I ASKED MARISA SILVER what she thought her newest novel, Little Nothing, was about, and she laughed and shook her head and said she hadn’t figured it out yet. When I finished it, I was certain that it was inspired, in some part, by the Buddhist tradition — reincarnation, detachment, enlightenment, suffering, it was all there. At this, she laughed again and told me she didn’t know much about Buddhism. (Neither did I, I admitted.) We tend to draw boxes around ideas, she noted, when in reality, truths are much more fluid than the labels we affix to them.
Little Nothing is not a book that draws boxes, answers questions, or even has a shape, in the way we are accustomed to stories having a shape. It ripens and becomes more complex the deeper you delve into it — it reveals itself slowly, forcing you to peel it back layer by layer. Like many tales that take place in an unfamiliar land and time, its relevance simmers from the first scene. A baby dwarf girl named Pavla is born into a family that isn’t ready to fully welcome her, and while she develops into a beautiful and clever young woman, she never grows past the edge of her crib. Out of some blend of love and pity, her parents bring her to an unorthodox witch doctor who invents a body-stretching contraption. What follows is part meditation, part tragedy, part love story, part adventure. The characters shift and change form, leaving us only with remnants of what we started with.
Silver and I met on the east side of Los Angeles on a hot summer day and talked about dreams, motherhood, and our mutual East Coast roots. Mostly, I overintellectualized while discussing her newest novel, and she kept us grounded: it is simply a story about a girl and what happens to her.
ELLIE DUKE: There is this idea, in Little Nothing, that from the nothingness comes the totality, the everything. What interested you in that concept?
MARISA SILVER: I’ve been preoccupied with this question of what happens to us. What is nothing? When somebody becomes nothing, what is that? It’s not nothing; it’s something. My father passed away very unexpectedly just a week before my last book came out, so I think it came about partially because that was something I was dealing with through the whole writing of the book — trying to settle what it means for someone to not be present and yet be present. How do we transform, not only from life to death, but also during our lives?
I’ve been mulling this problem of nothingness, of what happens to matter when it disintegrates. You know, Zero has power — it’s nothing, and yet it’s something. This idea that we are energy, and that energy can’t be destroyed, and that everything that has ever existed exists.
Where did you start with Little Nothing?
I started with this idea of a dwarf girl who undergoes a stretching. From there I just kept asking: What happens to her now? I didn’t think it was about nothingness or transformation; it was just about what happened to this girl.
When I start writing a story, I don’t really have any plan. I just start with a character or situation or some very small idea, and then I write. I try not to be determinative about what I’m writing because I’ve discovered that if I know what I want to say, it doesn’t end up very interesting or surprising. It takes all the fun and the play and the kismet out of the experience. But when I just write forward and let it develop, by the end of it, I can look back and ask: What did I write?
After you begin with that small idea, how do you decide where to go?
In a funny way, I wish I could plan ahead. It might make me feel more comfortable. There’s a fair degree of discomfort in the way I write because I’m not sure if it’s going to amount to anything. I’m not someone who can foresee a whole plot. I sort of pick my way through, step by step. When I’m writing, I often feel like I’m in a very dark room, and I’m just pawing my way forward, hoping there will be some door at the other side.
On the other hand, I try to trust that the way I work allows me to write things that are not so predictable. At least, they’re unpredictable to me. They yield surprise, not only in terms of plot, but maybe also in terms of their aboutness, because I don’t really know, while I’m going through, what it’s about. It’s hard to write unpredictable things these days.
Your protagonist Pavla keeps transforming, which makes it hard to grow attached to her like we’re accustomed to, as readers. But you manage to still keep us intrigued by what will happen next.
The way this book really came about was this: I was reading an obituary, by happenstance, of this man who was the last living member of the Lollipop Guild, the munchkins from The Wizard of Oz. One tiny detail in the obituary was that he had been born a dwarf in Eastern Europe, and his parents had tried to stretch him. I read that and immediately thought: I’m going to write that book.
He didn’t end up being the character, of course. But his story sparked the book, this idea of transformations and the ways in which we try to change each other, the ways in which we don’t accept each other. Pavla doesn’t choose to transform in the ways that she does, but by circumstance, she is changed. And that’s what we all do, in some way. We don’t change in form, necessarily, but we do transform.
Did you purposefully go about writing a fairy tale?
