Pulitzer Prize winner Doerr gives McDermott Lecture

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The 2019 McDermott Lecture was advertised on screens throughout Haggar. Photo by Sam Curran.

University of Dallas’ 44th McDermott Lecturer this year was Anthony Doerr, whose book “All the Light We Cannot See” won both a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.  Doerr shares a familiar connection with UD in his love of Rome, which is evident in his book “Four Seasons in Rome.”

Doerr gave the lecture at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center on March 5. The event was well attended with about 1,500 people, including UD alumni, staff, students and even high school students from around the metroplex.

“Anytime you go anywhere, especially where people aren’t speaking English, it’s really good for you,” Doerr said during an interview before the lecture.

Doerr spent a year in Rome as a fellow at the American Academy, which inspired his book “Four Seasons in Rome.” Doerr said he was surprised to learn that 80 percent of sophomores at UD spend a semester in Rome.

The city “opens up so much about the fountainheads of western civilization that is Rome, but also about America,” Doerr explained.

Doerr described what travel does for the human brain in the interview.

He compared the American to the Italian “morning ritual of coffee.” While Americans often get giant coffees in disposable cups at drive-throughs, Doerr said that “in Italy you can take ten minutes and drink an espresso in a nice little porcelain cup and slow down and look at people. It’s those little cultural reminders that the way you do, isn’t the only way to do it,” Doerr added. “You only get that through travel.”

Doerr said that travel allows one to see the world in a different way.

“I do not want to live life sleepwalking through my life and I think travel is a great way to shake up all those patterns in life,” Doer said. “Just think about the first time you went to your dorm room at the University of Dallas. Everything is new and you’re like, ‘How does this work? Where’s my key?’ By now you don’t even notice, you’re unconscious on your way to class sometimes.”  

“Breaking habits is really important to living an aware and an awake life, [and] travel is one way to do that,” Doerr added.

Another way to live more consciously is by reading, Doerr said.

“Reading both authors who aren’t white and male and stories that aren’t white and male, I think is super important,” Doerr said. “Or just reading stories about history. Then you remember, ‘oh right, people in the thirties cried about the same reasons that we cry,’ or, ‘the reasons that people in 100 B.C. cry are the same reasons we cry.’ Those are all ways to take you out of your own head.”

During the McDermott Lecture, Doerr described his creative writing process and how he wrote his prize-winning novel. Doerr found creative writing to be a way he could satisfy his desire to dabble in a little of everything.

“[In] each of [my] projects, I try to find questions that fascinated me, that help me see the world in an unfamiliar way,” Doerr said. “It wasn’t until I tried to build stories up around these questions that anybody became interested in what I was writing.”

“To reach readers to share how dazzled I felt about the world, I had to relate things on human scales and through human eyes,” Doerr added. “I had to give my questions to my characters.”

This year’s McDermott Lecture was also accompanied by other events. Doerr gave several other talks and interacted with the UD community while he was on campus March 5 and 6. UD also gave out about 1,800 copies of “All the Light We Cannot See” to local schools as part of UD Reads, a community reading program for the 2018-19 academic year, according to library dean Cherie Hohertz.

According to Hohertz, 4,000 high school students participated in the program. This year’s McDermott lecture was selected by the UD Reads planning committee, who chose Doerr’s book “because we thought it would appeal to a wide audience and because of the possibility of outreach to the local schools,” Hohertz wrote in an email.

Hohertz explained that UD Reads is in the process of finding funding opportunities to support the program in the future.

“UD Reads will not utilize the McDermott funds, but [the program] will continue,” Hohertz wrote. “With the overwhelming number of middle and high school participants, we know it is a program that can be sustained long term. We’re already in the process of selecting the next book.”

“After this year’s success, we have already had donors reach out to us about supporting the program,” Hohertz added.

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