Looking for Moments Where the Transcendent Becomes Possible: An Interview with Anthony Marra

Featured Image: Murnau, by Alexej von Jawlensky. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art’s Open Access Collection

Anthony Marra is the author of the collection of short stories The Tsar of Love and Techno and the novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, winner of the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction. Our editorial associate Chase Campbell interviewed him in advance of our annual fiction contest, for which Marra is the judge.


Chase Campbell: So, I guess to start out with: something that immediately stands out to me both about A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and The Tsar of Love and Techno is their geographic focus—they’re both set and interested in the former Soviet Union and Chechnya. I’m curious about what makes you, as an American writer, so interested in this part of the world, and its peoples and history.

Anthony Marra: That’s a great one to start with. My first introduction to that part of the world came when I was in high school, when I took a history class in which we read various Russian novels. And I remember just feeling this sort of awe reading these books like A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich—that was one of the ones that really with me—and feeling this sense of moral, artistic, and political confluence that seemed very different from some of what we were reading in English class at the time. So from that point on I became just really fascinated with Russian literature. When I was in college in Los Angeles, my school had a foreign exchange program with St. Petersburg State University, and I ended up there when I was a junior. I arrived a couple months after the journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated for the reporting she’d been doing in Chechnya. I lived down the street from this military cadet academy, and every day I’d see these 16- and 17-year-old kids in military uniforms marching around the neighborhood in formation, and they’d march past this local metro stop. Outside the metro stop at rush hour you’d see these veterans a few years older than these kids outside the escalator panhandling, and they too were wearing uniforms, except theirs weren’t nearly as well-pressed or well-maintained. Many of them had lost limbs. They were veterans of this conflict that these young cadets might very well one day join. I remember seeing these two groups of young people, these tragic veterans and these bright-eyed cadets, one group marching past the other, and there was this vast chasm that separated the two groups. I was curious to learn more about what this was. So for a number of years, I was just reading everything I could find on the northern Caucasus—I had no intention of writing anything set there—and I noticed that despite all the nonfiction and reportage I came across there were no novels in English set in the recent Russian-Chechen conflict. So I came to write A Constellation of Vital Phenomena almostmore as a reader than a writer; it was a book I wanted to find and pick up and read. The Tsar of Love and Techno sort of grew out of a number of tidbits that I hadn’t been able to fit into Constellation.

CC: Speaking of the conception of The Tsar of Love and Techno, considering that it’s sort of a cross between a short story collection and a novel, with all these connections running throughout—at what point were you aware that you were writing a book, as it were, a complete work, rather than a bunch of short stories? Was it an organic process, or was it planned early on?

AM: It was actually quite late. In hindsight I wish I’d ended up calling it a novel, because it does feel like one to me. Originally it was nine completely discrete short stories. After Constellation came out, people would ask me, “What are you working on now?” and I’d say, “A short story collection,” and I could just see the excitement drain from their faces, and it occurred to me that despite the fact that America has a short story tradition that’s maybe second only to Russia’s, we tend in American literary culture to see short stories as the minor leagues; it’s something that you’re working on on your way up to a novel, or if you’re feeling a bit lazy between novels maybe you’ll do a short story collection or something. It occurred to me that the very aspects of the collection as a literary form that people from time to time will point to as for reasons to disparage it—the fact that a short story collection is by nature fragmentary, that you’re only inhabiting a consciousness for a brief span of time and then hopping to another, that there’s no sense of continuity or overarching meaning—that those same qualities actually allow you to create a narrative that’s much more capacious and much more overarching than anything you could fit in a novel. I became curious to see how I could take this series of independent short stories and try to build them into this structure that would allow for a narrative that was something much bigger and ambitious than I ever could’ve done in the novel form. So—I guess this is sort of a long way of answering your question—I was really curious about how the short story collection as a literary form could be leveraged to tell the kind of story that would never fit in a novel. I ended up spending maybe a year in a half or two years going back through the collection; I took out a couple stories, added a couple stories, and I began to notice that there were certain repetitions, both in terms of theme and images—I noticed that photographs appeared in multiple stories; the concern about how culture is used as an instrument of coercion and manipulation, as well as becoming a space for some kind of redemption; outer space appeared in a couple stories—so I tried to really draw out these echoes that were battering around between the stories to see if I could use those as a way of creating this more coherent narrative.

