The Shell Collector
The "perilously beautiful" (Boston Globe) first story collection by the author of the acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning #1 New York Times bestseller All The Light We Cannot See and Cloud Cuckoo Land.

The exquisitely crafted stories in Anthony Doerr’s debut collection take readers from the African Coast to the pine forests of Montana to the damp moors of Lapland, charting a vast physical and emotional landscape. Doerr explores the human condition in all its varieties—metamorphosis, grief, fractured relationships, and slowly mending hearts—conjuring nature in both its beautiful abundance and crushing power. Some of the characters in these stories contend with hardships; some discover unique gifts; all are united by their ultimate deference to the ravishing universe outside themselves.
The Shell Collector
The "perilously beautiful" (Boston Globe) first story collection by the author of the acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning #1 New York Times bestseller All The Light We Cannot See and Cloud Cuckoo Land.

The exquisitely crafted stories in Anthony Doerr’s debut collection take readers from the African Coast to the pine forests of Montana to the damp moors of Lapland, charting a vast physical and emotional landscape. Doerr explores the human condition in all its varieties—metamorphosis, grief, fractured relationships, and slowly mending hearts—conjuring nature in both its beautiful abundance and crushing power. Some of the characters in these stories contend with hardships; some discover unique gifts; all are united by their ultimate deference to the ravishing universe outside themselves.
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The Shell Collector

The Shell Collector

by Anthony Doerr
The Shell Collector

The Shell Collector

by Anthony Doerr


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The "perilously beautiful" (Boston Globe) first story collection by the author of the acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning #1 New York Times bestseller All The Light We Cannot See and Cloud Cuckoo Land.

The exquisitely crafted stories in Anthony Doerr’s debut collection take readers from the African Coast to the pine forests of Montana to the damp moors of Lapland, charting a vast physical and emotional landscape. Doerr explores the human condition in all its varieties—metamorphosis, grief, fractured relationships, and slowly mending hearts—conjuring nature in both its beautiful abundance and crushing power. Some of the characters in these stories contend with hardships; some discover unique gifts; all are united by their ultimate deference to the ravishing universe outside themselves.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781439190050
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 01/04/2011
Pages: 219
Sales rank: 60,809
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

About The Author
Anthony Doerr is the author of the New York Times bestselling Cloud Cuckoo Land, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and All the Light We Cannot See, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the Carnegie Medal, the Alex Award, and a #1 New York Times bestseller. He is also the author of the story collections Memory Wall and The Shell Collector, the novel About Grace, and the memoir Four Seasons in Rome. He has won five O. Henry Prizes, the Rome Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award, the National Magazine Award for fiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Story Prize. Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Doerr lives in Boise, Idaho, with his wife and two sons.


Boise, Idaho

Date of Birth:

October 27, 1973

Place of Birth:

Cleveland, Ohio


B.A., Bowdoin College, 1995; M.F.A., Bowling Green State University, 1999

Read an Excerpt

So Many Chances

Dorotea San Juan, a fourteen year old in a brown cardigan. The janitor's daughter. Walks with her head down, wears cheap sneakers, never lipstick. Picks at salads during lunch. Tacks maps to her bedroom walls. Holds her breath when she gets nervous. Years of being the janitor's daughter teach her to blend in, look down, be nobody. Who's that? Nobody.

Dorotea's dad is fond of saying this: A man only gets so many chances. He says it now, after dark, in Youngstown, Ohio, as he sits on Dorotea's bed. And says this also: This is a real opportunity for us. His hands open and close. He grabs at air. Dorotea wonders about "us."

Shipbuilding, he says. A man only gets so many chances, he says. We're moving. To the sea. To Maine. Place called Harpswell. Soon as school's out.

Shipbuilding? Dorotea asks.

Mama's all for it, he says. Least I think she is. Who wouldn't be all for it?

Dorotea watches the door shut behind him and thinks that her mother's never been all for anything. That her father has never once owned, rented or mentioned any kind of boat.

She snatches up her world atlas. Studies the markless blue that means Atlantic Ocean. Her eye traces ragged coastlines. Harpswell: a tiny green finger pointing at blue. She tries to imagine ocean and conjures petal-blue water packed with fish gill-to-gill. Imagines herself transformed into Maine Dorotea, barefoot girl with a coconut necklace. New house, new town, new life. Nueva Dorotea. New Dorothy. She holds her breath, counts to twenty.


Dorotea tells nobody and nobody asks. They leave on the last day of school. That afternoon. Like sneaking out of town. The wood-paneled Wagoneer splashes across wet asphalt: Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, into New Hampshire. Her father drives empty-eyed, knuckles white on the wheel. Her mother sits stern and sleepless behind tracking wipers, lips curled above her chin like two rain-drowned earthworms, her small frame tensed as if bound in a hundred iron bands. As if crushing rocks in her bony fists. Slicing a pepper on her lap. Passing back dry tortillas painfully bound in plastic.

They see Portland at sunrise, after miles of pine bending over blacktop. The sun leers up behind slabs of cloud the color of salmon filets.

Dorotea trembles at the idea of ocean nearing. Fidgets in her seat. The energy of a caged fourteen-year-old piling up like marbles on a dinner plate. Finally the highway bends and Casco Bay shines before them. From across the bay the sun flings a trail of spangles to her. She lowers her nose to the window frame, feels certain there will be porpoises. Watches the glitter carefully for fins, flukes.

She glances at the back of her mother's neck to see if she notices, if she feels it too, to see if her mother can be touched by a shimmering expanse of sea. Her mother who hid under onions for four days in a train car to Ohio. Who met her husband in a city built over a swamp, cracked sidewalks, train whistles, slushy winter. Her mother who made a home, who never left it. Who must be boiling at the sight of unbounded water. Dorotea sees no sign that it is so.


Harpswell. Dorotea stands in the doorway of the rented house. This threshold of paradise. The sea a misty backdrop behind soft-rustling pines and coils of blackberry bush.

Her father stands in the tiny kitchen among shell ornaments hanging by strings from cabinet knobs, faded bottles on the windowsill, pushes up his glasses, opens and closes his fists. As if he expected to find shipbuilding manuals, polished brass, portholes. As if he hadn't figured on this part of it: this kitchen with clamshells on the cabinets. Her mother stands in the living room like a bolt balanced on end. Stares down at boxes, bags and suitcases unloaded from the truck. Hair yarded into a big knot.

Dorotea stretches her arms, stands on her toes. She takes off her brown cardigan. Gulls screech in a wheel just past the pines, an osprey-shadow glides.

