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Writer on how his book set in 1940s Los Angeles parallels today's illiberal democracy


Anthony Marra's latest novel is the opposite of a page-turner, and I mean that in a good way. The writing is superb. It crackles. As I tried to read, I kept stopping and chuckling and then having to flip back two pages to read something again and to ask, how did he do that? The book is titled "Mercury Pictures Presents." It came out in August, but I couldn't let the year end without finishing. Well, Anthony Marra joins me now. And may I begin by saying congratulations on publishing a novel in peak summer that turns out to be the perfect book I'm finding to savor beside a roaring fire with my dog and a pot of hot tea for company?

ANTHONY MARRA: Well, thank you so much. I'm so delighted to be with you.

KELLY: I should explain that part of what made me want to slow down and savor this book is the writing, but also that there's so much going on. You have this huge cast of characters. You have action, skipping between continents, also skipping around in time. It opens in 1941 in Hollywood but then goes in different places. In a few sentences, give us the elevator pitch. Like, what is this novel about?

MARRA: So Frank Lloyd Wright supposedly said that if you tip the world on its side, all the loose pieces will land in Los Angeles. And this was never more true than it was during the 1930s and '40s when thousands of refugees fleeing the war in Europe landed in LA, where many ended up working at the margins of Hollywood in a studio like Mercury Pictures, which is a struggling B-movie studio that becomes a hub for European refugees in the '40s. So this book takes a look at this particular studio and sort of moves through the present and backstories of these myriad characters who find themselves stranded at the margins of Hollywood as Europe is falling into war.

KELLY: Among the refugees who finds herself stranded in Hollywood as war gets underway is your central character Maria. Introduce us to her.

MARRA: Yeah. Maria is this tough, ambitious, irreverent striver. When we meet Maria, her boss, Artie, is under investigation by isolationists in Congress. Her studio is on the verge of bankruptcy, and her personal and professional lives are coming apart a bit. And like many characters in this book, she arrived at Mercury while trying to outrun her past. She grew up in fascist Italy and fled to Los Angeles with her mother after a childhood transgression led to her father's arrest.

KELLY: Yeah. OK. Let's stay there for a second because among her many duties as Artie's assistant is trying to get their movies past wartime government censors. And it turns out this is a job for which she is surprisingly and uniquely qualified. Explain.

MARRA: Yeah. So Maria's father was arrested and sentenced to internal exile. And for years and years, all of their correspondence was mediated by a postal censor in Italy. And so Maria has to learn from a very young age how to write around censors. And this ends up being a skill that leads to her advancement in Hollywood. If you've ever watched an old movie and wondered why happily married couples sleep in separate beds, it's because this was mandated by the production code, which was the industry-wide censorship bureau. More insidious were the various prohibitions against politically sensitive subjects during that period. And so people like Maria with a talent for insinuation and suggestion were able to sort of skirt the edge of what was permissible due to the censorship codes of the time in movies.

KELLY: I want to dig in deeper on the relationship between Maria and her boss, Artie, the founder of Mercury Pictures. I believe you have brought us a reading that might shed some light on this.

MARRA: I have, yes. So this is describing Maria encountering her boss Artie's many hairpieces, which he has lined up on his shelf the way a more successful producer might display his Oscars. (Reading) As far as Maria could tell, the six hairpieces were the same indistinguishable model and style. But Artie had become convinced that each one crackled with the karmic energy of the hair's original head, unrealized and awaiting release like a static charge smuggled in a fingertip. Thus, he named the toupees after their personalities - the heavyweight, the Casanova, the optimist, the Edison, the Odysseus, the Mephistopheles. Artie had never felt more at home in his adopted country than when he learned that the Founding Fathers had all worn toupees, even that showboat John Hancock. The only one who hadn't was Benjamin Franklin. And look how he turned out - a syphilitic Francophile who got his jollies flying kites in the rain.

KELLY: (Laughter) I mean, people can just hear how much fun you had writing that.

MARRA: It was a lot of fun to write. You know - so it was funny. When I was - I had been working on this book for a number of years, and things finally came together during the pandemic, actually. It was this moment when the blank page was my only window to the world outside, the only form of transportation allowed to me. And I found that the tone of the book became much lighter as the world around me grew darker. And I remember, I was printing out, you know, chapters as I was rewriting them and giving them to my wife. And one day, I could hear her laughing through the wall. And I realized at that moment that I had finally sort of found the tone for the book, and that if I could write a book that would keep my wife laughing through the wall, then I would have done something all right.

KELLY: I love that image of you listening and waiting and seeing if she was going to laugh. It is funny. I mean, staying with the moment in which you were writing, it's historical fiction. It's, as we mentioned, set in the 1930s and '40s, and you're examining fascism. But as you were writing, we're living through a moment where we're witnessing the rise of, if not fascism, certainly illiberal democracy in all kinds of places, from Viktor Orban's Hungary to Italy, which just elected a prime minister whose political party has neo fascist roots. Was that on your mind as you wrote?

MARRA: Yeah, it's never a great sign when a book set in the '40s becomes topical again, is it? As a novelist, I find myself trying to write the kinds of books that I would like to read. And as a reader, I like nothing more than that feeling of being transported somewhere far from your daily life that nonetheless speaks to your daily life in a deep way. And so even as this book transports readers to a distant time, the ideas it grapples with are immediately relevant, as you said. Whether it's the rise of fascism, whether it's the spread of propaganda and misinformation and conspiracy theories, whether it's the specter of refugees fleeing a disastrous war in Europe, the larger issues that these characters are confronting are similar to those that we face today. I think that one of the strengths of the historical novel as a form is that it allows us to recontextualize and reconsider our present moment in terms of the longer sweep of human affairs. So while Maria's story is very much rooted in her era, it's a story that nonetheless speaks to our own time quite powerfully, I hope.

KELLY: Yeah. That is Anthony Marra. His latest novel is "Mercury Pictures Presents." Anthony Marra, thank you.

MARRA: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.