For what its worth. Anthony Marra‘s debut novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth) won numerous awards and accolades. A graduate of a Division One writing program (Iowa) and a Stegner Fellow at Stanford and is currently teaching there. His novel is set in war torn Chechnya a doctor observes Russian atrocities and then rescues a neighbor’s daughter teaming up with another doctor to survive the relentless barbarity.
Anthony and I met at my favorite neighborhood cafe, The Keltuc Krust. Basking outside in the late spring warmth and amid the outdoor sounds of passing traffic, we chatted about his childhood, Chechyna, how he writes,his early inspirations, Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, acknowledgements, “his” cats, Netflix and his next project
Anthony Marra (photo:Robert Birnbaum)
15 May 2013
RB: What was your feeling when you finished your first novel?
AM: Well, ‘finished’ is a relative term.
RB: What was your feeling when you finished the first draft?
AM: A feeling of relief, a feeling of accomplishment and a feeling of trepidation knowing how much more work there was to do. I knew from the beginning that my writing process has always been to write as much as I can and just keep moving forward and then go back and revise and revise. While I was writing the first draft I kept a record on my wall of my daily word count. My goal was a thousand words a day. The days I would get to over a thousand words I would mark in black ink. And on the days I got less, I marked in red ink. I grew up in a Catholic family and went to church and Sunday school and I had all this shame running through me.
RB: The days that were in red were days of shame?
AM: Exactly. I would just see it staring back at me, the red ink. So that kept me honest for the most part. When I finished the first draft, I printed it out, sat down at my keyboard and started retyping the entire novel from the first sentence. And I repeated that process four times.
RB: There was 4 different drafts?
AM: I wrote the book 4 full times— each time I felt the shifts and changes in the book occurred naturally, organically. By retyping the sentences I am able to tap into whatever creative well they first emerged from.
RB: What is your sense of how much the 2nd draft changed?
AM: It changed more in the language and the tone, the style, more than anything. IF you were to read the first draft and then read the current version, the final version, I think the greatest difference would be the language. And how the story unfolds and how much the point of view was fixated on one character and didn’t move into the points of view of minor characters or jump into the future. It was a bit sharper and had less of a total range. I had a different ending on the first drafts.
RB: What did you think as you did each draft? “This doesn’t have…” Or “I need to …” What was the approach to critiquing the drafts?
AM: Yeah, I would read through the previous draft and see what didn’t feel right.
RB: So when you arrived at draft number 4, you thought—
AM: When I got to 4, at that point this hyper-omniscient narrator came into being. Everything just felt alive and real to me, in a way that it hadn’t before. I felt the story was as complete as could be. After that I continued with my editor and ended up cutting 50 pages and condensing things here and there. But it was that draft where I made the breakthrough to what the book could be rather than what it might potentially be.
RB: How did you feel then?
AM: I felt pretty good. A sense of the vision meeting reality. I remember once hearing someone say that happiness is where your expectations and reality converge. And I took a literary sense of that—what the book could be and what the book was, came together.
RB: What was the working title?
AM: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.
RB: Taken from a Russian medical encyclopedia?
AM: Well, I found it in an English medical dictionary
RB: In the book you wrote that it came from a Soviet encyclopedia.
AM: Yeah. I can’t recall the name of the text.
RB: That’s a splendid definition of life.
AM: Its one of seven definitions. I was on line, weighing various definitions, as one does on a Saturday afternoon…
RB: yeah, that’s what I would be doing—
AM: Who doesn’t? I went to the ‘L’ section and I found this definition and it struck me as so peculiar.
RB: Peculiar enough to sound fictional.
AM: I can send you the link—
RB: No, no, no. I am not doubting you
—that is, until you get really outrageous. What do you think of the dictum, “Write what you know?”
AM: I prefer the dictum, ”Write what you want to know.”
RB: (laughs) Good one. You present some wonderful images in the story— a toilet bowl over an unexploded bomb. Did you actually see that?
