“One of the great things about writing a book about 1940s Hollywood is that you can watch a bunch of old movies and call it research,” Anthony Marra says about Mercury Pictures Presents, a sprawling, bighearted tragicomedy set in Hollywood during World War II, with additional storylines in Italy and Germany. It took six years to write. “So yeah, I did a lot of research,” he says, laughing. “I’m in my sweatpants watching Humphrey Bogart, saying, ‘Don’t worry, this is work.'”
Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and the story collection The Tsar of Love and Techno, speaks from his home in New Haven, Connecticut, with a voice that’s full of humor, passion and compassion, just like his prose. After previously setting books in Chechnya and the Soviet Union, he says he wanted to set this novel a little closer to home.
Initially, he was toying with two seemingly separate ideas, the first being a story set in Los Angeles, the author’s former home. “Frank Lloyd Wright supposedly said that if you tip the world over, all the loose pieces will land in Los Angeles,” Marra says. “That was never more true than it was during the ’30s and ’40s, when you had thousands and thousands of European refugees landing there.”
The other idea focused on southern Italy, the home of Marra’s great-grandmother and her family. But during a trip to the island of Lipari, the author noticed a plaque commemorating anti-Fascists, artists and intellectuals who had been exiled there during Benito Mussolini’s regime.
“It seemed so strange,” Marra recalls, “that this island paradise to which I could trace my own roots had once been Mussolini’s Alcatraz. It occurred to me that a number of European refugees would refer to LA as ‘sunny Siberia,’ and I thought the same term could have easily been applied to a place like Lipari.” Marra realized that he could weave his two story ideas together into one, “about two Siberias on either ends of the world, and this one family divided between them.”
Mercury Pictures Presents is the story of Maria Lagana, who flees Rome with her mother after Fascists condemn Maria’s activist father to confino (internal exile) in a Calabrian village. Devastatingly, it was 12-year-old Maria’s actions that accidentally led to her father’s betrayal—a theme that Marra explores in similar ways in The Tsar of Love and Techno. “Totalitarian ideology invariably undermines the family as an institution by turning each member into a potential betrayer,” the author explains. “The people you’re closest to have the power to take away your freedom, or even your life, simply by saying the wrong thing to the wrong person.”
Fifteen years later, in 1941, Maria lives in Los Angeles with her mother and works as a producer at Mercury Pictures International. Maria’s boss is Artie Feldman, described in the novel as a fast-talking, “middle-aged narcissist whose bald spot had outpaced his toupees.” This is where Marra’s movie watching comes in handy, particularly in the way he mirrors the screwball-comedy dialogue of the era’s films. It’s apparent that His Girl Friday was a big influence, and Maria will remind readers of Rosalind Russell’s character, just “a lot more Italian,” Marra says. It’s easy to see why Maria was the first character that came to him when he started crafting the novel. “I really just fell in love with her.”
Despite the abundance of World War II novels and movies, Marra was surprised to find this chapter of Hollywood history to be “a little hidden.” As he plunged into researching the 1940s world of madcap moviemaking, he meticulously explored more serious subjects with equal fervor, including wartime challenges, xenophobia and immigration. For example, immigrants were subject to curfews, so Hollywood studios frequently adjusted shooting schedules to ensure workers could get home on time. Immigrants like Maria had to register as “enemy aliens,” confine their movements to a 5-mile radius and surrender certain items like flashlights, radios and cameras—anything that might be used to communicate with the enemy.
Such restrictions are particularly problematic for another central character of the novel, Italian immigrant and photographer Vincent Cortese. As he complains to Maria, “You travel halfway around the world just to end up in confino again. How does an itinerant photographer make a living if he’s prohibited from being an itinerant and a photographer?”
Elements of photography and filmmaking are all over Mercury Pictures Presents, to the extent that Marra considers his role to be as directorial as it is authorial. “I tried to draw upon the grammar of cinema as I constructed this world,” he says. At times, the narrative zooms in and out, cutting from present day to the future and back again. Other scenes have an undeniably cinematic quality, such as when Vincent and another character step outside to discover that it’s snowing in Los Angeles, which really happened on New Year’s Day in 1942. Even the process of editing out unnecessary scenes was informed by filmmaking. “If you look at Dostoevsky,” Marra says, “where people are ranting for pages at a time, you can tell that clearly Dostoevsky was a man who had never seen a movie.”
Marra is especially intrigued by the machinations of fantasy, escapism and propaganda in this period, particularly as the government turned to Hollywood “to use the tools of cinema to mobilize the country for war,” he says. “I was interested in exploring how the camera—and more broadly, art—can be this source of witness and documentation, but also a source of deception. And how we as viewers are asked to tell the difference.”
But for every element of darkness and wartime despair, the novel also contains just as much joy, particularly in moments of comic relief. Marra considers this his “most comic work yet,” and found that humor “collapses the distance between character and reader in a way that nothing else really does. A good joke is really powerful in terms of bringing the reader to care about a character.”
Familial bonds provide some of the most buoyant opportunities for comedy. Most memorably, a lively trio of aunts, inspired by the author’s own great-aunts, provide a lifeline for Maria and her mother in LA. “In their black dresses and sunglasses,” Marra writes, “they looked like Grim Reapers going as Greta Garbo for Halloween.” He even gave them his great-aunts’ real names: Mimi, Lala and Pep.
“Even though I initially began working on this book some years ago, it was only during [COVID-19] lockdown that it took off,” Marra says. “I felt like I was drawing more and more on relatives and friends, if only to have the opportunity to keep company with those people again. . . . Obviously, staying inside during COVID is a lot different than experiencing confino, but I think just the sense that you’re isolated from your loved ones and limited in what you can do informed how I approached the characters and their stories.”
As Marra writes in an early scene, “So much of a movie’s meaning came down to who it deemed worthy of a close-up, a perspective, a face.” With Mercury Pictures Presents, he fits a multitude of memorable personalities into his frame, transforming the novel into something quite like an epic film. After all, he says, novels are most like movies in their power to “transport a reader to a place far from their daily life that nonetheless speaks to them in a deep way.”
Photo of Anthony Marra by Paul Duda.