Interview With an Author: Michael Zapata

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Michael Zapata and his latest book, The Lost Book of Adana Moreau
Photo: Michelle Kaffko, Organic Headshots

Michael Zapata is a founding editor of the award-winning MAKE: Literary Magazine. He is 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 drop out 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. The Lost Book of Adana Moreau is his debut novel and he recently agreed to talk about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Lost Book of Adana Moreau?

I wrote the novel with just one person in mind, Matt Davis, a dear friend of mine who passed away in 2003. He was the lead singer/songwriter for a band called Ten Grand and, early on, part of the Afro-punk movement. He was brilliant and his work was rebellious. Writing this novel was—in many ways—continuing a conversation with Matt.

Are Adana, Titus, Maxwell, Saul, Javier, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

For the acknowledgments, I wrote, “A novel is a family, a city, sometimes an entire world.” When I was an adolescent, I assumed Chicago was the luminescent center of Latin America and my first literature was the oral stories of exile, familia, joy, and homesickness I heard from my father, an immigrant from Ecuador, and our family friends from Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, Guatemala, etc. While the characters in my novel were never based on specific individuals, those oral stories and the voices they imbued in my mind were indispensable to me as a reader and writer.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

Originally, the novel itself was much longer, but I really love the editing process, through which structure, movement, and even voice often emerge. I was also gifted with a brilliant editor, John Glynn, who keenly understands, among so many other things, the reality inventing power of cutting. Although nothing cut felt lost, there are themes, imaginary novels summarized, and even voices that I would like to explore in other works.

You sprinkle some amazing titles and authors of science fiction/fantasy books throughout the novel. Are you a reader of speculative fiction? Do you have some favorite authors/titles?

Yes! Avidly so. In many ways, The Lost Book of Adana Moreau is my love letter to the history of speculative fiction and science fiction.

Of course, Isaac Asimov, who, like so many, I read as an adolescent first. Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Le. Guin are absolute titans. Where would any of us be without Borges? There’s rarely a month that goes by when I don’t think of Dhalgren by Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy is a masterpiece. Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes is pure beautiful insanity! Roberto Bolaño, who made genre irrelevant. Some contemporary writers I’m fairly obsessed with include Yuri Herrera, Liliana Colanzi, and Samanta Schweblin.

The novel covers a period that lasts from the early 20th to the early 21st century. Did you research for the early 20th century for those parts of the novel? What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned from your research?

At times historical research for a novel (which can take any form) can feel like you’re lost in a labyrinth, feeling your way in the dark, so to speak, so it wasn’t until I found Great Depression-era oral histories of exiles and immigrants in the archives of both the Chicago History Museum and the Historic New Orleans Collection when I finally saw a clear way forward. History has erased, manipulated, and even geographically written over our voices—the working class and POC in particular—so I learned in those archives to trust the stories and voices I could hear. In fact, they brought me back to my childhood. Hearing, even more than reading, was how I was able to finish my novel.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Currently, I’m reading the elegant and brilliant novel Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey by Kathleen Rooney. I just picked up The Glory of the Empire by Jean D’Ormesson based on a comparison to Borges and the following epigraph: “History is a novel that happened; a novel is history that might have happened.” Also, Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants by Mathias Énard. I’m very lucky to have an advanced copy of Ruthie Fear by the Maxim Loskutoff. I’m also planning on re-reading Literature Class by Julio Cortázar.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

The Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. I carried books from that series everywhere I went!

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

In this regard, I was absolutely fortunate and never had to hide any books from my parents. I remember in 8th grade reading Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs, and feeling extra cool and rebellious about it, even stuffing it in the bottom of my backpack when biking to punk shows in abandoned barns. But when my mom discovered what I was reading, she thought it was great and just asked me if I could make sense out of the plot yet. She was poking a little fun at me, of course, because the novel is essentially plotless. This was a woman who routinely offered to drive me and my friends to those punk shows. In retrospect, it was nearly impossible for me to rebel against my parents.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Only five? Ok. Here we go! First and foremost,
Roberto Bolaño
László Krasznahorkai
Octavia Butler
Jorge Luis Borges
Helen DeWitt

What is a book you've faked reading?

A whole era in fact! My dirty secret is I can rarely get through any non-science fiction Victorian novels.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

I’m a sucker for old science fiction covers. 70s space pastorals are my favorite. I try to buy every different version of Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury I can find.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Definitely! Roberto Bolaño’s meteoric magnus opus 2666. It’s teeming with visions of an impressionistic global literary future. My mind was simply blown. Before reading it, I almost quit writing altogether.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

There’s something profoundly Shakespearean about Yuri Herrera’s noirish, apocalypse-teasing novel The Transmigration of Bodies. It’s required reading!

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Don Quixote. No book has given me as much joy reading it for the first time.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

This feels both like a trick pandemic-era question and something Dr. Who might ask before stepping on the TARDIS. But I think I already lived at least one perfect day. In 2011, my soon-to-be wife and I traveled to Istanbul and we spent one day just walking that magnificent city and talking endlessly, happily. At some point, we met up with a good friend of ours from Chicago, a great writer, Mahmoud Saeed, a legend really, who was going to Dubai to visit his daughter and grandchildren, and he took us to the Basilica Cistern, which is so elegant, so elegiac, and otherworldly. It was there he told us about the 4,500-year history of his home, Mosul, about the novel he was writing about that history, about his lost childhood loves, about his exile to the States, and, afterward, all three of us talked endlessly, happily, and I remember an absolute peaceful familiarity as if everything we said to each other was somehow a continuation of things already said for hundreds of years.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

How has fatherhood affected my life as a writer? For all the challenges involved, I couldn’t fathom being a writer without my children. They’ve tripled the spectrum of emotions I previously thought possible—from fear to absolute joy. They’ve taught me to think better and fight harder because the end of the world is a luxury now.

What are you working on now?

An essay on Latin American literature and unstable realism. And I’m in the early, if happy, wandering stages of writing a novel centered on an indigenous, Latinx ecologist in the Ecuadorian Amazon and her son, a census taker in Chicago in the year 2050.

Book cover for The Lost Book of Adana Moreau
The Lost Book of Adana Moreau
Zapata, Michael