It’s not bad when the fiction editor of The Washington Post names your first novel his favorite book of 2013.
And when President Barack Obama is caught on camera purchasing said novel, that’s also pretty validating for a fledgling novelist.
But having your first novel longlisted for the National Book Award? Now that is impressive.
“It’s really difficult to publish your first book because you’re this unknown entity and have no reputation or readership or audience yet,” USC Dornsife alumnus Anthony Marra said. “So to have received such an enthusiastic response from the readers and reviewers has been immensely gratifying.”
The title for his book, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth, 2013), was drawn from a definition for “life” in an online Russian medical dictionary. Despite the bleak setting of Chechnya with its sobering history of civil wars, or maybe because of it, Marra’s story delves deeper than the country’s constant conflicts. Rather, it focuses on the ordinary civilians that persevere in such a setting. It is a human story of Chechnya.
The book begins as the father of 8-year-old Havaa is abducted by Russian soldiers. Managing to escape, a neighbor, Akhmed, takes the girl under his wing, bringing her to a de facto hospital nearby. There, a doctor, Sonja, reluctantly shelters them, a risky undertaking considering Havaa’s enemies are likely to return. But in a situation such as this, their humanity is the one thing these characters can control.
“It’s completely surrounded by darkness, but I don’t think it’s a dark book,” emphasized Marra. “It’s about people doing what they can to save lives rather than destroy them. And I think that it’s suffused with a sense of generosity and plenty of moments of humor to lighten things.”
Marra’s initial inspiration came while a student at USC Dornsife. He was studying abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he lived down the street from a Russian military academy. Sixteen and 17-year-old soldiers would march by proudly in their new uniforms and peaked hats, standing in stark contrast to the Chechnyan war veterans — only a few years older, some missing limbs, begging for spare change — who congregated at a nearby metro station.
“I was initially interested in Chechnya simply because I didn’t know anything about it, like most Americans. For me, it was just this far-flung land vaguely synonymous with poverty and terror. But the more I read about it, the more I became fascinated with its remarkable history and culture. Writing this novel was my way of trying to understand their experience.”
During his research phase, Marra read nearly two dozen nonfiction books about the republic. He wanted to internalize what he had read almost as a blueprint of the region that would become his backdrop for the characters and plot. He made a point of not letting the research get in the way of the story itself, making sure every fact, figure or moment from his research moved the story along.
“Nothing can quite kill the magic of fiction quicker than a didactic history lesson,” he said wryly.
The 29-year-old Washington native graduated from USC Dornsife in 2008 with a bachelor’s in creative writing before earning an M.F.A. at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He teaches at Stanford University as a Jones Lecturer in Fiction and is a former Wallace Stegner fellow.
At graduation, Marra won the USC Discovery Scholar prize, then in its first year. The award celebrates pathbreaking undergraduates who have excelled academically while making a meaningful contribution to their field through exceptional scholarship or artistic work.
At USC Dornsife, Marra found an invaluable mentor in Cecilia Woloch, associate professor (teaching) of English. During his senior year, Woloch met with him weekly, giving guidance as he wrote an earlier novel he never published.
“It was an incredible act of generosity — I wasn’t doing an independent study course or anything, and she really took a lot of time out of her life to help me with my writing,” he said.
Marra was also heartily encouraged by professors T.C. Boyle, Writer in Residence at USC Dornsife and Percival Everett, Distinguished Professor of English. They helped him to realize he could excel in writing.
“My professors at USC Dornsife gave me a lot of confidence and I am quite thankful for having had the opportunity to work with them.”
Thus far in his short career, Marra has earned a Whiting Award, a Pushcart Prize, The Atlantic‘s Student Writing Contest and the Narrative Prize. His work has also been anthologized in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012.
“The process of writing for me is, by and large, a process of joy,” he said. “Being able to transport yourself, to imagine what it’s like to inhabit the mind, heart and body of somebody you’ll never meet is really an extraordinary feat of human imagination.”