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The stars align for USC alumnus

A first novel by Anthony Marra is longlisted for the National Book Award in fiction, among other laurels.

It’s not bad when the fiction editor of The Washington Post names your first novel his favorite book of 2013.

And when President Barack Obama is caught on camera purchasing said novel, that’s another validation for a fledgling novelist.

But having your first novel longlisted for the National Book Award? Now that is impressive.

“It’s really difficult to publish your first book because you’re this unknown entity and have no reputation or readership or audience yet,” Anthony Marra ’08 said. “So to have received such an enthusiastic response from the readers and reviewers has been immensely gratifying.”

The title for his book, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth, 2013), was drawn from a definition for “life” in an online Russian medical dictionary. Despite the book’s bleak setting of Chechnya with its sobering history of civil wars or maybe because of it, Marra’s narrative delves deeper than the country’s constant conflicts. Rather, it focuses on the ordinary civilians that persevere in such a setting. It is a human story of Chechnya.

The book begins as the father of 8-year-old Havaa is abducted by Russian soldiers. Managing to escape, a neighbor takes the girl under his wing, bringing her to a de facto hospital nearby. There, a doctor reluctantly shelters them, a risky undertaking considering Havaa’s enemies are likely to return. But in a situation such as this, their humanity is the one thing these characters can control.

“It’s completely surrounded by darkness, but I don’t think it’s a dark book,” Marra emphasized. “It’s about people doing what they can to save lives rather than destroy them. And I think that it’s suffused with a sense of generosity and plenty of moments of humor to lighten things.”

Marra’s initial inspiration came while he was a student at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He was studying abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he lived down the street from a Russian military academy. Sixteen- and 17-year-old soldiers would march by proudly in their new uniforms and peaked hats, standing in stark contrast to the Chechnyan war veterans — only a few years older, some missing limbs, begging for spare change — who congregated at a nearby metro station.

“I was initially interested in Chechnya simply because I didn’t know anything about it, like most Americans. For me, it was just this far-flung land vaguely synonymous with poverty and terror,” he explained. “But the more I read about it, the more I became fascinated with its remarkable history and culture. Writing this novel was my way of trying to understand their experience.”

Marra's book focuses on the ordinary civilians that persevere in Chechnya, a country beset by constant conflict. (Photo/Smeeta Mahanti)

Marra’s book focuses on the ordinary civilians that persevere in Chechnya, a country beset by constant conflict. (Photo/Smeeta Mahanti)

During his research phase, Marra read nearly two dozen nonfiction books about the republic. He wanted to internalize what he had read almost as a blueprint of the region that would become his backdrop for the characters and plot. He made a point of not letting the research get in the way of the story itself, making sure every fact, figure or moment from his research moved the plot along.

“Nothing can quite kill the magic of fiction quicker than a didactic history lesson,” he said.

The Washington native graduated from USC Dornsife with a bachelor’s in creative writing before earning a Master of Fine Arts at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He teaches at Stanford University as a Jones Lecturer in Fiction and is a former Wallace Stegner fellow.

At graduation, Marra won the USC Discovery Scholar prize, then in its first year. The award celebrates undergraduates who have excelled academically while making a meaningful contribution to their field through exceptional scholarship or artistic work.

At USC Dornsife, Marra found an invaluable mentor in Cecilia Woloch, associate professor (teaching) of English. During his senior year, Woloch met with him weekly, giving guidance as he wrote an earlier novel he never published.

“It was an incredible act of generosity — I wasn’t doing an independent study course or anything, and she really took a lot of time out of her life to help me with my writing,” he said.

Marra was also heartily encouraged by professors T.C. Boyle, Writer in Residence at USC Dornsife, and Percival Everett, Distinguished Professor of English. They helped him to realize he could excel in writing.

“My professors at USC Dornsife gave me a lot of confidence, and I am quite thankful for having had the opportunity to work with them.”

Thus far in his short career, Marra has earned a Whiting Award, The Pushcart Prize, The Atlantic Monthly Student Writing Contest and the Narrative Prize.

“The process of writing for me is, by and large, a process of joy,” he said. “Being able to transport yourself, to imagine what it’s like to inhabit the mind, heart and body of somebody you’ll never meet is really an extraordinary feat of human imagination.”

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