Heather Lefebvre Interviews Matthew Salesses
Matthew Salesses–editor, essayist, novelist, writer of short stories, teacher, and academic–is not an author easy to define. In his prolific career, he has published a novel in flash fiction (!), I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying; a collection of essays, Different Racisms: On Stereotypes, the Individual, and Asian American Masculinity; a novella, The Last Repatriate; a chapbook, Our Island of Epidemics; and an illustrated Korean drama, Marked. When reading Salesses, it is easy to get caught up in the beauty and precision of his language, but to do so would do him a disservice. The topics he writes about with such lyricism–for a few examples, race, adoption, identity, and love–profoundly deserve a reader’s meditation. His moving debut novel, The Hundred Year Flood, out in Setember 2015, is already being hailed by critics as “intense and intimate” (Sally Akins), “full of natural majesty” (Roxane Gay), and “a vivid, compelling narrative about inheritance and forgiveness” (Margot Livesey). If I could tell you one thing, I’d tell you to read it.
Front Porch: In The Hundred Year Flood, the narrative not only jumps back and forth in time (and place), from Tee in Boston to his preceding year in Prague, but the point of view also jumps from person to person. As the flood approaches, we see the same couple days from multiple perspectives, which seems crucial to the narrative arc. How and when did that structure emerge? Did you have it planned from the beginning, or did the time/perspective shifts emerge later on?
Matthew Salesses: The book changed drastically from start to finish. Originally, it was set in 2004-5, the year I lived there, not during the flood. When I did understand that the flood would be a better setting for the drama I wanted to tell, I also understood that it was going to be impossible to do the flood justice from Tee’s perspective. For one, I like to set rules for myself, and I wanted the flood to take up 100 pages of the book and Tee in the flood for 100 pages would have been too long. I also needed a way to be able to show what is happening out in the flood. Tee is trapped in it and doesn’t really know what is going on, [she] can’t listen to the radio reports or watch the news on TV. I also needed to have someone who knew the flood was coming, and I needed to show that someone knew even though Tee wouldn’t know. That dramatic irony increases the tension when Tee and Katka are trapped inside his apartment. Each character knows things the others do not—I knew I wanted to play with this from the beginning.
FP: There’s a refrain in the book that Pavel’s art is “more real than life,” and Tee repeatedly writes himself into myths. As an author, do you think that tenet applies to storytelling as well? In what way(s)?
MS: Life is often far more illogical than what one can get away with in fiction. In reality, things happen for no reason. Even in the wildest plots, fiction has thematic logic, has causational logic. We read those things into life, maybe, trying to find meaning, but we make meaning in fiction.
FP: The novel is set in Prague and Boston, incorporating both the 2002 European floods and the 9/11 terror attacks. What was your research process like?
MS: When I lived in Prague, I taught English as a foreign language. This consisted of having conversations. The topics I chose were my own fascinations—mainly the legends and superstitions of Prague. Much of my research was told to me. Afterward I also read guide books and books on myth and history, and I looked up a lot online. The flood was another thing I got interested in in 2004. I spent some time getting to know the area that was hit worst by the flood and I took a lot of pictures. I am fascinated by damage, by rebuilding and by what never gets rebuilt. I didn’t know this would make it into the book. Later I did a lot of research through first-hand accounts of the flood. I watched videos online and looked up archived weather reports.
FP: I understand that you completed this book over eleven years. Could you tell us a little about that experience? Any insight or advice for writers who may be struggling with a long project?
MS: Stubbornness really got me through. I’m still not sure whether it might have been more productive to give up on this book and write others. I just couldn’t do it. I kept trying and trying to figure it out. I learned a lot from writing other things and from teaching and then I applied those lessons to the novel. For a long time, I thought I had worked the book to death. But now I believe there is a kind of valley between when you start a book and it is perfect in your head, and when you are finally through to the other side of draft after draft. You’re making it better, but it seems worse and worse. You can’t see that until you’re up on top on the other side of things.
FP: What’s the last book you read that you loved?
MS: Catherine Chung’s Forgotten Country is one of my favorite books of the last few years. I’m reading a very good book right now by Alexandra Kleeman, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine. The last real Murakami novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, was one of his best.
FP: This is your first full-length novel, but you have also written a novel in flash fiction (I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying). What challenges (or benefits) did you find in building a novel out of short pieces? How were the processes of writing these books different?
MS: One of the benefits was being able to write the chapters in a single sitting. I was working on The Hundred-Year Flood at the time, and it was just so exhausting. I wrote I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying in part as a way just to finish something. Each chapter is a short short. I also had a lot more encouragement with INSIJS. Much of making those pieces into a novel happened because editors asked me to write more of what I had. I was very lucky that way. It was in many ways an opposite experience to THYF.
FP: Tee struggles with his identity and past, in part because he was adopted from Korea as a baby; the casual racism he suffers on a daily basis–like when a white man won’t believe that Tee’s white parents are his parents–doesn’t seem to allow him to be seen as just himself. Like Tee, you were also adopted from Korea as a small child. How has that impacted you as a writer?
MS: Oh, in similar ways. I wouldn’t have written The Hundred-Year Flood if I hadn’t been adopted. It’s very central to who I am, though I resisted that for years. For most of my life, everyone else made it very central. I wanted the freedom I thought other people had to define themselves. I had to learn that part of who I am, a large part, has to do with restrictions rather than freedom. My writing often considers this.
FP: In addition to writing, you work as an editor at three journals, teach at several writing organizations, and are a father. How do you balance writing with your other responsibilities?
MS: You do what matters to you. For much of the year, I watch zero TV. It’s not so much about balance as it is about doing what you want to be a part of who you are. Those responsibilities are all important to me. Ideally I make each of them productive to who I want to be, how I want to improve. And then I have found there is a certain element of: what must get done gets done.
FP: You’ve written nonfiction as well. Are you drawn more to one genre over the other, and why do you think that is?
MS: I’m more drawn to fiction, at least right now. I like both. They have different challenges. Right now, I’m drawn more to fiction as a long form and to nonfiction as a short form, but this could change at any moment. Part of the fun of doing both is that I can switch between them—it helps keep me from wearing myself out too much.
FP: Could you tell us about your revision process?
MS: I did a month as the visiting writer at Necessary Fiction and talked revision with the help of many other wonderful writers. That’s probably the best place to see what I do to revise, or at least what I did at the time. There a few things I would add now, but much of what I do is there.
Matthew Salesses was adopted from Korea. He is the author, most recently, of The Hundred-Year Flood. His fiction and essays have appeared in NPR, The New York Times, Salon, the Center for Asian American Media, Glimmer Train, PEN/Guernica, and many others. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Creative Writing & Literature at the University of Houston. His previous books include I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying (a novel) and Different Racisms: On Stereotypes, the Individual, and Asian American Masculinity (essays).
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