The Interview with Michael Zapata.
Hello to new subscribers and welcome to Sitting in Silence, a newsletter for readers, writers, and thinkers. The Interview has become a popular feature for the newsletter. I love talking to writers of all stripes regarding their journeys. They never disappoint. This issue’s conversation is with Michael Zapata.
Michael is the author of The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, one of the most astonishingly beautiful projects I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. Michael and I met in a particularly New Orleans way around 2015, I think it was. We were at a book event, separately. Then we bumped into each other at another event later that night in a courtyard full of friends. We promised to keep in touch, and did.
Maurice: What are your earliest memories of reading or writing stories?
Michael: My earliest memories of stories themselves, in fact, my first experiences of literature, took place at the dinner table, where my dad told jokes that stretched into the night, where we argued, where my parents and visiting familia talked about their loves and memoires, our shared histories stretching to Lithuania in 1913 and Columbia in the late 1800’s, their seemingly partisan fights in Chicago and Ecuador, their regrets, which, like the song La Tierra del Olvido by Carlos Vives, could silence the table for a few short sad moments, their undreamed dreams, their joys, both material and metaphorical, and - a little tenaciously – our futures. I guess before I learned to really read this was reading.
Some years later, in 7th grade during a spell of detention in the library, I randomly picked up a three volume 1,000 page book called The Drangonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. I thought a ridiculous thing to do would be to read it all. So I did, during class, at home, in the driveway sitting on my skateboard, at the dinner table, and well into the night, for weeks until I was finished, completely exhausted, obsessed, and happily untethered from reality. Not too long after, I wrote my first short story, which was about a haunted tree at the edges of some other world. We spend the rest of our writing lives chasing those first incandescent moments of discovery, don’t we?
Maurice: We do! I can imagine you sitting on that skateboard all those years ago, devouring that book line-by-line. I wager most writers have a moment or two like that. When we fall in love with the page. But I also love that you consider those family conversations a kind of reading. It certainly is. I feel like writing is an infection that takes hold at some point. When did writing go from being a mild infection for you to a serious one?
Michael: I read a lot while sitting on my skateboard. I was a pretty good skater, but a better reader. I grew up sort of enthralled with the oral tradition of storytelling. It’s how we first perceive our ancestors and languages too. Then, yes, along comes that strange, demanding, symbiotic infection of writing, which allows us to perceive them again and again. In some form or another, since that first moment in 7th grade, I have always written. In my twenties, I co-founded MAKE Literary Magazine and wrote a lot for the stage, long monologues, one and two act plays, and comedy shows. Then sitcom pilots and even a few screenplays with other writers. All this was a type of inconsistent and messy joy, but I think I was circumnavigating around the tough fact that I really wanted to write novels, which was when the infection became more serious, even unavoidable. When I was twenty-nine, I took a sabbatical from teaching high school and hightailed it to Quito, Ecuador, where I lived near my family for a year, traveled, and wrote my first (necessarily terrible) novel. Then, at thirty, I took a short breath and I set my eyes on another.
Maurice: Yeah. I have a first attempt, necessarily-terrible novel in my drawer. I suspect those things are either the end or the beginning of a public writing life. What was it that made you thirst to write another novel after writing a necessarily terrible novel? Did you feel confident or cowed?
Michael: Yes! Our abandoned and mysteriously undisclosed novels do feel like bookends, don’t they? To your question, I truly don’t know. Maybe, without reading and writing I fear I won’t be able to experience or understand something fundamental about this world. Something quantum even. Maybe I fear living in a shriveled universe without words. Or the theft of my words or my ancestors’ words by those with far too much material and narrative power over others. I’m not sure how I felt overall, but to keep reading and writing did feel like a choice that wasn’t entirely up to me – akin to breathing.
These past few weeks I lost both a close friend to cancer here in Chicago and my grandfather in Ecuador, who was amazingly 102. My friend was an activist, a community leader, and a union organizer for AFSCME. She was deeply compassionate and undaunted about the struggle for life and equity. Once, when I was unsure about the terrifying prospect of having children, she just said, “You’ll be fine. There’s always room for more love.” My grandfather was a farmer in Santa Fe in the provinces of Bolívar, Ecuador, in a winding valley under the ice-capped volcano Chimborazo. He was a union organizer too – just deeply fearless and fierce. He had those kind of piercing eyes that saw all of you. His own father was a radical leftist and a poet. My grandfather often quoted one of his poems to me, which was titled “Voz de Alerta.” It reads:
Cuando la juventud habla
El mundo tiembla.