Her mother says, Ponte el sueter, Dorotea. No est·s en puesta al sol.

As if the sun here was a different sun altogether. Dorotea walks a sandy path through brown grass to the sea. The path ends at rock, rust-colored, crenellated, heaved up from the earth long ago. The rock stretches into a haze at both ends. Nothing else but ocean and wind-bent pines and morning fog. At the sea's lip she watches tiny green waves flop onto a slick slope of rock, nudge forward a receding ribbon of foam. Come, retreat. Come, retreat.

She turns and glimpses the small white house through the pine trunks. Heavy-headed dandelions, sandy yard, paint flaking. The house slumped and wet on its foundation. Her father talking in the doorway, pointing at her mother, at the truck, at the rented house. Arguing. Sees her father's hands open, close. Sees her mother climb into the truck, slam the door, sit in the passenger's seat and stare straight ahead. Her father retreats into the house.

Dorotea turns back, shades her eyes, sees the mist breaking. To her left, a gliding green current, a river mouth. To the right, trees lining the sea edge. Five hundred yards or so down the coast she sees a rocky point.

She walks to it; her sneakers bend to steep rock. Occasionally she has to step into the sea, water eddying around her knees, cold salt stinging thighs. Sea mud sliding underfoot. A rag of mist descends and she loses sight of the point. In a place the rock is steep and she wades to get around it. The water rises above her waist, shocks her belly. Finally the rock climbs back on an upslope, her feet dig in, and she climbs up, mud in her fingers and salt drying already on her skin, legs lifting her dripping out onto the shelf of rock. The point still half-obscured in mist.

She shades her eyes, again takes in the ocean. Are there dolphins out there? Sharks? Sailboats? She sees no sign of them. Of anything. Is ocean merely rock and weed and water? Mud? She had not expected emptiness, flittery light, a blotted horizon. Waves march in from some obscure haze. For a terrifying moment she can imagine herself the only organism on the planet. And she is about to go back.

Then she sees the fisherman. Just to her left. Wading. As if he came from nowhere. From nothing. From the sea itself.

She watches him. Feels lucky to watch. The world peeled back and left with only this vision. This silent flying wizardry. The rod seems an extension of his arm, an extra and perfect appendage, his shoulder pivoting, his bare brown chest, his legs tapering to calves buried in the sea. So this is Maine, this is how it can be, she thinks. This fisherman. This grace.

He rears back with his fishing rod and swings his line in great unrolling loops, far behind, then far in front. When the line unfurls so it is horizontal with the sea, he brings his rod tip back, and the line shoots in the opposite direction, over the rocks, almost to the trees, as if it surely must wrap around some low branch, but before it can the fisherman flings it forward again, out over the sea. Then slings it back. Each subsequent cast longer, more desperately close to the trees. Finally, when it seems his back cast is yards into the scrub, he shoots the line straight out, over the wave tops, into the sea. Then he wedges the butt end of his pole in his armpit and strips in the line with both hands. Then casts again, those hypnotic loops of line swinging back and forth like the wavebreak itself and finally shooting out over the sea where it settles across the tiny swell. And strips it in again.

She stands on the rock, feels the packed rows of fossil beneath her feet. Holds her breath. Counts to twenty. And then splashes from her shelf of rock into the sea, her sneakers again on barnacle and slippery weed. She walks a hundred yards, head up. Toward the fisherman.


Turns out he's a boy, sixteen maybe. Skin like calf leather. A string of small white shells on his throat. Looks at her through brick-colored hair. Eyes like green medicine.

He says, Funny to be wearing a sweater on a morning like this.


Warm for a sweater.

He casts again. She watches the line, watches him feed it into the cast from the neat coils floating around his ankles. Watches the line swing back and forth and back and forth and finally shoot into the sea. He strips it in, says, Tide's turned. Be coming in soon.

Dorotea nods, not sure what this information means.

She asks, What kind of fishing pole is that? I've never seen a pole like that.

Pole? Poles are for bait fishermen. This is a rod. A fly rod.

You don't fish with bait?

Bait, he says. No...Never bait. Bait makes it easy.

Makes what easy?

The fisherboy hauls in his line, casts again. This. Casting to fish. A'course a striper or a blue will bite on a hunk of squid. A'course a mackerel will take a bloodworm. What's that? It's a game with the rules removed. No elegance.

Elegance. Dorotea considers this. Had no idea that elegance had something to do with fishing. But watch him cast! See the mist tear away from the pines.

The boy continues, Bait fishermen toss a herring out there, move it around a bit. Drag in a striper. That's not fishing. That's criminal.

Oh. Dorotea struggles to understand the coarseness of bait-fishing.

He hauls in his line, pinches the leader. Holds the fly in front of Dorotea. White hair tied with neat wraps of thread to a steel hook. A tiny painted wooden head. Two round eyes.

Is that a lure?

A streamer. Bucktail streamer. That white hair there's dyed buck's tail.

Dorotea holds the fly gently in her palm. The neck wrapped with perfect tiny wraps. Did you paint this? The eyes?

Sure. Tied the whole thing. He reaches in his pocket, removes a paper bag. Pours its contents onto her palm. Dorotea sees three more flies, yellow, blue, brown. Imagines how they must look in the water, to a fish. Long and thin. Like little fish. Like a snack. Perfect. Marvelous. Soft beauty lashed to sharp steel.

He is casting again, splashing down the coast.

Dorotea follows. The water higher on her shins than before.

Wait, she says. Your hooks. Your streamers.

You keep them, he says. I'll tie more.

She refuses. But does not take her eyes from them.

He casts. Sure, he says. A gift.

She shakes her head but puts them in her pocket. The wavebreak laps her knees. She studies the sea, looks for signs of sealife. Fins bending? Sea creatures leaping? She sees only the sun laying gold coins across the waves, the ever-retreating fog. When she looks up the fisherboy has nearly rounded the point. She splashes after. Watches him cast. The waves sough as they collapse.

Hey, she says, there's fish out there, right? Or you wouldn't be fishing.

The boy smiles. Sure. It's the ocean.

Somehow, I thought there would be more. More stuff in the ocean. More fish. Where I'm from there's nothing and I hoped that maybe here there would be and I thought there was but now it just seems huge and empty.

The boy turns to look at her. Laughs. Lets his line drop, bends and reaches into the water at his feet. Digs into the mud, brings up a fistful.

Look here, he says.

