When Do You Know a Novel Will Be a Novel?

The Summer 2013 Discover Great New Writers selections are in, and among them, authors Anthony Marra (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena) and NoViolet Bulawayo (We Need New Names) have a created powerful coming-of-age stories that take readers into worlds of hardship and surprising, evanescent beauty. The colliding paths of a doctor and a young Chechen refugee form the basis for Marra’s debut, while Bulawayo’s introduces an unforgettable Zimbabwean girl, whose childhood during the country’s millennial upheaval gives way to an American odyssey, each rendered with shocking vividness.   When we asked the two novelists if they would be willing to talk with one another for the Review about the parallels between their two books, the result was this rich, insightful correspondence that follows.


Anthony Marra: When do you know a novel will be a novel? Or more specifically, when did you know We Need New Names was going to be a novel? I ask that partially out self-interest as I tiptoe my way into writing a second book, but also because your novel is rich enough in voice, character, atmosphere, and plot that I imagine there were many possible avenues of entry for you as a writer.

The characters from A Constellation of Vital Phenomena first appeared in a short story that several friends assumed was excerpted from a longer work. It was a strange response, I thought, because structurally the story felt fairly encapsulated to me. But as weeks and months passed, I kept thinking about the characters from that story. They had histories, ambitions, backstories and futures that exceeded the confines of a twenty-five page story. At the time I was working on a different, now doomed novel, and these characters from Chechnya kept returning to me. I would take a break from whatever I was working on to imagine how they took their tea, whether they slept on their side, back or stomach, how old they had been when they first fell in love. And so I fell into Constellation backwards, pulled in and caught by its characters. They pursued me while I did my best to get on with what I thought was my real work. The day I surrendered was the day Constellation became a novel.

NoViolet Bulawayo: It looks like our books have the same beginnings; We Need New Names, too, started as a short story and the workshop either felt it was an excerpt, or simply wanted more, and so I went along and played with the thing and just let it grow, you know. I wasn’t seriously thinking in terms of “novel” then – it would have been burdensome and intimidating to do so – I was just writing and workshopping material as I went, but of course there came a time when the project took what I thought was a solid shape; the elements–character, plot, voice, storiness, etc. all started coming together in a convincing way such that I got comfortable enough to call it a novel. But of course the real novel turned out to be down the road still, a totally different draft later. The pages and pages I had written in my two years of workshop ended up being some sort of warm up, or rehearsal, the real thing had to come on its own terms I suppose, and when it did, I just knew because the process was effortless and true and I had this sureness I didn’t have with the other drafts.

Coming back to you, I find it right that you were pursued and caught by your characters, for they are so large, so haunting, so unforgettable, and I know I will not be getting them out of my system soon. Ramzan, for instance, just messed me up; one minute he has me frustrated, despising him even, but then I find out why he is who he is, and the book is turned up-side-down for me. And then there’s Akhmed, incompetent as a doctor, but still heals in an unexpected and touching way, Akhmed who chooses to give knowing what it will cost him. Where did these arresting characters come from? What inspired them, and now that you are done, have they let you go? How do you, as an artist, emerge from such a book?

AM: Most of the characters were drawn from archetypes of civilians in civil war—orphans, informers, poorly supplied surgeons, refugees—but how each character grew into his or her own skin remains a bit of a mystery to me. One question I asked myself with each character was how do the extraordinary circumstances of war magnify the kinds of moral failures and fortitudes that would lie dormant in less exigent situations. In peacetime, the opportunism and treachery of Ramzan would have resulted in nothing more harmful than a cheated chess game. Similarly, Akhmed, a complacent and timid village doctor, would likely never have been put in such a dramatic position to transcend his inadequacies.

It’s funny you bring up character since this morning I read an interview with Tom Bissell who said, “The highest purpose of fiction is to show that all people are fundamentally worthy of mercy.” I couldn’t agree more. The sense that characters deserve their author’s compassion not for what they do, but simply for being human, is one I tried to carry with me while writing the novel. So much of the magic in fiction resides in the connective tissue between a character’s choices and the emotional and psychological underpinnings of choice. Once we move from what to how and why, morality becomes murkier business. With each successive draft of Constellation, the third-person narrator grew larger and more inclusive. As the narratorial eye gained omniscience, its gaze seemed to fall on each character with what I hope is equal empathy.

