Anthony Marra isn’t all that concerned with which excerpt from his widely praised debut novel, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” will be read at Sacramento’s Stories on Stage on Friday.
In fact, the Oakland writer asked not to be told in advance.
“One of the unique opportunities that this provides is a chance to see another artist interpret your work,” he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what they choose to project and how they choose to do it.”
Marra, 29, has received an avalanche of praise for his novel (The New York Times Book Review compared it to Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”) and a small tsunami of awards, including the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize and a Whiting Writer’s Award. He’ll be in attendance, but Sacramento actor-filmmaker Ruby Sketchley has been cast to read his work at Stories on Stage.
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That’s the premise of the reading series: Local actors read the work of two authors – one established, one apprentice. The writers introduce their works and then relax while it’s read.
“An ‘established’ writer is defined as one who has a novel or short story collection published by a major publisher or university press,” said Stories on Stage director Sue Staats. Emerging writers – occasionally unpublished – are selected from submissions to the series, while established writers are booked based on availability.
Marra, a former Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University, finds the format of the series intriguing.
“I feel like this is sort of her performance, not mine,” he said of Sketchley. “Whatever section (of the novel) most speaks to her will be certainly more dramatically interesting to her than anything I could suggest.”
Of course, there’s no shortage of dramatic and emotionally powerful passages in “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” which takes its title from a Russian medical textbook’s definition of life.
It “is a powerful book about chaos, human endurance, and recovery,” said Valerie Fioravanti, founder of the Stories on Stage series. She teaches writing classes in Sacramento.
“Set in the middle of a brutal, largely ignored war, it will also make you laugh out loud at times,” said Fioravanti, author of “Garbage Night at the Opera.” “To me, that scope is literature at its best.”
“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is set in Chechnya during the decades after the break-up of the Soviet Union, when a series of wars, occupations and terrorist attacks dismantled the institutions and culture of the predominantly Muslim Chechen population.
It follows a number of characters – a man who is the self-described “worst doctor in Chechnya”; his orphaned 10-year-old neighbor girl; a veteran of World War II and his son, who is a Russian informer; the last surgeon in a regional hospital and her missing sister – and moves back and forth in time, including flashbacks that cover decades and flash-forwards that reveal what awaits some characters.
The overwhelmingly positive response to the book has taken Marra aback.
“I don’t think any sane mind would write a non-linear novel set in Chechnya and expect any sort of wide readership,” he said, “so it’s been a surprise and an extraordinary privilege to see so many different people read and enjoy the novel.”
Unlike many first novels, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is not in the least autobiographical. Marra, who grew up on Washington, simply found himself interested in what was happening in Chechnya, starting from a position he describes as not much different from any other American’s understanding of the turmoil. He attributes this approach – he spent time researching in books and visiting the area – to his experience as a reader.
“When I pick up a book and read it, I want to be transported,” he said. “I want to be taken someplace that I didn’t quite know existed, so that by the time I close the book and return to my own reality, my world is expanded and become a little larger and a little more complicated.”
“I sought that same sort of experience as a writer.” The goal, he said, is to carve “a little space inside our minds for greater empathy and awareness of the realities of life for people quite similar to us, but living in drastically different circumstances.”
That’s undoubtedly why he’s so pleased to see what another artist will make using his work at Stories on Stage.
“I think it behooves me and the audience as well to let a professional like Ruby cut loose with whatever she feels is the most personally interesting art,” Marra said.
In addition to Sketchley’s reading from Marra’s novel, actor Tory Scroggins will read Julia Woodside’s short story “The Stone Wall.”