When you subtitle your short story collection “Ghost Stories,” you’re setting expectations for what those stories are about, and like. But in the following email interview with Adam Soto, author of the short story collection Concerning Those Who Have Fallen Asleep: Ghost Stories (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), he reveals some of these tales may not be as horrifying as you’re expecting.
Given that the full title of this collection is Concerning Those Who Have Fallen Asleep: Ghost Stories, it seems obvious what the theme of this collection might be. But we all know that cliché about assuming things. So, I’ll ask: Is there a theme to Concerning?
I appreciate your careful reading of the subtitle, because that’s exactly what it is, and it’s more of an amendment than a clean clarification. I contend that there’s a ghost or something ghost-like in each story. I also believe I am adding to the subgenre of ghost stories in fiction.
But the collection, thematically, is about grief. Personal grief, the grief of regret, the anticipatory grief of anxiety, the grief that accompanies living on this planet right now, in light of mass death, war, and environmental disaster. A ghost, to me, is grief made manifest and, therefore, a very real thing.
Did the theme emerge as you were putting this collection together or did you start out with the theme?
The theme definitely emerged as I was writing the pieces. I’d been working on and publishing about half of these stories for years without realizing how they were all connected. I’d even written two stories about disease — one about Ebola, the other about the Spanish Flu — without recognizing the parallel, at least not until Covid took over the world.
I wanted my second book to be a short story collection. I started off as a short story writer, I edit short stories professionally, I’ve always admired the short story form. But I also knew I needed a reason to bring a group of stories together in a single book. Summer of 2020, I sat down and pored over what I already had and made a strange discovery: during breaks from writing a novel about life on another planet, I was writing stories about death on our own. I told my agent, “I’m working on a collection of ghost stories,” and she loved the idea. Suddenly, all of these story concepts I’d been struggling with for years made sense. I said to myself, “Tell it like a ghost story,” and everything started to make sense. I wrote the second half of the collection in less than a year.
Aside from having to fit the theme, what other parameters did the stories in Concerning Those Who Have Fallen Asleep have to fit?
I tend to either write long stories or very short stories. Luckily, my editor, Danny Vazquez, and the good people at Astra House didn’t seem to have a problem with that. They’re not exactly rule-followers, which is a gift to me and the publishing industry. I found myself experimenting with voice and point of view, different genres and structures, time periods and tone. The stuff that got left on the cutting room floor didn’t make sense if I added “: a ghost story” after the title. “Ghost story” was like a key (both musical and physical). If it didn’t sound right, if it didn’t fit, it didn’t make the cut. Some of the connections were subtle; some were downright mysterious. But that’s the beauty of titles and subtitles, signs and directions: sometimes it’s about the difference between where you expect to go and where you eventually end up instead.
Ghost stories are often horror stories, but, again, no assumptions. So, what genres do the stories in Concerning Those Who Have Fallen Asleep represent?
So many of the stories are combinations of genres and sub-genres. There’s realism (of both the Raymond Carver and Joy Williams variety), speculative / science fiction, historical fiction, slipstream, horror, comedy, and weird fiction. Though it’s a form, and not a genre, I should also add that there’s sort of a play in there too. The collection spans at least 300 years, four continents, and two planets. And at least half of one story takes place entirely inside of dreams.
So, are there any writers who you see as having a big influence on either this collection in general or on specific stories in Concerning Those Who Have Fallen Asleep, but not on your style as a whole?
The opening story, which is actually comprised of the openings of four different stories, was deeply inspired by the work of Italo Calvino, Jenny Boully — her experimental essay collection, Book Of Beginnings And Endings, gave it its shape — and Sarah Ruhl’s play Eurydice. “The Vegetable Church” is a love letter to Mavis Gallant and her chronicles of expats wandering through post-war European society. Joy Williams inspired “Animal Fires,” Borges made “YA” possible, and Nabokov fueled “Ransoms,” while Roberto Bolaño inspired “The Prize.”
Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo is the sort of ur-text, though, establishing the eerie and mysterious tone that overlays the whole collection. The writer Peter Orner once called Pedro Páramo a scaffolding of silence, which made me picture an empty cabinet of curiosities. The labels are still there, but the contents have either been ransacked or walked off on their own two feet. The point of so many of these stories is what is left unsaid, hinting at the disappeared, the subtextual.
And how about non-literary influences; are any of the stories in Concerning Those Who Have Fallen Asleep influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Stephen King movies were probably the biggest influence. The way directors and actors — from auteurs to industry workhorses; geniuses to character actors — manage his mixture of melancholy domestic stories and the supernatural for general audiences has always fascinated me. Because so much of King’s writing is internal, fantastical, and inexplicable, the way these movie folk hint at the unfilmable speaks to the way I’ve experienced the mysterious in my own life. Few of my stories go full tilt supernatural; many exist on the precipice of the shadow realm.
As you alluded to earlier, you serve as the web editor of the website American Short Fiction. How do you think working on this website may have influenced the stories in Concerning Those Who Have Fallen Asleep or this collection as a whole?
I select stories from our submission drive and present them to a committee that discusses them, and ultimately decides as a group which stories get published. From there, I work with the writers to bring out the best in their stories before sharing them with the public. Adeena Reitberger and Rebecca Markovits head the magazine, and I’ve learned more from those two about stories than any teacher or mentor I’ve had in my life. They are absolute geniuses. But so are our submitters, whose stories expose me to brilliant and daring new approaches. And that includes the stories that I don’t publish. It’s a gift to be entrusted with literary culture in the making. And over the years I’ve been able to look at my own work through the eyes of editor Adam. It’s made the writing tighter and the revision process more unforgiving. I can look at a draft of a story I really loved writing and say to myself, “This one isn’t going to work. Move on.”
I always think short story collection are a good way to get to know a writer. Do you think Concerning Those Who Have Fallen Asleep is a good representation of your style?
My novel This Weightless World, which is polyphonic in nature and plays with multiple genres, was an attempt at structural storytelling. I’ve always been interested in subtext and resonance, the accidental or implied stories a piece tells through juxtaposition, counterpoint, and arrangement. So much of that book exists off the page, in the reader’s imagination, as they piece together the deeper story within. Short story collections naturally do the same, by virtue of being a curated collection. Side by side, I think the novel and the collection tell the story of a writer who can’t quite sit still. Stylistically, I’m okay with coming off as a bit eclectic and unsettled, as long as the work has heart. I like taking formal risks and telling stories about people who are very different from myself, as long as they rest within a universe or universes of my own making. I’m not attempting to represent anyone but rather wish to populate my worlds with diverse characters in the most humane ways possible.
Speaking of This Weightless World, it was recently released in paperback. What is that book about, and when and where does it take place?
This Weightless World tells the story of Sevi del Toro, a burned-out music teacher; Eason Wallace, his cello protégé; and Ramona Thompson, his on-and-off computer programmer girlfriend as the three attempts to finding meaning and purpose after the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence 75 light years away from Earth. It takes place in 2012, in the gentrifying neighborhoods of Chicago and San Francisco, and in the deep reaches of space. The alien signal that tips Earth off is short-lived and indecipherable, complicating, if not undermining, hopes of a mass social evolutionary event. In the aftermath, the three must grapple with the commitments they made and the dreams they conjured while under the spell of the alien planet, Omni-7xc, pondering their responsibilities and capabilities in a dying and corrupt world.
It sounds like This Weightless World is a sci-fi story, but with a socio-political bent. Do you agree?
I’ve suggested it’s Contact for misanthropic millennials / mumblecore sci-fi. Shinjini Dey wrote a brilliant essay on the novel for Strange Horizons, and she argues that as opposed to being a literary-sci-fi hybrid, which is often lyrical realism infused with sci-fi elements, the book is science fiction burdened by the haunting reminder of realism. Although those aren’t my words, I think her assessment is closer to the truth: in terms of “subverting” sci-fi, it undermines the hope, wonder, and even dangers harder sci-fi typically affords by demonstrating how we’re already living in a sci-fi reality, albeit a rather disappointing one.
The basic premise is, what if we make contact with aliens and nothing changes? It explores insufficient paradigm shifts and rapidly closing Overton windows, the tension between idealism and the complicity of complacency, the future of the self in a collectivist tomorrow, and how we might seek dignity on a dying planet. The existentialism, more than its space travel sequences, lends it its most sci-fi elements.
Is there anything — literary or otherwise — that had a big influence on This Weightless World but not on any of the stories in Concerning Those Who Have Fallen Asleep?
There’s a lot less political theory in Concerning. Radical and revolutionary ideology, as well as futurist / technologist rhetoric is always on the tongues of Sevi and his brother, Samson, a radical revolutionary in his own right. The stories in Concerning are political, dealing with subjects ranging from the environment to race and gender, chattel slavery, colonialism, public health, and geopolitics, but they come with a tighter focus.
So, is there any connection between This Weightless World and any of the stories in Concerning Those Who Have Fallen Asleep?
Not directly, no. And less because they couldn’t exist in the same universe than how tonally different the stories are. Then again, Terminator and T2, Alien and Aliens were basically different genres, but they still worked. “Death On Mars” is kind of like This Weightless World‘s goofy cousin.
Also, is there anything different about the paperback version of This Weightless World?
I got to fix a few typos.
Sci-fi novels are sometimes stand-alone stories, and sometimes they’re part of larger sagas. What is This Weightless World?
Oh, this is tough. I’m frankly afraid to say. I don’t want to jinx it. Let’s just say my relationship with World is unresolved and there are things I want to do, am doing with that novel that might end up in people’s hands someday.
Going back to Concerning Those Who Have Fallen Asleep, Hollywood loves turning short stories into films. Do you think any of the stories in Concerning could work as a movie?
I think the stories have prestige streaming content written all over them. Someone could make a one- or two-season series out of the whole collection. But I’d love to see the telenovela proposed in “Ransoms.” It’d be so meta and messed up. Or I could see a feature-length dark comedy based on “Death on Mars” being made.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Concerning Those Who Have Fallen Asleep?
The collection has a playlist. You can listen to it here.
Finally, if someone enjoys Concerning Those Who Have Fallen Asleep, they’ll probably go get This Weightless World. But after they’ve read that, what short story collection of someone else’s would you suggest they read?
Everyone needs to read Fernando A. Flores’ Valleyesque. Those stories slap.