A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

by Anthony Marra


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Stegner Fellow, Iowa MFA, and winner of The Atlantic's Student Writing Contest, Anthony Marra has written a brilliant debut novel that brings to life an abandoned hospital where a tough-minded doctor decides to harbor a hunted young girl, with powerful consequences.

   In the final days of December 2004, in a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa hides in the woods when her father is abducted by Russian forces. Fearing for her life, she flees with their neighbor Akhmed—a failed physician—to the bombed-out hospital, where Sonja, the one remaining doctor, treats a steady stream of wounded rebels and refugees and mourns her missing sister. Over the course of five dramatic days, Akhmed and Sonja reach back into their pasts to unravel the intricate mystery of coincidence, betrayal, and forgiveness that unexpectedly binds them and decides their fate.
   With The English Patient's dramatic sweep and The Tiger's Wife's expert sense of place, Marra gives us a searing debut about the transcendent power of love in wartime, and how it can cause us to become greater than we ever thought possible.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780770436407
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 05/07/2013
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

ANTHONY MARRA is the winner of a Whiting Award, a Pushcart Prize, The Atlantic's Student Writing Contest, and the Narrative Prize, and his work was anthologized in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He has lived and studied in Eastern Europe, and now resides in Oakland, CA.

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Chapter 1

Excerpted from "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Anthony Marra.
Excerpted by permission of Crown/Archetype.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


A Conversation with Anothony Marra, Author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Why write about Chechnya?

I realized that Chechnya was a place I didn't know how to spell and couldn't find on a map, but the ramifications of the wars there had reached as far north as Petersburg, where on a daily basis I saw Russian veterans soliciting for alms in the metro stations. I began reading nonfiction accounts of Chechnya and quickly became fascinated. Its history and culture has inspired writers like Tolstoy, Lermontov, and Pushkin. The accounts I read of ordinary people in remarkable situations were the kinds of stories that I felt needed to be brought to life through fiction.

But to answer the question of why set a novel in Chechnya, my answer would be that it is a setting thatmagnifies and dramatizes the moral conflicts of characters in extraordinary ways. These characters want what we all want—to live peacefully and provide for our loved ones—but their circumstances require them to make decisions the reader will hopefully never have to make, but nonetheless understand.

Readers and reviewers have commented on the beauty of the language in this novel. Can you talk a little about how you write it?

I ended up writing four first-to-last-word drafts. Each time I finished a new draft, I'd print it out, set it in front of my keyboard, and retype the entire novel. Because retyping mimics the original act of creation, it taps into whatever creative well the sentences first rose from. The novel changed from draft to draft, then, from within, organically, rather than from changes that were superimposed on it. There's a scene early on when Khassan despairs as he realizes that he must again retype his 3,000-plus-page history. Thankfully, Constellation isn't nearly that long, but I still knew exactly how he felt.

I also kept a daily word-count record. My goal was to hit a thousand words every day. The days when I recorded zero words felt like wasted days. I grew up going to church and Sunday school each week, and at long last, I was able to put that Catholic guilt to good use.

The novel has some dark moments, but at the same time, it's filled with moments of humor and hope. How, and why, did you blend instances of death and loss with levity?

I once heard Allan Gurganus say that writers should strive to make readers laugh and cry on every page. It's a tall order, but I absolutely agree with the reasoning. Novels need the high notes as well as the low in order to be true to the emotional reality of life. When I traveled to Chechnya, I was repeatedly surprised by the jokes I heard people cracking. It was a brand of dark, fatalistic humor imprinted with the absurdity that has become normalized there over the past two decades.

A book I thought of while writing Constellation was City of Thieves by David Benioff. Benioff's novel pays tribute to the immense suffering caused by the Siege of Leningrad, but it's filled to the brim with life, love, humor, even joy, all of which only enhance and make more real the underlying historical tragedy. Hopefully, Constellation works in a similar fashion.

The novel has a unique structure. The reader moves back and forth through time, aided by a timeline that appears at the top of each chapter. How did this device, and structure, come about?

While writing the book, I kept decade-long timelines for each character. I didn't outline or map out the book prior to writing it, but I did keep these character timelines as I went in order to keep tabs on who was where when. At some point, I realized that putting a timeline at the top of each chapter would orient the reader, show the scope of the novel, and position each chapter in chronological relation to what has preceded it.
In terms of the overall structure, I felt it was important that the novel's architecture embody the individual strivings of its characters. The characters in Constellation are piecing their lives together, and as they mend their lives, the novel mends their individual stories into a communal whole.

Who have you discovered lately?

I had the pleasure of recently reading the remarkable We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo to prepare for our BN email correspondence. This past winter I reread several David Mitchell novels. I've been a fan of his for years, but going back through them I felt as though I was discovering them for the first time. The magical worlds he conjures—be they a Dutch trading outpost in nineteenth-century Japan or a small town in Thatcher-era England—retain enough spellbinding brilliance to feel new the second and third times I have visited them. [Ghostwritten was a 2000 Discover pick. -Ed.]

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