Identity is a Fickle Thing: An Interview with Marisa Silver

A child is born in an unknown country and two things are immediately noticed: The girl, named Pavla by her parents, is both beautiful and her growth is absolutely stunted. So begins Marisa Silver’s magical new novel, Little Nothing, which traces Pavla’s transformations from a young girl with dwarfism to a beautiful non-dwarf teenager, and finally, into a wolf. The story bursts with magic, with the longing to discover identity, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, a forbidden love between Pavla the wolf and the man who protects her. I spoke to author Silver about this new novel, so read on to reveal more of the magic:


Kati Heng: Is there a metaphor hiding inside Pavla’s transformations from dwarf to beauty to wolf?

Marisa Silver: When I wrote the book, I avoided thinking about what it meant. I know that’s probably an odd thing to say, but if I decide in advance what a novel is supposed to be about, what its big themes are, then the resulting work will not find its way towards surprise. I just put my head down and write characters and try to make their actions and behaviors true for them during any given emotional moment or situation.

When I reached the points where Pavla underwent her transformations, I did not think about what the meaning of those changes might be on a metaphorical level. They just seemed to me to be the right forms for her to change into given what was going on for her and given the world of the novel I was constructing.

Readers have offered different interpretations of the meaning of her changes and I love that. I am so happy that the novel does not have a single fixed meaning and that it allows for this kind of subjective reading experience. The book is certainly about the transformations that take place during a lifetime, both as a result of change we bring upon ourselves and change that is exerted upon us by circumstance. This is what happens to everyone, I think. Pavla’s story takes this idea to surreal extremes.

KH: Are any of the story lines or any sections of the story based on a fairy tale we’ve never heard of? Is this adapted from any folklore? 

MS: I didn’t base the book on specific tales, although I play with various tropes of fable and folktale. The idea of the changeling, they ways in which adolescence is often represented through gross transformations. Certainly the interplay between human and animal, and the way people shift in and out of human form is something found in many tales. I was thinking about why those stories are so enduring, why we tell them over and over, and how we shape ourselves around them and through them.

KH: Speaking of fairy tales – what were your favorite fairy tales growing up? 

MS: I never read fairy tales. The stories I liked had to do with time. I loved A Wrinkle In Time, and I loved Time Cat by Lloyd Alexander. I liked the idea that different times could exist at once, and that you could slip in and out of the past and the present and the future and still somehow be you. I was not much of a reader as a kid, though. I was a daydreamer. What was going on inside my head kept me very busy.

KH: One more question on fairy tales: Like every Disney movie, Little Nothing rides along with the theme of missing parents. Pavla runs away at a young age; then, is torn apart from her own son. What ideas were you wanting to explore with the absent parent theme? 

MS: For me, the absent parent is about the search for identity, yearning, and freedom. I think these notions are related. Without a parent, there is always the sense that some key part of your identity can’t be accounted for, that if you could just find your parent, you would know who you are and be complete. So there is the yearning, that sense of nostalgia for something that doesn’t exist, and for an ideal that perhaps never existed in the first place. Identity is always a slippery, fickle thing. It’s always being created anew. Once you realize that, a certain freedom prevails. You are not simply a manifestation of your past. You are your own future.


KH: Wolves have to be the best animal (I guess, aside from humans) to write about. What did you love about writing about the wolves?

MS: I didn’t have a particular fascination with wolves before writing the book, but once I realized Pavla’s story would be bound up with them, I became entranced. I visited a wolf sanctuary and watched them move, relate to one another, sleep. I ran my fingers through their fur. I read a lot and watched documentaries. I was most fascinated by their pack behavior and how different wolves have different identities within the pack, and how these can shift depending on circumstance. So, there it is again, this business of identity. Even among wolves.

I think we are always entranced by animals and the ways in which they remind us of ourselves. We think we understand them even as we know that we can’t. We can study them endlessly but they remain mysterious. It’s the same with people. Which is probably why I spend my time writing about them.

KH: Finally, tell me about how you keep your books. What rooms are they in? Are they in alphabetic order, or organized by your own system? What books are on your nightstand right now? 

MS: Books are all over our house. Sometimes I think they are like a replicating virus. No matter how much we cull, we are always overwhelmed by them. The fiction is alphabetized. A-M is on one floor. N-Z is on another. Non-fiction is grouped, more or less, by subject. My husband is a filmmaker so there are shelves devoted to film books. Music is a very big part of my family’s life, so there are shelves filled with books about music. My husband has decided that certain non-fiction will live in his office – books about World War I and books about rock and roll. Also books by people we know, so this sort of messes up the fiction section.

There are weird little pockets of books that have to do with the obsessions my kids passed through as they grew. Some architecture, some basketball, lots of cookbooks, some airplane cabin design! Art books live in a tall shelf next to my desk because I like to look at certain images when I work and I love to read about what artists have to say about their process. Also poetry books, although one of my kids regularly absconds with them and takes them back to college with him.

On my desk are books related to what I’m working on at the moment. I haven’t cleared my desk of Little Nothing material, so there are books about wolves and folktales and early twentieth century insane asylums and freak shows and late nineteenth century medical practices….and plumbing.


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