Nathan Elias explores transformation in his debut collection, The Reincarnations. In these stories, the real world oftentimes converges with the surreal one. In “The Alligator Theory,” for example, a filmmaker loses his daughter and believes to have found her in an alligator. In “Taking Flight,” a dead teenager recounts an experience with his first love during a production of Peter Pan. As a whole, the stories here are imaginative and magical, but they also never lose the touch of humanity that makes them feel so universal. According to Elias, “Spiritual and personal transformation is integral to each story — or each component making up the whole of the book — and structuring entire plots or plot points around or involving physical transformations was the only possible way to truly invoke and streamline the theme.”
Elias, a current Nashville resident, holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. He is a former filmmaker and was a finalist of The Saturday Evening Post 2020 Great American Fiction Contest. It was my pleasure to talk to him about his writing process, the intrigue of the fantastic, and the appeal of recurring characters.
Before we dive into The Reincarnations, I am curious about your process, especially in regards to how you approach your many stories that delve into the fantastic. When you sit down to write these particular kinds of stories, is it the magic, the plot, the characters, or something else altogether that comes to you first?
The genesis for each story is always different. Sometimes the spark for a story is a character, other times it is a premise or perhaps a setting. However, no matter where the story begins, the act of discovery while writing is essential to my process. When it comes to the fantastical, or magical, elements to which you refer, there is usually an evolutionary process. Generally, a premise will strike me, and then my task is to organically create a story and characters around the premise. Other times, the characters generate the premise. For example, in the story “Taking Flight,” about a teenager who is already dead telling the reader about his first and only true love, I knew that Sam, the protagonist, was dead before I wrote anything. However, later in the story, we learn that he auditions for the role of Peter Pan to impress Sylvia, who is playing Wendy in a local high school production. Before I knew the play was Peter Pan, I had already gotten a sense of some thematic elements in the story based on how Sam evolved as a character. Due to motifs, it was evident that Peter Pan was the only play in which the characters could have been performing. By the end of the story, there are many magical or fantastic elements at play: speaking after death and flying, namely.
What is it about the surreal that interests you as a writer? Do you feel like you’ve always had a pull to this genre of writing?
I do not feel as though I’ve always had a pull to the surreal. When I first truly began to read as a writer, as someone to whom literature was speaking and connecting, the books I read were typically more in the realist vein. Traditional American literature, mostly. However, the more and deeper I consumed, the more I realized how depressing your standard literary novels can be. In my early 20s I gravitated more toward fantasy novels, but I lost my appetite for that type of work a few years later. I learned my authentic interests lie somewhere between realism and fantasy. Some people categorize this as speculative fiction, sometimes science fiction, but I don’t think I really identify that way as a writer. I’ve come to love literature that cannot be explained, that imbues literary tropes with fantastical elements, but not at the cost of forsaking humanity or realist themes. The surreal interests me because I do not need to be confined to the already gritty and often trite shackles of the actual reality in which we live as human beings on planet Earth. This type of work can be enjoyable, but for me reading and writing are an escape. However, the opposite extreme is that I often get disinterested if I’m expected to let my imagination run rampant. My personal taste is somewhere in between the real and fantasy, which helps me sustain vigor for each writing project I embark upon.
As I made my way through The Reincarnations, I kept thinking about the process of transformation— and the flight (or escape) that soon follows.
Oftentimes in your stories, these transformations are physical. In “The Alligator Theory,” for example, there’s obviously the possible transformation of young Tina into an alligator, and there’s a detailed emphasis on how Cayman, Tina’s grieving father, observes transformation in a video series he’s working on about metamorphoses. He witnesses “nearly a dozen segments focused on the transformation of tadpoles to frogs, the life cycle of dragonflies from egg to nymph to adult, the four-stage cycle of the white grub to beetle, the nine-month cycle of human growth in the womb, and an incomplete segment about unexplainable metamorphoses.” There are other stories, too, that focus on transformative possibilities. In “Love Drugs,” a man named Gray considers taking a pill that will cause him to stop loving his wife. In the title story, death seems to offer another route to transformation for its young protagonist. Of course, the transformation leads us to the possibility of something greater — something bigger — in each one of these stories.
I’m curious which you see as the most important: the act of transformation itself or the imagined flight or escape that comes afterwards? Are they even possible to separate?
When it comes to crafting a story, I see both as integral to the construction of satisfying character arcs. Characters must have a transformation, and, often enough, it is the unfolding of a transformation that keeps readers engaged. The imagined flight or escape revealed after a character’s transformation is equivalent to the resolution of a story; however, the resolution, or the final product of a transformation, does not necessarily need to occur as the final event in a narrative’s linear timeline. Such a transformation may be revealed at the beginning of a story, as in “Taking Flight” when the narrator, Sam, reveals in the first sentence: “Before I died, I was just trying to be a normal teenager.”
