“What ended up on the page was this sort of origin myth-making.” An interview with Michael Zapata

ZAPATA
Author Michael Zapata (Organic Headshots/Michelle Kaffko)

Interview by Samuel Schwindt

The Lost Book of Adana Moreau is a story of loss, heritage, histories, and the transcendence of storytelling. It’s a classic mystery––the main character Saul Drower launches an investigation into an old manuscript his grandfather left him––but it’s also a tale about family, exile, and the passage of time.

Saul’s story in the early 2000s is interwoven with that of theoretical physicist Maxwell Moreau, who is also the son of the manuscript’s author. The book traverses decades, creating what Will Chancellor in The New York Times called a “vertigo-inducing contemporary cosmic landscape.”

The two worlds in The Lost Book of Adana Moreau are full of uncanny parallels and revelations about real historical events. Stories of immigration, grieving, displacement, disaster, and language itself explode in this debut by Chicago-based writer Michael Zapata.

Zapata (virtually) sat down with artist and writer Sam Schwindt during his quarantine to talk about the inspirations for and the outcomes of his new book. Zapata is an academic advisor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has two young children with his wife Alicia, a Chicago Public Schools teacher. He graduated from the University of Iowa and has taught literature and writing in high schools for dropout students. He is a co-founder of Make Literary Magazine.

Michael Zapata: I’ve always been a huge fan of Another Chicago Magazine. I’m a Chicagoan, and years ago they published one of the very first excerpts from this novel. This feels like a nice full circle.

Schwindt: I was really exhilarated by the book, and it seemed to me that each character had a story to tell. Why do you think story is so important and why do you think your characters communicate their lives through storytelling?

In the course of writing this, and in the course of my research, I found a lot of inspiration and I found a lot of material through reading oral storytelling. One of the long-standing Chicago oral storytellers and oral historian Studs Terkel was a big inspiration for me.

I found it very interesting to take moments throughout the novel to allow characters, whether we see them for a few pages or whether we see them throughout the entire novel, to tell their own story, to paint a portrait of themselves not only as aspects of revolution or resistance but also in the sense of being able to tell stories about their own survivals.

I think one of the most disturbing stories was told by Saul’s great-grandfather, about traveling on the ship to the US when one of the shipmates was murdered. It was super disturbing and incredible. The story captivated me too.

Thank you. Yeah. In the Chicago History Museum there are a lot of resources as far as oral history. I found oral histories of people crossing to the US and sometimes the passage by ship was quite difficult, occasionally violent. I just became obsessed with this idea of passing from one world to another, whether that’s in the realm of parallel universes and physics, or whether that’s immigrants who are traversing from one reality to another.

At that point in the novel I was envisioning slowing it down, making it feel like almost an entirely different novel.

Was the theme of parallel universes and science fiction there from the beginning? Or is it something that developed?                         

I’ve always felt, even way before I started writing this experience, the experience of being an exile or an immigrant. My father is an immigrant from Santa Fe, Ecuador—a small farming village in the Andes that my great-grandfather founded—so I’m first generation. I was obsessed, like many writers, with science fiction when I was young. Adana Moreau is the writer of a science fiction novel and its sequel. I was always obsessed with the idea of traversing realities and going from one world to another, and a lot of those ideas are very apparent in early Victorian science fiction. You can trace that all the way through authors like Philip K. Dick, a science fiction writer who was terrified of other realities.

When looking for a book concept, I started to look at the simple question of what if, which is a question that immigrants are asking themselves all the time. I started to think more on a quantum level too. Our daily lives can hold thousands of quantum decisions and societies are always making decisions. I had an enormous amount of fun researching about parallel universes themselves.

We’ve had such a catastrophic response to COVID-19 that you can’t help but think about the consequences of our decisions, even on a political level. What are the what-ifs and how do we attach ourselves to those what-ifs to find a way out of this?

I fell in love with this concept of mathematical proof for parallel universes.

You talked a little bit about the realities language creates, and I have a very specific question. You referred to Maxwell’s father as just “the pirate” and also there’s “the old pirate.” I’m curious about the choice of titles and what you mean by that term and what you want the reader to think about the term.

