How Ancient Greek Texts Inspired Anthony Doerr’s Latest Opus, “Cloud Cuckoo Land”
The U.S. author explains why he uses stories-within-stories in his novels, and how he channeled all his preoccupations and anxieties into his latest book / BY Kim Honey / October 1st, 2021
It took Anthony Doerr seven years to write Cloud Cuckoo Land, which is also the name of the story within his story. The U.S. author, who won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for his last book, All The Light We Cannot See, invents a 2,400-year-old novel by Antonius Diogenes, a real Greek author of speculative fiction.
Doerr’s invented story about Aethon, a foolish shepherd who is searching for a utopia in the sky called Cloud Cuckoo Land, is threaded throughout the novel and links five characters across time, from Constantinople (present-day Istanbul in Turkey) in the 1400s to a spaceship 65 years in the future.
In the first pages of Doerr’s book, it is 2020 and octogenarian Zeno is directing a children’s play in the fictional town of Lakeport, Idaho, based on his translation of the Cloud Cuckoo Land story. Then 17-year-old Seymour enters the building, where Zeno and the children are rehearsing, with a homemade bomb in his backpack and a gun in his pocket.
Before we find out why Seymour is bent on destruction, Doerr goes back 600 centuries to Anna, a seven-year-old orphan in Constantinople who sells old books she steals from an abandoned library to make money, and then jumps to Omeir, a baby born around the same time with a cleft palate in Bulgaria, where the villagers believe the boy is cursed. The other character, Konstance, 10, is aboard The Argos spaceship bound for BetaOph2, which the passengers will colonize because Earth is too polluted.
In the following Q&A with Doerr, 47, he explains in an email why Cloud Cuckoo Land is such an ambitious novel, what his writing process is like, and how Greek comic playwright Aristophanes inspired the story about a heavenly paradise.
Kim Honey: The Italians tell Anna they are looking for a “book of all things.” Doesn’t that describe Cloud Cuckoo Land, which you have said is a “literary-sci-fi-mystery-young-adult-historical-morality novel”?
Anthony Doerr: Yes, I tried to cram all of my preoccupations and interests and anxieties over the past seven years into this novel — pandemics, mega-cannons, the fragility of memory, the preservation of texts, the power of ancient myths, middle age and the Middle Ages, questions about the coming power of AI, my fears about the twin crises of a warming planet and biodiversity loss, and lots of other stuff too. In my previous two books, I experimented with intertextuality, with a book inside a book. In Memory Wall, I used Treasure Island as a story-within-a-story, and in All the Light I played with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as my under-text. I really went for it in Cloud Cuckoo Land by inventing an 1,800-year-old text-inside-the-text (also titled Cloud Cuckoo Land) and showing how that story enters the lives of five different characters when they need it most.
KH: Humans have always told stories, to amuse and inform. What does Cloud Cuckoo Land teach your protagonists and what is the moral of your book?
AD: I think Cloud Cuckoo Land (both the book inside the book, and the general concept of a utopia in the clouds) means different things to each of the five protagonists. To Anna it represents adventure and escape, at least at first; to Zeno it’s a path to accept his true self; to Omeir it represents magic; to Seymour it offers a path to balance his idealism with maturity; and to Konstance the story presents the pieces of a great puzzle to solve to help her comprehend her predicament.
As for whether there’s a moral to my book, I tend to agree with Saul Bellow who once wrote, “Writers can only try to demonstrate, in close detail; without opinion.” My favourite novels are better at asking questions than answering them. I do hope readers come away from this book with a renewed sense of our interconnections with people in other times and places, and with all the species with which we share this dazzling planet.
KH: Cloud Cuckoo Land connects five different people, times and places to Diogenes’ story about Aethon, but the characters also share a dislocation from their environment — either through war or “love for this astonishing, green wounded world.” Why were you so ambitious with this book?
AD: In 2016 I read Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, a work of nonfiction in which he wondered why so few literary artists of the new millennium were grappling with the existential threat of climate change. Maybe, Ghosh wondered, the issue was time: maybe most novels couldn’t or wouldn’t encompass enough time to show the fundamental changes that we’re wreaking on planetary systems.
Since I was in the process of drafting a story about how and why a single manuscript survived over centuries, I asked myself: Why not expand my ambitions? Why not try to tell a story not only about the survival of a book over the centuries, but also try to inter-thread questions about the fragility of our planet?
I also think, especially after watching my grandmother suffer from Alzheimer’s disease when I was a young person, that I’ve always felt a special sensitivity to the precarity of memory. So maybe I feel some urgency now, in my middle age, to take on big questions and big projects while I still have the intellectual capability to do so.
KH: How did you keep it all straight when you were writing? I imagine a studio with the walls covered with charts and maps. Did you work from an outline?
AD: It was a balancing act: this novel took me seven years to write and the interweaving of all the various strands took most of those seven years. I drew lots of maps and outlines, and would spread out my little chapters on the carpet and try arranging them in different configurations, usually with the pieces of Aethon’s story running down the centre.
