Thursday, September 15, 2016

Marisa Silver talks about transformation, wandering around thinking about what to write, scandal, magic, fairytales, and her brilliant new novel, LITTLE NOTHING

I've been continually haunted by Marisa Silver's novels. And I'm not the only one. Mary Coin was a New York Times Bestseller and a South Carolina Independent Booksellers Association Award for Fiction; The God of War, a finalist for the Los Angeles Book Prize; No Direction Home; Babe in Paradise, a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. Little Nothing is about how we survive, how we transform, and truly, how we live.

Thank you so much, Marisa for being here and for writing this great response.

Despite the fact that I spend much of my life wandering around and trying to think of what to write next, the idea for almost everything I’ve ever written has come to me not after long contemplation but in the flash of a single moment. The same was true for Little Nothing. I was perusing the obituary page of The New York Times one morning (yes, this is something I routinely do,) and I read the obit of a man whose claim to fame was that he was one of the last surviving munchkins from “The Wizard of Oz”. The focus of the obit was, naturally, his association with that iconic film, but what caught my attention, was a brief sentence that revealed that, as a child in Eastern Europe, his parents had tried to have him stretched.

And there was that flash, that thing that happens each time I stumble on an idea. I back up, I take another look, and my mind begins to see that this small nugget of information has implications for me that are broad and deep and somehow emotionally resonant. I didn’t understand why that particular detail meant something to me, or what kind of story I would fashion, and I didn’t really know until two-and-a-half years later, when the novel was finished, until I could look at what I’d made and think about why I might have made it.

At precisely the moment that my previous novel, Mary Coin, was published, my father passed away. His death was sudden, surprising, a rupture. Trying to understand what it means for a person to be absent is difficult, I think, and it certainly was for me. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what nothingness was. How could a person be here and then not here? And what exists in place of their absence? It is something different from actual presence, but something just as palpable, just as weighty. In its own, often fanciful, sometimes deadly serious way, Little Nothing is an exploration of transformation, transcendence, enduring love and the materiality of nothingness.

Little Nothing is also about the body, the female body in particular. It is about all the transformations the body goes through not only as a result of normal maturation, but also because the female body is an historic subject of violation. During the time I was writing the book, two hundred schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria. In the U.S., the abortion wars continued to rage. In some parts of the world, a woman could be stoned to death for committing adultery. The female body continues to strike fear and outrage in people who need to quash its possibilities for pleasure, for learning, for existence. I kept thinking about what happens to a woman during the course of her life as she is told that who she is, what she looks like, the very form she takes — her body— is unacceptable.

And, despite that, or maybe because I was thinking about these somewhat dark themes, I wanted to write a tale that would be filled with life! With the earth, the body, with humor, and scandal, and improbability, and a touch of magic.


Something I was thinking about when I began the book was Sophocles’ riddle of the Sphinx: What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening? The answer, of course, is Man, who crawls as an infant, walks on two legs as an adult, and uses a cane, a third “leg” as an old man.

We all change throughout a lifetime. Some of those changes happen as a result of time, some are self-imposed. Still others are imposed upon us. We are always in the act of becoming something else. Little Nothing takes an allegorical approach to exploring this central fact of life. Because I situated my story in a real world where strange and impossible things happen, I had the latitude to physicalize the emotional transformations we go through in fantastical ways. Once Pavla made her first, incredible alteration, I just kept going, and tried to imagine what form she would take as she developed both as a woman and as she suffered the slings and arrows of her particular fortune.


I have now read more fairytales than I ever read as a kid! I was not a reader as a child. I was a daydreamer. A champion one, at that! But when I wrote Little Nothing, I took a deep dive into the world of folk and fairytales, especially those out of Eastern Europe. I also read Bruno Bettelheim, Maria Tatar, and Philip Pullman, all of whom write about the form in fascinating ways. One of the things I love most about fables and fairytales is that, although the most weird, unlikely, and violent things happen, the telling is invariably simple and straightforward. The brutality of what occurs is somehow made all the more frightening by this lack of artifice. Once upon a time a woman had a child who she hated, so she sent her out to the woods to die. No imagery. No lyricism. And certainly no psychological realism. The narrative frankness freed me up to make certain leaps of the imagination.

The challenge for me was to make sure that the story always felt emotionally truthful and that what happened to the characters, no matter how surreal, felt, in some metaphorical way, accurate to our experience of being alive. I want a reader to believe in the changes Pavla goes through even as those changes are impossible to believe. That’s what fiction is all about, isn’t it? Drawing the reader into that liminal  space where the real and the imagined mingle and what is mere fabrication feels utterly true.

What surprised me was how much of life really hews to the contours of fairytale. Read the newspaper. We have an ogre running for president.

The Last Line:

Well, I think that if all time exists, as it does, and if nothing truly disappears, which it does not, than all stories are there. It is my job, through observation and imagination, and the application of language, to give them shape.

Obsessing me now:

Besides the election, you mean? Oh, I’m wandering around trying to figure out what I’ll write next.

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