DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Anthony Marra writes about Russia like he was born there. Actually, the 31-year-old American lived there for only a semester as a college student.
ANTHONY MARRA: I arrived in January without knowing a lick of Russian, and 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.
GREENE: And Anthony Marra did. He set his acclaimed debut novel, "A Constellation Of Vital Phenomena," in a hospital in Chechnya, a turbulent part of Russia where people fought fought bloody wars for independence. This time, Marra has taken a much broader view, from 1930s Leningrad to the modern day. It's a new collection of linked short stories called "The Tsar Of Love And Techno." Now, I reported from Russia for three years, and I love the little details in Marra's book. He brings up Ded Moroz, a Santa-like character in Russia, and also Baltika, the cheap but effective Russian beer. And there is that stranger-than-fiction quality to daily life often captured on video. Many Russians are fearful that a corrupt cop might accuse them of causing a traffic accident, and so they have cameras on their dashboards to record, well, everything.
MARRA: Anybody who's listening to this, please go to YouTube (laughter) and check out some of the dashboard camera footage from Russia. You know, any hope you may have had that life has some sort of underlying logic to it, it will be immediately put to bed after that.
GREENE: Is there one story in the book that you feel like if someone who doesn't know Russia would read it would be like, that could never happen, that's too absurd, but that actually knowing Russia, it actually could?
MARRA: I might point to the third story in the book, which is called "The Grozny Tourist Bureau," and pretty much everything I write is not at all from my own experience, is not at all autobiographical. But 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.
MARRA: And my tour guide was this really, you know, 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.
GREENE: How do you draw tourists to a place that was literally, I mean, brought to rubble?
MARRA: Exactly, yeah.
GREENE: Do you want to read the first paragraph of the story you're talking about? Because I think it's just wonderful.
MARRA: Absolutely, yeah. (Reading) The oilmen have arrived from Beijing for a ceremonial signing over of drilling rights. It's a holiday for them, their translator told me last night at the Grozny Eternity Hotel, which is both the only five-star hotel and the only hotel in the Republic. I nodded solemnly. He needn't explain. I came of age in the reign of Brezhnev, when young men would enter civil service academies, hardy and robust, only to leave two years later, anemic and stooped, cured forever of the inclination to be civil or of service to anyone. Still, Beijing must be a grim place if they're vacationing in Chechnya.
GREENE: And I love that this was based on an actual experience that you had. I mean, so you're the only tourist in this group. It's just you and the tour guide, Elena. I mean, what was she telling you about Chechnya that you're trying to attract you to this place?
MARRA: Well, 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.
GREENE: I'm looking at the cover of your book right now. It has an old cassette tape on it. And you know, you have side A and side B. The book is divided. You sort of set the book up in the structure of a mixtape. Why'd you decide to go that route?
MARRA: Well, 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...
GREENE: We all did.
MARRA: Yeah, 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 in a sense, that's what this collection is. And it's also a bit self-referential in that one of the characters creates a mixtape for his brother, who carries it with him, and it sort of becomes this totem for everything that he fears losing.
GREENE: You know, Anthony, for all of our crushes who didn't appreciate the work that went into mixtapes, I hope they're listening to this right now.
MARRA: I mean, I can name names. I hope there's a couple (laughter).
GREENE: (Laughter) I don't know if you should do that.
MARRA: No, don't worry (laughter).
GREENE: Well, were you listening to music while you're writing?
MARRA: I wasn't, no, but I ended up - after I finished the book, I ended up trying to create an actual mixtape, which is available on Spotify, that sort of mirrors the overall movement of the book. And I was really pleased to see how many techno remixes of Tchaikovsky there are- - I mean, really a staggering amount. So after you check out the YouTube dashcam videos...
MARRA: ...Head over to Spotify.
GREENE: Head over to Spotify. Well, is there one song on the playlist that you think, I don't know, really is a great soundtrack for parts of this book, and, you know, maybe we can play it as we say goodbye?
MARRA: I suppose. I really love - there is this remix of a song called "Kalinka." The reason I think "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 at once seemed so distant and antiquated are really so present and so still with us.
GREENE: Anthony Marra, thanks so much for joining us. We appreciate it. It was nice talking to you.
MARRA: Thank you so much for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KALINKA")
UNIDENTIFIED ARTIST: (Singing in Russian).
GREENE: Anthony Marra's new book is "The Tsar Of Love And Techno."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KALINKA")
UNIDENTIFIED ARTIST: (Singing in Russian).
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