Little Nothing Author Marisa Silver: We All Turn Our Backs on Difference


Detail from “Danger” Winslow Homer (PD) / via Wikimedia Commons

Marisa Silver is the author of Little Nothing: a magical tale of transformation:

In an unnamed country at the beginning of the last century, a child called Pavla is born to peasant parents. Her arrival, fervently anticipated and conceived in part by gypsy tonics and archaic prescriptions, stuns her parents and brings outrage and scorn from her community. Pavla has been born a dwarf, beautiful in face, but as the years pass, she grows no farther than the edge of her crib. When her parents turn to the treatments of a local charlatan, his terrifying cure opens the floodgates of persecution for Pavla. Little Nothing unfolds across a lifetime of unimaginable, magical transformation in and out of human form, as an outcast girl becomes a hunted woman whose ultimate survival depends on the most startling transfiguration of them all. Woven throughout is the journey of Danilo, the young man entranced by Pavla, obsessed only with protecting her.

In this short interview, Silver shares her thoughts on fairy tales, archetypes, stepping out on a stylistic limb as a writer, and more.

UNBOUND WORLDS: There are so many contexts in which we can place the story of Pavla, some of them uplifting and sweet, others not so much. Many play with the idea of estrangement: The estrangement of the mother from the child for reasons of deformity or illness — I’m thinking of Anglo-Celtic myths about “changeling” babies — and the estrangement of a child from his or her peers at large, like Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Ugly Duckling”. There’s also Andersen’s “Thumbelina”. Did you seek to make any conscious parallels with material like this?

MARISA SILVER: The wonderful thing about fables is that they live so deep within us that often, without our being consciously aware, we draw on their tropes and archetypes. The rejected child is a huge one, and this figured in for me certainly at the beginning of the book, when Pavla is born and so reviled for her diminutive size. But I also thought about the way in which, quite often, the female body is reviled. The ugly daughter, the hunchbacked crones, etc. One of the preoccupations of Little Nothing has to do with how the body, the female body, in particular, is the subject of so much hatred, derision, and violence. This issue obviously existed in the times in which those old folktales were first written. And it still exists now. So sometimes, the world around us hews to the themes of the old tales.

The idea of the changeling was foremost in my mind, and, in fact, I include it very explicitly when Pavla’s mother wonders whether her daughter could be such a changeling since she has arrived in the world so much the opposite of what Agata has hoped for. The changeling is such a fascinating notion because it speaks to the ambivalence parents may feel about their children when they are not behaving or performing in the ways in which those parents want them to. The idea also speaks to the underlying fear all children have, at one point or another, that they are in the wrong family. So it’s a really powerful concept that complicates the notion of parental love. The parents of Pavla, although they come to love her, are terribly ambivalent about her at the beginning and, in fact, they make a rather horrifying decision in an attempt to “normalize her”. One could say this is a decision born of love. Or one could say it is incomprehensibly cruel. Or one could say it is both.

UW: Turning my eyes to the present for a moment, there’s something about your work that reminds me of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, and maybe even Mark Steadman’s lesser-known black comedy Angel Child. All of the books feature outcasts dealing with the challenges presented to them by a society that doesn’t understand them. Were either inspirations? What is it about these kinds of stories that make them so rich for literary exploration?

MS: I have not read the Steadman, but I have definitely read and loved and was inspired by Geek Love. I think these sorts of stories speak to society’s fear of the different or the abnormal. In lieu of understanding that the size and shape or any other atypical feature of someone does not alter her essential personhood, we either marginalize or exile her. If you take a character who is treated in such a way, as Pavla is, and you really try to understand what the emotional ramifications of this kind of abuse is, you inevitably, I think, have to consider issues of identity. A person is told she is not worthy simply because of the way she looks, the way she came into the world. What must this do to her sense of self? How is it possible (or is it possible?) to know yourself absent your body? To a large degree, fiction is the exploration of interiority, and writing about an outcast, whose identity is stripped away, is a perfect way to drill down into those concerns.

UW: There’s kind of a horror element to Pavla’s story. You don’t turn away from explicit imagery, or try to dress up things that are rightfully considered mortifying or gruesome. Why did you consider these to be a necessary part of the story?

MS: I don’t think the story is powerful unless a reader viscerally experiences what Pavla goes through. The reader has to feel what she does on a physical level in order to care about what happens to her. Also, I think a reader has to feel the violence and horror in order to consider how he or she is implicit in this kind of thing. We all turn our backs on difference, even the most evolved and humane among us do, at one time or another. I did not shy away from the gruesome because I wanted to suggest, without being explicit about it, the more modern version of the kinds of grotesque acts humans are capable of. The novel does not exist in a particular time and place, but it might subliminally remind a reader of modern horrors like those of the Holocaust, or torture during the Iraq war, of Afghan women being stoned to death for having committed adultery. There’s a lot of the grotesque in our world. I think an allegorical tale like Little Nothing presents an opportunity to consider this issue, albeit in the guise of metaphor. And, of course, that’s what the best fables do, and it’s why we never forget them.

UW: I can’t dig into the nature of Pavla’s final transformation, but it reminded me of how sometimes these kinds of things can seem baffling to modern readers of the fairy tale corpus. The works of the Brothers Grimm, particularly in their initial edition, feature many such transmogrifications that elude conventional logic. Was it scary as a writer to walk out on that limb and trust that your readers would follow you?

MS: Very! Especially as I had never written this sort of thing before. All my books and stories up until this point have been firmly rooted in realism. Each time I got to one of the places in the novel where Pavla transformed, I had to fight back my nay-saying demons and make the leap. And when I did, I felt exhilarated, as if I had just somehow ripped open a seam and stepped beyond what I had though were my capacities as a writer. Once you enter the world of the uncanny or the impossible, it feels like anything can happen, and anything is too much. I didn’t want the book to be clever or so wildly improbable that it would beg a reader’s willingness to go along. I think what grounded the narrative is the fact that all the stories are firmly rooted in emotional logic, in character development, in growing and complicating relationships, and the fact that, as Pavla moves through her very surreal experiences, what is happening within her is very, very real. She changes but she never stops trying to figure out who she is.