In the dark clump Dorotea sees nothing at first. Mud clots dripping. Shell fragments. Water droplets. Then she notices microscopic movement, translucent flecks squirming. Hopping like fleas. The boy shakes his hand. A tiny clam appears on his palm, its foot half-clamped in the shell like a bitten tongue. Also a snail clinging upside-down, its minute unicorn horn shell pointing at the earth. And a tiny translucent crab. Some kind of eel squirming.

Dorotea pokes the mud with her finger. The boy laughs again, washes his hand in the sea.

He casts. Says, You haven't been here before.

No. She looks out at the sea. Thinks of all the creatures that must be under her feet. Thinks how much she has to learn. Looks at the boy. Asks his name.


After dark Dorotea stands in her tiny new room and looks around. She tacks a map to the wall. Sits on her sleeping bag and traces the state of Maine with her eye. The land with its borders and capitals and names. Her eye is drawn continually back to the blue that stretches into the fringes.

A moth hurls itself at her window. In the trees outside insects rasp and scream. Dorotea thinks she can hear the sea. She pulls the bucktail streamers from her pocket to admire them.

Her father stands in the doorway, knocks softly on the door frame, says hey, sits on the floor beside her. He looks caved in by sleeplessness. His back and shoulders are round.

Hi, Daddy.

What do you think?

It's so new, Daddy. It'll take some time. To get used to it.

She doesn't talk to me.

She hardly ever talks to anybody. That's her way.

Her father slumps. Gestures with his chin towards the streamers in Dorotea's hand. What are those?

Flies. For fishing. Streamers.

Oh. He does not bother to conceal that he is elsewhere.

I want to fly-fish, Daddy. Can I tomorrow?

Her father's hands open and close. His eyes are open but not seeing. Sure, Dorotea. You can go fishing. Fishing. Claro que sÌ.

The door closes behind him. Dorotea holds her breath. Counts to twenty. Hears her dad inhaling slowly in the other room. As if each breath taken summons barely enough courage to take the next.

She pulls on her brown cardigan, slides open her window and climbs out. She stands in the wet yard. Exhales. The galaxy wheels above the pines.


The bonfire is in a grove near the point. The wind is clean, the grass drowned with dew. Clouds slide in ranks below the stars. Her sneakers are soaked. Forest mulch clings to her cardigan. She crouches in pine needles outside the circle of firelight, sees dark figures shifting, their warped shadows thrown up into the pines. They sit on logs, stumps. They laugh. She hears the clink of bottles.

She sees the boy among them, sitting on a log. His smile orange in the firelight. His necklace white. He laughs, tips back a bottle. She holds her breath a long time, almost a minute. She stands, turns to go, steps on a stick and it snaps.

The laughter fades. She does not move.

Hey, the boy says. Dorothy?

Dorotea turns from the shadows, steps out into the firelight, walks with her head down, sits next to the boy.

Dorothy. Everybody, this is Dorothy.

The firelit faces look at her, look away. Conversation starts up again.

Knew you'd come, the boy says.

Did you.

Sure I did.

How did you know?

Just knew. Felt it. Like I told you, we have these fires every night, just about. I said to myself, you just wait. The girl will come. Dorothy will come. And here you are.

Did you catch anything today? After I saw you?

Got a few. I let them go.

My dad got hired at the ironworks. He designs the hulls of ships.

Is that right?

Well, he will. He will do that.

He holds her hand and her palm is damp with sweat but she holds on and they lock fingers and she can feel his strong hand, rough fingertips. They sit like that a bit and she sits as still as she can. They do not talk. The fire sends smoke high into the trees. The stars wink and gutter. It feels nice being the daughter of a shipbuilder.

Later he tries to kiss her. Leans across clumsily and his breath is hot on her chin and she clamps her eyes shut. She thinks of her mother, her tiny mother under onions in a train car. She pulls away from the boy, stands and hurries home, head down, through the low-bending pines. She climbs through her bedroom window. Takes off her wet sneakers, hangs her brown cardigan. Listens for the ocean. Thinks of eyes like green medicine. She boils inside.


In the morning she drags her mother to the sea by the wrist. To confront her with the sea dressed in fog. To show her that this place is not empty. Wings of mist drag through the treetops. The fog shreds everywhere; flashes of pure blue wink above. The sea undressing. A wide-brimmed hat crammed over her mother's hair. Gulls turn in a high noisy wheel above the gliding tide. Cormorants dive for breakfast.

They stand on the rocks. Dorotea studies her mother, searches her face for signs of change. Of awakening. Dorotea holds her breath. Counts to twenty. Her mother stands closed and rigid.

Mentiras, her mother says. Your father doesn't know a thing about ships. He worked as a janitor all his life. He lied to everybody. Even himself. He'll be fired today, or tomorrow.

No, Mama. Daddy's smart. He'll find a way. He'll learn as he goes. He has to. He saw a chance and took it. We'll make it. Lookit how nice it is. Lookit this place.

Life can turn out a million ways, Dorotea. Her mother speaks English like she is spitting rocks. But the one way life will not turn out is the way you dream it. You can dream anything, but it's never what will be. It's never the way it is. The only thing that can't come true is your dream. Everything else...

She shuts her mouth, shrugs.

Dorotea looks at her wet sneakers. The leather is coming apart. She clambers down the steep rocks, grabs hold of weed for balance. Plunges her hand into the mud beneath the water. Holds it up.

Lookit, Mama. Lookit all the things that live here. In just one handful.

Mother squints at her daughter. Her daughter holding ocean mud to the sky like some offering.

And then through the mist a green canoe glides. A lone fisherman, paddling, his rod across the stern. A fisherman with a white necklace on his throat.

The boy stops in mid-paddle. His oar drips. He studies the two figures on the rocks, the thin and brittle mother with a hand on her hat like she is holding herself to the rock. And the girl, wet to her waist, holding up part of the sea.

He raises his hand. Smiles. Shouts Dorotea's name.


They sell fishing gear in the back of the hardware store in Bath. A giant with a beard and huge round knees sits on a stool tying leaders. Her father looks up at the rack of fishing rods, thumbs up his glasses.

The giant says, I help you folks?

My daughter here would like a fishing pole.

The giant reaches into a cupboard, pulls out a Zebco all-in-one spinning kit. Hands it to Dorotea, says, This'll be perfect for just about anything you'd ever need. Comes with spinners and everything.

Dorotea holds the package at arm's length, studies the reel, the blunt two-piece rod. Chrome-plated guides. The plastic wrap. On the tag a cartoon bass curls out of a cartoon pond to devour a treble-hooked lure. Her dad puts his hand on her head, asks Dorotea how she likes the looks of it.

