Born in Washington, D.C., Anthony Marra has resided and studied in Eastern Europe and has traveled through Chechnya – a common thread in some of his better known works. Felicitated highly for his short stories, he has come out with his debut novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena – a sweeping exposition of the age old adage "Everything is fair in love and war". Apart from winning awards galore, Marra also finds time to complete a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University and will begin teaching as a Jones Lecturer in Fiction this fall.
1) Who, or what, were the inspirations for your debut novel?
When I was in college, I studied in St. Petersburg, Russia, shortly after the journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated, presumably for the reporting she did from Chechnya. Chechnya was in the air in Russia at the time and I began reading about it out of a fascination with its remarkable history and culture. The inspirations came mainly from stories I’d read about, the kinds I’d later hear for myself when traveling to Chechnya. THE OATH by Khassan Baiev is a beautiful memoir by a Chechen surgeon that I repeatedly turned to while writing the novel. As I did with the works of Anna Politkovskaya.
2) From “Chechnya” to “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” – any specific reason why some of your creations find their genesis in destruction?
It’s difficult to write fiction based in recent Chechen history that doesn’t have the wars at its heart. But while Constellation is set amid destruction, it’s not about destruction. The characters at the center of the book are all ordinary civilians, not particularly religious or political, who retain their humanity despite the historical forces that might otherwise strip them of it.
3) What are the six vital phenomena which make up the constellation of life for Anthony Marra?
The title A Constellation of Vital Phenomena comes from the medical dictionary definition for life. There are six vital phenomena—organization, irritability, adaptation, reproduction, movement, and growth—and as life emerges as a constellation of these six phenomena, so the novel emerges as a constellation of six point-of-view characters.
4) How does brevity stoke the fire of prose? I ask you this because your debut novel is in the process of going down as one of the truly great minimalist works of fiction of recent times.
To be honest, I’ve never heard the novel described as minimalist before. If anything, I think it’s the antithesis of minimalism. It’s a large book set over ten years, populated with a sizeable cast of characters, and told by a hyper-omniscient narrator who possesses the ability not only to peer inside even the most minor character, but to also delineate that character’s past and future.
5) From writing classes at a community center to the Iowa Writers' workshop to the Wallace Stegner fellowship – it must have been a long journey. How much does formal coaching influence the style and content of an aspiring writer?
Fellowships and MFA programs give writers time and feedback, two things that are in short supply in the world at large. For two or three years, you get to focus on your work within a community of like-minded people. I wouldn’t consider it “formal coaching,” but more as extended conversations about how fiction works.
6) What should fiction do to increase its vastness and degree of complexity?
I don’t think complexity is increased, or built out, so much as unearthed. A scene as seemingly everyday as a family eating dinner might be fraught with the conflicting desires of different characters, rivalries and allegiances, hopes and expectations, in short, the stuff that makes most of life quite complicated.
7) A good story not only changes you but changes with you. Do you agree? If yes, can you give us the best example of this that you have come across?
Stories can gain or lose power over time. There are books I’ve read that didn’t make much of an impact on me ten years ago that resonate today, and others whose power and complexity have increased with time. JESUS’ SON by Denis Johnson has been one of the later
Thank you Anthony for your time and we wish you all the best for your debut novel. We hope to see you as one of the brightest stars in the constellation of modern literature in the years to come.
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