That was the very first sentence I wrote in the novel: “His father was a pirate.” So much of history is unknown largely due to the question of who gets to control the narrative and production of history. So, reclaiming the history of working people is a necessary rebellion against any ruling class. We have to fight tooth and nail to reclaim the narratives of the vast majority of people who experience it. For centuries, in the Caribbean and American South, biracial exiles and escaped slaves became pirates and they gained freedom and even equity. Pirates were notoriously equitable, far more than what was supposed to be “civilized” society. In my novel, in the first decades of the 20th century, the pirate and the old, mad pirate represent the end of that long storied lineage. In part, there is myth-making involved, as when any of us turns to the narratives of our ancestors, but also the tragic fact that history (or rather the bought and sold arbiters of that history) erased the names of those same ancestors. There is so much history in a name.

I always thought about this sense of history. There’s so much that we have been attempting to reclaim in history, and most of history is untold. How do people who’ve been invisible or oppressed go through the process of reclaiming that? Because we know our own histories, it’s just, they’ve never been listened to. Right? I don’t think I was even consciously doing it, but what ended up on the page was this sort of origin myth-making. When we look back, our great-grandparents, our grandparents—they almost become mythological to us. And I think that we attribute to them qualities, for better or worse, and that may lend towards the myth-making. I think that’s true for all of literature going back to the early indigenous. Latin American myth-making, and Homer’s Odyssey, of course, is a great example of that. I don’t know if I have an answer because it’s interesting how the farther back something is in time, the more it attributes myth-like qualities.

Even though we have oral traditions, at some point someone writes them down or tries to save them.

There’s this really wonderful Latin American writer from Uruguay. His name is Eduardo Galeano. He passed away a few years ago. He’s an extraordinary writer, novelist and story writer. He wrote this series called Memory of Fire. It’s three books that, starting with the myth of indigenous peoples in Latin America, recreate the past few hundred years of Latin American history. And he does it in these small, myth-making vignettes of Latin American history.

It’s so extraordinary. Whether he was a direct influence on me or not, I think about Eduardo Galeano because he never would call himself a historian, but he was making a memory of history that had never been told and was trying to reclaim it in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Fascinating. It seems from the very beginning with Adana Moreau being taught by her friend and mentor Afraa, that teaching was really important in the book.

I taught in Chicago Public Schools for ten years. I also taught dropouts in Humboldt Park. Teaching has just been such a critical thing for me… not only because of my own teachers but in my own life, having taught dropouts.

I was fortunate enough to see the ways in which teaching and the structures of education have failed so many people. My former students were never able to connect with the traditional educational system for many reasons––oppressive reasons and reasons that might’ve been personal too.

There’s not one student I ever had that couldn’t at least address the fact that previous education was not meaningful to them. So our job, together, as a class, was to find new ways in which to make learning meaningful.

I think that writing about half of this novel while I was teaching high school not only influenced the fact that there were a lot of storytellers and a lot of educators in the novel, but meant I wanted to explore how the American educational system has failed people, though it’s not overtly in the novel.

I totally see that. And it seems a lot of the characters take their education into their own hands. I think a lot of them learned just by going out into the world, especially Maxwell and the protagonist’s great-grandfather. They all walk and wander. Ever since Maxwell was a young child, he was always getting lost, wandering around the city. I was wondering if you could talk about that a little bit more too. Was that always part of the book, or did it come through as you were revising?        

Essentially, in the beginning, it was there. It made so much sense for the characters to move and learn. I think it’s just a reflection of how I’ve learned and it’s really a reflection of how I taught as an educator. But I also think if you’re exiled from a country, you’re exiled from the ways in which the country assumes that they educate you, or try to nationalize you. I think you’re left with people who are trying to find their own path.

Exiles are forced into interesting situations in which they’re forced to imagine new ways in which to contend with their reality. I think that experience comes first and libraries come second, if that makes sense.

Yeah, it does. It even shows through in one of your characters: Saul’s best friend Javier. He travels and it especially seemed really important to him that he was there to write about them. Especially when they went to the aftermath of the disaster in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.                           

