Award-winning debut novelist Anthony Marra visited UMSL MFA in Creative Writing students and read Oct. 3 at the St. Louis County Library Headquarters, which co-sponsored the event with UMSL’s Natural Bridge Debut Writers Series. (Photos by UMSL MFA student Jennifer Goldring)

Anthony Marra’s debut novel “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is possibly the most nationally celebrated book this year. It won the National Book Critics Circle’s inaugural John Leonard Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction and the inaugural Carla Furstenberg Cohen Fiction Award.  His novel was also a National Book Award long list selection, as well as a shortlist selection for the Flaherty-Dunnan first novel prize.

So when MFA in Creative Writing students at the University of Missouri–St. Louis got to spend a weekend with Marra, it was a huge deal.

The Natural Bridge Debut Writers Series, named after UMSL’s literary journal, hosted his reading in sponsorship with the St. Louis County Library at their headquarters on Oct. 3. Prior to that, MFA students had the famous author visit their Thursday evening ENGL 5170 Techniques in Fiction class, where they had recently studied his novel. They spent the following day showing Marra around St. Louis and feasting with him at Sugo’s Spaghetteria.

“Talking with Tony was eye-opening to the possibilities I have as a writer,” MFA student Jeff Sjerven said. “It was such a fantastic opportunity for students.”

Marra enjoyed his time as well.

“It was wonderful to meet so many ambitious, talented, interesting writers, and St. Louis seems like a great writing city with a vibrant literary and cultural life.”

His novel takes place over nearly a decade, from 1996-2004, and tells the story of everyday Chechens during the Chechnyan wars.

“I think a good novel can drop you straight through the earth and put you on the other side,” Marra said during his reading.

He was originally attracted to the region of Chechnya because of its foreignness to him, but he quickly uncovered the locals’ stories that revealed people “caught in the jaws of a history they had no part in making,” Marra said.

John Dalton, professor of English and coordinator of the visit, introduced Marra and called his writing “desperate, wise and lyrically uplifting.”

The Natural Bridge Debut Writers Series brings in the emerging writers students study in their graduate courses, allowing them to meet individuals that are successful in the field MFA students aspire to break into. The series hosts a fiction reading every fall and a poetry reading every spring in coordination with MFA craft classes.

This story was written by Marisol Ramirez, a UMSL student pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing.

The UMSL Experience

Marisol Ramirez

Marisol Ramirez