AM: I didn’t see that. I’d hear reports —someone using basins to cover unexploded mortar shells. The setting is a place where absurdities abound.
RB:(pause for fire sirens that are roto-rootering my inner ears —I am wearing headphones). That was deafening. You could say that about most of Eastern Europe. Dark humor seems to reign supreme.
AM: Yeah, it’s a gallows humor. When I visited Chechnya people were constantly cracking jokes, usually at my expense. There was this sense that we laugh because it makes things bearable.
RB: Reportedly you wrote this book because there were no English language novels that had been written about Chechnya.
A view from the mountains in eastern Chechnya. (photo: Anthony Marra)
AM: I came to Chechnya and started reading about it because I was a college student in St Petersburg Russia shortly after the journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated a couple of block from my apartment. There was a Metro station where Russian veterans of the Chechynan War would congregate—it was very much in the air.
RB: ‘Congregate” meaning— smoking cigarettes, drinking. panhandling…
AM: All of the above.
RB: Were they homeless?
AM: Some of them. Some in wheelchairs would go through the train cars asking for change. It[Chevchnya] was in the air and I realized I knew nothing about it. I started reading history books and non-fiction accounts and came completely moved by these stories of ordinary people persisting in extraordinary circumstances.
RB: I am aware of world events—there was a hostage situation in a school that turned out very badly?
AM: Yeah, Beslan.
RB: By and large I was totally ignorant and unaware of the circumstances there. And then I thought I am not attending to what’s happening in Darfur; I am sure indigenous are still being murdered in Central America; I don’t know if the Tamal rebels have prevailed in Sri Lanka. Around the world there are numerous deadly tribal squabbles —did you think writing a novel about Chechnya would make a difference?
Location of Chechnya in Caucasus
AM: No, I wanted to write a story. I am not out to change the world. I am not an investigative journalist uncovering anything or trying to shine a light on anything as much as I just wanted to tell the story I don’t think has reached an American audience in this form.
RB: Recognizing that this is a novel, have you been criticized for a failure to adhere to the reported facts? Or that you have given a faulty picture?
AM: No, I have not heard any significant criticism.
RB: How about insignificant?
AM: I suppose of you read some of the reviews. The city and the village that the novel is based in are fictitious. I created them so that I could —originally I was going to set it in Grozny but I felt very uncomfortable setting a story there that wouldn’t match up to the historical reality. So I created my one city and village and region so that I would have the freedom to veer away, to create my own history.
RB: What language is spoken there, Chechnyan?
AM: Yes, it one of a series northern Caucasian dialects that split away from the European family and are not connected linguistically to any thing else.
RB: So how does the language deal with modernity?
AM: Its interesting when I visited, a lot of people my age—I am 28 are just learning Chechnyan now. The person I hired to show me around had grown up in Moscow coming to Chechnya as an adult. And was studying/taking the language. Another woman, when I asked about what billboard said shrugged and told me she didn’t speak Chechnyan.
RB: Was the exile of Chechnayans to Kazakhstan mentioned in the book, a real historical event?
A painting of the 1944 Soviet deportation of ethnic Chechens to Kazakhstan and Siberia
AM; Yeah that’s true. It was in 1944 and Stalin decided as the German Army was moving in to the Northern Caucuses with hopes of capturing oil in Grozny and eventually Baku that the Chechnyans would side with the Germans.
RB: Was it a Soviet republic?
AM: It was a semi autonomous state.
RB: What were your aspirations when you were growing up in Washington DC?
AM: When I was a kid I started reading my parents’ John Grisham novels and Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy and all those guys, when I was in elementary school, it was not only my entry into long books but into the adult world. Novels and fiction have always been my way of understanding the world. I was an avid reader and as I grew up I started to try to write —the first story I wrote was the called “The Last Of The Bohemians”—
RB: —how old were you?
AM: Sixteen. It was a page and half long about a man walking up a staircase and I sent it to the New Yorker (both laugh)
RB: Good for you. Its better that you didn’t know what that process was.
