An Interview with Stegner Fellow Anthony Marra

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Anthony Marra is a novelist in his final year as Stegner Fellow. He was recently awarded the 2012 Whiting Writers’ Award, an award presented to talented emerging writers. His debut novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, set to publish this May, dives deep into the lives of two young doctors searching for peace and redemption during wartime in modern-day Chechnya. His short story “Chechnya,” an excerpt from the novel, won a 2010 Pushcart Prize and the 2010 Narrative Prize. We spoke with Marra via Skype.

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Stanford Arts Review: Tell us about your time as a Stegner Fellow.

Anthony Marra: I’m in my second year now. It has just been incredible to have my own work scrutinized on an incredibly deep level by these amazingly intelligent readers. I also really enjoy looking at their work. I feel I’ve learned a tremendous amount from reading this incandescent fiction from the other Stegner fellows.

There is also a really vibrant creative writing department at Stanford. I’ve been in other academic institutions, and most of the time the classes they offer for graduate students are poetry and fiction, and that’s it. Whereas at Stanford, you have a class on the Graphic Novel and The National Writing Month. These are really fascinating opportunities that I’ve never experienced before.

What was it that sparked your original interest in Russian culture?

I was an English major and I loved Russian novels. Some of my earliest memories were of the Berlin Wall falling. It seemed like this incredibly different place. I’ve never written any autobiographical fiction, because I feel like a fiction is a way for me to engage with the world. I want to understand this place that has an incredible history, culture, and humor. It just seems like a crazy place. My fiction can articulate my interest much better than I can.

Who are some of your favorite Russian or Eastern European writers?

One of my favorite writers is Bohumil Hrabal, a Czech writer. In the Czech Republic everyone thinks Milan Kundera overrated, partially because he totally shunned the Czech Republic after he emigrated. As soon as he was able to, he only started writing in French and has refused to allow his books to be translated.

But yeah, Bohumil Hrabal is their national literary hero. He was famous for having written the longest sentence, which took up an entire book. He has this etherealness to his writing; he goes off on these flights of fancy that are always underpinned by some historical tragedy in Europe.

There is also the Soviet writer Vasily Grossman, often called the Soviet Tolstoy. He wrote Life and Fate, and it’s this sort of epic War and Peace novel, set in Stalingrad. He was one of the first foreign journalists to discover the Nazi concentration camps in Eastern Europe. He also wrote the article The Hell of Treblinka, which became one of the primary documents used in the Nuremberg Trials.

And Tolstoy, of course. The last book he ever wrote was called Hadji Murat. It’s about a Caucasian rebel who single-handedly kept an insurgency alive against the Tsar’s troops. The last line of that book is the epigraph for my novel.

What was it that sparked your interest in the culture and conflicts of Russia and Chechnya?

I studied in St. Petersburg when I was in college. I lived in a homestay with an elderly woman and her three grandchildren. I had tried to study Russian on my own, but the first actual university class I took was there, and nobody I lived with spoke any English, so that definitely helped. Nearby us there was this Russian military school, and I would see these young, healthy cadets in blue uniforms there. Nearby this school was a metro station, and I would see these injured veterans there, who would go into metro cars asking for money. I would see these people who had their amputated limbs taped up with gray duct tape, and it just seemed like there was this huge gap: there were these healthy kids on one side, and these desperate kids, who were just a few years older, on the other side. There was a chasm between these two, and that chasm was Chechnya.

Chechnya was written about in newspapers and in nonfiction, but not in fiction. I was searching for a novel set in contemporary Chechnya, but couldn’t find it, at least, not one translated into English. The non-fiction stories I had read seemed so powerful, that I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a novel written about that time period.

Which character were you most drawn to, and how did he or she come to life for you?

Sonja is the centerpiece of this book, and of all the characters I am the most invested in her, partly because she’s an unlikely character. She’s an ethnic Russian in Chechnya, at a time when Russians have occupied and are warring against the Chechen population. She’s this brilliant surgeon in a place where all the brilliant surgeons have fled. She’s a woman in a position of authority and power in a very patriarchal society. The unexpectedness of her existence is something I really found fascinating.

I had been thinking about doing a book on Chechnya for a while, and I didn’t want to write a book about soldiers. Then I realized that you could approach war from the opposite end of the telescope. You could write about it not as people killing each other but people healing, helping, recovering, bandaging.

I found this memoir by a guy named Khassan Baiev, a doctor in Chechnya, and during wartime, he was the only surgeon in a city of 60,000 people. He had no supplies, he was working out of his basement, and he was using carpentry tools for his operations. He had bounties on his head from both the rebels and Russians, because he would treat them all. Reading that made me realize that telling this story through a hospital, a surgeon, and medicine, was the right thing to do, and Sonja made it possible.

How did you develop Sonja’s sister, Natasha, a compassionate, complex character who undergoes the traumas of human trafficking?

Her character was inspired by real people from books on human trafficking, most notably The Natashas, which is based on Eastern European women who are trafficked into Western Europe and the U.S. It had all these testimonies that I just wanted to capture. Human trafficking is one of those things that don’t get much attention. The victims do not get attention in the source or destination countries, and the source countries don’t have the resources to provide education about the dangers of trafficking.

Most of those stories end when the person is rescued, but Natasha’s really begins there.  I wanted to understand how you could rebuild your life after going through something like that. The way her character develops and arcs at the end of the novel, tries to capture the idea that recovery is possible, even if it is not easy.

