Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno opens with an artist in Leningrad, a painter skilled in portraiture who studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts. Now he works as a censor, removing dissidents from the backgrounds of photos and airbrushing Stalin’s pitted cheeks smooth. And with this, we’re back in Marra’s lovingly constructed Russia, a place where tragedy is matched only by absurdity, where truly nothing will cancel out the humor, or the humanity.
Marra’s debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, focused on a barely functioning hospital in war-ravaged Chechnya, and the connections stitched together inside of it. With his second book, Marra takes a broader view of Russia, spanning generations widely and deftly, from the prima ballerina who put on Swan Lake inside a labor camp, to the mail-order bride returned home to her mother, to the director of the Grozny Tourist Bureau, trying to spin the packs of feral dogs on the streets as unexpected encounters with natural wildlife! What begins as a story collection certainly ends feeling like a novel, for the connections lightly threaded through the stories tend to come together with a heart-stopping moments of clarity.
I talked to Marra about the recipe for a perfect mixtape, the first war story he ever heard, and his playlist of dubstep-remixed Tchaikovsky.
The Rumpus: I thought we could start by talking about the mixtape structure of the book. The stories are separated by Side A, Side B, with an intermission in the middle, which is the longest story in the book. An actual mixtape is a big part of the story, but what else drew you to this structure?
Anthony Marra: I was first drawn to mixtapes as vehicles for conveying story and emotion when I was a smitten teenager. My go-to move whenever I had a crush on someone was to make her a mixtape of incredibly cheesy pop-punk love songs. A good mixtape didn’t just gather together a bunch of love songs, but instead created an emotional narrative specific to your affection. The stories in most of my favorite collections are collected more like songs on a mixtape than, say, collected like spare change. By which I mean they are in conversation with each other and work to become larger than their parts. With Tsar, the mixtape structure was my attempt to write a book that begins as a collection of short stories but finishes as a novel.
Rumpus: That’s very much how it feels—these stories can stand on their own, but together they have such a greater impact.
Marra: Originally, the stories were entirely independent. As I was working on Constellation, I’d take a break between each draft and write a story or two. This meant that by the time I’d finished Constellation, I also had, more or less, a finished story collection. I wanted to build on Constellation, to write a second book that was more ambitious, with higher stakes and greater risks. So I began wondering if I could connect these nine completely separate stories into a narrative so cohesive that each story was necessary to fully understand the others, one that took advantage of the incredible canvas and scope story collections allow. My work often begins as little internal dares, wondering if I can pull something off. So I spent a few years drawing these stories together, trying to build a Pangea of what began as separate continents.
Rumpus: So you wrote these stories while writing Constellation?
Marra: Before, during, and after. The first draft of Tsar’s title story predates Constellation by a couple years, and that early draft was written as a monologue by a twenty-year Russian old in Glendale, California, proposing to an elderly woman in a nursing home with the hope of marrying her to remain in America. As you might imagine, its final incarnation bears almost no resemblance to its origin. “A Temporary Exhibition,” on the other hand, where a number of the dangling threads from other stories finally entwine, is only about a year old because it took me that long just to figure out where the book was headed.
Rumpus: And you made a mixtape of this book on Spotify! I couldn’t believe how many Dubstep mixes of Tchaikovsky there were. Was that something you listened to while writing, or is it more for the reader?
Marra: I did listen to a ton of Tchaikovsky while writing, but the Spotify mix came after the book was finished, before it was published. I couldn’t futz around with the book itself anymore, but I could with an actual mixtape.
Rumpus: I remember that Constellation started off as a short story. What made that story different for you, in terms of wanting to expand it?
Marra: The short story that eventually grew into Constellation was the first fiction set in Russia that I’d ever written, and that was right around the time I was giving up on a doomed, never-to-be-seen first novel. While I saw it could be something bigger, in hindsight fortuitous timing was as responsible as anything.
Rumpus: Are there any novels or collections about war that have stuck with you?
Marra: The first war story I ever heard was from my dad. He served in Vietnam. When I was a little kid, I asked him if he’d ever been shot at. He nodded and told me about a time he’d been shot at when he’d snuck over enemy lines, into V-C territory. At this point, I was envisioning a scene from a spy thriller. I could just about hear a John Williams score soaring in the background. Was he on a secret mission? Is my dad the new James Bond? Well, no. My dad had heard rumors of a fabulous French restaurant across enemy lines and he was so sick of army food that he was willing to risk his life for some pâté. (Now that I think on it, that does sound like something James Bond would do.) This is all to say that the very first stories I heard about war stressed its folly and absurdity, its capacity to turn otherwise reasonable people into fools, and the writers on the subject I most respond to are those who share that view. Joseph Heller and Ben Fountain would be prime examples. But no writer has had a greater influence on my depictions of the Chechen conflict than Anna Politkovskaya, who in rendering a world bereft of logic is brutal but also grimly funny.
Rumpus: This book is very, very funny—quotable, laugh-out-loud funny—which someone might not expect from your subject matter. What’s your relationship to humor in literature? It can be easy to go for the sad, touching storyline, but to make humor out of a bleak narrative is often much harder.
Marra: Thank you! That makes my day, as I see myself as an essentially comic writer who writes tragedies. From personal experience, I completely agree that it is often easier to go for monotone sadness. When I was starting out, I wrote a gazillion short stories that ran the gamut of human suffering—drug addiction, child abuse, terminal illness, loved ones dying by all manner of misfortune, etc. In hindsight, it’s clear that I mistook the power of the situation for the power of the story. We all know to feel sympathy for those who’ve suffered from drug addiction, child abuse, and terminal illness, so the set up elicits an emotional response that the story itself very well may not earn. Energy generated by the fiction itself is likely to produce more light.
