(Originally posted April 7, 2014)
Anthony Marra is the first time author of the award winning fiction novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. I got the chance to interview Anthony and get some insight on his writing process and thoughts on the book. A Constellation focuses on eight year old Haava, who lives in a small Chechnyan village. After her father is abducted, her neighbor Ahkmed finds refuge for her in an abandoned hospital run by Dr. Sonja Rabina. The story takes us through the past and present lives of several characters who live in both Haava’s village and work at the hospital where she finds safety.
The Whole (S)tory (TWS): To start out can you give The Whole (S)tory readers a bit of your background as a writer?
Anthony Marra (AM): I began trying my hand at fiction when I was 18 or so, and it was the only vaguely school-like activity that I’d ever had much of a knack for. I remember being amazed that you could sit down, dream up characters and a story, put them on paper, and they’d still be there, waiting for you, the next time you sat down at your desk. Throughout college I wrote most days, and eventually I went to Iowa for my MFA. I began working onConstellation a few weeks before I arrived there.
TWS: What do you hope people come away thinking about after reading “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” and how have people told you the book has affected them?
AM: Once a book is published, it goes from belonging to the writer to belonging to the reader. What people take from a novel is between them and the book, and it’s not really my place to speculate. I get a few notes from readers each week, and getting the chance to meet people who have met me indirectly through the novel has been immensely rewarding.
TWS: Even though all the characters are in someway connected it seems like they have such different background stories and personalities, how long did they take to develop?
AM: They changed with each draft. I retype all my work when I revise, and each draft I felt I got to know the characters with greater depth and precision. There was a David Hockney exhibit in San Francisco, near where I live, a few months back. One of the galleries was filled with canvases of the same landscape, rendered in different seasons and in different mediums. Hockney has said that each time he repaints a landscape he sees it more clearly, because he’s seeing it both through his eyes and through his memory. The same is true with writing. Each time I rewrote the book, the characters emerged more fully from the marble, to mix artistic metaphors, and I could see them more clearly and vividly.
TWS: The back and forth layout of the book goes from the present tense to past tense often, what was your process for keeping a straight timeline so it would all fit together so nicely?
AM: To be honest, I kept most of it in my head. I didn’t have a huge bulletin board with colored yarn running from one character’s story to the next or anything like that. I didn’t outline the book. What I did do, however, was constantly look back at what I’d already written to direct me forward. My hope was that the reader would finish the novel with a sense of cohesion and completeness, that everything before the final period is essential, and one of the ways I tried to accomplish that was to fold the novel back in on itself, so that a scene or object would reappear multiple times, becoming more complex with each iteration.
TWS: Congratulations on winning the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Fiction and having such a well-received first novel in general, how does it feel?
AM: I’ve been very fortunate for the warm reception the novel has received. It’s tough to get attention for any first novel, let alone a nonlinear novel set in a part of the world most Americans are unfamiliar with, and I’m grateful that readers have taken a chance on it.
TWS: Imagine it were possible for a book to have a soundtrack, what songs would be on “A Constellation’s…” soundtrack?
AM: I made a playlist for Largehearted Boy with a variety of tracks on them last year. I usually don’t listen to music while I write, but if I were to pick one band to score the book, it would probably be Sigur Ros. Their songs sound like epic dreams to me, as do certain scenes in the novel.
TWS: If there was a movie version of “A Constellation…” who would you cast and why?
AM: Tough call. Probably local actors. I admire a number of movies that emerged from the Italian neorealism movement, which were often shot on location and employed locals with no professional acting experience as the leads. Or maybe Daniel Day Lewis. In all the roles. I hear he’s very versatile.
TWS: Do you have any projects you are working on now, if so what can you tell the readers?
AM: I have a second book under contract which is set in a similar part of the world and revolves around a 19th-century painting.