Why did you want to include the perspective of a young child, Havaa, in a story set during wartime?

There are two narratives common to the Qur’an and the Bible that form the axis of this book. The story of a father being asked to sacrifice his son, which is more explicit in Khassan and Ramazan’s relationship, and the story of an orphan being taken in by the family responsible for her orphanhood. This is the story of Moses’ childhood, which I’ve always kind of thought was more interesting than all of his turning staffs into serpents and the parting of seas.

I also feel like kids can be wonderfully illogical. Even though Sonja is a painfully logical person and at first hates Havaa, Sonja ends up taking a caring and maternal role towards her. The whole book revolves around trying to ensure Havaa’s safety, and in a place where people are dying, having a character who is a kid, who is still innocent and has this whole life ahead of her, seemed like a important thing to explore.

You elegantly lay out certain details about a character’s future. Is this meant to guide the reader’s understanding of these characters and their relationships?

In this novel, there’s a present story set over the course of five days, and there are a number of chapters that are set in previous years. But I wanted to explore future events as well. These jumps in time begin happening with the main characters near the end, but earlier most jumps are with minor character. I liked the idea of writing a novel where there is no minor character, and everybody gets their due, their moment in the spotlight. It situates the characters and these five days within a much larger time frame. It is told with this hyper omniscient voice, which makes it possible to create a larger constellation or map of characters and events. There is a lot of drama in the novel, but because of the tight timeframe, there is very little time for us to see how fractures begin to repair themselves.

For instance, one of the leaps forward is of this man, who has just received a gruesome amputation, and it’s about him trying to find an architecture job. In the current timeframe, the city is in ruins and he wouldn’t be able to find any work. But in ten years, when the war is over, he will never have to look for work again, because there is this whole city to rebuild. In seeing their futures, you get to see their redemption.

There is quite a bit of humor that shines through these pages, at times hardened and cynical, at times light and transformative. Was it difficult to imagine the characters as humorous? Or is their humor crucial to their persistence?

Anna Politkovskaya’s novel, A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya, is one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read, but some of it is really funny, albeit in an awful way. It is this dark humor that comes from the recorded, day-to-day lives of Chechens. People there have a very good sense of humor. It’s a bleak sense of humor, a whistling past the graveyard kind of humor, that reflects the awful conditions during the period. And I think that the darker the book is, the more essential humor is.

For instance, David Benioff, the show runner of the Game of Thrones, wrote City of Thieves, set in the siege of Leningrad, and in terms of the scale human suffering, there are few things that can compare with it. He honors this suffering without forsaking humor, ethos, or passion. The humor heightens your sense of horror in this case.

Humor can also disarm a reader, and I think that what I aim to do in this book. If a book can make you smile, there is this instant sense of caring, one you can’t really get otherwise. It is that passageway that the reader can go through to connect with the character, so that later on, the events they go through feel more emotionally immense.

This is a very intense and tragic piece. How did it feel writing it?

I’ve heard people say it’s tragic before, but I don’t think it is. It has elements of tragedy certainly. So when I was in Chechnya, I met this guy named Adam, and Russian rockets in the Chechen War destroyed his childhood village. He decided to build a replica of this village in his backyard, which he started about ten years ago, and now it’s this immense complex of traditional stone washed towers and huts and irrigation canals. Now it’s this lost world that he singlehandedly dredged up and has preserved. I think my novel endeavors to be that sense of salvage and recovery and rescue. It’s more about what is saved than what is lost. I essentially felt a lot of joy in writing this.

What are some of your writing rituals?

I try to work first thing in the morning. I know a lot people who have these elaborate routines, but I just work at my desk at home. I also have this big bulletin boards with notecards on it. I like to use them because you can shuffle them around and sort of see how the pieces fit together. A note card is the perfect size. You can summarize an idea on a notecard, and it becomes this entity you can manipulate. I like having something I can look at a glance. Usually after I write them I don’t go back and really look at them, because putting an idea in writing sort of completes it in my mind.

Right now, the notecards are random thought bubbles for future novels. But for this novel, I used the cards to keep track of different parts of the timeline. One note card might be a certain phrase or sentence that I think would fit into that particular section. And this led to the feature of having a timeline the top of each chapter in the novel. This idea organically came about from the project, because I had to keep all of these different timelines to decide what was happening to these different characters, and at some point it just seemed natural to incorporate this, both for myself and for the reader.

How did you keep yourself motivated to write and revise?

When I was working on the novel, I had a daily word count. I kept track of my daily word count on this sheet of paper that I kept hanging behind my computer, and on the days when I hit the thousand mark, I would mark those with black ink, and on days I didn’t I would mark it on red ink. Work ethic by shame, and it was very helpful because it gave me this structure.

It’s different with revision. Revision takes different forms for different pieces. I usually try to go back to the first word. With this novel I did it about four or five times, where I printed out the entire novel, and retyped all of it. As you’re retyping you are able to tap into the creative subconscious that is at work. It’s really about rewriting, rather than just revising.

Do you always see yourself writing about conflict in Eastern Europe? Or do you someday see yourself writing about something different?

I envision doing three novels about Russia. One of them will be a collection of linked short stories by the same narrator, as he’s trying to convince somebody to marry him by writing these stories and sending them to her. It takes place in Los Angeles and an arctic mining town in Russia, towns that used to be decommissioned gulag camps, where prisoners continue to live. It is set to be published in 2014.

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