Physical transformation, as they pertain to the stories in this collection, are symbolic and evident motifs representing the theme of reincarnation in the book. Theme, in my opinion, is one of the most important and yet most difficult to decipher craft elements in fictional prose narrative. On one hand, theme ultimately decides how imagery, gestures, setting, and character arcs are governed within a piece; on the other hand, theme is the invisible and often uncredited centrifuge in a piece. In The Reincarnations, spiritual and personal transformation is integral to each story — or each component making up the whole of the book — and structuring entire plots or plot points around or involving physical transformations was the only possible way to truly invoke and streamline the theme.
I mentioned “The Alligator Theory” in the previous question. While “Taking Flight” is very close, “The Alligator Theory” is — at least for now — my favorite story in The Reincarnations. It’s tender and magical and just absolutely, devastatingly beautiful. Do you mind sharing how the idea for the story came to you?
What first came to me was the main character; I knew I wanted to write a story about a documentary filmmaker who inadvertently films something magical, supernatural, or miraculous that he cannot explain. This character sat with me for a year, and I never knew what it was that he films and yet cannot explain. Later, after my wife and I moved to Tampa, Florida, one of the first things that caught my attention during an outing near our home were the “Beware of Alligators” signs at the park. It was only a matter of time before I started to hear stories about child deaths by alligators, and the tragedy devastated me. I also started to research the significance that alligators have in folklore and to various Native American tribes in Florida and Louisiana. It was around this time that the idea for the story crystallized.
One really unique aspect of your collection is that several of the stories are linked, with some characters reappearing. Even a dead one comes back near the end, although he’s still dead, to narrate a story about his first love. Did you always know your stories would have that connection?
One of the first catalysts for The Reincarnations was an interest I had in shared universes, but also in short stories that feature returning or recurring characters. One of my early influences and exposure to this is found in J.D. Salinger’s saga of the Glass family, whom we meet in numerous books, such as Franny and Zooey, Nine Stories, and Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. You also see this in Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories. Most commonly and recently we see this in television shows. However, I became fascinated with alternate iterations of narratives, or even multiverses, which we see in famous comic book lore and tropes. I knew going in to writing the collection that, somehow, the stories would exist within these frameworks in some way.
Does the experience of bringing several of your characters back for a second round make you want to check in on them again? Do you think you’ll keep writing about some of them?
As you have guessed, many of the characters in this story collection have been with me for a long time. In one cycle — or universe — of stories, several of the characters (namely Sam, Sylvia, Mark, Athen, and Zoe) and their lives (perhaps an alternate reality) made their way into a full-length feature film script that was never produced, and a short film that was produced but never edited. There was a time when I could not stop writing about them, and I was especially devastated when I could not get the short film edited. However, I suppose some incarnations are never meant to manifest.
Another cycle — or universe — of stories involving the characters we meet in “The Al Capone Suite” and “Family Business” also exist within the same universe as my novelette A Myriad of Roads That Lead to Here (Scarlet Leaf Publishing House, 2017); the novelette, however, is completely separate from The Reincarnations; it does not belong in the story collection, but it is still very loosely connected to it.
I can say, almost for certain, that I am finished with the characters in The Reincarnations; or, perhaps more accurately, they are finished with me.
Before I let you go, I want to ask about your previous work as a filmmaker. Does that experience in a different kind of art influence how you approach writing? Is it helpful?
Making films was the first way my love of storytelling manifested. Before I studied creative writing or took books as literature seriously, I studied films as literature. Films and certain television productions, I believe, can still be read textually if you know the craft elements involved. So, I was thinking cinematically before I was thinking about prose as a mode of storytelling. With this, I learned to structure a story based on traditional screenwriting models. When I started honing my abilities in terms of shaping plot and story in a prose narrative, it was practically impossible for me to stop thinking within the mold of cinematic storytelling. However, I leaned into the things I had learned from screenplay structure and applied it to short story structure and novel structure.
Lastly, one of the important things that carried over from my work as both an actor and a director was the ability to truly understand a character from the inside out: you must know your characters’ wants, desires, gestures, mannerisms, and so much more in order to invoke and deliver an authentic performance. You want the same for your characters in novels and short stories.
Thank you, Nathan, for taking the time to answer my questions, and congratulations on the release of The Reincarnations. I look forward to reading your upcoming novel, Coil Quake Rift.
By Nathan Elias
Published October 2, 2020