Ask the Author | Anthony Marra

Anthony Marra discusses his new novel ‘Mercury Pictures Presents,’ diving into his “map-making” writing process and love for writing major moments for minor characters.


Contributed photo from Anthony Marra.

Anaka Sanders, Arts Reporter

Anthony Marra is a New York Times bestselling author and winner of the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. His latest novel, “Mercury Pictures Presents,” tells the story of a group of immigrants and refugees fleeing from late 1930s Italy to Los Angeles. This exiled community found themselves working at a low-budget movie studio contracted to produce propaganda pictures 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 in creative writing at the Writers Workshop. “Mercury Pictures Presents” was released on Aug. 2, and Marra will give a reading at Prairie Lights on Sept. 12.

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

Anthony Marra: I began working on it in 2014. My first two books each took me about two years to write, so when I began this one, I figured that I would finish it up when Obama was still in office. This one took quite a bit longer than the first two — in part because the level of research that one can engage with when writing about Hollywood or World War II is endless. I felt like I kept on disappearing down various rabbit holes that every time I thought I had a sense of what the book was going to be, I would come upon some new bit of information that forced me to recalibrate the structure and the characters motivations. In the process of writing, I found that oftentimes writers, when describing how they research, they use archaeological language — they describe it as “excavating” or “unearthing.” But for me, the research process has always been more akin to map-making. Research is how you figure out the dimensions of the world that you’re dealing with. Every time I came upon an interesting fact or an anecdote that seemed to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up on end, I would think of that as a little coordinate in my map. The process of writing the book was like figuring out how to get from point to point. The research process, for me, was less about trying to find some colorful, historical details to give a sense of realism to the book, and more about how to structure the narrative itself. I ended up working on this for seven years, and over the course of the writing process, the themes and the ideas that the novel was concerned with felt more and more relevant to contemporary America. When I began working on this, it was before Trump had declared that he was going to run for office. And suddenly, the America First Committee — which rose during the late 30s and is present in the background of the novel — all of the sudden had a real sense of contemporary resonance. As I was writing the book, over the course of those years, I began to feel that as a historical novel it seemed to be describing the period in which it was written more than the period in which it was set.

DI: What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given about writing?

Marra: I was a student at the Iowa Writers Workshop from 2009 to 2011, and one of my professors was Marilyn Robinson, who is just such an important figure in American literature and certainly was in my own life, used to describe fiction as that “fiction should be the landscape of your preoccupations.” I love the idea that a novel should be the space where you go to explore what you find fascinating. Where curiosity reigns. The idea that the things in life, in culture, and in politics that befuddle or bewilder, or perplex or fascinate, or excite or enliven, that all those aspects are something that a novel can contain and bring to life and make meaningful. I think that one of the things that Marilyn always suggested to us was the idea that novels are not where you go to find answers, but rather where you go to find questions. I think that that’s something that I’ve really taken to heart over the course of my own writing career.

DI: What was your favorite part in the novel, or a part that was the most fun to write about?

Marra: One of my favorite things in general is writing minor characters. I often will use an omniscient narrator that will veer into the perspective of secondary characters. My goal is to write books that essentially have no minor characters in which even the smallest players get their sentence or two in the spotlight. That’s particularly fun to do in a book set in Hollywood, where there are quite literally extras on the scene. I had a lot of fun doing that with various extras in this book. Just one example is there are a pair of the extras named Harold and Gerald, and Harold and Gerald hold the unofficial World Record for the most onscreen 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 say anything to them so much as I would ask them questions. I would ask if I had written them accurately; if they felt that they were honestly portrayed in the book. I think that that’s the great hope and fear of every writer — that you are treating your characters with dignity and respect. I would certainly see if they would even be willing to talk to me.

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