She doesn't like the looks of it at all: it's blunt, clumsy-looking. No coils of fly line. No elegance. She imagines chunks of flesh glommed on her hook, her reel rusting, the boy laughing at her.

Daddy, she says. I want a fly rod. This is for bait-fishermen.

The giant roars. Her father rubs his jaw.


The giant rings up Dorotea's fly rod on a black cash register. His huge fingers count change.

Don't know a single girl that fly-fishes, the giant says. Never heard of girls fly-fishing, really. He says it kindly. Eyes on Dorotea. Fingers like fat pink cigars.

I've flung a fly myself, he continues. I'm still learning it. I suppose we're all still learning. You learn and learn and then you die and you haven't learned half of it.

He shrugs his hilly shoulders, hands her father change.

You're new here. He talks only to Dorotea.

We just moved to Harpswell, she says. Daddy's working at Bath Iron Works. He designs ships. It was his first day today.

The giant nods, glances down at her father. Her father's hands open, close.

We lived in Ohio, he mutters. I did hullwork on lake freighters. Thought we'd come up here, give it a shot. A man only gets so many chances is what I figure.

The giant offers another shrug. Smiles. Says to Dorotea, Maybe we could fish together sometime. We could try down by Popham Beach. They been getting into some nice cows down there. Schoolies race the shallows at slack tide. Get one of those on your little rod there and look out.

The giant smiles, sits back on his stool. Dorotea and her father leave the store, drive past the ironworks, the shipyard and the vast iron warehouses, a high chain-link fence, cranes swinging, a green-hulled tug at dry dock dripping rust. From the top of Mill Street Dorotea can see the Kennebec River rolling heavily into the Atlantic.


In the evening Dorotea sits on her sleeping bag and fits her rod together. Two pieces join together, screw on the plastic reel, feed fly line through the guides. Tie on a leader.

Her dad in the door frame.

You like the rod, Dorotea?

It's beautiful, Daddy. Thank you.

You going to fish in the morning?

In the morning.

Your mother say anything?

Dorotea shakes her head. She thinks he will say more but he doesn't.

After he leaves she holds her breath, takes her new fly rod, and climbs out her window. She walks beneath the dark pines, feels her way in the moonless night. She reaches the firelight, hears a guitar and singing, sees the boy on his log. She crouches under the pines and watches. Thinks of her father saying a man only gets so many chances. Puts her hand in her pocket. Feels the three streamers there, their hook points, their feathers. She shuts her eyes. Her hands shake. A hook pricks her finger.

She stands, balks, turns around, walks to her left, to the ocean. She clambers over rocks, shadows among shadows. Stands at the sea's fringe, sucks a drop of blood from her fingertip. She has the shakes. Holds her breath to fight them.

She holds the air in her lungs and stands very still and listens. The silence of Harpswell rises up in her ear like a wave and breaks into a rainbow of tiny sounds: an owl calling, the faint sound of laughter at the bonfire, the pines creaking, cicadas screeching, resting, screeching. Rodents rustling in blackberry brambles. Pebbles clinking. Leaves shifting. Even clouds marching. And beneath, the murmuring sea benched in fog. This is indeed a full world, Dorotea. It overspills. She breathes, tastes the salty ocean cycle of rot and birth. Takes up her rod and feeds the line clumsily through the guides. Whips it behind her. It snags on something. She turns.

The boy is there. His fingertips on her shoulders, the sleeves of her cardigan. His eyes on hers.


Her mother stands in Dorotea's room in the dark. Her hands on her hips like she is trying to crush her own pelvis. Her black shoes planted firmly. Dorotea straddles the window frame, one leg in, one out. Her fly rod half into her room. Her dew-soaked sneaker stuck all over with pine needles.

I thought I told you not to see that boy.

What boy?

Who called you Dorothy.

The boy in the canoe?

You know what boy.

You don't. You don't know him. I don't either.

Her mother stares. Her body quakes, tendons in her throat stand out. Dorotea holds her breath. Holds it so long she feels sick.

I wasn't with him, Mama. I was fishing. Or trying to. I got a terrible tangle in my line. I wasn't with him.

Pescador. Pescadora.

I went out fishing.


From then on Dorotea is imprisoned after dark. Her mother does it herself: she screws long bolts into Dorotea's window, hammers it shut. Dorotea's door locked at night. She stares at her maps.

The summer rolls forward in silence. The rented house cramped and creaky. Every day her father leaves at dawn, comes home late. Dinners are eaten silently. Her mother's face retreats inside itself like a poked sea anemone. Silverware clinking, a platter on the table. Beans with the life boiled out of them. Tortillas wrung dry. Please pass the peppers, Mama. The house creaks. The pines whisper. I went fishing today, Daddy. Found a lobster claw long as my foot. Really.

Dorotea leaves the house just after her father does and she stays out all day. Fishing. Telling herself she is fishing and not looking for the boy. She tramps all the way to South Harpswell, muddy-ankled, walking the sea edge, turning over shells, jabbing anemones with sticks, learning the tiny tricks of shore life. Don't squeeze a sea cucumber. Scallop shells break easily. Stone crabs hide under driftwood. Check periwinkles for hermit crabs. Snails stay tucked inside murex shells. Stepping on horseshoe crabs doesn't do anybody any good. Barnacles are good traction. From a hundred feet up a cormorant can hear you split open a sea clam and will turn and dive and land and beg for it. The sea, Dorotea learns, blooms. She learns and relearns it.

But mostly she fishes. Learning the knots, catching a barbed streamer in her hair, crouching on driftwood to pull out windknots or undo massive tangles of leader. Gets her line caught on brambles, on branches, one time on a floating detergent bottle. Learns to walk with her rod, guide it through brush, over rocks. Didn't even know she needed a tippet. The cork handle on her rod goes dark with salt and sweat. Her brown shoulders go the color of old pennies. Her sneakers rot off her feet. She walks the sea's edge barefoot, head up. This new Dorotea. This seaside Dorothy.

She catches nothing. She tries Popham Beach, the long faded spit of sand there, the estuary at ebb tide, at slack tide. She casts from rocky points, from a wooden dock; she wades to her neck and casts. And nothing. Sees men in boats haul in twenty, thirty stripers. Beautiful striped bass with charcoal stripes and translucent mouths gasping. And nothing for her own streamer hooks but greenweed or flotsam. And those awful tangles of leader; line wraps itself around her ankles; knots from nowhere spoil her tippets.

Never a sign of the boy.