CC: You mentioned the recurrent concern of culture being used both as an instrument of manipulation and being something from which redemption can emerge, which was one of the biggest things that stood out to me during my reading if Tsar, most obviously in “The Leopard,” with Roman Markin’s art being used to erase history, but elsewhere as well. I’m curious if you could expand on your thoughts more broadly on the moral responsibility of artists considering their ability to shape culture.

AM: I feel like often we have a tendency as writers to sort of fetishize storytelling as a moral good in and of itself, which is understandable, given that if you’re a writer or reader chances are you find a good deal of meaning in both the creation and the consumption of stories. But I think that that may kind of elide the fact that a story is an instrument of persuasion, and like any kind of instrument of persuasion it can be used for good and for ill. So I think when people look at cultural production it’s often to glorify the redemptive possibilities that art so often does genuinely create. But the fact is Stalin was a very accomplished poet; Goebbels had a literature PhD. Being subsumed within these modes of cultural production and consumption doesn’t in any way mean you are a moral person. One of the things that I was interested in in that book and in the one I’m working on now is the question of, when one is an artist, how does one weigh the mandates of one’s conscience versus the political and social and economic pressures that are always brought to bear on any artist’s work. Particularly when you see, as happened in the Soviet Union, when these very accomplished artist, Rodchenko for instance, were tasked with obliterating the faces of enemies of the people. It felt to me like a way of drilling down into this society wide question of, how does one do what’s right? How does one honor one’s own conscience when faced with the terrible pressure and the terrible, coercive power of the state. These individual artists who had these great gifts and who were either by choice or by fear—I’m sure there was a whole range of motives and incentives—brought that gift to bear on really doing the opposite of whatever any kind of decent art is about.

CC: It’s interesting to me—it’s present both in Tsar and in what you were just saying that you have this grave awareness of the potentially deleterious ends to which art can be used—it’s interesting to me that The Tsar of Love and Techno isn’t really cynical at all, despite its confrontation of the darker side of art and storytelling itself. I feel like cynicism has historically been a pretty big feature of a lot of American fiction, and it almost seems like a necessary feature of books that are themselves critical of storytelling. To me at least, there’s this sort of humanism that surges throughout Tsar; you write all these people, some of whom aren’t particularly good people, in all these sort of miserable situations, with a great deal of empathy and approach them with a sort of secular spiritualism; there’s lot’s of redemption and those sorts of big important things. Do you think that from an influence from Russian authors like Tolstoy and others of his ilk?

AM: That’s a great question. I’m sure it’s partially—particularly with Tsar, and Constellation for that matter, I was very aware of the literary antecedents I was trying to summon down from the heavens. One of the things that I so admire about Tolstoy’s work is that he finds everyone interesting. There’s no one who’s beneath his attention as an author. A couple months ago I went back and read some of Chekhov’s plays, and one of the things that stand out to me in plays like The Seagull is that even the minor characters, these bit players—the governesses and games wardens—these characters who are very peripheral to the central action of his plays are still invested with incredible depth of personality, of idiosyncrasies; they’re people who within the world of the play and maybe within the society of theater goers may be nobodies, but in his eyes nobodies are somebodies to themselves. I really admire the willingness and the love so many of those great Russian writers have for people. I think it’s sometimes easy to forget, given all the various concerns we have when we write, that people are really interesting; we’re all struggling and hurting the people we love and worthy of grace. There’s something of that that I guess I hoped to infuse the characters of Tsar with. I really love books in which even the most villainous and despicable characters are, if not entirely forgivable, at least understandable, and you feel that the author cares about them. In writing that book, I really tried to care for these individual characters as best I could. There is something I think as a writer and as a reader that’s quite joyful, even in these rather bleak circumstances the characters find themselves in. If you’re able to really honor them as individuals, I think that’s a wonderful process, and I hope that’s conveyed on the page.

CC: I certainly think it is at least. Given what you’ve just said about your deep interest in people, in your characters, I’m curious if, when writing, you start with characters, or have a character in mind—is that the point from which your stories grow?

