Ask the author | Anthony Marra

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Anthony Marra talks about his new novel “Mercury Pictures Presents,” delving into his “map-making” writing process and his love for writing major moments for minor characters.

Photo courtesy of Anthony Marra.


Anthony Marra is a New York Times best-selling author and winner of the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Prize. His latest novel, “Mercury Pictures Presents,” tells the story of a group of immigrants and refugees fleeing late 1930s Italy to Los Angeles. This exile community found themselves working in a low-budget film studio hired to produce propaganda footage during World War II. Marra is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and is currently back in Iowa City for the semester as a visiting professor of creative writing at the Writers Workshop. “Mercury Pictures Presents” was released on August 2 and Marra will give a reading at Prairie Lights on September 12.

The Iowan Daily: What was your writing process for “Mercury Pictures Presents”?

Anthony Marra: I started working on it in 2014. My first two books each took me about two years to write, so when I started this one I figured I’d finish it when Obama was still in power. This one took a little longer than the first two – in part because the level of research one can engage in when writing about Hollywood or WWII is endless. I felt like I kept disappearing down various rabbit holes. Every time I thought I had an idea of ​​what the book was going to be, I came across new information that forced me to recalibrate the character structure and motivations. In the course of writing, I discovered that often writers, when describing their research, use archaeological language – they describe it as ‘digging’ or ‘digging up’. But for me, the research process has always been closer to cartography. Research is how you determine the dimensions of the world you are dealing with. Whenever I came across an interesting fact or anecdote that seemed to make my hair stand on end, I thought of it as a little coordinate on my map. The process of writing the book was like figuring out how to get from one point to another. The research process, for me, was less about trying to find colorful and historical details to give the book a sense of realism, and more about how to structure the narrative itself. I ended up working on it for seven years, and during the writing process, the themes and ideas that concerned the novel felt increasingly relevant to contemporary America. When I started working on this, it was before Trump said he was going to run for office. And suddenly the America First Committee – which rose in the late 1930s and is present in the background of the novel – suddenly had a real sense of contemporary resonance. While I was writing the book, over those years, I began to think that as a historical novel it seemed to describe the period in which it was written more than the period in which it unfolded.

DI: What’s the most valuable piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

Marra: I was a student at the Iowa Writers Workshop from 2009 to 2011, and one of my teachers was Marilyn Robinson, who is such an important figure in American literature and certainly was in my own life, used to describe fiction like this “fiction should be the landscape of your concerns. I like the idea that a novel should be the space where you go to explore what you find fascinating. Where curiosity reigns. idea that the things of life, culture and politics that confuse or baffle, or perplex or fascinate, or excite or enliven, that all of these aspects are something a novel can contain and bring to life and make sense of I think one of the things that Marilyn always suggested to us was the idea that novels aren’t where you go to find answers, but rather where you go to find questions. something that I really took to heart during my own writing career.

DI: What was your favorite part of the novel, or the most fun part to write?

Marra: One of my favorite things in general is writing minor characters. I will often use an omniscient narrator who veers into the perspective of secondary characters. My goal is to write books that have essentially no minor characters in which even the smallest players get their sentence or two in the spotlight. It’s especially fun to do in a book set in Hollywood, where there are literally extras on stage. I had a lot of fun doing that with various extras in this book. Just one example is that there’s a pair of extras named Harold and Gerald, and Harold and Gerald hold the unofficial world record for the most on-screen deaths. They dream of one day living to see the end credits; they were particularly fun characters to write.

DI: If you could meet your characters, what would you say to them?

Marra: I don’t think I would tell them as much as I would ask them questions. I would ask if I had written them accurately; if they felt they were fairly represented in the book. I think that’s every writer’s great hope and fear — that you treat your characters with dignity and respect. I would certainly see if they would even agree to talk to me.


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