Speaking of character and narrator, one of the extraordinary achievements of We Need New Names is Darling’s voice. In Darling you have created one of the most visceral and vibrant first-person narrators I’ve ever read, creating a language custom-fit to the uniqueness of her experience. How did Darling come into being? Where did her voice come from and how do you sustain its energy over the course of the novel? An interesting aspect of her voice is its fluidity; it grows, changes, and matures chapter by chapter as Darling does. The book ends not only with a changed narrator, but with a changed language. How do you view voice as an expression of character? After going so far and so deep with Darling, is it difficult for you as a writer to leave her behind?

NB: And one can definitely see the writer’s compassion at work in Constellation– by the end of the novel we are able to do what Ramzan begs of Akhmed, which is that he understand him. You have taken your characters from the gloom of war and held them to the sun in such a way that it is in fact impossible not to understand them, you’ve shown that their stories aren’t black and white and their lives aren’t that simple. As a result one appreciates the humanity of each one of them in a circumstance (war) that is meant to undermine that very humanity in the first place.  It’s a beautiful feat and it left such an impression on me.

Back to Darling, the girl came from the margins, from the gallery of things that aren’t supposed to count. I suppose I’m generally interested in the voices of people you wouldn’t necessarily hear from because they are somehow unimportant and have no say; in my view these are people who bear stories/opinions we may not know and need to hear. Names was born out of the chaos of Zimbabwe’s “lost decade” that started around the  year 2000, when the country began falling apart due to failure of leadership that in turn led to political instability, inflation, poverty, immigration and so on. Darling is one of these kids caught up in the chaos created by adults, but even as her age and class and circumstance render her unimportant, she still has insights and opinions and a world that is uniquely her own and has the potential to be interesting and engaging. I wanted to cast a light on that world and its relevant politics, and endow Darling with something that would give her enough power to allow her to tell us about herself (and ourselves too), and that something was a Voice with a big V; if she didn’t have anything she had to have a voice. And for that voice to come and come correct, I sort of had to bring in what I hoped was a fresh language system that would carry Darling and her story, you know. Something that happened that I didn’t consciously engineer but is one of those things that will show up in my work as it sees fit, is this twist of orature. It only seemed right, especially since I was dealing with a first person narrator, and so I just worked with that as it felt natural. Once I understood Darling’s character and her story, her voice seemed to just pour out and all I had to do was keep the momentum going to stay on track. It was a bit of work trying to make sure that every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter stayed in form, and to do this I kept pushing storiness, just making sure that what was happening in the pages was exciting enough, had weight enough.

I’d say even more than an extension of character; voice is the thing that brings it (character) forth. If you don’t get the voice right then the character and story will tend to fall flat. Get it right and you can pretty much do whatever you want. For me Darling is Darling first and foremost because of her voice and not so much what has happened to her or what she does, all things that have probably happened to characters in books by other writers. In her specific voice, she can hopefully feel new. As far as leaving her behind, it’s difficult Tony; she just became so alive to me I don’t know how to end things with her.  And of course there’s a part of me that feels like books can end yes, but not necessarily stories, so there should be room for “what happens next?” and I have a feeling that Darling will have a next. She is, after all, just starting college so let’s wait and see. But I cannot leave this discussion without admiring how you’ve created in Constellation a mix of unique and resonant voices that surprised and kept me going even as I was reading difficult material. You go back and forth quite effortlessly between characters without them overpowering each other and I’m wondering what it took to achieve this balance?

I’m also interested in you, Tony, writing Chechnya; I know you lived in Europe for a bit as a student, but talk to me about the process of identifying with a place or it moving you enough to make you want to write about it, and doing so with such passion. What took you there, and what the process was like for you? I’m also interested in the kind of research one would have to do for a book like this.

AM: Voice and tone have always been the trickiest elements of craft for me. In each successive draft of Constellation, I focused on voice above all, hoping to achieve an omniscient narration flexible enough to shifts between many characters and times in a sequence that felt fated. I’m really struck by the idea that “even more than an extension of character, voice is the thing that brings it (character) forth.” When reading We Need New Names, I felt that Darling’s voice so deeply articulated her consciousness it seemed like literary neuroimaging. Her voice is her character as much as an expression of it. Before we leave the subject of voice, I want to ask about how Darling’s voice changes as she grows up. Her language becomes more restrained, less whimsical, in her teenage years in America. You show the process of growing up linguistically, as well as emotionally and dramatically. Was this a conscious decision or did the language change naturally as you wrote? Is the shift as much rooted in her journey through geographical space as it is through time?