AM: I got a rejection so quickly—they have very good taste there. It’s been downhill form there.
RB: Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Stanford—I can see that. I read your book’s acknowledgments (can I be acknowledged in your next book, if I give you money?)
RB: Why did you apply to Iowa?
AM: It has this reputation as being this place that—this crucible, where writers I have admired like Dennis Johnson who is one of my favorite writers…. As soon as I realized he went to Iowa wanted to apply.
RB: I started to say reading the acknowledgments that I have spoken with a lot of the writers you were surrounded by—Ethan Canin—
ETHAN CANIN circa 2001(photo: Robert Birnbaum)
AM: I had a short story with several of these characters [from the novel] that I work-shopped with him—it was the very first thing I work-shopped at Iowa. He told me, “This should be a novel.” It was something I was already doing—other people had expressed that sentiment.
RB: It seems that a lot of Iowa graduates go on to Stanford and get a Stegner Fellowship. How has that been?
AM: It’s been incredible. Getting to work with Tobias Wolff and Adam Johnson and Elizabeth Talent. And the other Fellows are just—extraordinary. Its two years and your only obligation is to your work. It’s where I completed the last draft of the novel.
RB: Are you out on your own now and having to earn a living?
AM: Thankfully I will be at Stanford for 2 more years—I’ll be teaching there.
RB: Are you at all concerned that this kind of a cloistered life?
RB: You weren’t concerned until I mentioned it.
AM: Now I am terrified (both laugh). No, I more concerned about health insurance. I like to think that my fictional interests are outward looking enough that I could pursue them in any environment.
RB: That’s good to think—how much do you attend to the “real world? Read newspapers, watch whatever news sources?
AM: Yeah. I feel like I am generally interested—
RB: Can I quiz you?
AM: Absolutely not. You mentioned those other civil conflicts I know as little about them as you do.
RB: But you are aware that they are out there?
AM: Yeah—for whatever reason this corner of the world [Chechnya] touched me in a way that made me want to delve deeper.
RB: What are you aspirations now as we sit here? Finish this conversation?
AM: I have to write a new book so I can acknowledge you.
RB: Good answer— I am sorry to burden you (both laugh).
AM: I am working in a second novel, which Hogarth will be publishing probably on 2 years or so.
RB: They committed sight unseen?
AM: It started as a collection of stories and now its something between stories and a novel that deals with this similar time period
RB: “Linked stories”?
AM: I hate that term but yeah. After that, my dad keeps telling me I should set a novel in Hawaii so we can all go there.
RB: Has anything unexpected happened because of the very positive reception for your debut novel?
AM: I wrote this novel when I was in Iowa. I was teaching rhetoric.I was making $11,000 that year. I was writing a book set in a place that most Americans can’t find on a map. Full of characters, full of names that are a little difficult to pronounce. There is no point of view situated in a familiar perspective. There are no Americans walking in stage. So I really didn’t think that anyone would be interested in it. I just knew that it was something that deeply interested me that —I felt I personally had to—to write the novel for myself really. And for my own sense of what I wanted to achieve as a writer. If it connected with other readers, brought a little attention to this area, that’s great. But I began without any expectations of any of that.
RB: I found it curious that Ann Patchett wrote a blurb that connected your book to Jonathan Foer’s first novel.
AM: I am huge fame of Ann Patchett’s work—she is a brilliant writer. She didn’t know me from Adam and that she would take the time —
RB: Sure, sure but its kind of misleading and lacking in imagination. Do you read a lot?
AM: I try to read both. I am not very good about sticking to it but I try to rotate between reading a book that was written before 1985 and one that’s contemporary and then a non-fiction. I feel like it’s important to learn what your peers are doing and what’s happening in the world today. Its as important as revisiting and learning from the classics.
RB: I came across a recent quote by writer J Robert Lennon (Mailer bio) that asserted that most contemporary fiction is terrible…
RB: And he’s a contemporary novelist. I see remarks like that I am immediately suspicious.
