There's a debut novel just out that's been getting
a lot of buzz. It's called A
Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and the book has already garnered starred
reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal. Anne Patchett and recent Pulitzer winner Adam Johnson
have given it raves, with more sure to come. And we picked it as one of May's Best Books of the Month. The story covers five days
in rebel Chechnya, in December 2004, and is told primarily through the eyes of an
orphaned eight-year-old girl and her neighbor, a physician.
We recently linked up with the author, Anthony Marra,
to talk about his book.
- Where did you study in Russia? How did that
pique your interest?
As a junior in college I studied in St. Petersburg.
War journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya had recently been
assassinated; wounded veterans of the Chechen Wars trawled the metro cars for
alms; street gangs routinely attacked people from the Northern Caucasus. Yet as
an American I knew little about Chechnya. As soon as I began researching its incredible
history, I never looked back.
- The setting of your book takes place during the
Chechen Wars. Why did you choose this period of history as the backdrop of your
Chechnya is a corner of the world largely mysterious
to most Americans, yet it's a remarkable place populated with remarkable people
who have become accustomed to repeatedly rebuilding their lives. To quote
Tobias Wolff, "We are made to persist"¦that's how we find out who we are." These
characters commit acts of courage, betrayal, and forgiveness as they persist in
saving what means most to them"”be it their families, their honor, or
themselves"”from the destruction of war.
- The title of the book has a story. Can you
please explain its meaning?
One day I looked up the definition of life in a medical dictionary and found a
surprisingly poetic entry: "A
constellation of vital phenomena"”organization, irritability, movement, growth,
reproduction, adaptation." As biological life is structured as a constellation
of six phenomena, the narrative life of this novel is structured as a
constellation of six point-of-view characters.
- Your writing style is unique in that you move
back and forth between the present and the past. Was that a conscious choice?
Very much so. I wanted to write a novel expansive
enough to cover the decade of the two Chechen Wars without losing the drama and
suspense inherent in a more tightly coiled plot. By weaving the five-day story
of a hunted girl through a larger backdrop, I hoped to combine the tension of a
character-driven thriller with the richness of a historical epic. Also, moving
through time shines a light on the seemingly trivial moments, relationships,
and allegiances that affect characters in profound ways years down the line.
- What has been the greatest influence your
My mom has six siblings and my dad has four sisters
and between them all there are more cousins than I 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