Anthony Marra Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Anthony Marra
Photo: Smeeta Mahanti

Anthony Marra

How to pronounce Anthony Marra: First syllable of last name rhymes with bar

An interview with Anthony Marra

In two interviews, Anthony Marra discusses his novels Mercury Pictures Presents and The Constellation of Vital Phenomena, as well as the real-world events and family history that inspired them.

A Conversation Between Anthony Marra and Amor Towles

Amor Towles: Tony, can you start by giving us a brief overview of the novel?

Anthony Marra: Frank Lloyd Wright once said that if you tip the world on its side, all the loose pieces will land in Los Angeles. This was never more true than it was in the 1930s and '40s, when thousands of European émigrés and exiles landed in LA. Many ended up working at the margins of Hollywood. You had internationally renowned playwrights like Bertolt Brecht, who struggled to churn out B-movie potboilers. You had German Jewish actors who, because of their accents, could only find work portraying the very Nazis they thought they had escaped. This community of exiles became foundational to the US movie propaganda apparatus during the war, even though, as citizens of Axis-aligned countries, they were branded enemy aliens and denied the very rights and freedoms that their movies championed.

This is the broader world of Mercury Pictures Presents. And its story is about how such an unlikely group of people arrived to such an unlikely place and ended up transforming American culture.

I wanted to investigate this community through the perspective of a character named Maria Lagana, who is a junior producer at a struggling B-movie studio called Mercury Pictures, which becomes a hub for émigrés and exiles during this period. Maria has been one of my favorite characters to write. She's a tough-minded, irreverent striver: I pictured her as Rosalind Russell's character from His Girl Friday, only a bit more salty and a lot more Italian.

Like so many characters in this novel, she arrived to Mercury Pictures while trying to outrun her past. She grew up in Fascist Italy and immigrated to the US with her mother after a childhood transgression led to her father's arrest. Even though she's remade herself as this unflappable producer, she remains haunted by the role she played in her father's fate.

This all comes to a head when, among the various exiles who find work at Mercury, she recognizes a man from her father's past. And with his appearance, the web of fictions she has spun to get by begins to unravel.

AT: Your first two books, which were both set in the former Soviet Union, really couldn't have been set anywhere else. The tone of those books, the experiences of the characters, many of the themes spring directly from the idiosyncrasies of that world. In Mercury Pictures Presents, you've grounded your story in two equally idiosyncratic locales. Can you tell us about your decision to write a book that stretches from a little Italian village to the world of Hollywood?

AM: As you said, my first two books were set in the former Soviet Union. After two books set in that world, I was ready to "come in from the cold."

Twentieth-century Russia was a place where anything could happen, and when I was casting about for other places where the fantastic and the absurd are everyday realities, Hollywood seemed like a surprisingly appropriate setting. I used to live in LA, my wife is from Long Beach, and this period of LA history—this moment of artistic transfusion that transformed American culture— appealed to me.

At the same time, as I was finishing The Tsar of Love and Techno, I was also considering a novel set in southern Italy, where my dad's family originates from. For months, I was ping-ponging back and forth between these two ideas. Things finally came together on a vacation that I took to Lipari, which is a tiny volcanic island off the coast of Sicily, where my great-grandmother's family emigrated from.

On one of my last days there I noticed a little plaque set into Lipari's citadel wall. It commemorated the artists, and intellectuals, and anti-fascists sentenced to internal exile on Lipari during Mussolini's regime.

The idea that this island paradise, to which I could trace my own roots, had been Mussolini's Alcatraz has stuck with me. And I began to think about the idea of exile. German and Austrian exiles called Los Angeles "sunny Siberia." And it occurred to me that these Italian exiles on Lipari could have easily called the island by the same term. I realized these weren't two separate books that I was considering, but rather halves of the same book that would tell the story of two sunny Siberias on either end of the earth and one family divided between them.

AT: One of the many attractions of your book is its sprawl. There's the geographic sprawl we've just touched upon, and there's the sprawl of time, but there's a sprawling cast of characters as well. You could have written a less ambitious and a less satisfying book if you had kept your narrative tucked around the four central characters. Instead, you follow some of the smaller characters in the narrative, allowing your readers to see where they go, and what happens to them.

AM: I've always been drawn to the idea of novels that don't have minor characters. One thing you can do in a novel that's more challenging in film or TV is to peer deeply into the lives of seemingly peripheral characters. To me it feels morally important that every character, no matter how minor, is rendered with enough specificity and energy that the reader will remember them, even if they only appear in the novel for a few sentences.

AT: Anna is a terrific example. An émigré from Germany, she's a relatively minor character who does miniature work at the studio. As readers, we see her almost in passing as we follow the central characters. But then, late in the novel, we end up following her on a very strange and captivating adventure. Can you talk about Anna, and about how history and the fantastic get interwoven in the book?