AM: Yeah, I feel like we are in the Golden Age. There are more wonderful books being published—
RB: —I share that view. Sure there are “bad” books being published out of the 150 thousand books a year. So, yeah. How many people read a hundred books a year? What contemporary fiction have you liked?
AM: I recently finished the Edward St Auybn, “The Patrick Melrose “novels.
RB: Its brilliant writing.
AM: Its as if the cast of Downton Abbey have gone on to become substance abusers. It’s so dark but so funny and really quite powerful. Also I read Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal —he is someone who influenced me. He is a very whimsical writer. Always with the backdrop of these horrific historical changes. He wrote Too Loud a Solitude. It’s about this trash compactor in Prague. And he basically trashes banned books. Along the way he saves them. He has this apartment that is built out of books—he has a canopy bed with 2 tons of books on top of it. He is afraid that quite literally, he will be crushed by these books. He’s great.
RB: Do you feel you have to read the books of the writers you are surrounded by at Stanford?
AM: Uh, yeah.
RB: Orphan Masters Son [Adam Johnson]?
AM: I read it when it first came out and I am in the middle of it now—I am rereading it. It’s absolutely brilliant—the sheer imagination and empathy. That book has become a measurement, a meter stick for what’s possible.
RB: Do you do anything besides read and write?
AM: I go running. Margaret and I have 2 cats. Well, she has 2 cats—
RB: You are not accepting any responsibility for the felines?
AM: I used to but yesterday I was talking about my cats and she was like, “Wait a minute.” [Laughs]
RB: So if you broke up, as has been known to happen, the cats go with her?
AM: Unfortunately. I probably would steal one.
RB: This is on the record.
AM: (laughs) One of them is this fat cat and the other one, periodically licks itself bald. He has bad allergies and we have been trying to deal with them. They make quite a pair, the two of these cats.
RB: So, you run and take care of 2 cats—do you watch movies?
AM: Actually, I am kind of a sucker for those superhero comic movies. I have loved comic books since I was a kid.
RB: The charm of those movies eludes me.
AM: What did you think of Ben Affleck’s Boston movies?
RB: I thought The Town was riveting base on a Chuck Hogan novel (Prince of Thieves )and Gone, Baby, Gone had great actors.
AM: I really like The Town. I saw it twice.
RB: Because of Netflix and have just seen a John Cusak movie that I had never even heard of—The Factory. The other one has a Philadelphia homicide cop who is diagnosed with a terminal disease who is persuaded to have himself killed by a hired killer but is not told when. Then he learns that the diagnosis was wrong and now wants to call of his own murder. Great cast, Tim Roth, Gabriel Byrne…
AM: Tim Roth is great—he has never really gotten his due.
RB: I agree (19.17.2). There was a moment in the epic Rob Roy when Roth, playing a fop and philanderer, transforms into a lethal and vicious swordsman. I’ve been an admirer of his ever since. Plus he did an understated movie with Tupac. Do you have Netflix?
AM: Yeah, I like watching documentaries especially Frontline. Its one of the great gifts of television
RB: HBO’s documentaries are impressive. I just watched a series on warzone photographers called Witness produced by Michael Mann. Riveting stuff! When will your next book be published?
AM: About 2 years.
RB: Now that I have a dog in that hunt please report your progress to me. A fairly recent development in authorial acknowledgments is to include publicists. Imagine the ground you would be breaking acknowledging me. There is Sharon Sternberg’s Leaning in book where she has 7 pages of acknowledgments for a 140 page book
AM: There has been some blowback on acknowledgments. In Cutting the Stone there must be over 10 pages [of acknowledgements] He goes through and lists this scene was influenced by this book. Its ends up becoming this
AM: This wonderful reading list —the books that influenced him and the books he loves—its great.
RB: Indeed. So we’ll meet back here in 2 years. Thank you
AM: All right, I’d love to. Thanks very much for taking the time to do this.
RB: This is my pleasure.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
Currently reading, Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst (Knopf)