Anthony Marra’s devastating debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, was recently longlisted for the National Book Award. Taking place over the course of five days in 2004 in a Chechen hospital, the novel centers around six characters: Akhmed, a mediocre physician from a small Chechen village; Havaa, his eight-year-old neighbor whose father has just been kidnapped by the Russian Federal Secret Service (FSB); Ramzan, Akhmed’s best friend who has turned informer for the FSB; Khassan, Ramzan’s elderly father who has spent his life writing a massive tome dedicated to Chechen history; Sonja, the sole remaining surgeon at a nearby hospital; and Natasha, Sonja’s beautiful sister whose whereabouts are unknown when the novel begins. Deeply humane and profoundly moving, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a novel that resounds with the reader long after finishing it. Anthony Marra spoke with Brendan Dowling via telephone on November 6, 2013. Photo credit: Smeeta Mahanti.
Public Libraries: The book began as a short story, “Chechnya.” Can you talk about the process of building the world of that story out into the novel?
Anthony Marra: I wrote the short story and I thought it was going to be more or less just that: a short story. I showed the story to a few people and the reaction was often that it seemed like it was a synopsis for a novel. It wasn’t until around nine months after I finished it that I really began thinking of it as a much smaller part of a larger story.
It was really just the characters. It felt like their narratives were much deeper than could be conveyed in a twenty-five-page short story. It was useful—in terms of writing—to have this backbone of a structure within the short story as I started thinking of it as a novel.
The novel is much different than the story both in tone and in content, so much so that I actually look back at the short story now and I really don’t recognize those characters. They seem very flat compared to the beings they eventually evolved into. In the process of writing the book I don’t think I looked back on the story very often, if at all. But I had this rough sense of where I was going, which I think prevented me from getting lost in the woods on many occasions.
PL: The six main characters weave in and out of each other’s lives, and a lot of times they’re unaware how their lives have intersected in the past. Was this interconnectivity a process of discovery or did you have a general sense of how their lives all fit in with one another?
AM: No, it was very much a process of discovery. I knew that the core of the story was these three characters: Akhmed, Sonja, and Havaa. Their ultimate state in the novel resembles the ending of the story. But the other characters—Khassan, Ramzan, and Natasha—their parts all changed dramatically and I really had no idea how it was all going to come together.
It wasn’t until maybe fifty pages before the end that I began to see how it was cohering. I would often get the sense of what was going to happen next from what I had already written. The Abraham and Isaac—or Ishamel as it is in the Islamic tradition—story, that idea was introduced fairly early on in the book between Khassan and Ramzan. And I remember when I realized, “What if this actually plays out, that this story that is referenced is actually enacted and dramatized?” In hindsight it seems like a pretty obvious choice to make, but I remember it was this eureka moment about fifty pages before the scene comes in the book that I realized that was what it had been building to. The ultimate connections between the characters were less a process of deliberation or planning, but hearing the echoes the book had already created and trying to move them to resound at the same frequency.
PL: So in a way you were already subconsciously writing the narrative before you knew what you were doing?
AM: Yeah. I think it goes to looking back at what you’ve already written to figure out what to write next. All the major plot points and mysteries that unfold throughout the course of the book are more or less set up in the first hundred pages. It was much less intentional planning on my part than simply I wouldn’t quite know where I was going and I would look back and see what I already had. So I would look back and see the nutcracker or the gun that Havaa wanted to shoot. And I would use those little physical artifacts throughout the book in order to turn the story in different directions.
PL: You didn’t visit Chechnya until after the book was written, correct?
AM: I visited it a year before the book was published. It was after I had written it by and large, but I was still going through the final editorial stages so I was able to change things here and there. So for instance, in the draft that I had at the time, there was an escalator in a scene set in 2004. When I was in Chechnya, I visited the first escalator ever built and it was built in 2007. It became this minor tourist destination in Chechnya. Families would bring their kids to see the moving stairs. So I ended up using that in the book.
PL: What was it like to write about a place you knew so intimately through research but had never physically visited?
AM: Chechnya today is much different than the world of the book and quite a bit different than the Chechnya ten years ago. Grozny by and large has been rebuilt. There are still pockets of insurgent activity, but for the most part it’s relatively stable and peaceful. In that sense it almost felt like visiting Gettysburg years after the Battle. You’d see a field and you could maybe imagine what had happened there, but there aren’t bodies lying around. There aren’t bullets whizzing past.
It was more getting to meet everyday civilians, who are the kind of characters that populate the book, and listening to their stories and hearing what they had to say. It was immensely gratifying. I did as much research as I was able to,given my resources, before visiting Chechnya and as I was working on the book. I ended up feeling like a lot of that was accurate.
PL: You had to do so much research, not only with Chechen and Russian history, but also with surgical operations and daily life in wartime Chechnya. How did you balance giving the reader what they needed to know without overwhelming them with research?
AM: It was sort of a fine balance. I knew going into it that unlike a book set in Germany in World War II, chances were that any reader picking up the book would have only a vague familiarity with Chechnya, if any familiarity at all. So feeding the contextual information to the reader without overwhelming the story was a bit tricky at times. The character Khassan was partially an invention to deal with that: creating a historian who’s been working on a book of history his entire life was a hopefully natural way of putting in some of those contextual and historical backgrounds that the reader needed.