AM: I feel like characters only really make themselves known in how they interact with their particular historical moment. In Constellation for instance, there’s a character named Ramzan who’s this informer, you know, doing a lot of bad stuff, and there’s some line—I don’t remember if he’s thinking of himself this way or if his father is thinking of him this way—that “if were in another country, maybe he would’ve been a tax cheat.” The circumstances he finds himself in really magnify moral choice to a degree in which somebody who otherwise would’ve been relatively harmless is able to sink to these terrible depths. In Tsar, I had sort of a similar experience with the character of Roman Markin [from the story “The Leopard”], where I knew that I wanted to write something within the world of these censors who erased and airbrushed out the faces of Stalin’s enemies. I had that idea and was like, “OK, what’s the most interesting way to approach that?” And you think about various avenues and characters and how they might fair within that world, then you think “Oh, what about a portrait artist?” Somebody who’s been trained to create faces on the page being tasked with erasing faces. And you think, “Oh, that’s interesting,” and so forth and so forth—it’s almost this process of what character brings you the deepest into the world you’re writing about, I guess, is usually how I think about character.

CC: I’m curious about the story “Granddaughters,” where you use this first-person plural narration, which isn’t a voice I see used a whole lot. I ask about that I guess because—well, I spent a number of years working with New Ohio Review and read a lot of submissions, and became increasingly aware of the fact that any unusual narratorial choice, any heightened language or ultra-minimalist language or unusual point of view, can risk being distracting and detracting or sort of running counter to the core of the story—and I guess I’m curious about, like, why write it like that; in your eyes as the writer, how did it serve the story in a way a more typical voice couldn’t? And was it written like that in the first draft, or did it emerge in revision?

AM: So, part of it goes to thinking about what a short story collection can do that a novel can’t. Sort of weird perspective choices, I think, when they work at all, maybe they can work as short stories. There aren’t too many novels—there’s that Joshua Ferris novel, Then We Came to the End, that’s in first person plural, but that’s the only one I can think of. I agree that weird perspectives, like any sort of weird formal experimentation usually works best in small servings. I think the first draft of that I wrote in 2009, so it’s been a while, but I’m pretty sure that the communal voice was there from the beginning, though I’m not positive. But when those sorts of weird perspectives do work, they work because there is something in the story itself that is amplified by that perspective choice. So, for “Granddaughters,” it became a way both of sort of getting at the voice of these adolescents—you know, at what age do we more often think in the first-person plural than as teenagers—while also getting at this sense of the Soviet communal mentality within this town a hundred miles above the Arctic circle cut off from everywhere where that becomes a real sense of identity. There was something about the idea of this story that was really about the character of Galina, and I liked the idea of it being told by her audience almost, how her friends are really her audience, and that this was a way of getting at the perspective of her fans, kind of. It seemed like an interesting vantage on her life. I think that oftentimes when I’m looking for what perspective to choose it’s usually, “what will make a story that might otherwise be a little humdrum seem a little more interesting?” I feel like 9/10 of aesthetic choices are just, “what’s going to be more interesting here?” In that case, it was just trying to find the best vantage to look at Galina’s life, and I thought that the first-person plural did that.

CC: Something that stood out to me while I was rereading Tsar to prepare for this conversation was the sequencing of the stories. With “Granddaughters,” there’s this character Vera who’s briefly mentioned in passing, who, as far as the narrators know, is just this this girl who informed on her parents. Vera comes back in a story in the latter half of the collection and we learn that that situation was a whole lot more nuanced than those narrators understood it to be. There’s an effect of expanded understanding there that you only get if you read the collection in order; each story builds on the ones that precede it, expands them, complicates them, which isn’t really the case for most short story collections. Because of that I’m curious about the sequencing of the stories, the whole mixtape thing—how did that emerge?