My mother’s family has been in Chicago for a hundred years. They were Lithuanian-Jewish exiles in the early twentieth century and they’d carry that tradition and those stories with them. And then my father’s an immigrant as well. So I think even from an early age, I was always forced into liminal spaces. You know, my dad does live in Ecuador, so I experienced spaces between continents and spaces between languages. I grew up with Spanglish spoken in the household.

So, Hurricane Katrina. You have an environmental and political disaster that leads to people being exiled. You have Javier himself, trying to figure out what it means to be a journalist and he starts to feel exiled from what journalism has to offer him. But he’s finding himself in these areas of disaster in Latin America and seeing disaster capitalism firsthand.

And then obviously you have the stories of exile, which would be Saul’s great grandfather and Saul himself from Israel. When I was a high school teacher I spent almost every summer traveling as much as I could. I’m very much the type of writer who, for a long stretch of time, could sit down and write, and then for the next stretch of time I need to be not writing but moving. Traveling.

Well great. I have one more question for you. You got reviewed in The New York Times. What did you think about what the reviewer said about your book?

That was definitely a happy shock. You never know what’s going to happen with a book and I feel reminiscent about it even though it just happened two months ago. Especially because of everything that’s happened.

The world has changed and I really loved that the writer was looking at it structurally. He took from it things that I intended and things that possibly I didn’t intend. One of the most interesting things about publishing a book is experiencing readers and reviewers interpretations that go beyond any possible authorial intention, which, in itself, is often accidental or even unknowable, especially once a work is out in the ever morphing world. This is all a good thing. I was particularly excited to see The New York Times reviewer describe the novel as “an allegory of the multiverse,” which is something that rings true to me and something I could never know when I started writing it. In the end, the writer relinquishes work to readers and the world. Reading is a type of multiverse too.

As a lifelong Chicagoan, I was equally ecstatic to see the Chicago Tribune review, which was published online the day my novel came out. That was a very special day for me as well. Not only the publication, but to see a review where the reviewer really, really understands the novel on a level that I even probably don’t. The Chicago Tribune review, as an example, offered me new ways to think about my work, especially in regards to the animating “central tension” of the novel between critiques of horrific injustices and “one of great love for human beings and for life itself.” I feel like that’s a central tension I could never resolve in myself or my work, nor would I want to.  Additionally, the reviewer highlights that the novel is set “in the dystopian near-past” and “offers the insight that the world is not merely going to end, but already has ended countless times and is perpetually ending all of the time.” Reading a critical observation like that is a gift to a writer—a type of “aha!” moment in which you can both newly recognize your own work and truly consider the work that you still want to do. It offers a type of horizon toward which you’d like to still wander toward.

Good. Well, hopefully more people pick up some books during this time. The characters in your novel, they escaped into science fiction during exile or difficult life experiences and I think we can all really benefit from doing the same, honestly.

Yeah, I absolutely agree. And you know, for those of us working at home with family, in some ways our lives are a lot more hectic and busy trying to have that balance in one space. But then in other ways life slows down. And it’s been interesting to me to think about the pressure of this hyper-capitalist society and what that means for us day to day, I think more people are reading, and more people are reaching out to art. I think more people are guarding themselves against maybe the second wave, which will be economic catastrophe and recession, maybe depression.

In the course of writing the novel and looking at history about the Great Depression, I found everyone comes into thinking about the Great Depression with these assumptions of constant suffering and constant difficulty. And there’s an enormous amount of difficulty and suffering, but also people had day-to-day lives in which they were reading novels to each other, and people were going to movies all the time.

There was this really extraordinary thing in Chicago: this guy called Ben Reitman. He was a socialist doctor who offered this thing called “Hobo College.” He started making these classes that were offered to anybody and everybody who was down and out. They were very complicated philosophical literature classes and classes about sex history. So, it’s interesting in some of our most difficult times how we do attach ourselves again to art, to literature, and to learning.

(Additional reporting by Ben Richman, ACM intern.)

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Samuel Schwindt is a sculptor based in Chicago. His work uses light-activated materials and plays with the themes of intimacy and detachment.  He has shown work at Boccara Art in New York, The Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago, and a variety of other galleries all over the country. He received his BFA in studio art from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2019. He created the three images we’ve used  for the Dispatches from a Pandemic series.