Michael Zapata’s ambitious debut novel, The Lost Book of Adana Moreau (Hanover Square Press/HarperCollins) meanders back and forth in time, across continents, languages, and dimensions, as one of the main characters, Saul Drower, searches for the owner of a mysterious novel manuscript that his recently deceased grandfather had promised to deliver. Clues to the mystery reveal themselves via stories within stories, a vague introduction to theoretical physics, meditations on the climate crisis, and delicious references to science fiction classics. As all the stories within stories knit themselves together, Saul tracks Maxwell Moreau, the son of the manuscript’s author, to post-Katrina New Orleans where they confront the meaning of their journeys and their connections to those who came before them.
Mike is a founding editor of MAKE Literary Magazine and the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Award for Fiction, the City of Chicago DCASE Individual Artist Program award and a Pushcart nomination. As an educator, he taught literature and writing in high schools servicing dropout students. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa and has lived in New Orleans, Italy, and Ecuador. He currently lives in Chicago with his family. His book has already been praised in The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Kirkus Reviews, and other publications.
I was lucky enough to talk to Mike the morning his book launched. He was generous with his insights and his time, which was a real gift because I had a lot of questions about this enchanting novel.
Julie Carrick Dalton: Mike, welcome to The Writer Unboxed. As you know, I’m a huge fan of your book, in part because you take such big risks with structure. You incorporate many complex elements, yet, somehow weave them together beautifully into an un-put-downable story. What inspired you to take on such an ambitious structure in a first novel?
Michael Zapata: The structure definitely emerged sentence by sentence. That said, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the Latin American literary tradition. The structures found in Latin American literature can be so extraordinary, and I think they allow for some of these divergent elements of stories within stories. There’s a long tradition of that. I put a challenge to myself to combine that with the North American structure that is more plot-heavy, concerned with getting from point A to point B. Overall, I wanted to combine a Latin American structure with a North American structure and see what would happen.
JCD: It occurs to me that a reader could tease The Lost Book of Adana Moreau apart, restructure it, and present it as a book of fables. The story of the Dominicana and the pirate, the story of the pony and the mine, the story of the Lost City, and so many others embedded within your larger narrative. I’m in awe of how you pulled this off. Did you take inspiration from other authors who employ stories within stories?
MZ: I’m a huge fan of monologues, of someone getting on stage and telling their own story. Roberto Bolaño and Borges were strong influences. On the American side, I was ecstatic to read Zero K By Don DeLillo and the oral traditions of Studs Turkel, who had this rare, beautiful talent to ask the right questions and let people tell their own stories. There’s a character in my book, the historian, Benjamin, who says: “Every telling of an event is a portrait of the teller, not the event itself.” I really took this to heart. It was more about giving each character, even if they were only on stage for a few minutes, giving them the space to tell their own story and paint their own self-portrait. One of the challenges of telling stories within stories was that for every five stories I wrote, I had to cut two or three. I was very fortunate to have an agent and an editor who saw which of the stories within stories were going to work and which ones weren’t.
JCD: What happened to the stories you cut? Is there a parallel between the deleted stories of Mike Zapata and The Lost Book of Adana Moreau?
MZ: Those stories exist in the ether. One particular story was such a joy writing that it’s forming some of the themes for the second novel I’m working on. I’m glad it got cut. It wasn’t appropriate for the first book, but I had a lot of fun writing it. The others, maybe I’ll read them to my kids one day.
JCD: When you read Latin American authors, do you read them in Spanish or in English?
MZ: It depends. I secretly love reading some Spanish language books translated into English because it’s reminiscent of how my dad talks. My dad grew up in Ecuador and he is an extraordinary storyteller. A lot of the stories he tells, I can tell that he’s translating them in his head into English. I grew up biracial in the US, and there’s not a lot of space for you as a kid between cultures. I now feel naturally comfortable in the spaces between borders and countries and languages.
JCD: Although your book is not science fiction, you reference science fiction novels as guideposts throughout your book. You delve into theoretical physics and the possibility of multiple parallel universes through the stories within stories and the characters’ relationships with science fiction novels. How did you land on sci-fi as a tool to tell a story that ultimately is about family, human connections, identity, and exile?
MZ: Science fiction, to a degree, is literature on the offensive. It addresses our most dearly held stereotypes about how civilization is supposed to be. When I was a kid reading science fiction, the literature itself was asking some of the big questions that the big literary books I was reading weren’t asking. For example, I just read a graphic novel called Barrier, a bilingual story set on the Mexican-American border about an alien abduction. There’s an American on one side of the border and someone crossing the border on the Mexican side, and they get abducted. It explores all these complicated issues with language and borders and the spaces between people and the spaces between species. It addresses issues other books struggle with.
JCD: Having written your first book mostly by instinct, what did you learn about yourself as a writer that you are applying to your second novel.
MZ: Not much (laughs.) I’m very much a fan of research and oral traditions because building from that material gives you wealth that exceeds anything you could imagine. The material itself tells you what it needs. I spend time trying to immerse myself in the material. Right now I’m working on a second novel, and I’m also working on a piece about growing up biracial in Chicago and about finding my great-grandfather’s lost book of poetry.
JCD: Wait, what? Another lost book? Is this where the idea for the Lost Book of Adana Moreau came from?
MZ: Most people will not believe me when I say this, but I truly did not recognize the search for my great-grandfather’s book in the story. I had always heard that my great-grandfather who was a leftist and an exile, was also a secret poet and had written his whole life but never published anything or showed anybody. I talked to historians, I interviewed my grandfather, I had my uncle searching everyone’s house for this secret journal.
It was only this past August after the advanced reader copies of my book had already been sent out that my dad went to Ecuador for my grandfather’s 100th birthday. They gave him a copy of my book. He was very emotional because he knew I had always wanted to be a writer. And the next day they found the book, a four hundred-plus page journal with lots and lots of poetry my great-grandfather had written. In the essay I’m writing, I’m exploring my heritage of being Ecuadorian, Lithuanian, and Jewish. And then this happened with the journal, and the essay took a turn.
As far as writing the second novel, I’m still in the very loose, happy stages, the wandering stages. It’s about an Ecuadorian ecologist in the Amazon and his Chicago-based son who is a census taker in the year 2050.
JCD: That sounds amazing. I can’t wait to read it.
(Note to the reader: By the end of our interview, I had become obsessed with the idea that while writing a book about a lost book, Mike Zapata actually discovered a long-lost book written by his own great-grandfather. And then I remembered the file of the stories within stories Mike deleted from The Lost Book of Adana Moreau. As we talked, I began secretly plotting how I could find these deleted stories. Then it hit me: If I search for the lost stories cut from a book about a lost story written by a man who simultaneously discovered a lost book, will I become part of the story too? Will I become a story within a story and get sucked into Mike Zapata’s multiverse? It seems like a risk worth taking. I eagerly await Mike’s second novel, but in the meantime, I will be searching for those deleted stories floating around in the ether.)
What are your favorite novels with complicated or unexpected structures? Have you experimented with structure in your own writing? What has worked for you?