AM: Yeah that was…that’s a good question. [Laughs.] It’s one of those things were—it was like, 2014 when I figured all that out, and as the author you want to kind of pretend you can remember everything, but like most things in life it’s—yeah, I don’t think I can perfectly recall it. I remember I felt, because of how these stories are all linked up and intertwined, that how they sort of rolled out was really important. I kind of, as I was working on trying to build the various links that it would sort of create this architecture where these stories could converse with each other. The idea I had was, I wanted to start 300 feet below St. Petersburg in this tunnel and end in outer space, so the question I had was how am I going to get from a metro tunnel to outer space? And that kind of became the guiding question I was asking myself throughout the process as I was trying to figure out how to fit it all together. I remember I wanted to have “Granddaughters” early on. Roman Markin and “The Leopard” and all that was really the heart of the book, in addition to being chronologically the earliest story, so I felt that had to come first; the arc lands on the missing pieces from that story. I thought that having “Granddaughters” early on would both create a sense of the sweep of the book but would also introduce all these elements that would appear on later stories. I kind of love the idea—and this was something I tried to do in Constellation as well—to create this, not the rug being pulled out from under the reader, but this sense that, as the reader, you make all these judgements, “this character’s good, this character’s bad,” and I like turning the reader’s sense of what they think they know about a particular character or a particular situation around and around. That’s something I think is really exciting when I’m reading, to realize that everything I thought about a particular character was wrong, that I had leapt to certain conclusions or errors of judgement; there’s something humbling about realizing just how faulty your own ability to assess another person actually is. So I tried to do that in Tsar in frontloading a lot of these stories from a particular angle early on and then sort of gradually trying to complicate those as they went.

CC: To ask you a question that you hopefully won’t have to remember too far back to answer—how has the world rocked by COVID-19 impacted your writing?

AM: You know, it’s been a fairly productive year. I’ve been here in Cambridge in my little tiny office; as you can see it’s basically a closet. I used to write in the library every day, and I’ve since moved into this—I guess it’s a closet, I’m not really sure what it is. Like it’s an old building, I’m wondering—maybe this was a laundry room at some point? But I sit down here and I work every day and the distractions—I find that I’m an incredibly distractable writer, and person in general—particularly in the early days of the pandemic, when we didn’t leave the apartment more than necessary, really forced me to actually kind of hunker down and write every now and then. Which was a welcome development in what was otherwise a really grim and dispiriting year. How has the pandemic affected you?

CC: Well, it made my last year of college really weird. It made graduating and transition into the ostensibly real and adult world feel very meaningless, in a way. I kind of wallowed in despair for a while, to be honest. Being a very procrastination prone and fickle person it kind of took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do after graduation, and between that and the pandemic I didn’t really get myself together till midsummer. But I got a job and just sort of try to function. I also have a young son, and, you know—having a kid locked up in the house with you for months on end can be difficult, surely much more so for him than for me, but I can only be totally aware of my own suffering, really. I started writing again after months, and feeling good about that, I guess, because—I hadn’t taken any workshops my last semester so I’d just been writing papers, so after not writing poetry or fiction or anything for close to a year I had this worry about like, maybe I just can’t do this anymore. Which turned out to be untrue, so far anyway.

AM: Have you found, just given how crazy the past year has been, that with the sense of control that one has when working a story or a novel or something, that you found any solace? I’ve spoken to other writers who seem to have had that experience.

CC: Yeah, it’s a little like how I imagine escaping into a VR world, I guess, where everything that exists exists only with my consent, and everything that happens happens only with my consent. And, I mean, it’s not—of course I’m constantly surprised when I’m writing, which I imagine is true for everyone who writes. But, you know, it’s like, there’s a comfort in it, because it’s this thing that I’ve been doing—I’m, you know, unpublished and all that but I’ve been writing since I was 14; it’s been this fixture in my life for so long and it’s nice that at least that hasn’t changed, you know? Have you had that experience—has writing been a sort of oasis of control for you?

AM: Yeah, I mean, maybe not control as much as—in part I would say that, like, when your life is reduced to the confines of a one-bedroom apartment, the freedom you feel when you escape into the world of either a book or something you’re writing is something that I’ve maybe come to appreciate much more. I haven’t gotten on an airplane in over a year, but if I want to I can write my way to Mars. I had a professor in graduate school who used to say that it cost the same amount of ink to put a roast in the oven as it costs to put a man on the moon, and I always kind of loved that idea, that of all the various narrative art forms writing is one where it’s so easy to create worlds. I think that’s definitely been something that, over the past year, I’ve come to appreciate, how being able to sort of almost create your own escape hatch in the form of whatever it is you’re writing is something that maybe in the before times I didn’t appreciate quite as much.