On what drew me to Chechnya, it began in college when I studied in St. Petersburg. I lived down the street from a military academy and most days I’d see young cadets marching down the street in peaked caps and pressed blue uniforms. Further down the street was the Chernyshevskaya metro station, where soldiers a few years older than the cadets congregated. They were veterans of the Chechen Wars, some were missing limbs, all of them solicited alms from commuters. A few months earlier, human rights activist and war journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated, presumably for her reporting from Chechnya. A few months before that, the leader of the Chechen insurgency, a man named Shamil Basayev, was killed. Chechnya was very much in the ether at the time, and I realized that like most Americans I didn’t know anything about it. So I began reading books of history and journalism about Chechnya, and quickly became fascinated. It’s a remarkable place filled with remarkable people; three of Russia’s greatest writers (Tolstoy, Lermontov, and Pushkin) all spent time in or near Chechnya and used those experiences as inspiration for some of their greatest works.

While I was reading all this nonfiction, I tried to find a novel available in English about the recent Chechen Wars, to no avail. So I came to this project as seeking reader, rather than a writer. This was a book I had wanted to read, but it wasn’t written yet. To respond to the broader question of why Chechnya, I’d say initially because it’s a place filled with stories. Legends, folkloric heroes, but also the stories of ordinary people who rebuilt their lives again and again over the course of the tumultuous 20th century. There were many accounts that I read, and much later heard for myself when I traveled through Chechnya, about extraordinary acts of horror and humanity that ordinary people are capable of. I wanted to understand what it was like to be a person living through all this, and reading and writing fiction has always been the closest I can come to understanding what it is to be another human being. I want my experience as a writer to mirror the experience of a reader. I want to be transported. I want the page to be a window looking out on the world.

To turn the question back at you, by what route did you come to this material? How did your own upbringing in Zimbabwe influence your portrayal of Darling’s? Did you ever play the Country Game or Find Bin Laden? Is there a real Godknows out there (please say yes!)? Many readers, myself included, are naturally curious where the fault lines between fact and fiction lie; should those fault lines remain submerged or do they enrich a reader’s understanding of your work?

NB: While a matter of Darling maturing into a teenage identity, the change of voice is also very much about a larger loss that comes as a result of her disconnect from the homeland; voice, after all, is very much tied to geographic space. I have never seen this more dramatized than in immigrants, people who juggle at least two different selves; their real natural self, and the restrained, awkward self they come into as they try to navigate a strange land, sometimes without the cultural currency to do so. I’ve been fascinated, for instance, by how the natural self undergoes some form of repression – because it doesn’t have the space to be- and only emerges in bouts–when an immigrant is with her own people, eating traditional food, speaking her native language, on phone calls home etc, but will of course quickly disappear when all these variables are removed. I remember, for instance, that I spent my first year of college in silence, outside my home that is. I never said a word in class or at work unless when forced so that people thought I was shy or quiet or unfriendly, which of course would have made my childhood friends laugh because that’s not the NoViolet they knew. In America, Darling’s voice is consciously developed in such a way that she reflects what this transformation means.

I am very much inspired by how you came to write Constellation, Tony, this curiosity, this hunger to know, the recognition that there is a story somewhere, and the desire to bring it to life, which of course you do convincingly, and with grace and compassion. I leave the novel with a personal and intimate sense of Chechnya, its story, its people, and their stories of beauty and horror and pain and humanity. I like the idea of the page being a window looking out — it accurately captures my experience, and by the end of the novel I too feel connected the space and characters, even ready to talk about them as real people. You know I was watching the news a couple of days ago and there was a clip of Chenchya — it being where the Boston bombing suspects are from and where the oldest brother lived until around the first Chechen war. Watching footage of their neighborhood and home and seeing the country on TV instantly took me back to the book, to your characters –I saw the bombed out buildings you spoke of, the losses, and I got to thinking about the intersection of fiction and reality. I imagine that in a similar way, a reader who may have lived through the experience, or even a related one, could read a part of the novel and see a connection to what to them is reality. Did you ever think about these connections, and did it affect the way you thought about the project? Was it burdensome to write around a real country and real events, and did you feel any obligation to render the narrative a certain way?

In terms of how I came to the material, it wasn’t so easy as I hadn’t been able to go home since I left in ‘99, which meant I had no firsthand access. I therefore got my material through the news, Facebook, phone conversations where I heard everything from stories and complaints and gossip and grievances. Between my varied sources and my imagination, and of course my memory, I was able to come up with a working portrait of Zimbabwe — I just recently made my first visit at the end of April, about 13 years after I left, and I think I would have written pretty much the same book had I been able to go home while I was writing Names, so I’d say the sources, thankfully, were fairly effective.