We tend to associate humor with lightheartedness, but really, it’s a rhetorical mode than can be applied to any subject. It was through researching Chechnya that I came to understand this. A Small Corner of Hell, one of Politkovskaya’s books on Chechnya, begins with a group of refugees sheltering in a ditch to escape the gunfire from roving helicopters. One of them is a man who has been carrying a notebook with him for months, convinced that the helicopter gunners will think that he’s a bureaucrat and spare him. It prompts an absurdly, bleakly funny conversation worthy of Beckett on the efficacy of notebooks as bulletproof vests. As a reader you don’t want to laugh, you feel ethically obliged not too, but you do anyway, because the refugees having this conversation are fully aware of how far from the land of logic their lives have veered, and because they are laughing too. Somehow this all makes their dire situation more bearable and more brutal. When I traveled through Chechnya to research Tsar, I was struck again and again by how many people I spoke to had incredibly dark and incredibly fine-tuned senses of humor. They would identify what you were most afraid of, then tease you mercilessly for it. In that sense, a joke as self-defense becomes a very serious thing. It allows you to laugh at what would otherwise make you cry.
In my own work, humor is necessary, for the reasons stated above, but also because forbidding your characters silliness, absurdity, irony, and vulgarity forbids them aspects of the human experience every bit as universal as sorrow.
Rumpus: In this collection as well as in Constellation, there’s a heavy preoccupation with art in the time of war, both creating and preserving it, and in this one, altering it.
Marra: Well, part of it is organizational. Given how sprawling both books are in terms of characters, I needed to find narrative focal points, and I found objects to be quite useful. A painting, a mixtape, a photograph, a nutcracker, a blue suitcase, a silver gun are all needles on which various threads of character and plot have been woven together in both books. But those are mainly formal concerns. In terms of substance, I was struck while traveling through Chechnya by people I met who saw creation and memorialization as active defiance of the surrounding destruction. One man I spent an afternoon with ran a museum dedicated to Tolstoy. It was the only museum in Chechnya to remain open throughout the wars, largely because his father had sat at the museum’s front door with a shotgun. Imagine what it must have taken to keep a museum open in a war zone, and all this despite the fact that the Tolstoy Museum was built on a plot of land that Tolstoy had never actually stepped on and had nothing in it that Tolstoy had ever touched. People like this curator and his father interest me much more than rebels and soldiers.
Rumpus: In place of an epigraph, you begin the novel with a quote from Zakharov about the painting that plagues many of the characters: “It’s a minor work.” But obviously, to so many of the characters, it was anything but.
Marra: Partly, it’s a joke, since I know that some readers of Constellation may come to a short collection with diminished expectation. But I came to love the idea that such a modest, mundane landscape painting could contain such a dramatic history and could, for these characters, become the single most powerful work of art they will ever encounter.
Rumpus: In your acknowledgements, you name several nonfiction books that you said were invaluable for your research. What were you looking for while doing your research?
Marra: Most often I’m looking for the fine grain of daily experience, that one little insight that authenticates a world. One example, for Constellation, would be the fact that under-supplied surgeons would use dental floss for stitches. It seemed to sum up in a single striking image both the deprivation and resourcefulness of these characters. When researching Constellation, I first checked out big, lumbering geopolitical treatises on the Northern Caucasus, but quickly realized that as interesting as they were, they weren’t very useful. I mean, if you were to write about a day in the life of a shopkeeper in Baghdad in 2004, chances are accounts of Oval Office policy debates wouldn’t be all that relevant to accurately portraying said resident’s fears, dreams, and desires.
I ended up relying on memoir, firsthand reporting, and testimony for Constellation. For Tsar, I relied on my own time in Russia, conversations with friends from there, as well as spending much time trawling YouTube. The scene with Kolya and Alexi “roof diving” was the result of stumbling upon cellphone videos of Siberian teenagers leaping from ten-story-tall apartment blocks into the snowbanks below.
Rumpus: Some of the anecdotes are so specific and real, like the dying mother who refuses to let her family do the dishes, and they eat one at a time so she only has to wash one place setting. Did you ever absorb these stories from nonfiction, or are they invented?
Marra: That particular anecdote is my own invention, but it’s all catch as catch can. Sometimes it bursts from your imagination fully formed, sometimes you absorb from nonfiction, sometimes you’re able to imprint your own autobiographical experiences on a world you never yourself were a part of. A decent number of the one-liners in the title story originally came up in conversations with my girlfriend or my neighbor. Anytime I can get either of them really laughing, I immediately pull out a pad of paper write the joke down, regardless of where we are or what we’re doing. I must be absolutely insufferable.
Rumpus: You’re a teacher at Stanford. How does teaching fiction inform your work?
Marra: It forces me to clarify and articulate, in ways I might not otherwise, how fiction works, how it succeeds, and how it fails. Plus, in most of the classes I’ve taught, the reading list has been half-designed by the students to reflect their particular interests—I show them fiction I like, they show me fiction they like, and hopefully we all learn something new.
Rumpus: How did you like studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?
Marra: I had a terrific time there. Both Constellation and Tsar were conceived there, so in a sense, I’ve spent the last five or six years finishing what began there. Plus, there’s a place there called the Hamburg Inn that serves pie shakes, which are as cardiac arrestingly amazing as they sound.
Rumpus: What’s the last thing you read that you loved?
Rumpus: And what are you working on now?
Marra: I’m working on a novel set in Los Angeles and Sicily in the 1940s.
Author photograph © Smeeta Mahanti.