Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Jonathan Smit, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Anthony Marra about his book The Tsar of Love and Techno (Hogarth), which is among the final five selections in the category of Fiction for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Jonathan Smit: First, I’d simply like to say what a wonderful book this is. And a wonderful read, which may not be precisely the same thing. It addresses a vast and intricate subject in a very intimate, disarming and compelling way. I loved reading it.
My first question has to do with the way the book describes itself—as a collection of stories rather than a novel. It is indeed a collection of stories—with different narrators, speaking to us from different times and places, yet the structure of the table of contents—Side A, Intermission, Side B—supports a view of the book as a unified work, rather than simply a collection of stories with related content. What led you to frame this book as “stories” rather than “novel”?
Anthony Marra: First, thank you for such insightful and interesting questions, Jonathan. It’s been a real pleasure to mull them over the last few days. Originally, The Tsar of Love and Techno was a collection of independent stories, unconnected but for geography. But I began to notice certain images and motifs repeated and I wondered if I could weave these threads together so tightly that each story is necessary to understanding the whole. One critic described the effect as being akin to a series of transparencies laid one atop the next, through which a complete picture gradually emerges, which I love. As for the stories/novel distinction, Tsar exists somewhere in between. The book begins as a short story collection, but halfway through you realize it’s a novel. There’s no adequate term for that in-between space. “Novel-in-stories” sounds silly. “Linked stories” sounds like a dating website. So “stories” will have to do.
JS: One of the elements that most impressed me in the book is your mastery of voice. Could you discuss how you approach voice? Do you discover character through voice or voice through character, or a combination of the two?
AM: My first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, is told by a terribly unfashionable, God-like omniscient narrator that can give the provenance of every object in a room and foretell the future of every character. It was a lot of fun to write in that mode, but with Tsar, I wanted to move to the opposite end of the vocal scale. Voice is tough for me since it always presents this chicken or egg conundrum: how do you write a character without already knowing their voice and how do you hear their voice without already knowing them as a character? For me, the answer always comes down to retyping. I retype a story over and over until voice and character merge. Most stories in Tsar I worked on for at least five years, and over that span of time these characters and their voices grew more defined. At its best, I hope, voice becomes a pure distillation of character. “The Leopard” is narrated by a party member in the 1930s, whose voice is studded with sloganeering and sounds a bit like a Constance Garnett translation. On the other end of the vocal range, the title story is narrated by a young man recalling his teenage years through a voice as overwrought and emotive as his adolescent self.
JS: On the subject of voice, one of the more startling and moving moments in the book for me was the moment, in the story “Granddaughters,” where the voice acknowledges itself. The voice is the collective voice of a group of Russian working-class women whose lives share a coherency from infancy to old age. Then, toward the end of the story, you raise the narrative stakes by having the voice acknowledge its own collective essence. How did you arrive at the wonderful notion of a collective voice? And was that moment of self-awareness an aspect of your conception of the voice from the beginning, or did the voice require that moment of you as the story took shape?
AM: I was drawn to the collective voice in “Granddaughters” because it seemed the natural point-of-view of insular communities, in this case the USSR, a remote town, and a clique of lifelong friends. The moment of self-awareness arrived when I began to consider the possibility of injecting the voice with the gossip, hyperbole, and speculation natural to a group of trusted friends. Since several of the book’s major plot points are first introduced here, the self-admitted unreliability of this narrative voice also raises the stakes in later stories, where things aren’t as simple or one-sided as the granddaughters-version presumes.
JS: In The Tsar of Love and Techno, history, in particular the histories of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, functions almost like a giant web, in which the protagonists struggle to find a sense of purpose beyond the limitations of their circumstances. Could you say something about how you think about history as a constitutive element in narrative fiction? Are there novelists you admire or who’ve influenced you in this respect?
AM: I love your phrase about history being a giant web, both entrapping and connecting these disparate characters. I don’t see myself as a historical novelist—aside from “The Leopard,” every thing I’ve ever written has been set within the past twenty-five years—but I find myself drawn to documenting how the historical and the political seeps into the most intimate personal spaces. Not only can novels catch and record the stories of individuals too small and ordinary to receive notice in a history book, they can also examine where and how political power touches down inside the lives of those farthest from its source, yet closest to its consequences. Mario Vargas Llosa and Edward P. Jones are masters of this. The Feast of the Goat, The War of the End of the World, and The Known World likely shaped me in this regard more than any other novels.