I did lots of trimming, too. The great gift of revision is that, over the course of years, by continually paring back your early misadventures, you can (hopefully! sometimes!) arrive at a final product that’s tighter and sharper than you are.
KH: Where did you work on this book and what was the writing process?
AD: I wrote this book primarily in the basement of the old Carnegie Library in Boise, Idaho. It was turned into offices decades ago, and from 2014 to 2019 I rented a little space in the basement. Pretty much the whole time I worked on the novel, there was a law firm upstairs, and basically just me in the basement, surrounded by the ghosts of all the books that had once occupied that building.
As for process, I work every morning and try (and often fail) not to look at news or my email. I think my brain is slightly sharper in the mornings. And, yep, I work on a laptop, though after the book gets close to a complete draft, I will start printing sections and working through them with a pencil.
KH: What captivated you about this story of a land in the sky that was a bridge between the gods and earth?
AD: During the years that I was searching for what sort of book to invent inside my book, I was simultaneously watching American culture feed my young sons dystopian narrative after dystopian narrative. Every time I went downstairs, another city was exploding on the TV while flying superheroes zipped here and there above the flames.
I began to wonder what it would be like to use the story-inside-the-story to explore utopian questions in my novel. I had not read a page of Aristophanes before starting this book, so when I learned that The Birds was a 2,400-year-old story about two fools building a city in the sky (Νεϕελοκοκκυγία or Cloud Cuckoo Land), I knew that I had found something. What does it mean to dream of a perfect place? What does it mean that almost every culture in almost every era has told stories about traveling far away to find a better life, free from suffering?
KH: Hardly any novels written by Antonius Diogenes survive. Why did you choose him as the author of Cloud Cuckoo Land?
AD: For several months after reading The Birds, I wondered if I could invent a lost Aristophanes play. Just look at all the titles we have of Aristophanes’ comedies for which the text has been lost: The Seasons, The Storks, The Phoenician Women … What if I invented one of those?
But after weeks of clawing through esoteric scholarship, and trying to explain to my wife that I was spending my days pretending to write like a playwright who lived 2,400 years ago, I realized that I didn’t know one-tenth of one per cent of what I need to know to invent a lost Aristophanes play.
Then I learned something fascinating: novels — actual novels — prose tales of significant length, were written in the ancient world. Five ancient Greek novels survive in entirety, and the titles of at least 20 others are known. So I decided to invent one. And once I found Antonius Diogenes (a novelist writing in Greek about 1,800 years ago; all of his books have been lost) I began to think I’d found my path forward.
We don’t know much about Antonius Diogenes, but we do know that he wrote a very long, genre-smashing book called The Wonders Beyond Thule. A ninth-century plot summary of the book says that The Wonders was a big globetrotting tale, full of interlocking stories and divided into 24 sections. It apparently borrowed equally from both scholarly and folksy sources, exploded existing genres, and may have included the first literary voyage to outer space— a trip to the moon.
I thought it would be fun to not only invent pieces of a lost novel like The Wonders Beyond Thule, but also to try to design the larger, enveloping novel in the spirit of it.
KH: In Cloud Cuckoo Land, Trustyfriend is the name Seymour gives to a grat grey owl, and in The Birds, is the name of a clever character that transforms into a bird-like god. Zeno is named after Zenodotus, the first librarian at Alexandria, and Anna is captivated by Licinius — a character from Pliny’s Natural History, which you have read — reciting Homer’s Odyssey. What did you want to accomplish with these references to ancient Greek texts?
AD: Amazing! I’m touched that you found so many of those little allusions. I thought it would be fun to plant little Easter eggs like that for readers, but I also don’t want a reader to have to carry any specific knowledge into the text in order to enjoy it.
KH: In All the Light We Cannot See, two main characters were children, and in this book, we have four of five under the age of 15, and we get Zeno’s childhood story. Why do you love to tell stories from a child’s point of view?
AD: I’m not always conscious of those sort of decisions, but I think I’ve been choosing child protagonists in my last three books (Memory Wall, All the Light, and Cloud Cuckoo Land) because they allow me to recapture my sense of awe and grandeur—to renew our sense of the astonishing wonder of being alive.
KH: Aren’t all the protagonists in the book searching for utopia?
AD: I’m playing with that search for a better life in almost every section of the novel. Aethon — the foolish shepherd at the centre of my invented tale (who is loosely based on the hero at the centre of Apuleius’s The Golden Ass) — is always searching, always restless, always thinking the barley is more plentiful in another person’s field, always determined to get to his Cloud Cuckoo Land in the sky. I think all of us can be a victim of similar desires, urged by capitalist culture to keep searching for something better than what we already have. Maybe that’s my story, too, so maybe this novel is my middle-aged book: a story of trying to rein in my own restlessness, accept the beauty of what I already have, and welcome my own insignificance in the face of the vastness of the cosmos.
Whether we’re parents or not, whether we’re 19 or 99, we are all “bridge generations.” Our real role in life is to protect and steward this magnificent shared world so that the next generations can thrive in it.