am getting lost on the street.” It turned out I just wasn’t imprinting the memories to begin with because I wasn’t paying any attention. It’s not that you’re losing memory. It’s that you just are so not present that they never imprint to begin with.

Anthony: I’m sorry. I can so relate. Those first years are so hard. Sleep is so important to our memory making and our sanity. When your sleep is disrupted night after night, you’re always a little bit on edge. Those first years are so tough. I take solace now in thinking everybody survives it. You get through those years. Our boys went to college two weeks ago. It all just felt like it was this rush, this lightspeed movement of these eighteen years. It’s just like I’m talking about. I want to try to remember to be present every time I get the chance to be around them again, if they ever want to come home and be around us again. It’s all so precious. The fact that our lives end sucks, but it’s so beautiful too because it just puts pressure on our life to say, the earth is four and a half billion years old, and you’re only going to be here, if you’re so lucky, eighty years. Why not try to be as present as you can and pay attention to everything you can while you’re here?

Zibby: A hundred percent. I released this episode with Neil deGrasse Tyson recently, who’s amazing. He’s like, it is so unlikely to even be alive, that you have the chance to exist. Don’t waste a day. I’ve had a spring in my step since I had that episode because it’s so true. We’re so lucky to even get this. It’s against all odds that we’re even here right now. Who knows how long? He also, of course, like what you’re saying, pointed out that the beauty in it is because it’s going to end, just like the beauty of a flower, all of it. It’s true. It’s a good reminder to seize the day, if you will.

Anthony: Richard Dawkins has this great thing. He has a book called Unweaving the Rainbow. He just goes through, the odds of that one sperm finding that one egg to make you is so astronomically improbable. That the pregnancy is successful and that you’re delivered and that you get to survive to the point where you can read this book that he’s writing is so incredibly unlikely. It is really important when you’re stuck in traffic or you’re in a long line at the supermarket to occasionally take a breath and be like, I should be so grateful every second, especially those of us who are lucky enough to be able-bodied. I’m standing on two legs. I get to buy food at a supermarket. It’s incredible. All these little miracles around us, sometimes we forget to be grateful for them.

Zibby: Are you really sad that the boys are gone? What does it feel like?

Anthony: Thanks. It feels joyful and sad. They braid around each other all the time. Trash night the other night was hard. I go in their rooms. I’m like, oh, yeah, there’s nothing in their trash cans because they don’t live here anymore. That was a tough one. Then you hear from them. They’re making new friends and having new experiences. Especially with the pandemic being right before they left, we’re so grateful that they’re going off to live these big lives where they get to all be around each other and live in that zoo of hormones that is freshman year at college. You realize that we can’t give them that big of a life at home anymore. I try to remember most of the time that I’m really grateful. There are moments when you feel sorry for yourself. You just feel old. You’re like, wait a minute, what now?

Zibby: My twins are at boarding school for the first time this year for high school. It’s similar. I have two other little guys at home, so it’s not quite the same. I’m like, if these guys were gone too, then what? When you orient your life so much around somebody else’s set of activities and things, even with a professional life…

Anthony: You’re doing it. You’re managing a really rich professional life. That’s a great model for them, for them to see, Mom’s doing her podcast now. Mom’s writing now. It’s a great way to show them, I am a human being too. I don’t just exist to serve your schedule.

Zibby: Yes. They don’t even really care. I’m like, hello? Anybody? I’m here. Brush your teeth. Anyway, now that they are out of the house and this book is out, what does your next year or two look like? What are you going to do? Are you going to travel? Are you committed to living where you live? What now?

Anthony: Good question. I’m doing publicity still for Cloud Cuckoo Land. I have the paperback coming out in the United States next week. Right now, I’m still just living short term. I got to get through that. Then, yes, it’s going to be really interesting. I know we’re going to stay in our house for a year or two. We’ve been told the kids want to come home to have their own bedrooms. It does seem odd because we have a five-bedroom house. One’s my office, but what do we have these other bedrooms for? They’re empty. Eventually, I’d like to get a slightly more streamlined life and be able to travel more. I would love to just do Airbnb in a couple different countries every once in a while, chase projects. My books are usually really research-intensive, and so having my wife be able to come with me — I had three trips to France to write All the Light We Cannot See. Back then, she’s just in the mix of raising kids. We don’t even know if I’m going to be able to finish the book. The trips are costing us money. The stress of that is going to be gone. That’s so exciting.

Zibby: I was so worried about her in the memoir when she had that moment where she was fainting in the hospital. You were freaking out. Oh, my gosh. I’m assuming all is good now. Everything’s good?

Anthony: Yeah, she’s doing great. Thank you.

Zibby: Okay, good. Do you have another book that you have already started on?

Anthony: Yeah, I have three projects. They’re kind of like plants. You got to water them with attention and time and see which one grows sturdy and strong and captures your attention. I try not to talk about things until I’m far enough along because you tend to abandon projects sometimes. It’s all just trial and error for me. You just need time to say, which one of these is going to — you rummage around in it. If you feel that lightning inside of it, you’re like, this is something. There’s enough energy in this that I can sustain a year’s long project. I’m in that phase now where I’m like, maybe this one. I’ll try this one today. It’s kind of great. It’s kind of a fun time.

Zibby: You don’t get confused between all the different narratives and all of that? It’s very clear?

Anthony: No. I’m reading about cybersecurity one day and then DDT. I’ve been reading a lot about this pesticide, DDT, that was really this amazing savior during World War II eradicating all these diseases because it wiped out mosquitoes. Of course, we started using way too much of it. It really damaged ecosystems later. It links in my mind to the nuclear bomb, this idea that technology builds these really dangerous weapons. Science can both save us and destroy us all at once. There’s something really interesting about that.

Zibby: I thought you weren’t going to talk about it.

Anthony: Sorry. Who knows? Maybe that won’t become a book. I don’t know.

Zibby: Amazing. I’m just wondering — you’ve been at this for so long. You are such a successful, revered author. How do you feel about continuing to do book publicity?

Anthony: Oh, gosh. Good question. I think there are so many interesting young writers coming out, so the last thing I want is for somebody to choose my book and not buy a story collection by a young twenty-six-year-old writer. I also feel like sometimes if you spend a hundred thousand hours — I don’t know if that’s accurate, but so much time writing a book, maybe you owe it to that project to spend one half of one percent of the time trying to get it into people’s hands. You fall in love with all these people at your publishing house. They want the book to be successful in the sense of whatever successful means. It probably means selling copies. There’s part of me that, I don’t mind. You get to meet interesting people. I just did seven days in Paris and talking to all these journalists about what’s going on in Europe right now and the fear of the rise of this extremist nationalism and talking to them about the mustard shortage, which is tied to climate change, and the invasion of Ukraine. It’s always an opportunity to learn if you’re not just talking about yourself all the time. I would rather probably be writing or standing in a stream by myself, but it’s not the end of the world that people want to talk to me about my books. It’s kind of nice.

Zibby: Awesome. Thank you for letting me talk to you about your book. This was so much fun for me. Again, I’m such a fan. I have so much respect for you. What you do with words and story, it’s amazing. Really amazing. Thank you for chatting with me today.

Anthony: Thank you so much, Zibby. Thanks for all your work trying to connect readers and writers.

Zibby: My pleasure. Take care.

Anthony: Bye. Have a good one.

Zibby: Bye. Thank you. You too.

Anthony: Take care.

CLOUD CUCKOO LAND by Anthony Doerr

Purchase your copy on Amazon and Bookshop!

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts