We spoke to Michael Zap­a­ta, author of The Lost Book of Adana More­au, on May 6th as part of our JBC Authors at the Table seriesyou can watch the thir­ty minute chat here. Check out below some ques­tions we did­n’t have time for and keep the con­ver­sa­tion going. See the whole line­up for JBC Authors at the Table.

Just as you show Amer­i­ca to be a hybrid of dif­fer­ent cul­tures, so too you show lit­er­a­ture to be a hybrid of dif­fer­ent gen­res. This book cov­ers every­thing from sci­ence fic­tion, to jour­nal­ism, to his­to­ry, to works on physics… What do you see as the rela­tion­ship between dif­fer­ent gen­res? How can each one enhance the other?

My father is an immi­grant from Ecuador and my mother’s fam­i­ly descend­ed from ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry Lithuan­ian Jew­ish refugees. I grew up between con­ti­nents, lan­guages, and his­to­ries, which is to say in lim­i­nal spaces. Those indis­tinct spaces feel very com­fort­able and apt to me when it comes to genre too, as if each genre itself were a world with its own evo­lu­tion­ary lin­eages and gen­er­al­ly func­tion­ing rules, which, of course, can be embraced, bifur­cat­ed, defied, erased, upend­ed, or merged with oth­ers. With cli­mate change, late-cap­i­tal­ist hor­rors, and this ter­ri­ble virus, the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry already feels increas­ing­ly uncan­ny, so maybe even the con­cept of genre has to be rein­vent­ed. I adore writ­ers like Yuri Her­rera, Idra Novey, Katy Simp­son Smith, and Saman­tha Schwe­blin who are doing that work. Maybe we even need a new type of lit­er­a­ture in which dif­fer­ent gen­res, like par­ti­cles at the quan­tum lev­el, blink in and out of exis­tence — a lit­er­a­ture, in any case, that reck­ons with our era of unsta­ble reality.

In the book, Javier tells Saul that his grand­fa­ther’s his­to­ry books present por­traits of peo­ple rather than accounts of events” — do you feel as though your book does the same?

In the pref­ace to his Mem­o­ry of Fire Tril­o­gy, which exca­vates and evis­cer­ates some five hun­dred years of Latin Amer­i­can his­to­ry, Eduar­do Galeano writes, I was a ter­ri­ble his­to­ry stu­dent. They taught me his­to­ry as if it were a vis­it to a wax muse­um or to the land of the dead. I was over twen­ty before I dis­cov­ered that the past was nei­ther qui­et nor mute.” That dis­cov­ery is absolute fire. It’s the human voice, the vox humana, as the great oral his­to­ri­an Studs Terkel called it. In fact, in my nov­el, Saul’s grand­fa­ther and his work are unabashed­ly based on Studs Terkel, who did as much for the field of his­to­ry as he did for fic­tion. The nov­el as a form with all its chaos, fear, desire, and even love allows for a direct con­fronta­tion with his­to­ry as record­ed (or large­ly invent­ed) by elites. What emerges from our his­tor­i­cal daze when we allow peo­ple to tell their own sto­ries is mean­ing, remem­brance, and, occa­sion­al­ly, rebellion.

It was inter­est­ing to bring in the com­par­i­son with Terezín. Have you been there? 

Nazi lead­ers referred to Terezín as a mod­el ghet­to,” but like every­thing with fas­cism that was a ter­ri­ble illu­sion. Some pris­on­ers worked and were even enter­tained when for­eign jour­nal­ists vis­it­ed, but most were tor­tured and left to appalling con­di­tions which result­ed in mass death. Pris­on­ers were even forced to con­tact fam­i­ly mem­bers to tell them they were being treat­ed well. Fas­cism is inher­ent­ly a fic­tion of mad­ness — a nation­al­ism that man­u­fac­tures its own real­i­ty and sets out to erase all oth­er real­i­ties. It’s the anti-mul­ti­verse. I’ve nev­er been to Terezín, but I did speak to sur­vivors of the Dirty War in Buenos Aires and they occa­sion­al­ly made com­par­isons to hor­rif­ic Nazi prac­tices, espe­cial­ly in places like the Navy Mechan­ics School, which was used as a secret deten­tion cen­ter dur­ing the Dirty War and which is where that com­par­i­son in my nov­el orig­i­nates from. Tens of thou­sands were dis­ap­peared into the abyss.

The open­ing quote: Tru­ly do we live on Earth?” — Neza­hual­coy­otl. What is the sig­nif­i­cance of this in the novel?

Although Neza­hual­coy­otl was a fif­teenth cen­tu­ry ruler of the city-state of Tex­co­co, he is often best remem­bered as a poet, one who inter­ro­gat­ed real­i­ty and what the Nahuas then referred to as our slip­pery Earth.” I love that phrase slip­pery Earth,” even if I’ll nev­er under­stand it. But I think it does feel like a cer­tain state of liv­ing. Lit­er­a­ture has always had notions of this sort of unre­al­i­ty or oth­er­world­li­ness, and I’m fas­ci­nat­ed with how both lit­er­a­ture and the­o­ret­i­cal physics try to describe the unseen and ask the essen­tial ques­tion: what if? In their own ways, each char­ac­ter in my nov­el and I hope the nov­el itself con­tends with this con­cept of what if” and the mul­ti­verse. Neza­hual­coy­otl died in 1472, just twen­ty years before the Columbian exchange and the col­li­sion of two Earths. He was right to ask that question.

What is your writ­ing prac­tice like in quar­an­tine ver­sus in reg­u­lar times?

On walks around my neigh­bor­hood in Chica­go, when oth­ers pass by in masks, my three year old son now says, Dad­dy, move, there’s peo­ple,” and so we move to the grass and he watch­es them walk by, very still, even calm, like he’s watch­ing some­thing immov­able, which is to say nor­mal, and my heart breaks for him. I’m not writ­ing, not real­ly. My wife, a fifth through eighth grade art teacher at an Inter­na­tion­al Bac­calau­re­ate pub­lic school, and I are work­ing from home with our two sons so there is less and less time for read­ing and writ­ing, but between slices of quar­an­tine life — between the cease­less lunch­es, the dia­pers, the half-blur­ry work Zoom meet­ings, the real­i­ty flat­ten­ing Zoom bur­ial of my dear uncle in Ecuador, the fiery tantrums and hugs, the sleep­less nights, the stacks of email and unan­swer­able con­cerns, the gro­cery orders which take half a day, the mes­mer­iz­ing LEGO cities — I’m some­how, if fleet­ing­ly, think­ing more about father­hood, the trep­i­da­tion of loss, the fall of empire, America’s mass amne­sia hap­pen­ing in real time etc. Of course, I don’t have any con­clu­sions. I’m sus­pi­cious of any­one with a con­clu­sion right now, but I do take solace in Rober­to Bolaño’s words about writ­ing in his mas­ter­piece 2666: In a word: expe­ri­ence is best. I won’t say you can’t get expe­ri­ence by hang­ing around libraries, but libraries are sec­ond to experience.”

Michael Zap­a­ta is a found­ing edi­tor of 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 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.