Marisa Silver on Fables, Torture and Reading the Obituaries

An interview with the author of Little Nothing

Marisa Silver’s latest novel is a stylistic departure from her previous work. In Little Nothing, the award-winning author (Mary Coin, The God of War) writes a fable steeped in archetype and magic. Pavla, a dwarf born to elderly parents, in a nameless, Eastern European town, is both an object of derision and fascination; like many women today, Pavla’s worth becomes tied to her form. When Pavla’s parents have her stretched by a local healer, the girl undergoes the first of several transformations. Each transformation takes Pavla further into a world of tricksters, criminals and beasts. Silver’s work allows us to consider the frequency of violence perpetrated against the female body. I had the pleasure of interviewing her by email while she began her book tour for Little Nothing. We discussed her story’s unusual origin, the freedom of writing as a wolf, and the questions this novel allowed her to pose.

Heather Scott Partington: What was the genesis of Little Nothing? How did it change from the original idea?

Marisa Silver: I’m an avid reader of the obits. A few years ago, I read about a man who, until his death, was one of the last remaining Munchkins from the “Wizard of Oz.” Tucked in among the usual details about accomplishments and the relatives he left behind was this: when he was a boy, his parents tried to have him stretched. I was, needless to say, curious, and my curiosity led me to begin to imagine the story of a young girl, born a dwarf, who undergoes this same ersatz “therapy” but with very different results. Early on, I knew that the girl in the story would change form in radical ways and that the story would take place over a lifetime. That’s what I started with. It’s hard to say the story changed from the original conception, because I had no conceit beyond that first impulse. I was not certain where I was headed, or even what her transformations would be or how they would be enacted. I just wrote my way through, inventing the story’s inner logic as I went.

Stories for me always begin with questions and some of the questions I asked myself were these: what were the implications of this kind of torture not only for her and her sense of her identity and her safety, but for the people who enacted such violence on her. I began to think about what all this had to do with the female body and how it is treated in society, why it is the subject of so much fear and violence. And I asked myself how it is that people survive a life of being hunted, both literally and metaphorically.

A novel exists in two worlds simultaneously: the one bounded by the time of the intrinsic narrative and the one in which the author lives. Around the time I was working on the book, two hundred Chibok schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria. In Kabul, an Afghan woman was stoned to death after having been accused of committing adultery. In so many parts of the world women don’t control their bodies. I was thinking about these realities at the same time that I was constructing the narrative of Pavla, and while her story exists on its own and is guided by the events and characters that occur only in the world I imagined, it is also a response to the contemporary and very real world I live in, where bodies, in particular women’s bodies, are subjected to great acts of cruelty.

HSP: You write in the tradition of fairy tales, grotesques, and fables. But Little Nothing presents a challenge to those predictable patterns of storytelling. Why were you inspired to tell Pavla’s tale in this specific way? Did the genre present challenges, or did it give you freedom?

MS: What interests me about fairy tales is the disjunction between the narrative style, which is usually unadorned, frank, and without overt psychological nuance, and the fact that the tales incorporate wild leaps between the real and the fantastic. There is something in that dissonance that enables the stories to speak to our most primal sense of ourselves. It seems counterintuitive that something so unadorned and lacking in associative image and lyricism should have such power. I was also interested in the way that, in a fable, the border between the real and the surreal is so porous. We find ourselves traveling back and a forth across that line between what we understand to be true and what we are willing to believe could be true if we were to strip away our skepticism and entertain a world that is not limited by scientific reality. One of the great pleasures of fiction is entering an invented space and believing that characters conjured simply out of words on paper can move and speak and react. The fairy tale takes this one step further, begging us to believe in the patently unbelievable. And even if we say we don’t believe that a toad can turn into a prince, in some metaphorical way, we really do.

HSP: Pavla undergoes several transformations in the book, at one point realizing she has become “wholly unfamiliar to herself.” As I read Little Nothing, I realized how much of our perception of character is tied to a sense of that character’s physical form. Little Nothing pushes the reader to think of form as something as illusory as structure. Pavla’s transformations make clear delineations of change in the story, but it becomes apparent that she is more than her physical form, just as a story is more than its imagined structure. Did that idea come as you developed her (sometimes) animal nature, or did it arise out of a larger conception of how humans tend to tie identity to form?

MS: It’s interesting that you talk about structure that way because I am a big believer that a story’s structure should not be arbitrary but that it should suggest something about a character’s lived experience, and that it ought to be in conversation with the overall meaning of a piece. I thought of the structure of the novel as an unpeeling. The story keeps being constructed and then it falls away, exposing another story beneath it. You unpeel and unpeel until finally there is nothing, a state the character finds herself in as well.

Once I wrote the scene where the character is stretched, I began to understand more about the way the book was engaging with the idea of identity and physicality, how the two are and are not related. Obviously, we all change over a lifetime. Some change is natural. We mature physically and emotionally. But some of the change is asserted on us by family, by circumstance, by the institutions that control us. I wrote about these ideas in an exaggerated way, through the mechanism of fable, using the uncanny in order to reflect the real.

Having said that, I do not write with meaning in mind. I focus on characters and on creating emotionally accurate moments and behaviors and language for those characters as they find their way through the plot. Given the sorts of metamorphoses I was going to embrace, and given the time and place of the books telling, the language and feel of the fable felt tonally right.