No, actually! I knew that I didn’t want the story to be attached to a specific time and place. I felt it shouldn’t be rooted in a social history, which is quite unusual for me. I felt very strongly that this needed to take place in a sort of unspecified Eastern European locale, in a distant time, around the time when the old world became the new world. I wanted it to be around the beginning of modernization, factories, industrialization, Freudian psychology …
Right, plumbing! I sometimes found myself getting stuck — for example, I kept catching myself wondering about the war that’s going on in the book: “What war is this? The Balkan war? World War I?” But it’s just a war. When you read a fable, it’s long ago and far away, and there’s a king but not a specific king, and there are battles but we don’t know what battles. So I instinctively felt that should be the tone of the book. It had to be detached from the particular so it could exist in this fable-like context. And I read a lot of tales — Czech folktales, Eastern European folktales, the Grimm tales — and used them in the book.
Did you read them as part of your research, or have you always liked reading fables?
I read them while I was writing, mostly. I wanted to use them, and also I wanted to be steeped in their language and rhythm. What I found, which everyone knows, is that fairy tales are dark and complicated and sexual and multilayered. What appeals to me about fables and fairy tales is that they reach down into some primal place in us that is about all those complicated emotional things. This book is a weird blend — it has a fable-like quality, and it has a real quality. That’s what I wanted, to find some combination of the fabulist and the real.
Is the purpose of this fabulist world that it can be truthful without being grounded in logic or reality?
I think so. I use the world “fable,” or “fabulist,” because it’s different from a fairy tale, which I think conjures images of Disney princesses. It has a slightly pejorative, or lightweight, quality. This is like … an existential fable. That’s what I call it.
Can we go back to plumbing? One of your characters is a plumber — why?
You know, I don’t know! He was just a plumber, and then suddenly I was deep into the world of plumbing. I don’t have any particular association with plumbing, although I do live on a hillside, and plumbing is the bête noire of my house. About once a year I have a very intense talk with my plumber.
Another reason he became a plumber — and these are things I can only say in retrospect — is because I was thinking a lot about holes and tunnels and crawling through spaces. I think those ideas yielded choices that came from those subconscious places.
I’m not a particularly analytical writer, I suppose. I’m very technical about craft, about how to make a scene work, or what voice am I using. But I’m not analytical about meaning, necessarily. I don’t think about symbols or metaphors — those come from the subconscious.
You might say that makes for more interesting and surprising narratives.
What’s interesting is that if you tap into your subconscious while you’re writing, you make connections that you didn’t even know were there. Certain things later in the book that call back to the earlier part of the book weren’t things that I necessarily even thought about. But because of the images and ideas and language on my palette, those connections came naturally.
Speaking of your subconscious, there are a lot of dreams in this book. My family has a rule about not sharing our dreams …
Because it’s too boring? It’s so boring!
I actually like hearing other people’s dreams! There are a few instances in the book where characters tell each other about dreams. But you agree, you think dreams are boring?
I am skeptical of dreams in books, because they seem like they’re going to tell us something that we need to know, metaphorically. I use them carefully, and I hope they’re not overly symbolic — I don’t think they are. Dreams are funny because they have meaning for the person who dreamed them, but they don’t really have meaning for anyone else, which is why I think they can frustrate people.
But I used them, cautiously, because they were there for me. Also, some of this book has to do with the advent of Freudian psychology. Danilo, especially, is the victim of a not-particularly-good practitioner of Freudian psychology, which of course brings dreams into the mix.
You write about Agáta, as a new mother: “Each time Agáta wakes, it seems possible that the baby’s existence is just a magician’s trick, and that if Agáta were to look in the basket, she would find only newly pulled scallions.” She also refers to her baby Pavla as “it,” or “thing,” like she is an object. You’re a mother; I’m not. Is this what it feels like to have a baby? Like some alien is suddenly in your life?
Oh gosh, not at all! At least, it didn’t feel like that for me. But I think for Agáta, it does feel like that. She’s borne what she believes is a blighted child, and it takes a while for her to really love the child. No, when you have your baby, it’s the best thing in the world. Characters don’t represent a generality; they represent themselves. That’s just how Agáta responds to being a new mother; she’s horrified, and not ready to embrace this child.
On the other hand, Danilo persists in his deep love for Pavla, despite the fact that she continues to elude him.
I think the journey to find this girl he loves causes Danilo to understand love in a different way. In the oddest way, the book is a love story. It’s less about a boy loving a girl than it is about a young man understanding what the implications of loving are. What does it mean to love someone who changes form and slips out of your grasp? And how does the fact of loving create you, even absent of an object?
One of your characters is a wolf. How did you go about researching and writing about wolves?