But I feel like nothing kills the spark of fiction faster than the sense that the author is giving you a history lesson. So I was really wary of that. At no point did I want to overwhelm the reader with facts and figures. The fact that the novel is told and is most concerned with these everyday civilians—people who are not particularly political, who are not particularly religious—meant that I could get away with weeding out the more thorny and finer points of the contemporary Chechen conflict.
But it was also a matter of choosing your battles. I realized that there had to be some sort of operation in the book, both to show Sonja’s mettle and her brilliance as a surgeon, but also to prove the reality of the world of the hospital. And I realized I needed just one single instance, and that was this leg amputation. If I could just get that right then I wouldn’t have to write any more about medical procedures. So I put my narrative and research-related resources into this five or six-page-long detailed description of this amputation. And that allowed me not to have to write about any other medical procedures throughout the book.
PL: Have you had any reaction to the book from Chechen readers?
AM: Not a ton. It hasn’t been published in Chechnya and I doubt it will be. I’ve received some nice notes from the authors of some of the books that I used for research. There was a journalist who was a colleague of Anna Politkovskaya (Editor’s note: Politkovskaya was an award-winning journalist whose reports from Chechnya during both wars in the 90’s and early 2000’s detailed the atrocities of war. She was assassinated in 2006, and her murder remains unsolved.) She wrote a piece for Voice of America and she sent me a tweet saying thanks for the book. That was gratifying obviously. But I haven’t heard a ton of reactions from anyone in Chechnya.
PL: One thing that might surprise readers is how funny the book is. A lot of the characters have a very dark and dry sense of humor. Is that reflective of a Chechen style of humor, a coping mechanism for what they were living through, or both?
AM: I think that humor—and this was certainly my experience in Chechnya—we use humor for all sorts of reasons, but it can be a coping mechanism. A joke can be a deadly serious thing; we laugh at something in order to survive it.
When I was in Chechnya, I was always amazed at how surgical the senses of humor of many of the people I met were. They could recognize exactly what you were afraid of or uncomfortable with, and then tease you for it. I visited this town called Benoy, which is right on the Chechen-Dagestan border. It was a place that had been a base of support for the insurgency. I visited with an imam and a couple of his friends. And one of them took a photo of me and put it on twitter under the caption, “He may look like a dork but he’s braver than he looks. He’s the first American tourist in Chechnya.” And all of the comments in his twitter feed were variations on, “Are you making him smile at gunpoint?” And stuff like that would happen again and again. (laughs)
Even in the reporting—a book like A Small Corner of Hell by Anna Politkovskaya, which is one of the most harrowing pieces of literature I’ve ever read, is shot through with incredibly bleak humor. There’s a chapter where a newly married couple is moving into their new house. They begin putting their clothes away in the oven and in the refrigerator because there’s no electricity, so why not make use of the space? So the dark, black humor [of the novel] is both indicative of a way of surviving all this and also [a way to] allow a little levity into what could have otherwise been a pretty bleak story.
PL: The other thing that tempers the bleakness of the book is these quick flashforwards into the future of the characters, no matter how incidental, showing their ultimate fate. At what point in the writing process did that aspect of telling the story come into play?
AM: It was actually in the fourth draft of the book. It was fairly late in the process of working on it. My writing process is I retype everything. I don’t really use red pens or mark the manuscript in any way. I just print out the entire thing and rewrite it from scratch. I think that’s a way of finding the necessary changes within the text that emerge organically, rather than having them superimposed from the outside.
One of the things that happens if you’re retyping the same scene is that your mind wanders a little bit. So the first three drafts were all written from a third person point of view that was more or less stapled to a single character’s shoulder in each scene. You would never see more than they saw in that moment. You would never know more than they knew then. But the fourth time retyping the book, I just wandered into another character’s head in the middle of the first chapter. And it just felt like this sense of freedom for me. All of the sudden I was discovering corners of the fictive world that I hadn’t realized existed before. So I just kept doing it. This hyper-omniscient narrator took hold of the book.
I wanted to include these flashforwards partially to let a little light leak into the book. It’s a novel set in a hospital. It’s about recovery. It’s about restoration. But also I wanted to write a book in which there were no minor characters, in which every character, no matter how incidental, got their sentence in the spotlight. That was a way of addressing that too, hopefully demonstrating that anyone of these characters could have had a novel written about them. I just happened to choose these six.
PL: And finally, what role have libraries played in your life?
AM: Ever since I was a kid going to the school library, libraries have been almost a church-like space. Everything’s quiet and there’s a sense of the sacred almost. You’re surrounded by these shelves and bookcases that hold a very broad array of human possibility and what the mind is capable of achieving.
I love working in libraries. I would sometimes go to the library at the University of Iowa to work on my book. There’s just something inexpressibly special about a library that I can’t quite put into words. You’re just surrounded by these vessels of human endeavor.
In terms of research, there haven’t been a huge number of books written about Chechnya. Most of them have been put out by universities or small presses and many of them are out of print. Just purely in terms of research, I would spend a lot of time in the library and rack up all sorts of overdue fines in checking out various books.
Growing up I would go to the DC Public Library on Connecticut Avenue. It was a place that taught me to fall in love with stories and the possibility of what you can do in fiction, the ways that we both escape and understand our own realities through story. And those have all been incredibly important within my life and I think I owe a lot of that to public libraries.