When the youth speak
The world trembles
I’ve been mourning both recently – and there’s joy and pain and rebellion in all that memory. Part of mourning is also creating a narrative map of people’s lives in your head. They are carried with you through story. Our ancestors understood this profoundly. In Ecuador, there’s a Quechua greeting, causanguichu, which means, more or less, Are you still alive? It’s also a way to ask people to tell you about their lives. Catch me up! Let’s sit down and shoot the shit for a while! It’s irrelevant if for some reason, some uncanny or inexplicable reason, the stories that follow become increasingly fictional because there is truth in them. There’s such generosity, beauty, and scope in a greeting like this. So, stories tether us. It’s like breathing, together, even after those we love are gone.
Maurice: Very sorry to hear about the loss of your grandfather and friend. I remember reading the advance reading copy of The Lost Book of Adana Moreau and thinking, "I've never read anything quite like this." There's something about the way you memorialize the past, not with sadness, but with reverence and love. And too, there is a fuzzy line in the work about what is real and what is not real. In my opinion, you're tapping into the quantum fundamental you mentioned. How do you write a book where we realize the lines between the past and the present--and the real and unreal--are not as important as we might think? How do you not get lost in the swirl of being?
Michael: This means the mundo coming from you, amigo! I recall reading your phenomenal novel We Cast a Shadow and actually having quite similar thoughts about how both the past and the future are a type of hyperobject passing through our skin and blood and bones, something we inhale, like the dust of Pompeii or Ayacucho or old New Orleans, without even realizing it. It’s a quantum experience! I kept thinking, Damn, Maurice is giving us the denouement of the American empire here. Yet, it feels so present! If the end of the world has already occurred, then fiction today is a type of archeology of the future.
I think it can be a bit of an unreal and melancholy feeling to excavate the past too, to know the muck, ruin, and suffering under all those layers, but, like the historian Caroline Elkins says, “alternative narratives lie beneath the rubble of power.” It’s through these alternative narratives that we actually find our fundamental realities: our stories, our rebellions, our letdowns, the loving grace between individuals, our tender solidarities, in fact, the very lives and experiences of our ancestors. The reality we’re conditioned into by capital and state power is really quite unstable when we consider that these “alternative narratives” make up the vast majority of human experience. As both a reader and a writer, I think one of the reasons I’m so fond of stories-in-stories, oral histories, and speculative works is for this exact reason. We live in an era of unstable realism, so I’m mad grateful that this came across to you when reading – we really can have reverence and love for those that came before us. Maybe, a little secretly, amigo, I really do enjoy getting lost in all this messy human experience, this swirl of being, like you so wonderfully put. Is this how to write a book? I have no idea. But considering this type of multiplicity could be a good place to start at least.
Maurice: Multiplicity is the word! I heard some guys talking about how in fantasy the characters often inhabit a world full of objects from the past. They have no context for the items. They don't know who made the magic sword. They don't speak the language in the sacred book. So they're living in a present in which they don't understand the lives of those who came before. Talk more about your relationship to time in your work. Also, do you think it's sad that characters don't understand the past? Do you imagine you'll write about the future at some point?
Michael: I love that! In Lord of the Rings, the One Ring or Isildur’s Bane, is sort of a manifestation of a horrific past. The saga itself is about attending to the mistakes of the past too. Tolkien denied that the writing of the Lord of the Rings was influenced by World War II, but, in the end, I don’t think it matters what he thought here– the reality flattening power of war and the mistakes of the past pervade the saga and readers’ lives. In N.K Jemisin’s masterful The Broken Earth series, an empire collapses, and characters are left to deal with its unknown pieces.