I read a lot about wolves and wolf behavior. And I went to this place called Wolf Connection, a wolf sanctuary that uses wolves in therapeutic ways with kids who are troubled in some way, or needing a connection. So I spent some time with those wolves, which was remarkable. It was so fun to learn about. The amazing thing about research is that it gives you so many ideas for scenes, but then the challenge was how to write a wolf, staying in its head. You have to consider how much you’re anthropomorphizing when you write about animals — are you giving them thoughts and feelings that animals don’t have? I found a line that felt right to me, but I wanted to be accurate about wolf behavior, to the extent that I could.
The end of the book is a bit mysterious. I’m still not entirely sure what happened …
Right. I didn’t really want the book to sew up neatly. The end is very ambiguous, and it could have been tied up in a bow, with everyone happy and in love. That’s not what I was going for. I mean, the world I see isn’t like that, love isn’t like that, the way people treat each other isn’t like that. To me, the best books are the ones where your mind keeps going after you’ve finished them. The questions stay with you; the book expands your idea of what being alive is. I love books that make me feel that there are still unanswered questions, and that the questions are more complicated than I thought.
Ivan “wonders what being alive means,” and Danilo reflects “that he is alive and that to be alive is something besides working and eating and sleeping.” Is that what it means to be alive, just to be questioning?
I think so. When I write something, it always begins with a question. But it’s not a question that ever gets answered. It’s just a question that leads to more questions. It cracks open more ways of thinking about the world. I feel like that’s what being alive is; it’s forever deepening your sense of wonder. I can’t imagine even on your deathbed that you’ve found answers. I don’t know if that’s even the point.
What are the books that make you feel that way? Or the ones you keep going back to?
This is the kind of question that makes my mind go completely blank, as if I’ve never read a book in my life. Well … I love Waterland by Graham Swift. I love Madame Bovary — that’s a book I go back to over and over again. The Great Gatsby is a book I return to. I love the book So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell. Housekeeping made me feel that way. Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater — I love that book. The short stories of William Trevor. I love the work of Patrick Modiano, the French writer.
I read quite variously and promiscuously — I don’t read one kind of book. I mean, almost any good book will make you see the world more, and not less. A good book doesn’t try to reduce the world.
Do you have any writing rituals? Do you write every day?
When I’m being good, I write 1,000 words every day. And wherever I am at those 1,000 words, I stop. So I have a goal, I achieve it, and then I try to stop mid-thought, mid-idea, so that the next day I have something to go back to. A lot of writing is creating little games with yourself. You’re inventing your faith in yourself every single day. No one asks you to do it, no one particularly cares if you do it, and it’s hard!
It’s just about sitting in the chair and doing it, trying to plow forward little by little and see if something takes shape. It’s incredibly hard, and there are many times when I feel like nothing is happening or I’m wasting my time. But as all writers will counsel you, you have to get through those bad times. I don’t know anyone who can sit down and write deathless prose without going through a lot of misfires.
One of my favorite lines is when Pavla says to Danilo: “Your guilt doesn’t do me any good.” What were you thinking about when you wrote that?
I was just thinking about Pavla, this young woman who has undergone a startling transformation. She has grown up being humiliated and shunned, and then her parents, out of love, do this incredibly chilling thing to her. Pavla is not interested in false affection, and Danilo’s affection is, at that point in the story, equal parts guilt and attraction. I mean, he’s part and parcel of her torture.
We could get into a whole thing about the liberal guilt that makes us want to help the very people who we, in an institutional sense, harm. I don’t think most people know how to square those two things: the fact that the lives we live contribute to other people’s strife. When we want to reach out and help someone, it comes from both guilt and compassion; that’s just part of it. In a funny way, the novel is kind of about those things; they’re woven into the fabric of the fable.
What do you say when people ask what it’s about?
That’s a really good question! Someone’s got to tell me what this book is about. You know, I think it’s about a girl who’s a dwarf and whose parents try to stretch her …
It feels like you have to summarize it to describe what it’s about.
Exactly. I think about the steps. But in terms of the big aboutness, it’s about … how we transform over a lifetime of love and humiliation and torture, and how a person becomes herself. I think it’s about what love is, and what happened when the world became modernized. I also think, should people read it, that it will mean different things to different people.
I will be very interested to see what people think it’s about. But what is the fable Goldilocks about? On the one hand, it’s about a little girl that goes into a house and tries a little chair and a medium chair and a big chair. But it’s not really about that, it’s about something else. This book, in the same way, is about the things that happen to these characters, but on another level it’s about the transformations that we go through in a lifetime, I guess. We’ll see. Hopefully someone will tell me.