Anthony Marra writes about Russia like he was born there.
Actually, the 31-year-old American lived there only a semester, as a college student. "I arrived in January without knowing a lick of Russian," he tells Morning Edition host (and former Moscow correspondent) David Greene. "I just became immediately fascinated with the extremes of life, of geography, of political events that it almost seemed impossible not to want to set a story there."
And he did — Marra's acclaimed debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, was set in a hospital in Chechnya, a turbulent part of Russia where people fought bloody wars for independence.
In his new book, Marra has taken a much broader view, from 1930s Leningrad to the modern day. It's a collection of linked short stories called The Tsar of Love and Techno.
On "The Grozny Tourist Bureau" and the stranger-than-fiction quality of Russian life
This story sort of entwined with my own life in interesting ways — it's about a man named Ruslan, who is tasked by the powers that be to create a tourist bureau, to rehabilitate Chechnya's international image. And so when I went to Chechnya, I wanted to see his sort of real-life counterpart. And so I took an 11-day tour called "The Seven Wonders of Chechnya," and I was the only tourist on this particular tour. And my tour guide was this really incredibly kind and welcoming woman named Elena, who was a government bureaucrat who'd sort of been placed in this similar position of, how do you rehabilitate a place like Chechnya in the international imagination ... it was sort of the sunny side of everything, a little bit, but at the same time, you couldn't help seeing in her, in the various people I met, the fact that even though Grozny today is pretty much entirely rebuilt, the traumas and the wreckage of this war is still unhealed inside of so many people.
I suppose it comes from my desire to have this short story collection really read like a novel. I wanted the stories to feel so entwined that if you were to lose any one of them, the rest would sort of fall apart a little bit. And I love this idea of a mixtape, because like many adolescent boys, I spent a long time making them for people I had crushes on. And what were you trying to do with a mixtape, you weren't just putting love songs on, you were trying to tell a story with a mixtape, you were trying to have these individual songs build up to become something that is much larger than the sum of its parts, that becomes an emotional narrative in and of itself ... and it's also a bit self-referential in that one of the characters creates a mix tape for his brother, who carries it with him, and it sort of becomes this totem for everything he fears losing.
There's this remix of a song called "Kalinka" — the reason I think that "Kalinka" is such a great song is that it does much of what I hope my collection of short stories does, which is show this progression of history, and show how these things that once seemed so distant and antiquated are really so present and so still with us.