When Anthony Marra began working on his new novel, Mercury Pictures Presents (Hogarth, Aug.), he assumed it would go fairly quickly. His fame-bringing debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and his follow-up story collection, The Tsar of Love and Techno, had each taken him less than two years to write.
“When I was starting this in 2014, I thought to myself, I’ll have this finished while Obama’s still in office,” Marra says via Zoom from his home in New Haven, Conn. His hopefulness was of a piece with the times.
He would end up, as he puts it, “knocking my head against the wall” trying to write Mercury Pictures Presents for years. “I felt like I couldn’t get my teeth into it,” he recalls. “Nothing was really clicking.” His writer’s block was so bad that he considered taking the LSAT.
When the pandemic hit, it gave Marra two sources of motivation. The first was the accountability that comes when two spouses are both working from home. From her workspace at the kitchen table, Marra’s wife “could see directly into my writing closet,” he says. “I realized I would really thrive in a surveillance state.”
The second was the sheer restlessness of isolation. “One of the things I always value most in fiction is that feeling of being transported somewhere far from you,” Marra says. Eventually, after struggling to synthesize his wide-ranging ideas for the novel, “I finally felt like I could see how these elements fit together,” he adds.
Mercury Pictures Presents certainly took Marra, 37, far away from his own life. The novel is set largely in World War II–era Hollywood and focuses on Maria Lagana, a young movie producer from Italy, and her boss, Artie Feldman, as they try to keep the studio of the book’s title afloat during a period of world-historical chaos.
The cast is as wide and varied as a golden age epic: the novel touches on Maria’s childhood in Italy, her father’s internal exile at the hands of the country’s fascist government, and the experiences of Hollywood’s myriad emigres and misfits, including a German woman who presses her skills as a miniaturist into the service of the U.S. government and Maria’s Chinese American boyfriend, Eddie, whose formidable acting talent finds no outlet in an industry bent on racial typecasting.
The novel’s crowdedness and sweeping scope will be familiar to Marra’s readers. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, which was longlisted for the National Book Award and named a best book of the year by the Washington Post and New York magazine, tracks various characters navigating geopolitical conflict in Chechnya. The book’s array of perspectives and leaps across space and time are so kaleidoscopic that Dwight Garner, reviewing the book fondly in the New York Times, called describing its plot a “grim labor.” The Tsar of Love and Techno is no less free-ranging, with stories that move from Russia and Chechnya to Siberia, and that span 1937 to the present day.
While Mercury Pictures Presents shares in that ambition, it also marks something of a departure for Marra, or rather a homecoming. In his previous works, he drew on his time studying abroad in Prague and St. Petersburg while at USC. For this novel, he took inspiration more immediately from his own time living in California and from his ancestors’ roots in Southern Italy. “After doing two books set in the former U.S.S.R.,” he says, “I felt that I was ready to come a bit closer to home.”
Nevertheless, the research skills Marra honed while writing his first two books proved instrumental as he filled out the novel’s world. He traveled to the Calabria region of Italy, one of the novel’s key settings; spent four months at the American Academy in Berlin learning about the Weimar years and the experiences of German exiles; drew on the expertise of his wife, Kappy Mintie, an art historian, for details about photographic technology; and filled “several bookshelves’ worth of books” on Italy and the film industry. He discovered a problem with writing about WWII and Hollywood: “There’s a never-ending rabbit hole of research you can go down,” he says, “in a way that, when you’re writing about Chechnya, there isn’t.”
Marra also, naturally, watched a lot of films. “One of the nice things about writing a novel set in the movie world is that you can technically call sitting on the couch watching movies research,” he says. “Maybe that’s why it took me so long to write this one.”
Immersing himself in film alerted Marra to the resonances and distinctions between cinematic and literary narrative. One chapter focusing on a police detective in Southern Italy takes inspiration from the noir films of the period, and the dialogue between Maria and her boss borrows its “guff,” as Marra puts it, from the crackling exchanges between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. Ultimately, though, Marra finds in prose a budget-free liberty—to shift between perspectives, to shuffle through settings and historical periods—that’s harder to come by in film. “It takes as much ink to put a man on the moon as it does it put a roast in the oven,” he says.
While Marra admires the films of Hollywood’s golden era—he’s a fan of screwball comedies in particular—he’s also attentive, in Mercury Pictures Presents, to the industry’s cruelty and unsavory politics. Maria, for example, discovers that studios at the time “strove to make ethnic characters more relatable to white America by casting them with actors who supposedly brought them nearer to Anglo-Saxon: Chinese actors played Japanese characters, Jewish actors played Chinese characters, Catholic actors played Jewish characters, and Protestant actors played Catholic characters.”
And, when the U.S. joins the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Maria’s employer is all too happy to do its part by shelling audiences with propaganda films, even if it means rousing jingoistic attitudes and exacerbating xenophobia toward Japanese Americans.
For Marra, these developments showcase the dual nature of storytelling. “One of my pet peeves is novels that uncritically fetishize storytelling as this hallowed good,” he says. “I’m interested in how the skills of the fiction writer have been put to really disastrous ends over the course of history.” One of the questions animating him as he wrote the novel was, “How does storytelling redeem and uplift and make us whole, and how does it break us?”
Having begun the book under Obama—the Way-Before Times, one might say—Marra couldn’t have predicted how it would echo the present. But it’s not the first time his fiction has anticipated the current moment. His debut, after all, was about Russia invading a neighbor.
Mercury Pictures Presents, too, has become disconcertingly timely. “So much of what the country was doing in the ’40s is certainly reflected today,” Marra says, “whether it’s disinformation and propaganda campaigns online, or rampant xenophobia, or images of refugees fleeing war in Europe. If you wait long enough, a historical novel always becomes newsworthy again.”
Daniel Lefferts is a writer living in New York City.