She sees fish out of the water, sturgeon leaping. Sees the ocean violence. Sees a pack of bluefish snarl out of a wave, curl through a panicked cloud of herring, drive half-bitten, quivering smelt onto the sand. Sees a dead cod turn over white and fat in the swash. Sees a tide-beached skate picked apart by gannets, an osprey pluck a whiting from a wavetop.

One noon she hikes to where they light the bonfires. The sky is gray and low, skimming the treetops. Rain plunks slow and warm. The fire pit black and wet and flat. Beer bottles rolled up against logs, standing on stumps. She walks out to the point, takes off her sweater, wades into the sea. Waves lap at her neck. Her hair floats beside her. She thinks of the boy, his hot breath. His rough fingertips. Those green eyes gone black in the dark.

Daylong she talks to no one. Each time she rounds a bend, she prays the boy will be there, enwombed in fog, casting, casting for fish, casting for her. But there is only rock and weed and sometimes boats trolling downriver.


A July night arrives, hangs heavier and wetter than any night Dorotea can remember. The air heavy all day, waiting for a storm that won't begin. The ocean pewter and flat. The horizon erased in a smear of gray and the sky hung so low it seems to rest on top of the rented house; any moment it might collapse the roof. Night comes but does not break the heat.

Dorotea sits in her bedroom and sweats. She feels the sky threatening to bury her.

Her father stands in the door frame. Sweat circles under his arms. He used to get those when he mopped floors. Her dad the shipbuilder.

Hiya Dorotea.

Daddy it's hot.

Only thing for it is to wait.

Can't we get her to open the window? Just for tonight. I'll never sleep. I'm sweating through my sleeping bag.

I don't know, Dorotea.

Please, Daddy. It's so hot.

Maybe we could leave the door open.

The window, Daddy. Mama's asleep. She'll never know. Just for tonight.

Her father breathes. His shoulders slumped, rounded. Comes back with a screwdriver. Quietly unbolts the window, pries the nails loose.


The boy is not there.

Dorotea sweats outside the firelight. Pine needles stick to her knees. Mosquitoes loop, alight, bite. She smears them on her skin. The smoke from the bonfire rises into a windless sky. She holds her breath so long that her eyes lose focus and her chest stings. She goes over the soft smeary faces once more, orange firelit kids around a bonfire on Harpswell Point. His face is not among them. He is nowhere.

She walks around to the point, a place she has learned so well, the small and secret coves, a deep pool where she saw a white lobster one morning. All the secrets she feels she owes to him. She knows she will see him there, fishing and laughing that she wore her sweater on the hottest night ever. He will be there and he will show her things about the sea. He will lift this cargo that has settled on her.

He is not on the point either.

She goes back to the bonfire, walks right to it, this fourteen-year-old girl wound up and strong. The Harpswell kids stare at her. She feels the heat of it. Smoke rolls into her eyes. She says the boy's name.

He's gone, someone says. They look at her, then look away. They stare at the fire.

Back to Boston. A week ago. His whole family went back.

He's summer people.


Dorotea walks away. She walks blind; pine boughs scrape her face. She trips, falls into wet grass. Her knees grass-stained, muddy, scratched. She comes to a gravel road. Her head is down. Her insides churn. She passes driveways, a house with windows lit television blue. A dog barks. She hears an owl. Turns down a paved road. Passes a lumberyard. A part of her realizes she is lost. She feels cold very far inside and the sky could not hang lower.

She walks and runs and she is barefoot and cannot shake the cold inside and could not say which direction the ocean is. She walks a mile, more maybe. The road turns from gravel to pavement. She sits a while and shivers. An hour goes by, then another. The sky turns pink. A truck rattles along the road, fenders sagging, one headlight burned out. It slows beside her. A man in glasses leans across, pushes open the door. She gets in, asks him to the ironworks.

He lets her off at the high chain-link gate. Her legs are scratched red and muddy, her hair hangs in clumps. Men in caps carry lunchboxes, hurry past her; a Mercedes rolls by, tinted windows and tires crunching gravel. She follows the men through the gate. There is a sign that reads OFFICE. A fat man with a badge in a booth. Beyond him a great corrugated warehouse, a crane swinging. Stacks of culvert pipes on a barge.

She knocks on the man's window; he looks up from a clipboard.

My father, she says. Santiago San Juan. He forgot his lunch. I would like to bring it to him.

The fat man pushes up his glasses, studies her, her brown and scraped feet. Her shaking fingers. Looks down at the clipboard. Flips through sheets. Glances through time cards.

What did you say the name was?

San Juan.

The fat man studies her again. And finally looks back at the clipboard. San Juan, he says. Here he is. Dock C-Four. Around back.

She follows arrows to C-4, a concrete pier with a heavy crane hanging above and bordered by boxcars in high stacks. Men in suits and ties and hard hats walk past, rolled plans under their arms. A beeping forklift wheels; the driver gives her a hard look.

She finds her father at the pier's edge by a big blue Dumpster, where the river rolls past dirty. Stryofoam cups bob in the current. Gulls screech around the Dumpster, a flurry of white and gray feather. Her father wears tan and grimy coveralls. He holds a broom. Waves it weakly at the gulls. The gulls scream, dive-bomb his head.

He turns, sees her. Their eyes meet. He looks away.


Daddy. All this time. All these months. You said you were building ships. She cannot say more. She shakes with cold. Stands beside him. He leans on his broom. They watch the river roil out to sea. They stand and Dorotea shivers and her father holds her and still she shivers.

A destroyer is towed in from the horizon. A throbbing of the tug's engines, behind it the quiet gray behemoth rolls a giant wake and Dorotea sees the numbers painted on the sides and ship-sinking cannons that look so calm and clean. Its hull is big as an apartment building; she wonders how she could ever believe her father could learn about something so big. How anyone could learn about something so big.


Dorotea stays cold. She can't shake it and she gets sick. She lies in her sleeping bag all day. Her fly rod leans against the wall of her room. She can't look at it. The ocean in her ears makes her sick. The whole world's turning makes her sick. She feels frost creep up from somewhere between her legs and it climbs all the way to her neck. She holds her breath as long as she can, and then longer, until her vision goes splotchy, until at last a switch inside she can't control throws itself and the air pours out and back in and her vision straightens a bit.

She curls in her sleeping bag and shivers and dreams of winter blowing in. The sea cement gray and the horizon burying the sun before it ever gets a chance to get going. Nights winterlong. Stars like the points of hooks. Snow creaking under her bare feet. In her dream she crouches on Harpswell Point and watches the wind blow down the wavetops. The boy is nowhere. There is nobody anywhere, no birds, no fish. The fish have fled, left the river, darted into the widening sea in schools. The ocean and river emptied. The rocks scoured of limpets, barnacles, weed. There are horrible tangles of lines around her ankles, thick ropes, coiled spider webs. She becomes a fish flailing in a net. She becomes her father. His whole world a nasty tangle.