CC: I get that. What have you been reading lately? Or more broadly, what writers who’re writing now particularly excite you?

AM: Yeah! I mean, where do you even start? Zadie Smith is someone I—she’s one of those writers whom I line up for on the sell date of whatever her newest one is. Just her wit and insane intelligence; she’s able to write about everyone with such wonderful humor and insight. I think she’s just terrific.

CC: Yeah.

AM: David Mitchel is another writer who I’m always at the book shop for the day one of his new ones are released. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from him as well, particularly about linking together stories and narratives that seem like they don’t quite belong in the same book. Edward P. Jones—he hasn’t published anything in a long time, but he’s a writer who’s really influenced me, particularly in Constellation. He has a book called The Known World that I highly recommend; it’s really one of the best books I’ve ever read. Marilynne Robinson is someone I really admire; there’s this sense of wonderment in her work, of just how unlikely it is that we’re here at all, and a great deal of wisdom and this sense of improbability, which to kind of go back to what you were saying earlier, she almost seems like an antidote to cynicism in a sense; there’s this sense of cosmic unlikelihood that you get in her stories and novels, and this sort of really deep sense of appreciation for how befuddlingly complex people are. So yeah, just off the top of my head those are just four or five writers I really admire—but also let me say, Mario Vargas Llosa; he’s still publishing and somebody from whom I think I’ve learned a lot about in terms of structure. The way he structures some of his novels—The Feast of the Goat, The War of the End of the World—both Constellation and Tsar is something I thought about a lot, as well as how he’s a writer who’s deeply interested in political and historical conflict. Who are some of the writers that you turn to?

CC: I love Zadie Smith a lot too. I like George Saunders a lot; I’ve been reading his new book, where he’s writing commentary on a bunch of Russian short stories.

AM: Is it good?

CC: Yeah, I’m really enjoying it. I hadn’t really read any classic Russian literature other than some Chekhov plays and stories, so it’s really great to have an excuse to read these stories from Tolstoy and Turgenev I should probably read anyway. It’s really a book aimed at writers—Saunders describes it as a condensed version of a class he teaches—and the way he writes about writing is more immediately useful to me than any instructional books about writing I read as a student. He writes about it very mechanically, where everything in terms of plot and character serves some mechanical purpose that encourages the reader to keep reading, which I find—in the way I’m naturally inclined to write, I’m fairly instinctual, which results in some nice sentences sometimes, but I have trouble finishing things and making an actual story instead of a collection of good paragraphs, you know? So I find his more mechanical, structural perspective to be a nice antidote to my whimsy. So yeah, I like George Saunders a lot. I like Jennifer Egan a lot—reading The Tsar of Love and Techno I was reminded a lot of A Visit from the Goon Squad, which—it’s called a novel, but structurally and in scope and perspective is very similar to Tsar.

AM: That was a book that I feel has done a lot to open up the space for these in-between books that aren’t quite novels but aren’t quite short story collections. I feel like readers became much more receptive to that following Goon Squad.

CC: Yeah, and I feel like it’s a really interesting form. Your book and Jennifer Egan’s book are the only two books that really do that like that. I mean, there’s other books of linked short stories, like Winesburg, Ohio, but that’s a different kind of thing you know? That’s a book about a town and the people in that town, as opposed to this expansive, temporally and spatially big thing, you know? And it seems sort of like—that sort of form seems an interesting way to get the same expansiveness that I find attractive in high modernist literature, I guess, but to do it in a way where it’s accessible. Does that make sense?

AM: Oh, totally, yeah. That’s such a smart way of putting it. I really like that. As a way of thinking of that sort of in-between form—a way of making that modernist reach into something the average person can actually hold.

CC: Yeah. Your book and Jennifer Egan’s book both really excite me as a young writing person. In terms of—I have trouble calling myself a writer—

AM: You should!

CC: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s what everyone says. It doesn’t roll off the tongue naturally. But they excite me in that, it’s just nice to see fiction that’s written now that’s doing new things and surprising me. I feel like there’s some thinkpiece every few years about like, “Is the novel dying?” or whatever, and as a person who wants to write fiction that’s a scary thing to be thinking about at age 22.