My upbringing and Darling’s were different–I was born and raised at a time of stability while Darling experiences experience childhood at a time when the country is falling apart. My childhood therefore was very normal while Darling’s is not. But this doesn’t mean we had nothing in common; the culture, friendships, games played, etc, could occur in any Zimbabwe. And oh yes, we did indeed play Country Game! Play was a big part of our childhood; I don’t remember getting any toys when I was growing up for instance, and we had our first TV when I was 17 so we pretty much had to come up with our own entertainment. Find Bin Laden, however, was invented to suit Darling’s time – I imagined her generation as having a broader sense of the world and its politics. You know I get the names question a lot and I’m amused by the attention as the names are perfectly ordinary to me. Yes, there is indeed a Godknows, and his, and other supposedly interesting names come from a tradition where parents give their children names that speak because they take naming seriously. The names don’t raise eyebrows if they are in our native languages, but if they happen to be in English I suppose they may sound odd.

I am all for keeping the fault lines between fact and fiction submerged, and I suppose this comes from the fact that during the creative process the line is thin for me, so thin that I don’t always see it you know, I just see story. I don’t necessarily set out to tell the truth but I don’t shy away from it either; I don’t set out to create fiction, or create something that is not quite fiction. I suppose all I care about is moving the reader and getting there however the story sees fit.

Coming back you, I’m keen to hear how you settled on the structure of Constellation–not only is it a generous structure that allows you to weave different characters and stories together, but sweeps over a decade, while the grounding action itself takes place in no more than five days. How did you get here, what about the story dictated this very format, and were there any challenges writing this large of a novel? And lastly I’m just curious to know just what it meant writing this heavy book, the serious subject matter. Did it do anything to you emotionally, and how did you stay intact? Are you the person as you were before undertaking the project?

AM: The question of how a novel navigates the straits between reality and fiction is a fascinating one, and one for which the only answer might be the novel itself. One thing that I really admired about Names is that while it’s deeply localized in terms of its language, culture, setting, and characters, it’s very much a universal story. While rooted in the particulars of Darling’s world, Names also tells a story of the search for home and the remaking of identity that is vast and timeless. Juggling between obligation to the story and obligation to the material was something I ran into now and then as I was writing Constellation. What do you do if the characters say one thing but historical fact says another? I ran into this problem particularly in relation to the chronology as I tried to make sure the stories of each character interlocked with the on-the-ground reality of the time. Havaa was notably tricky in this regard. Due to the movement of the book she couldn’t be born earlier than 1996. Yet part of the novel seen through her POV is set in 2001, and she had to be able to understand those events with perhaps more clarity than a five-year-old would possess in order for the reader to understand. In the end, I bypassed the dilemma by creating a more omniscient narrator who could see the world through Havaa’s eyes, but speak with its own voice. Initially I had planned to set the novel in Grozny, but I soon realized that creating my own little fictitious region within Chechnya would allow me to depart from the day-to-day historical record of Grozny. Decisions like those hopefully fulfill both my obligation to my characters and story, and to the reality from which they originate.

From the outset I knew that I had to think of Constellation as two stories: one told over a matter of days and one told over a matter of years. I wanted the novel to cover the decade of the Chechen Wars, but the problem with a multi-charactered story that large is that it can easily become episodic, losing the suspense that pulls a reader through. So to balance that, I tried to ground the novel in the five-day story of a man seeking shelter for a hunted girl, while interweaving throughout the larger, decade-long narrative of what brought this cast of characters together. Though the book jumps around over an eleven year period, I never thought of it as nonlinear, but rather as a series of linear stories that were told at different tempos and had different beginning and end points. Each character in the novel is trying to recover what has been lost and preserve what remains, and so, at a structural level, I hope that as their stories coalesce the novel embodies each character’s individual attempt to salvage his or her past, while mending their stories into a communal whole.

Thank you, NoViolet, for corresponding with me over the past few weeks. We Need New Names is a remarkable achievement, and it has been such a pleasure to learn about what went into writing it. I look forward to reading what you write next.

NB: I especially like how the structure reminds us of how life’s moments are made of large ones, story threads of even grander narratives. What happens in just five days in this village is also the story of a decade, and of a country, and for Havaa, even more, as the novel looks forward to her coming years. There is just a lot to admire and take away from Constellation Tony, and it’s a book I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. Congratulations, and thank you for creating.