Her mother is there when she wakes. She brings Dorotea hot water. Her mother now a fraction softer with this role to play. Her mother with Dorotea back, still half-believing her husband is somehow managing to design hulls of ships. Dorotea looks at her mother by her side, at the tight and narrow cords in her mother's neck. Dorotea has cords like that in her own neck. She lies half-asleep and listens to her mother move through the house, hears her wash pans in the sink.


Early August. A knock on the door at dawn. A rapping so loud and out of place that Dorotea jumps from her sleeping bag. She is at the door before her mother has left the kitchen. Heat crackling inside her. She squints into the morning. A massive figure in the door frame. The giant from the hardware store. In his giant hand a sleek fly rod.

His voice is so loud the tiny house can't hold it. Morning, morning, he booms. Thought you might like to do a bit of fishing this morning. If you have the time.

He looks only at Dorotea and Dorotea stands in her sleeping clothes and smells the giant who smells like sea and pine. Her mother peers out from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel.


They walk along Popham Beach, the giant's huge strides eating up yards. She half-jogs to keep up. The day blue and true all the way to the horizon. They wade out to fish side by side. Dorotea feels the ocean tugging at her legs. The giant fishes with a cigarette bobbing from his lip. Occasionally watches her cast, smiles at her tangles, praises her when she lays it out nicely.

The giant fishes ugly. His line does not dance beautifully; he does not bother with the false casting the boy did. He just flings it back once, then sends it singing over the wavetops. Strips it in with one giant pink hand. Casts again.

Fishing is about time, he tells Dorotea. It's about how much time you can keep your line in the water. Can't catch fish if your line isn't in the water.

They fish until noon and catch nothing and they sit on a piece of driftwood. The giant has raisins in a plastic bag and they eat those. She asks him questions and he answers and she feels the sun straight overhead touch a spot inside her.

In the afternoon the giant begins to catch striped bass, one after another, his line shooting way out there, and each time his rod tip bends into a steep parabola and he fights the fish in and knocks one over the head with a rock and puts it in a plastic shopping bag and leaves it on the beach.

In the evening Dorotea stands beside him and watches the giant gut his striper, his quick belly cut, loops of viscera swinging into the surf. This is Maine, too, she thinks, this fisherman cleaning a fish on the sand and she realizes that new or old she is Dorotea, will always be Dorotea, that there are still plenty of chances left in this world.


When the giant leaves with his fish, he looks at Dorotea and smiles and tells her she is a fine fisherwoman and wishes her luck. Buena suerte, he says, which is funny because he sounds like a giant gringo from Maine when he says it, but it is nice all the same.

Dorotea casts still and the horizon slowly fixes itself down around the sun. Her arm burns from the effort, but she is making nice casts now, she is laying it out there, presenting her streamer like the giant showed her, and she is reading the water too, seeing how a fish might sit in a cove, hole up. She watches for passing bait fish or the birds that might be feeding on them. Her arm goes leaden. Her legs numb. Her legs feel more connected to the ocean than to her.

The sunset, a furnace of light, paints the clouds with color. And it sends, too, submerged wedges of light into the cove where Dorotea strips in her streamer and for a miraculous moment she sees her streamer flit through a haft of blue and that is when a striped bass takes it.

The fish is strong and she fights it and her rod bends more than she ever imagined it could and she swallows panic by slowly walking the fish backward to the beach. The fish thrashes, fights her treachery. Dorotea clings. Feels its strength come through the line. Such noble fight. Such fighting for its life. She fights too.

When finally she lands it, she drags it gasping and flopping onto the sand and stands over it and works the hook out of its mouth. This big striped translucent fish in the near-dark. She pinches it by the lower jaw, holds it up and stares into its big unintelligent eyes.

She cradles the fish in her arms and wades out into the sea. To her shoulders. Takes a deep breath, holds it in her lungs. She holds the fish beside her. Feels its muscles, its packed columns of flesh. Feels her own muscles, sore and ragged and strong. She lowers herself into the sea. Counts to twenty. Lets the fish swim.

Copyright © 2002 by Anthony Doerr

Table of Contents


The Shell Collector

The Hunter's Wife

So Many Chances

For a Long Time

This Was Griselda's Story

July Fourth

The Caretaker

A Tangle by the Rapid River


Reading Group Guide

An Introduction from the Publisher
The Shell Collector, Anthony Doerr's first collection of stories, ranges from Liberia and Tanzania to Montana and Maine. Traversing the vast terrain of the world, Doerr shows an extraordinary empathy in stories that most often concern themselves with the interaction between humans and nature. He writes with delicious specificity about natural science and displays a talent for evoking landscape through poetic language. In these stories, the call of nature -- to know its wildness and bow before it -- is inseparable from the need to capture and tame it through activities like gardening, fishing, photography, or hunting. He describes the communion that seems to come through the interaction between people -- eager, suffering, and full of desire -- and a nature that is cruel and unmanageable but also an extravagant conveyor of the divine.

As grounded as Doerr's stories are in the physical world, magic and the supernatural appear as powerful forces in many of the stories. In the O'Henry Award-winning "The Hunter's Wife," nature's ferocious and awesome powers are matched by the truly unexplainable gifts of the title character. Doerr traces the briefly intersecting paths of a hunter in Montana and the young magician's assistant who first becomes his wife and then learns that she is a kind of medium between life and death, a link to the supernatural. As the hunter's wife struggles to understand her gift, the couple finds a rift between what each is willing to accept is possible in the world.

In the extraordinary epic "The Caretaker," a Liberian man survives terrifying carnage in his homeland and flees to the United States. As the caretaker for a summer home of rich people who have "something to do with computers," Joseph witnesses the beaching of five whales on the Oregon coast. In an astonishing act of guilt and repentance, the refugee buries the hearts of the dead whales; even those gigantic organs do not seem large enough to encompass the vastness of his grief. Joseph loses his job but stays to cultivate the plot of land atop the hearts, befriending the deaf and depressed daughter of the house's owners. Together they search for redemption in the garden and through their tentative new friendship.