AM: People have been saying that since Gutenberg. I think there’s no danger to the novel dying in our lifetimes.

CC: Unless we all die, I suppose.

AM: True enough.

CC: But then there’ll be nobody to worry about it. Well, since we’re kind of coming to the end here, I’m going to, rather fittingly, ask you a question about the story “The End” from Tsar. So you write in the little book notes section that’s at the end of my edition, at least, that “The End” was one of the first stories in the collection that you wrote. I’m curious about how exactly that’s the case; the story seems so much like the culmination of everything else.

AM: Yeah. I can’t remember if it was the first or second story I wrote. It was actually for Marilynne Robinson’s workshop in grad school, and it was—it’s a story I feel like I wrote very much under her—sort of her guiding wisdom, maybe. She would always tell us—she really tired to instill this sense of fiction being a place to explore these really kind of scientific and spiritual and metaphysical ideas, that a story didn’t need to be purely about conflict; it could be this space—that a good story could almost be like a secular prayer. And that was definitely something when I was working on that that I was thinking about a lot. The first draft of that was—that was in 2009, 2010, something like that; after “Granddaughters” I think it was the first story from the collection I wrote. At the time I had all these totally independent stories, among them “The End.” And I knew, of course, that “The End” would have to go at the end, because where else?

CC: Well, obviously.

AM: Thinking about how I was going to get to outer space became sort of the guiding framework of the two years of revision, thinking about how I could both change that particular short story but also how I could revise various other stories along the way in order to make that feel like this moment of ecstasy and sadness and extinction way out there at the exit to the solar system. So I really tried to figure out—and it was pretty tricky, to figure out how to make that make any kind of sense, even if it’s just as the last thoughts of this guy as he’s going up in the land mine. It felt like kind of also this moment—because one of the things sort of bleeding in throughout the book is whether or not Alexei is sort of guiding the hand of the stories, if he may have written the stories that appear in the collection; there’s kind of hints of that—and I kind of loved the idea of the last story sort of being Alexei’s way of giving his brother this moment of grace at the end of a rather tragic life. So those were all kind of things I was thinking about with that particular story. It’s interesting; I kind of feel like some people think like, that was the perfect way for the book to end, and other people are just really weirded out by it and think the book should’ve stopped with the previous story. I don’t think I’ve experienced like, such a split decision among readers as I have with that particular ending.

CC: I love it, so you can count be in with one of the thumbs up people there. We’re kind of going over my allotted time here, but would you mind if I ask you one more question kind of bouncing off of everything you’ve just set?

AM: Yeah, yeah.

CC: Cool. In talking about the sort of spiritual-metaphysical place you were writing toward with this story, I’m curious—because there’s other hints of that sort of spiritual-metaphysical stuff throughout elsewhere in the collection, like the place that immediately springs to mind for me is at the end of the titular story, where Alexei sees a mother and child on the hill where Kolya died and also where the wife and child of the “Grozny Tourist Bureau” guy’s wife and child died; Alexei makes specific note that they resemble the figures added to the painting by him. Is there any kind of guiding principle, I guess, in the way that you introduce that vaguely spiritual aura in these stories that are otherwise pretty grounded and realist and very much take the world as it is?

AM: I don’t think there’s any particular guiding principle so much as—I like the sense both as a writer and a reader where you’re moving through realism and all of a sudden something kind of miraculous occurs. One of my favorite movies of the last few years was First Reformed. The very end of that movie does that beautifully, where you’re operating on this plane of aesthetic and convention, and you realize it was kind of all to bring you to this point where the curtain falls away and the miraculous begins. I feel like the works of art that have often touched me most have been those where the preconceptions and the self-certainties that a character cloaks themselves in all of a sudden falls away, and there’s a moment of transcendence. That sense of transcendence is one that I hope to bring my characters, or at least some of them to. Hopefully that transfers in some way to the reader. I suppose that looking for moments where the transcendent becomes possible is something that often governs my choices as a writer, trying to see how I can create or shape a story where that feels not contrived or invented, but fully baked into the realism of the piece, where reality necessarily leads to this moment of transcendence.  

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