AM: Anna began as a very minor character, and her role in the novel expanded as I spent more time with her, because the world that she introduced me to was so interesting. She is a German miniaturist who, as a child, built dollhouses and had ambitions of becoming an architect. She worked as a studio assistant at the Bauhaus, immigrated to the US, and found work making miniatures at movie studios. And her miniature work is quite good. She gets noticed by the US military and is employed to build a facsimile of Berlin in the Utah desert. This was a series of life-size Berlin tenements constructed in the Utah desert called German Village. It was a collaboration between Hollywood, Standard Oil chemists, and the US Air Force.

There was a push for absolute verisimilitude in the construction of German Village. The floorboards were taken from Russian apartment blocks and shipped from Murmansk to Utah because the timber used for floorboards in Russia was similar to what you would find in Berlin.

All of the furnishings in the individual tenement apartments either were fashioned by German POWs or were purchased right over here in Washington Heights, which was a very large German American neighborhood.

At night, firefighters would douse the tenements with hoses. Not to put out any fires, but to ensure that the humidity level within the wooden structures was accurate to that of Berlin. And why would the military go to such effort and invest so much money to achieve molecular verisimilitude in this version of Berlin? It was because they were trying to figure out how to start a firestorm.

AT: It is so easy to think as a reader: What a great imagination Tony has! But here is a case where you've discovered a little known event in US history that is both extraordinary and that fits perfectly within the context of your narrative.

AM: I imagine many of the exiles working on German Village must have felt profoundly conflicted about their work. They were able to experience being in Berlin again—if only on a stage built in the Utah desert—but the price of admission was to abet the real Berlin's destruction.

AT: It must be an exciting moment when you stumble on something like this. It's like finding the missing piece for a puzzle of your own design.

AM: Luck obviously plays a paramount role in terms of the actual publishing process. But I think luck also plays a huge role in the writing process. If you happen to stumble into the right fact, or the right anecdote, or the right little historical tidbit at the right time, it can transform your book. If I had come across German Village a year later, or two years earlier, it might've gone in one ear and out the other. Despite the intention that we put into them, novels often come together in the breeze.

AT: One of the interesting motifs that recurs throughout the book is that of falsity. You have the studios, of course, which are creating false towns and city streets on their lots. But you've also got fake movie reviews that are commissioned and placed in the papers. You've got fake fans who are hired to come to premieres. There are characters operating under assumed names with fake passports, and falsified documents filed by the police. There's a whole category of imposters in the book, but my favorite is Bela Lugosi, who is so down on his luck that he gets work as a Bela Lugosi impersonator, in essence pretending to be himself. That's a lot of falsity!

AM: I swear I'm a very honest and transparent person off the page!

AT: I don't doubt it.

AM: I'm drawn to characters who are struggling to regain a sense of history, or of reality, in a world subsumed by fiction. That was what my last book, The Tsar of Love and Techno, was about: the falsification of photographs and artwork in Stalin's Russia. It's an idea that I found myself returning to in Mercury Pictures Presents because I think that, both as individuals and as societies, we reveal who we are by what we choose to lie about. This felt particularly interesting to explore within the world of Hollywood, a place where the real and the false naturally blur.

AT: On a somewhat related note: An important topic of the book is propaganda. In the course of the story we are exposed to the propaganda being generated by the Fascists in war-torn Europe, but also the propaganda being generated by the American government as a response. One of your characters says something to the effect that "Every totalitarian knows you cannot change the future, but you can change the past." And that's part of what the propaganda engines were doing: rewriting history in order to alter the collective viewpoints of the present. It's one of the novel's threads which reverberates with current times.

AM: Historical novels describe the periods in which they are written as much as the periods in which they are set. And so I think that some of those reverberations and echoes are inevitable.

Propagandists always take advantage of new technologies: Today it's social media, but in the 1930s and 1940s it was film. During this period German engines of propaganda churned out terribly grotesque but, in terms of the grammar of cinema, very sophisticated propaganda. Yet due to the censorship codes governing Hollywood, American filmmakers were prohibited from making movies that took any explicitly political stand. Less than three months prior to Pearl Harbor, isolationists in the US Senate held hearings to investigate studios that produced anti-Nazi films. Of course, when America entered the war, everything changed. Hollywood, which had been barred from politics, suddenly became instrumental in explaining the stakes of the war to the American public.

Frank Capra was put in charge of overseeing the US Army propaganda efforts, and there's a famous account of him going to see Triumph of the Will. He left the screening room thinking, We're going to lose this war. And then he had this great insight. He realized that you don't need to outdo someone like Leni Riefenstahl, you just need to undo her ... that subversion was the most effective form of indictment. In Capra's Why We Fight series he let fascist propaganda incriminate itself. He appropriated scenes from Triumph of the Will and re- contextualized them for his own ends.