Ah señor, you’ve caught me in the act! I’m currently working on a novel about a Quechua ecologist and her son, a census taker, set in the future in the Amazon and Chicago. It’s definitely more speculative than my previous novel, and Latinofuturist. So, I’ve been thinking more and more about the future and amnesia. We have an enormous capacity for amnesia in modern life, yet even nostalgia can be a type of amnesia. Capitalism, white supremacy, allowing ecological extinctions, state power and patriotism all demand amnesia from us. These forces demand a counterfeit history to replace what is erased and a counterfeit future to justify this erasure. I do think living a life with this kind of amnesia is tragic, it limits our very humanity, which is why it’s so easy for historical amnesiacs to inflict violence on others. But we also have an enormous capacity to remember and counteract not only amnesia but those forces that create it. This capacity – the power of the working class, for example, a new generation of historians, art, literature – moves history. As a novelist, I’m interested in just how much history is erased vs. how much moves forward with us.
Maurice: Latinofuturist! Pardon my ignorance, but this is my first time hearing the term, and I'm excited to see what you do. The future is, by definition, unknown. People often say the best predictor of what's nexts is what's now. You're a father. What do you want for your offspring? What kind of world do you want to see? And how is your writing related to that hope?
Michael: Ah! Yes, Latinofuturism is a term I’m learning more about lately as well – loosely, it’s a speculative literature of diaspora, migration, indigenous peoples, exile, even disappearance. A rebellion against homogeny really! I’ve found its concerns and expressions to be tightly knit with Afrofuturism as well. One of my current favorites in this vein is Bolivian writer Liliana Colanzi.
Every now and then I catch myself watching my kids play in our messy dinosaur and Lego-strewn living room, trying to calculate the incalculable, the quantum disasters and quantum joys that their lives might contain. Samanta Schweblin, in her masterpiece of a novel Fever Dream, calls this calculating a “rescue distance.” I want the world for my kids, but don’t know what that world will entail. Surely, as we’ve been discussing here, this empire is ending. In no time at all, our lives might be rendered unrecognizable, and I’m very invested in trying to figure out how and why both as a writer and a parent, but my love for my kids is also a type of return – maybe even a type of ancestral return - to what matters most day to day: a life full of the tears, warmth, noise, and love of others. I hope even just a fraction of that might find itself on the page.
Maurice: What is something about the way you see story that has changed as you've gotten older and traveled and/or lived in different places? I'm asking this because of what I noted earlier. There's something ineffable about the way you depict place and the passage of time and the access of our spirits to memory. Were you always like this?
Michael: I love this question because time is both a type of diminution and augmentation of memory. In other words, as we age, certain places, events, and people seem to take a more meaningful amount of space in our memories, and others necessarily and maybe not without a little melancholy fade. I’ve always wondered why.
Yes, for better or worse, I do think I’ve always been like this. Throughout my teens, my parents often sent me to Ecuador alone to spend time with family. I’m so grateful for this early sense of family connection and adventure. Late night wanderings with my cousins in Quito and my grandfather’s dinner table in Santa Fe, Ecuador both hold a type of metaphysical space in my mind. While teaching high school through my twenties and mid-thirties, I spent a great deal of time during summers traveling through Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Although I’ve always returned to Chicago, I’ve lived in New Orleans, Italy and Ecuador too. A little joyfully, I think Steinbeck called this “a virus of restlessness” in Travels with Charley. For me, traveling, like writing, is a type of movement, an encounter with both geography and a narrative of a place and the people who live there. They often feel inseparable to each other.
Some years ago, in Buenos Aires, I met a taxi driver who, before the Great Depression in 2001 there, had been a public-school history teacher. When I found out I was a teacher too, he talked to me rather openly about his childhood during the Guerra Sucia (Dirty War), the forced disappearance of his aunt during that time, and nationwide protests. He talked about how authoritarians altered the very concept of the self and the body politic, so that people had trouble distinguishing one from the other. He called this “a self-clothed in the flesh of the state.” At some point, he shut off the meter and we just drove and talked about other things too – food, American comedians, a few books – and, later, we grabbed dinner together at a late-night diner. Although brief, I’ll never forget this encounter. I’ll never forget the incandescent lights of Avenida 9 de Julio or the wintery infinity of the horizon as we drove and talked. Surely, the encounter changed me as a traveler and a writer.