HSP: Similar to Pavla’s relationship to physical form (and the “rules” — if we can call them that — of how characters change from one form to another), her relationship to time becomes flexible, and inspires us as reader to challenge our own assumptions about what we think we can take for certain within the story. Were you (or are you) inspired by any other works of literature that do this kind of undermining of the reader’s expectations?

MS: I’m probably only interested in literature that, in some way, undermines expectations! I’m not sure what other reason there might be to write a novel but to use form to shape experience in such a way that what is unseen is brought to light. The challenge is to find a way to expose and explore the unexpected while still keeping the reader in a state of belief. The work is to find the associations of images and language that crack open fixed expectations so that the reader sees more deeply into an experience. One of the writers I read while working on the novel was Agota Kristof. She wrote a trilogy of novels, The Notebook, The Proof, and The Third Lie. Told in spare, nearly uninflected prose, these allegorical novels about war and repression read like the darkest and most disturbing of fairytales. And yet their resonance to the real is vivid and inescapable. You cannot finish these books without seeing anew something you felt you understood about the way in which war disfigures the morality of even the most innocent.

Time is a big preoccupation of Little Nothing in the way it is both linear and circular. Time never really passes, or becomes past. What is happening is still happening within us and somewhere out in the distant universe. In order to imagine a world in which a character can change form in radical ways, one in which unnatural, or supernatural things occur, it felt like both time and space had to be considered as malleable. In some sense, Pavla becomes, finally, time.

Time never really passes, or becomes past. What is happening is still happening within us and somewhere out in the distant universe.

HSP: Why did you use a nameless country, but such familiar archetypes of place? Did this evolve for you as you worked on the novel, or was it always intended to be in an open kind of setting that would draw on the reader’s familiarity with this kind of old story?

MS: Having written stories and novels that could be put in the general category of realism, it took some work for me to let go of trying to root the novel in a particular historical moment. But whenever I did, defining a country or giving a name to a village, or making the war in the novel a specific and actual one, the novel lost its character. The book seemed to live in an unnamed village somewhere in Eastern Europe sometime in the early part of the twentieth century in the same way that fables exist in these indeterminate times and places. There is a subtle change in the novel as we move from a pre-industrial, agrarian world into modernity. The action moves from the countryside to a city, and although the city is not named, its markers are much more specific.

HSP: Pavla’s mother, Agáta, says, “‘We make up the sense of things after they happen… We tell stories. This happened because of that. We string things together one by one so that it seems like there’s a reason to it all. But there is no reason. The most unbelievable things can happen and you have no idea why.’” How was it different to work on this story — or perhaps I should say, this kind of story — compared to your other novels? I’m thinking of your previous novel, Mary Coin, specifically, which existed in a realist world and was based on the Migrant Mother photograph. I wondered if this idea of storytelling to make sense of things held true for both books. What are the threads that pull your work together?

MS: When I finished Mary Coin, a book steeped in reality, I declared (to myself — I’m not sure anyone else was listening) — that my next novel would be wholly imaginative. Up until the writing of Little Nothing, the impetus for my stories always came from social realities either in the present or the past. It felt like a necessary departure for me to move into a purely imaginative space, necessary in order for me to flex some different aesthetic muscles. I have the feeling the obituary and the detail of the stretching captured my attention precisely because I was not looking to the world around me or to the historical record for inspiration. I wanted something that would take me away from all that, and that detail, which, even though it was real for that very real man, seemed the stuff of fable, captured my attention. It was a challenge to look at reality through the lens of the surreal, to make these big leaps into the impossible. But the foundational issues were the same for me in this novel as in anything else I’ve written. I had to invent palpable characters. I had to create action that unearthed their natures while moving the plot forward in compelling ways. Once I entered my very odd world, nothing really felt that unusual at all.

The lines you quote in your question really do speak to what connects my work in the sense that I am not interested in answering questions. I’m interested in asking them, and in exploring their various implications. To me, a novel is an opening, not a shutting down. At the end of the book, I want the reader to come away feeling like the world did not get smaller and more manageable, but that it got bigger and even more unruly.

I am not interested in answering questions. I’m interested in asking them.

HSP: I love that you wrote, “A wolf is its own term.” It felt like you stretched into a different state of narrative with that section. What was it like to write from the perspective of a wolf? How did you approach it?

MS: The exciting aspect of this section of the book for me was to write from the point of view of an animal while maintaining a sense that this animal might be a being we have already met. So, while I tried to write with some degree of accuracy about the life of a wolf and a wolf pack, and while I tried not to anthropomorphize the animals, I still had to suggest, somehow, that this wolf was, or at least might be, a character we recognize. So a lot of it was finding the right narrative distance for that section, trying to write about a wolf as a physical presence more than an emotional one. It was quite liberating to think of a character, in this case, the wolf, as being wholly motivated by instinct and the body.

This section of the book also marks the moment when Danilo takes over the narrative for a while. So seeing the wolves through his eyes allowed me to invest in them emotionally in a way that I might not have been able to do were I only allowed to describe the wolves from the wolves’ point of view.

HSP: What’s the best thing you’ve read recently?

MS: I’ve been doing some re-reading recently and I just finished Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. I love that book. The complicated war of emotions packed into a single, beautifully rendered sentence — thrilling.

HSP: What are you working on now?

MS: I’m doing what I normally do between projects. I wander around, read things, look at things, wait for the image or the idea or the overheard sentence that makes me ask myself a new set of questions.