An Interview with Anthony Marra

photo by Smeeta Mahanti
photo by Smeeta Mahanti

On Wednesday, February 19, at 7pm, the Elliott Bay Book Co. is pleased to host novelist Anthony Marra, author of the 2013 National Book Award-longlisted A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, downstairs in our Readings Room. Our former bookseller Dave Wheeler caught up with Mr. Marra to find out a bit more about his stunning debut novel.

DW: When did you decide you would write a novel about turn-of-the-recent-century Chechnya?

AM: I began working on what would become Constellation in 2009. Initially as a short story, but the characters and their world soon stretched beyond the confines of a 25-page story. Chechnya, and Russia in general, had fascinated me ever since I was a college student studying in St. Petersburg, but it took a few years before that fascination manifested itself in fiction.

A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaDW: What elements of Chechnya — it’s history, it’s people, it’s culture — inspired you to devote your first novel to it? Since you started, what aspects have you learned or stood out to you?

AM: More than anything, the novel was inspired by the stories of ordinary civilians who found ways to retain their humanity in the recent conflict, despite the geopolitical forces that might otherwise strip them of it. Chechnya hasn’t received much focused and sustained attention in the Western media, and the attention it has received has generally dwelt on rebel commanders and Russian generals. But between these two political extremes is a broad midsection of ordinary civilians whose stories are deeply moving.

Also, Chechnya has a remarkable cultural and historical legacy. Lermontov, Pushkin, and Tolstoy all traveled through and wrote about the region. In fact, Tolstoy was living in Chechnya when he began writing what would become his first novel. Five decades later, he returned to Chechnya in fiction with Hadji Murat, his last novel.

DW: Though warfare lurks all over the backdrop in your novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is much more about relationships. How do you think the urgency of war influences the way your characters (or people in general) build their relationships?

AM: When I began Constellation, I knew that it would be a novel set against the backdrop of war, rather than a war novel. A novel about surgeons, rather than soldiers. I found myself spending a lot of time thinking about how the breakdown of social order allows the emergence of relationships that would have been impossible before. Many of the characters in Constellation are searching for lost loved ones, and they end up finding each other.

DW: One of our protagonists is Sonja, an ethnic Russian doctor in the Chechen village, who runs a hospital, with residents that are surprisingly quirky, funny, even hilarious. Why was humor so important for you to include in the novel? And how did you so magnificently balance the comedy with the tragedies?

AM: We experience life across a wide tonal range, and even in harrowing moments, I don’t think we lose the capacity for humor. The bleaker the circumstances, the more necessary comedy becomes–if only as a means of self-preservation. Novels completely devoid of humor often strike me as false because the experience of being alive is filled with the kind of sad absurdities that are made more bearable through jokes. Plus, nothing quite disarms and opens up a reader to a character like comedy. You’re more willing to cry with characters after you’ve laughed with them.

DW: Another character, Khassan Geshilov, has labored over writing a detailed history titled Origins of Chechen Civilization for years. At any point did you ever feel his toils mimicked your own as you wrote?

AM: Pretty much the whole time! My writing process consists nearly entirely of rewriting. Or retyping. When I finished the first draft of Constellation, I printed it out, set it in front of my keyboard, and began retyping the entire book from the first word on, and did that with each subsequent draft. The British painter David Hockney returns to the same landscape again and again, at different times, different seasons, and in different mediums, explaining that each time he sees the landscape more clearly because he sees both through his eyes and his memory. Retyping is my way to return to the same fictive landscapes in a similar manner, seeing each scene and character with greater clarity.

DW: Which authors inspire you and your work, and what are some of your favorite books?

AM: Edward P. Jones, Ann Patchett, Adam Johnson, Marilynne Robinson, Jose Saramago, Denis Johnson, Tolstoy, Zadie Smith, Javier Marias, Mario Vargas Llosa, and David Mitchell are all writers I routinely return to. My favorite books are always changing, but as of 3:30 PM January 4, my top three are Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal, Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee, and David Copperfield by Dickens.

DW: Your novel is rich with history and ephemera, and we learn that one of Sonja’s medical texts — The Medical Dictionary of the Union of Soviet Physicians — defines “Life” as “A constellation of vital phenomena,” as poetic an assessment as they come, but that same text and others bog her down with “arcane and useless information,” too. Was researching the novel a similar experience?

AM: Research is one of the pleasures of writing fiction for me. As both a reader and a novelist, I’m looking for that spark of discovery, that moment when I stumble into a world I didn’t know had been there, and that moment often comes at the intersection of research and imagination.

Most novels, whether they are set in present-day New York City, or 1945 Berlin, can rely on readers bringing a baseline of cultural and historical awareness, but with Constellation, I couldn’t assume that readers had any familiarity with Chechnya. This required me to not only to create characters and their stories, but also to build the contextual scaffolding to hold them. At times it felt like a challenge—what to include, what to omit, etc. There’s a tendency to want to include every fact and figure, if only to prove that you’ve done the research. But in the end, I decided to only include research that was directly relevant to the lives and stories of the novel’s characters. Usually that came in the form of a small, ground-level detail, rather than sweeping analysis.

DW: Since the publication of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, what have been some readers’ thoughts and feedback regarding Chechnya and its people?

AM: I think we all feel a little guilty about not being better informed about world events. The average American is unlikely to know much about Chechnya, and many readers have picked up Constellation in part because it’s set in a largely overlooked corner of the world. The most common response to the book has been a reflection on that. It’s also been incredibly gratifying to see readers respond to Constellation through their own artistic mediums. Just this morning, a reader sent me a series of poems inspired by the novel.

DW: What are you reading now? What new books have really stood out to you as exceptionally written?

AM: The two books I most recently read are the wonderful Ruby by Cynthia Bond and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris, which are coming out this spring. Some of my favorite novels of 2013 are Submergence by J.M. Ledgard, A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and The Infatuations by Javier Marias and The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis (both of which I bought at Elliott Bay!).

Nonfiction-wise, I’m a total sucker for lost-in-the-wilderness stories, and I’m currently reading Alone on the Ice by David Roberts, an account of Douglas Mawson’s incredible survival in Antarctica. For fiction, I’ll probably start reading In the Night of Time by Antonio Munoz Molina or The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner today.

DW: I certainly was thrilled to see your book longlisted for the 2013 National Book Award. That’s quite an accomplishment for a debut novelist! What did you do to celebrate?

AM: I was stunned, humbled, and deeply grateful to the judges for the honor. I think I walked around the block in a daze for a little while, then called my parents. That night I went to a fancy Burmese restaurant with a friend.

DW: Finally — and I’m sure you hate this question, but humor me because I simply can’t wait to get my hands on whatever it is — what are you working on now?

AM: I’ve been working on a project set in the Siberian Arctic and Chechnya that revolves around a 19th-century painting, a mix tape, a Soviet censor, the Miss Siberia Beauty Pageant, and a space capsule.

ANTHONY MARRA is the New York Times bestselling author of a National Book Awards Longlist selection, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. He is the winner of a Whiting Award, a Pushcart Prize, The Atlantic‘s Student Writing Contest, and the Narrative Prize and his work was anthologized in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. Marra holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He has lived and studied in Eastern Europe, and now resides in Oakland, CA.

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