A version of this plays out throughout the novel as Mercury Pictures begins to get involved in the propaganda effort. It makes sense to me that this would happen within the world of a B-movie studio that was already ripping off more famous movies. The idea of using a similar approach to the creation of anti-fascist propaganda seemed natural.

AT: Isn't reality terrific?

My last question: Do you know the ending of your books before you start?

AM: No, I usually don't know the ending of the book. I'm going to embarrass you a little bit. When we first met, I was struggling with this novel. I met Amor and unloaded my writerly issues onto his plate, and he gave me some of the most useful advice I've ever received in terms of outlining. I went back through my pages and I outlined everything. The ability to take that zoomed-out view and see the book from a couple of feet further back was so useful. I didn't have the ending at that point, but that's when I began to see where the different character arcs were going and began to conceive of where that ending might be.

AT: As I recall, your wife deserves some of the credit. Shortly before you were scheduled to interview me for A Gentleman in Moscow you wondered out loud to her whether I outlined, and she said: "You're going to interview him; why don't you ask him?"

Anthony Marra answers questions about The Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Why write about Chechnya?

I first became interested in the region as a college student in St. Petersburg. I arrived to Petersburg shortly after the journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated, presumably for the reporting she did from Chechnya. I realized that Chechnya was a place I didn't know how to spell and couldn't find on a map, but the ramifications of the wars there had reached as far north as Petersburg, where on a daily basis I saw Russian veterans soliciting for alms in the Metro stations. I began reading nonfiction accounts of Chechnya and quickly became fascinated. Its history and culture has inspired writers like Tolstoy, Lermontov, and Pushkin. The accounts I read of ordinary people in remarkable situations were the kinds of stories that I felt needed to be brought to life through fiction.

But to answer the question of why set a novel in Chechnya, my answer would be that it is a setting that magnifies and dramatizes the moral conflicts of characters in extraordinary ways. This cast of characters wants what we all want—to live peacefully and provide for our loved ones—but their circumstances require them to make decisions the reader will hopefully never have to make, but nonetheless will understand.

Readers and reviewers have commented on the beauty of the language in this novel. Can you talk a little about how you wrote it?

I ended up writing four first-to-last-word drafts. Each time I finished a new draft, I'd print it out, set it in front of my keyboard, and retype the entire novel. Because retyping mimics the original act of creation, it taps into whatever creative well the sentences first rose from. The novel changed from draft to draft, then, from within, organically, rather than from changes that were superimposed on it. There's a scene early on when Khassan despairs as he realizes that he must again retype his 3,000-plus page history. Thankfully, Constellation isn't nearly that long, but I still knew exactly how he felt. I also kept a daily word-count record. My goal was to hit a thousand words every day. The days when I recorded zero words felt like wasted days. I grew up going to church and Sunday school each week, and at long last, I was able to put that Catholic guilt to good use.

The novel has some dark moments, but at the same time, it's filled with moments of humor and hope. How, and why, did you blend instances of death and loss with levity?

I once heard Allan Gurganus say that writers should strive to make readers laugh and cry on every page. It's a tall order, but I absolutely agree with the reasoning. Novels need the high as well as the low notes in order to be true to the emotional reality of life. When I traveled to Chechnya, I was repeatedly surprised by the jokes I heard people cracking. It was a brand of dark, fatalistic humor imprinted with the absurdity that has become normalized there over the past two decades. A book I thought of while writing Constellation was City of Thieves by David Benioff. Benioff's novel pays tribute to the immense suffering caused by the Siege of Leningrad, but it's filled to the brim with life, love, humor, even joy, all of which only enhance and make more real the underlying historical tragedy. Hopefully, Constellation works in a similar fashion.

Your writing style is unique in that you move back and forth between the present and the past. Was that a conscious choice?

War breaks cities, buildings, and families, but also time and the way stories are constructed. To tell this story in a straightforward, linear fashion would fall short of capturing the absurd, recursive manner in which its characters assemble their chaotic narrative. All the characters in Constellation are trying to piece back together their fragmented lives, and I wanted to embody that in the novel's structure. As each character attempts to rescue what has been lost, the novel mends their individual stories into a communal whole.

What has been the greatest influence on your writing?

My mom has six siblings and my dad has four sisters, and between them all there are more cousins than I can count, which means that family events have always been filled with voices, stories, and laughter. From an early age I learned from them that stories are how we understand one another, how we preserve the past, and how we make meaning from the chaos of our lives.

You will find additional questions and answers in BookBrowse's discussion forum.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Books by this Author

Books by Anthony Marra at BookBrowse
Mercury Pictures Presents jacket The Tsar of Love and Techno jacket A Constellation of Vital Phenomena jacket
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