Anthony Marra: 'Write what you want to know'

Anthony Marra, author of 'The Constellation of Vital Phenomena,' one of the most highly praised novels of 2013, took a gamble when he set his debut novel in a country he barely knew. 

"To be honest, when I was working on ['A Constellation of Vital Phenomena'] I wasn’t entirely sure a novel about Chechnya would find a publisher, much less a readership," says National Book Award nominee Anthony Marra.

Each year, there are a certain number of "consensus" books that seem to land on almost everybody's year-end, best-of lists. One of the novels that ranks high among 2013 consensus titles is Anthony Marra's The Constellation of Vital Phenomena, the story of two doctors and an eight-year-old girl, navigating five difficult days in an abandoned hospital during what is sometimes called "the Second Chechen War". 

Marra – who received a National Book Award nomination for his book – recently answered some questions for the Monitor.

Q. One of the most common maxims of writing seems to be: “Write what you know.” What made you brave enough to ignore this?

For the years I spent working on it, "Constellation" was the only novel I knew how to write, so maybe I still abided by the maxim? Regardless, I prefer the maxim: Write what you want to know, rather than what you already know. A novel can enlarge the empathy and imagination of both its author and its reader, and my experience, that sense of enlargement is most intense when I’m transported beyond the narrow limits of my daily life. The stories I’d read, heard, and much later saw for myself in Chechnya, resounded in me in a way that I could only articulate through fiction.

Q. Do you think that the great success of your novel this year has helped US readers to better know and appreciate Chechnya and Chechens? Was that a goal of yours?

To be honest, when I was working on the book I wasn’t entirely sure a novel about Chechnya would find a publisher, much less a readership. It’s been enormously gratifying to hear that the novel has helped some readers gain a deeper awareness of Chechnya, but my first and most important goal was to tell a good story.

Q. Was Russian lit a fascination of yours? Other literary influences?

 I took a 19th-century Russian novel class in college and have been smitten with Russian literature ever since. Writers like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Grossman, and Solzhenitsyn tackle the great questions of morality, politics, love, and death. Their names have become cultural shorthand for the kind of ambition and scope I seek as a reader and admire as a writer.

Q. Do you think you will write about the region again or was this a one-time experience for you?

 I had assumed I’d pack my bags and head elsewhere after Constellation, but Chechnya is creeping its way into the margins of my second book.

Q. Where did the pair of doctors at the heart of the novel come from? Why were you drawn to doctors as protagonists and why such a mixed pair?

I  knew early on that though the novel was set against a backdrop of war, it would be a book about recovery rather than destruction, about surgeons rather than soldiers. Sonja, who single-handedly runs a dilapidated hospital, is incredibly tough, assertive, unsentimental and ambitious, while her partner in crime, Akhmed, is an thoroughly incompetent doctor but a decent man. Each challenges and ultimately changes the other.

Q. 2013 must have been a very busy year for you. But did you have time to read other 2013 books? Any you especially enjoyed or would recommend?

It’s been an amazing year for fiction, but four I particularly enjoyed are "The Infatuations" by Javier Marias, "We Need New Names" by NoViolet Bulawayo, "A Marker to Measure Drift" by Alexander Maksik, and "The Woman Who Lost Her Soul" by Bob Shacochis.

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