The title story is a lyrical and somber tale constructed of achingly beautiful, precise language. The Shell Collector is a blind former professor who is attempting a retreat from the human world by retiring to the coast of Tanzania to live out his days wading in a quiet lagoon and collecting shells with fingers that seem to see. His world is simple and empirical: "Ignorance was, in the end, and in so many ways, a privilege: to find a shell, to feel it, to understand only on some unspeakable level why it bothered to be so lovely. What joy he found in that, what utter mystery." Yet the world intrudes on The Shell Collector, asking him to be a father, a guide, and a savior; reluctantly, and with devastating and then surprisingly hopeful consequences, he is drawn in.

Doerr's greatest gift is to see an equal humanity in people belonging to all ages, cultures, and countries. He applies his empathy to a retired professor ("The Shell Collector") and a Latina high school girl ("So Many Chances"), to a morally questionable African immigrant ("The Caretaker") and an average American suburbanite ("For a Long Time This Was Griselda's Story"). He demonstrates how immersion in the natural world, far from limiting the scope of these lives, allows them to be truly free individuals, to be themselves in the purest sense. His characters seem to find comfort in necessity, in simplicity, and in isolation. The hunter says damningly of cities: "There is no order in that world." Yet even as Doerr evokes the lure of the natural world and seems to espouse its virtues over those of civilization, he also subtly advocates for the irreplaceable value of human relations, however fragile and ephemeral those might be.

In this dazzling collection, Doerr achieves a humane resonance for his haunting and original stories. His characters trip over the line between nature and magic, between what we can collect, catalogue, and know and what lies beyond the human capacity to understand, to which we can only surrender. In taking us around the planet with these intriguing and thoroughly modern characters, Doerr insists on nature's relevance in a fractured world, reveling in the one experience that all human beings across the planet have in common: the rapturous apprehension of nature.

Questions for Discussion
1. Nature -- often at its most lush and wild -- is the most dominant trope of these stories. In "The Caretaker," the smell of the earth is described as "sweet, wealthy." Think over some of your favorite scenes and characters. What part does nature play, for the characters and the events that take place? Is it just a backdrop or is it a catalyst for action?

2. Some of the women have a particularly strong relationship to nature: Naima in "Mkondo" is depicted as a wild creature who is driven nearly mad by American civilization; the hunter's wife, Mary Roberts, first learns of her supernatural gift through communion with dead animals. Compare the way that men in some of the stories feel about nature with the attitude of the women. Do you detect a pattern or theme in the way that the sexes apprehend the physical world, or is their appreciation similar in intensity and method? What do you think of the symbolic association between women and nature?

3. Even as Doerr's characters seem to fall ravishingly in love with the natural world, over and over again they seek to tame, control, or capture it. Collecting and cataloguing are ways that Doerr's characters deal with nature. There is a hunter, numerous fishers, a photographer, and an archaeologist. Why do you think these characters feel so compelled to take stock of nature in this way? Would you categorize gardening with these other activities, as another means of controlling the wild?

4. Doerr suggests through juxtaposition that it is possible to reconcile hunting and fishing with loving nature. The hunter, when a city person asks him whether he minds killing animals, thinks to himself: "Was that what hunting meant to people? Killing animals?" He is puzzled, and Doerr demonstrates a difficult conflict between having an abstract idea about what an activity means and the actual practice. To the hunter, it seems that hunting is part of a lifestyle that is very much about loving nature and animals and choosing them over human civilization. Is this a tenable position? Are there different ways of hunting that might be more "humane" than others? Can you understand the hunter's confusion?

5. Doerr also uses nature as a bridge between cultural differences. The hunter impresses his new love by showing her a sleeping grizzly, Dorotea in "So Many Chances" is integrated into a small community in Maine through fly-fishing, and Ward woos Naima in "Mkondo" in races through the dense jungle. What does the appreciation of the outdoors and its scenes and activities offer that other interactions might not? Think of examples in which characters who are radically different from each other come to a more sympathetic, peaceful, or intimate understanding through time spent in nature. Does nature also cause conflict?

6. The supernatural and spiritual infuse many of these stories and seem to be placed on even ground with the unknowable forces of nature. Do you think that Doerr is suggesting that nature, vast, complex, and mysterious, is equivalent to the magical? What does this suggest about how we judge what is knowable and what is not? Do you think that the magical abilities that some of his characters possess -- think of Naima, Mary Roberts, the metal eater -- are meant as real possibilities in the world, or are their talents meant to be more metaphoric? Does it matter?

7. What are some of the conflicts between more traditional lifestyles and the realities of Western modernity? Think of the discussions of medicine in "The Shell Collector," the discomfort of the hunter in a university setting, and the differences Naima finds between her life in Mkondo and the life that Ward brings her to in America. What are some of the virtues that Doerr finds in simpler, nonurban lifestyles, and what are some of the fascinations that the modern provides? Can you come to some conclusions about the moral value of different lifestyle choices? What conclusions do some of these characters come to?

8. In "Mkondo," Naima notes that "she was learning that in her life everything -- health, happiness, even love -- was subject to the landscape; the weathers of the world were inseparable from the weathers of her soul." Is there a kind of politics inherent in this knowledge, a kind of obligation to the environment to both appreciate and preserve it? Can you find implicit -- or overt -- political themes in these stories?

A Conversation with Anthony Doerr
There are so many locations in this book, in Europe, Africa, and America. Have you been to each of these places, and how much do particular locales inspire your stories?
I've been to all of them but Liberia, where the first half-dozen pages of "The Caretaker" takes place, and Belorussia, where maybe a page of "July Fourth" occurs. In many ways, though, the locales didn't quite inspire the stories: I think maybe the stories and their settings came to me simultaneously. That is, the landscapes and the narratives grew out of each other. Like real human beings, fictional characters make marks on their respective environments, but environments make marks on their characters, too, and I tried to present each character's story as inseparable from the place(s) where it occurs.

In terms of my process, I didn't write "The Shell Collector" in Kenya, and "The Caretaker" in Oregon, or anything like that. But as I wrote the story, I'd look back through my journals, or look at photos, or Web sites, or travel brochures, or naturalists' accounts, or whatever else I could use to help me evoke the places I was writing about. So in the end the settings are products of memory, research, imagination, and of course the psyche of the point-of-view character.

You have also lived abroad, though you currently live in Idaho. How does travel and firsthand experience with different cultures affect you as a writer? Do you consciously cultivate this expansive lens?
Travel definitely affects me as a writer. Whatever limited observational skills I have, I use them best and most when I find myself in a strange place, slightly uncomfortable. Especially if the people around me aren't speaking in English. It helps me remember that the United States is just a small, isolated, wildly privileged corner of the world.

