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Anthony Marra on reading mysteries and historical fiction

Anthony Marra's new novel is “Mercury Pictures Presents.”Paul Duda

It’s been nearly 10 years since Anthony Marra’s last novel. Much of that interim was devoted to reading a vast trove of books on Hollywood, Italy, and World War II in order to write his new novel “Mercury Pictures Presents,” which follows the highs and lows of a young Italian movie producer. “The problem with researching this period is an overabundance of material,” he says. “I have a bookcase filled with just books about Hollywood.” Marra is also the author of the best-selling “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” and the story collection “The Tsar of Love and Techno.” Marra will be in town Monday to read from his new novel at Porter Square Books in Cambridge at 7 p.m. Tickets are $5.

BOOKS: What are you reading?


MARRA: I’m preparing to teach a class on short story collections so I’ve been reading those, some I previously read and some that are new to me. On my nightstand I have “The Women of Brewster Place” by Gloria Naylor, “The Dew Breaker” by Edwidge Danticat, and “We the Animals” by Justin Torres. The Torres collection is such a beautiful evocation of this one troubled family in upstate New York.

BOOKS: Do you read more short fiction or novels?

MARRA: I gravitate towards novels. During the pandemic I’ve been reading out of my usual wheelhouse and that has included a lot of mysteries. I’ve fallen in love with them. I love Phillip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther detective series, which are set in Germany in the ‘30s and ‘40s. They are satisfying as whodunnits but also introduce all these moral questions about justice in a society where law enforcement represents evil.

BOOKS: What drew you to mysteries?

MARRA: The best mysteries play with a reader’s expectations and biases in interesting ways. A good mystery reads you as the reader as much as you read it as a book. Agatha Christie is such a superb analyst of human nature with her characters and her readers. She’s able to anticipate what you will think.


BOOKS: How would you characterize your wheelhouse?

MARRA: Character-driven literary fiction, authors like Ann Patchett and Jess Walter. I probably read as much historical fiction as I do fiction set in the present day. Edward P. Jones’s “The Known World” is the greatest historical novel I’ve ever read. I read that every two years.

BOOKS: Is there a novel you recommend often?

MARRA: One that no one has heard of, “I Served the King of England” by the Czech author Bohumil Hrabal. It’s about a bellhop in Prague and follows his fortunes through the 20th century. Hrabal got his start as a realist poet so the novel is filled with all these arresting images. It’s probably the book that I’ve reread the most.

BOOKS: When did you become a fan of historical fiction?

MARRA: My dad is a huge history buff and loved reading about Italy and ancient Rome. We had history books lying around the house, including ones from his youth that were yellow and crinkly, which seemed magical to me. In high school I became more interested in historical fiction because it’s a way of defamiliarizing the present. Every work of historical fiction describes the period it is written in as much as the period it is set in.


BOOKS: What other genres do you read?

MARRA: I read nonfiction and listen to audio books. My nonfiction reading is usually connected to what I’m working on. For this novel, it was a lot of books about Hollywood and Italy in the 1940s. I have two favorite books about Hollywood. One is “City of Nets” by Otto Friedrich. It’s a very funny book with all these larger than life figures. The other book is “Hollywood, the Dream Factory” by the anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker. It’s fascinating how she breaks down the taboos and power structures. It’s a really lively book.

BOOKS: What are you listening to?

MARRA: “61 Hours” by Lee Child. A couple of years ago I began to struggle with insomnia so I started listening to books at bedtime. I set the timer and fall asleep to one of Child’s Jack Reacher mysteries, which I love. It makes me feel like a kid again, being read to to lull me to sleep.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane” and she can be reached at amysutherland@mac.com.