Adam Soto is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Fellowship. His writing has appeared in Versal Journal, and in 2012 he was named a finalist in Narrative Magazine’s 30-below contest. A Chicago native, Adam currently resides in Austin, Texas, where he works as a schoolteacher and is completing work on a novel. He writes a multimedia serial at EverythingInTheSkyBelongsToYou.com.
To read an exercise on hooking readers with a character’s emotions based on Soto’s story “The Box,” click here.
In this interview, Soto discusses his approach for creating characters who are unlike him and his theory for narrative structure and the delivery of information.
This is a story whose true subject isn’t revealed for several pages. At what point did you know what it was about–the conflict and the characters it would settle on? Did you always know, from the beginning? Or did you discover it in writing about the box?
The body, Ebola, and the box were unified from day one. I heard an NPR piece detailing a particularly gruesome scene in which an infected infant had to be quarantined in a box of some sort, and it was so devastating I knew I had to stay connected to it in someway, I couldn’t just forget it, and that connection turned out to be this story. I went all the way back to the factory floor, and from there the box just started gathering characters like a gyre, taking on attributes of the disease and the fleeting nature of human relationships.
These are characters who are quite different from yourself–and it’s set in a place, in the midst of a situation, that I’m assuming (perhaps incorrectly) that you haven’t spent much time in. What allowed you to enter this story? These characters and the place?
You’re right, I’ve never been to West Africa, but the characters arrived rather easily, without pretension, human, and burdened/ driven by challenges that are pretty universal. A guy gets high and loses someone’s keys; a doctor’s work takes her away from her family; a man is called upon by his father to help him with the family business; a woman, in a state of loss, redefines herself against adversity. For the particulars, I researched. Everything from local flora to migrant work policy to medicine to regional history and social taboos. And these details brought the world to life for me, creating a space the characters could react to in ways true to their deepest selves.
Endings can be so difficult–finding the right note, the right moment or event to end on. In this story, you don’t close with a kind of plot closure so much as emotional closure. What was your approach to the ending?
The story is actually quite short, especially given how much ground it covers/ how many plot points it has. It’d be quite easy to dismiss it as choppy and distracted, difficult to hold onto. Maybe some people will. A number of years ago I listened to Stuart Dybek discuss his story “We Didn’t,” which is this beautifully repetitive, lyrical piece about two teenage lovers interrupted by a corpse just as they are about to consummate their love on a Chicago beach one night. He had this theory about narrative structure and memory that really resonated with me. Dybek stated that story, since the dawn of abstract thinking, has been a tool for passing on information, and that plot—especially traditional plot structure—is just an easy and familiar way to keep that information in order, similar to the outlines and concept maps we use when studying in school or planning for projects at work. Pretty basic structuralist argument, I suppose. But he also noted the importance rhythm and rhyme have played in passing down information, citing ancient oral traditions as perfect examples, where a kind of musical part of the brain was employed to memorize something of importance.
I think “The Box” surpasses its narratological shortcomings by way of its musicality and image-driven lyricism. From the first draft there was this unspoken thread running through, and with each revision I tried to honor it, whatever it was. The ending, to me, was letting the music take over, such that it adopted this strangely antiquated language, harkening back to something perhaps like an oral tradition. Trusting the language paid off and made it possible to conflate the body, Ebola, and the box into one as the final resting image. It made sense to end this way. The story can’t end with another death, it can’t even end with the eradication of the disease. The story’s brevity and pace and lyricism all work towards this effort to write honestly about something gratuitous in a way that isn’t gratuitous, which makes use of an age-old technique of writing about death by way of life.
I know you’re working on a novel. How does this story fit into the process of writing that novel? Was this something you wrote on the side, stepping away from the novel? Or is this connected in some way–in subject or form, perhaps. I ask because novels often introduce problems that we don’t know how to solve, and I’m wondering if you were working out craft problems in this shorter form.
This story was written during a vacation from the novel. My major craft issue at the time was knowing whether or not I still knew how to finish something. The novel has an ensemble structure, and these days “The Box” is worth reflecting on to see how subtle connections—a shared object, a friend of a friend, proximity—can be more moving than major plot developments. There’s probably a term for it, but people get goosebumps when strangers tell stories they can relate to—an impression they share, a concert they both attended, a really weird website no one else has ever heard of. I’m sure people have gotten married over these types of things. They’re like these internal notes we share, waiting to resonate together. In this way, I guess “The Box” is this oboe helping me tune the orchestra that is my novel.