When my mother came to live with me in 1996, I discovered a person I had never known, a charming but sharp-witted one. Shortly before her death, I started to obsessively sort and display family photographs that had long languished in boxes. I saw the moody, withdrawn woman I remembered from my youth but I also an open, smiling one from better times. I became fascinated with the ways that people reinvent themselves, or–more accurately–have aspects of themselves revealed or suppressed by changing circumstances.
I decided to attempt a novel about one such transition that occurred during her childhood but found that, despite my training in research, I could not capture the post-World War I period in Latvia with confidence. I had, however, experienced the post-World War II period as a child and believed that there were sufficient parallels. But there was no place for my grandmother’s cosmopolitan seaside pension in the bland inland town of Grand Rapids, Michigan where I grew up. Since Latvians claimed that Lake Michigan looks exactly like the Baltic Sea, I selected the lakeshore resort towns of Petoskey and Harbor Springs, with their influx of affluent summer folk, Odawa Indian lore and ties to literary figures ranging from Ernest Hemingway to Jeffrey Eugenides, as models for a town of my own making. And since I was taking such liberties, I decided I might as well toss in a number of people that I had known at very different points in my life to serve as the basis of a large cast of eccentric characters.
The primary theme that evolved related to the invisible aspects of people, objects and phenomena, something that I had also started to explore in essays. In the novel, aspects of the invisible are not only addressed in the eponymous character Anna and the experience of displaced persons but also in religions (the many manifestations of an all-seeing but unseen God), nuclear physics (unseen participles that hold ungodly power, with emphasis on the Trinity Test) and, even aspects of our own bodies (with emphasis on hallucination and hypochondria). I then added an unreliable narrator, a hybrid of my father and me but exhibiting some of my mother’s behaviors who renders the character that he created invisible by being unable to keep his own suppressed persona from overshadowing her story.