In many ways travel is the easiest way to get myself out of the routine and commonplace, but it's not the only way. I mean, you can go out into your backyard right now and peer into the grass and witness a dozen unfamiliar, astounding things in ten minutes: ants ambushing each other, worms aerating the soil, beetles having sex in your rosebushes. So yes, I consciously cultivate it. But if we can't afford the time or the plane ticket at the moment, I try to get outside and find something unfamiliar, some tiny miracle a half-mile from the front door.

Do you fish or hunt? Why do you think there is this connection between fishing and philosophical rumination? Will you keep writing about it?
I don't hunt. I do fish. I think there is a connection between thinking and fishing mostly because you spend a lot of time up to your waist in water without a whole lot to keep your mind busy. You're alone (even if you're with someone, you're usually far apart, or standing quietly) and you either turn inward, to your thoughts, or you turn outward and look at things: light on the river, a gnat on your sleeve, clouds all lit up with sunlight. For me fishing is, in a lot of ways, an excuse to go to a river or a lake or the ocean and just spend a whole day seeing.

I don't know if I'll keep writing about it; I probably will.

"For a Long Time This Was Griselda's Story" is particularly interesting because it follows two characters -- Duck and Rosemary -- who find a normal, good life in the suburbs; they don't seem to have the desperate need to commune with the natural that most of your other characters have. The heroine turns out to be not the dramatic magician's assistant with the glamorous life, but her dull, plain sister. Can you tell us a little bit about writing this story and about why you decided to shift your focus with these characters? Does the title itself reveal something of the process?
The title does indeed very much reveal the process; for a long time, it was Griselda's story, and I was stuck on it. The plot seemed too fanciful, the ending was horrific, and I nearly abandoned it. But around that time a student of mine asked me about all the places I'd lived since leaving high school, and she seemed so impressed with my brief travel history and dissatisfied with her own "mundane" life in comparison. I told her that my life thus far sure didn't seem very glamorous, and that I wasn't sure I learned anything very special just because I had traveled a bit.

My feeling is that you can learn just as much (or more!) and have just as rewarding and important a life (or more important!) if you never leave the confines of your hometown. As I talked with her, I realized that was the key to revising my story: of the two sisters, Rosemary's life was the truly interesting one, not Griselda's. After that the revisions sort of fell into place.

The hunter's wife also has a mysterious gift that can only be described as magical; what exactly do you imagine this gift to be? Can you describe it for us? And did you intend to suggest that the gift is as costly to her as it is precious to others?
I suppose I'd describe her gift as an extremely sensitive empathy. Does that sound about right?

And, sure, I think her gift was costly to her. It thrilled her, of course, and broadened her understanding of the world, but it also destroyed her marriage. I'm fascinated by the idea that any supernatural gift -- flying, say, or being able to predict the future -- must also carry with it a balance, an antigift. Often, I'd think, it would be the curse of isolation.

I mean, think about it: If you were the only twelve-year-old in the world who could fly, at first it would be so exhilarating, absolutely incredible, drifting over the rooftops. But after a while, say a year or so, of drifting among the clouds, maybe playing pranks on your friends, wouldn't you get tired of it? Wouldn't you feel lonely? Wouldn't you wish, more than anything, that someone else could fly with you? Or that you never learned to fly at all?

Many of your characters face dangers, even death, through the happenstance events of nature and its creations. In "The Hunter's Wife," the couple comes close to death in a hard winter. The Shell Collector lives in a word filled with incipient danger, in part because of his blindness but also because of the facts: just as the cone shells promise ecstasy and healing, they also kill. One gets the sense that nature threatens as much as it enthralls. Were you conscious of trying to get this across, and was it hard to write about both? Was it tempting to simply vaunt the glories of the natural world, especially at a time when it is so threatened?
I was conscious of trying to get that idea across, yes. For me it wasn't tempting to hype the glory of wilderness without balancing it, without trying to emphasize how small one human is in the face of the evolution of the entire planet. Anyone who has spent a few nights in a tent during a storm can tell you: The world doesn't care all that much if you live or die. But then, in the morning, the weather lifts, and you see new snow everywhere, and you feel the utter glory of being allowed to stand there and look at it.

Or just walk outside some clear night and look up at the stars. All that ancient, huge energy up there -- it's gorgeous, but the scale is so humbling, too.

Dorotea, Joseph, and even Seema, the little girl saved by the shell collector, are each able to find some peace through experiences with the physical world. Were you aware of emphasizing, over the course of these stories, the fact that all people from all backgrounds, experience nature in similar ways? Do you see this is an important political or moral point?
I'd say I wanted to emphasize that human experiences -- the truly important ones, like falling in love, having your heart broken, and dying -- are shared by all people; that is, independent of culture. I thought a short-story collection was particularly well suited to making this point, since by nature it can range more widely than a novel.

I certainly believe that there are commonalities that supercede culture, so, yes, I feel it is a very important political and moral point -- probably the most important one. But as you sit down to write, you don't really think consciously: "Now I'll design a group of stories that emphasize a continuum of human emotion across a range of possible experiences." You just try to write a story and make it plausible, moving, and cleanly told. In many ways any political element takes care of itself: in the design of the narrative, in what I'm interested in writing about to begin with. We're all political creatures, so the stories we tell will be inescapably political.

How do you balance your interactions with civilization -- and your writing life -- with encounters with nature? Do you get to spend as much time outdoors as you like? What are some other things that inspire you?
I have a fairly normal life: I go to the grocery store; I watch SportsCenter. I do try to get outdoors as much as possible, and a few times a year my wife and I feel the travel lust coming on and start searching the Internet like crazy for cheap plane tickets.

Because I teach as well as write, I don't spend as much time away from a desk as I would like, but compared to many of my friends I get out a fair amount. Living in Idaho is, in many ways, a gift, because there are dazzling, roadless mountains literally in our front yard.

What writers have been most important to you? Can you tell us something about the novel you are writing?
Gosh, so many writers have been important to me: J. M. Coetzee, Rick Bass, Joseph Conrad, Andrea Barrett, Denis Johnson, Cormac McCarthy. Each of them continues to expand my ideas about what is possible in fiction.

Thanks for asking about my novel. I haven't said much about it because I routinely change it pretty drastically, but let's see . . . I can tell you that it's set, for the most part, in the Caribbean and in Alaska. The main character is a hydrologist who studies snow, so there's lots of snow and ice in the book. Early in the story he dreams he will inadvertently drown his infant daughter, and he begins to believe that his dream will come true, so he, of course, fights like heck to stop it from happening. I probably ought to stop there.

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