When Anthony Doerr and his older siblings and friends tired of playing outdoors, making fires with magnifying glasses, they went to the public library in their rural Ohio town and pulled books off the shelves that transported them to other lives and other continents. Doerr’s imagination eventually brought him to Maine for college, which led directly to a career as a novelist.

“Maybe we were the last generation without gaming devices and entertainment devices, and I am so grateful for it,” said Doerr, 43, the Bowdoin College graduate and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. “It was a life of imagination.”

Doerr, who won the Pulitzer for his lyrical World War II novel “All the Light We Cannot See,” will be back in Maine this week for two events that are open to the public and that will likely highlight how his early years as a reader laid the groundwork for his writing career. The first is an onstage conversation with his friend and fellow Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Russo, who lives in Portland. Russo will interview Doerr at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Irish Heritage Center in Portland to benefit Wayfinder Schools, which helps kids who are struggling academically and socially to finish school and develop life skills. At 1 p.m. Friday, he’ll speak at Pickard Theater at Bowdoin. He’ll receive an honorary degree from Bowdoin during the college’s commencement exercises on Saturday.

The trip marks just the second time Doerr has been back on the Bowdoin campus since graduating in 1995. His wife, Shauna, also graduated from Bowdoin, and will accompany him, along with their twin seventh-grade boys. He’s eager to show them where their parents met and pleased to come back to Maine for events related to education. He doesn’t know much about the Wayfinder Schools but likes what Russo has told him. With residential campuses in New Gloucester and Camden, the school attempts to keep kids engaged in learning so they can earn a high school degree and become productive members of society.

Anthony Doerr Photo by Todd Meier

Russo and his wife, Barbara, have been involved with Wayfinder since 1999, when they lived in Camden and Barbara volunteered at the school. She joined the board soon after and has remain involved. Russo has hosted about 15 author talks as benefits over the years. Previous guests include Anita Shreve, Scott Turow and Dennis Lehane.

“The school has really changed kids’ lives, and in many cases saved them,” Barbara Russo said. “The school often captures students just before they are headed to incarceration. Some of them come from horrible home situations and have dropped out of school for various reasons. Sometimes it’s alcohol and drug abuse, sometimes they haven’t fit in with the high school, sometimes it’s because they’re pregnant. They learn skills like cooking and budgeting, and how to help themselves. They do things they’ve never had the chance to do on their own before, and they get an education.”

One of the consequences of winning the Pulitzer is losing control of your time, Doerr said. He’s had to learn to say no to many requests for fundraising appearances and talks. His schedule simply doesn’t allow it. This one fit perfectly and aligns with his own educational philosophy, which hinges on the idea that everybody deserves a chance.

His education consisted of school, play and libraries. His mother was a science teacher and encouraged her boys to play and explore with gusto. His parents didn’t restrict what their kids could read, and trusted their boys to judge for themselves what was appropriate. “They figured you are ready for what you are ready for. They didn’t put parameters around us. They trusted us, which builds a lot of self-reliance,” said Doerr, who hopes to be as thoughtful and trusting with his boys as his parents were with him and his brothers.

Doerr learned at the hands of his siblings, whom he admired. When it came time for college, both of his older brothers came east, one enrolling at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the other at Bates College in Lewiston.

He chose Bowdoin because of its reputation, proximity to the coast and its connections to Arctic exploration and the North Pole, through the efforts of explorer Robert E. Peary, an early Bowdoin graduate. At some point growing up, and very likely because of his regular trips to the public library, Doerr became interested in the Arctic.

At Bowdoin, Doerr majored in history because it gave him the flexibility to take classes across a range of subjects. Bowdoin allowed him to explore his curiosities and what it means to be human. He sought out subjects of interest – in science, sociology, architecture, astronomy and nutrition – but never took a creative writing class. He did submit a poem as part of an application for a poetry workshop, but was rejected.

Still, writing was central to his time at Bowdoin. He wrote for the college newspaper and other publications, and his history major required a thesis. That was his first experience at long-form writing, and it led directly to his career as a novelist and essayist. Being a writer, he said, was never a consideration as a kid. It all happened at Bowdoin.

“Growing up where I did, being a novelist was something I could not do. I never met a novelist. I thought novelists were dead or living in Paris,” he said. “But at Bowdoin, I got to write a thesis. I learned how to hash out a book and what it was like to build a longer project. It was only 90 pages, but it was a way to start putting together a big piece of research and larger blocks of text. It felt empowering as a 20-year-old.”

And in Maine, he had the living examples of some of his favorite writers – Russo, Richard Ford and Elizabeth Strout, all of whom won the Pulitzer – who lived rurally or in small towns and enjoyed high-profile writing careers. “You start to meet these writers, and it felt like Maine was the place you could have the art and the natural world. Those things were not mutually exclusive,” Doerr said.

He’s become among the most celebrated young American writers of his generation. In addition to the Pulitzer, he has won four O. Henry Prizes, four Pushcart Prizes, a Guggenheim fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. He’s published two short-story collections, a memoir and two novels.

“All the Light We Cannot See” is set in World War II and tells the story of two youngsters whose lives are shaped by the circumstances around them. One is a French girl named Marie-Laure, who is blind. She and her widowed father flee Paris in 1940 and seek refuge with family in the coastal town of Saint-Malo. The other is a German boy named Werner, who is an engineering prodigy with an ability to build and fix radios, skills that make him valuable to the Nazi military. Their paths cross in 1944, after Allied forces land in Germany.

One of the pleasures of the book, and one of the reasons it has resonated so deeply with many readers, is the humanity that Doerr gives his characters. They’re all nuanced, layered and complicated, and Doerr writes them with sympathy and love.

He wants readers to feel empathy for Werner, a promising young boy who got “sucked into the Hitler Youth” and made bad decisions, and he hopes they admire Marie-Laure for being more capable than the adults around her.

With his writing, he offers complex portraits of heroes and villains.

Doerr said he learned empathy through reading. He learned most of what he knows through reading, and that is part of the message he will impart to students in Maine this week.

“Reading was that great instructor for me. Through reading, you learn that you are not alone, that you cry for the same reasons as someone who lived 200 years before you,” he said. “Even though it looks like you are spending a lot of time by yourself, you are with other people, training your imagination to leap through the walls of your skull and into the skull of somebody else.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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