JS: A wonderful example of the above constellates in a single paragraph towards the end of the story “The Grozny Tourist Bureau,” in which the personal and cultural costs of the second Chechnya war, the power of the Russian oligarchy, the failure of the Russian state, art, love and personal self-interest collide and resonate in a transaction that’s both powerfully emotional and hugely funny. It’s one of many instances in the book of a virtuosically deft articulation of plot. Could you speak to how you build story in your work?
AM: It’s a good question, but a tricky one. “The Grozny Tourist Bureau” began with two bits of research: the bombing of Grozny’s art museum and the push to create a tourist industry in postwar Chechnya. The story resulted from my attempt to draw those two bits of research together. Regarding the moment in the story you refer to, readers are willing to forgive a lot if an author sticks the landing, and so I build story with an eye to making the ending feel like an echo chamber that resounds and amplifies the emotional and thematic melodies of the preceding pages.
JS: Many of the characters in The Tsar of Love and Techno do bad things and some of them do quite horrible things. Yet none of the characters we meet are so objectionable that they might be described as evil, with the possible exception of Stalin, who is a driving historical force but not an active player in the writing. Do you think about evil as an aspect of human behavior? In the world of the book and beyond it, what do you think constitutes it and allows it to flourish?
AM: We hear a lot about anti-heroes in fiction, film, and television, but more interesting to me is the anti-villain—people who do bad things, villainous things, who occupy the traditional role of the antagonist and yet are nonetheless worthy of a reader’s empathy. Hopefully, Tsar forces its readers to realign their allegiances with characters repeatedly. One of the characters says, “You remain the hero of your own story, even when you become the villain of someone else’s,” which I think is true in this book and in life generally. Evil flourishes because the human mind is so adept at justifying and rationalizing it. This is particularly true in Tsar, where politics and history collude to create circumstances where there are no easy choices and no good choices. I grew up in a Catholic family and went to church and catechism every week when I was a child and teenager. While I’m now an avowed agnostic, I find some of those Catholic virtues come out in my work, particularly the possibility of forgiveness. Both Tsar and Constellation make the case that no one is unworthy of forgiveness, even if only the reader has the power to pardon.
JS: Many of the characters in the book are shaped by the man-made horrors of the places, Kirovsk, Siberia, and Grozny, Chechnya, where they are born and grow up. Yet their allegiance to those places seems unshakable. Could you say something about the power of place and its importance in your work?
AM: In my work, place is often the driver of dramatic action and the context in which a character’s choices become legible. In Tsar, those places (the Arctic, postwar Grozny, 1930s Leningrad) tend to have an extreme quality to them, be it geographical, political, climatological, etc., that magnifies moral choice. I wanted things to happen in these stories, so I set them where things are bound to happen. Throughout, I tried to undercut the stereotypical images western audiences might have of these places. Kirovsk, for instance, is based on the Arctic mining town of Norilsk, which is about as close to an environmental hell as I can imagine. And yet in one of my favorite scenes in the book, a character describes sunbathing with his family on the bank of a polluted lake. It becomes one of his most joyful memories and the very unlikeliness of finding joy in such a grim setting makes it all the more remarkable.
JS: One might describe the malevolent and insidious power of betrayal as a primary leitmotif in The Tsar of Love and Techno. None of your characters’ lives are untouched by it. Yet the book ends, very movingly, with a sense of hope or healing, at least on a personal level. How does this relate to your experiences in Russia? Where or how do you see hope emerging out of Russia’s tortured history and troubled present?
AM: Americans don’t have a great track record when it comes to reading Russia’s tea leaves, so I wouldn’t hazard a prediction beyond saying demographic shifts spell trouble for Putin’s brand of ethnic-Russian nationalism. Regarding that sense of hope or healing at the end, I’ll let the book speak for itself.
Anthony Marra is the author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, which won the National Book Critics Circle’s inaugural John Leonard Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction, the Barnes and Noble Discover Award, and appeared on over twenty year-end lists. Marra’s novel was a National Book Award long list selection as well as a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and France’s Prix Medicis. He received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, where he teaches as the Jones Lecturer in Fiction. He has lived and studied in Eastern Europe, and now resides in Oakland, California. His story collection, The Tsar of Love and Techno, was published by Hogarth in the fall of 2015. Visit http://anthonymarra.net.
Jonathan Smit is a first year MFA fiction candidate at The New School. In addition to fiction, he’s written plays and criticism. His novel-in-progress, Kagan, is set in the present in New York. He’s had work published in Ducts.org and The Brooklyn Rail, and his play, The April Hour, was read at The Public Theatre in New York as part of LAByrinth Theatre Company’s Barn Series of new play readings. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and two excellent cats.