An Interview with Matthew Salesses

24 Sep
Matthew Salesses is a Ph.D. student in Creative Writing at the University of Houston and, already, the author of three books, most recently the novel The Hundred Year Flood.

Matthew Salesses is a Ph.D. student in Creative Writing at the University of Houston and, already, the author of three books, most recently the novel The Hundred Year Flood.

Matthew Salesses is the author of The Hundred-Year Flood. His other books include the essay collection Different Racisms and the novel I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying. He was adopted from Korea and has written for NPR Code Switch, The New York Times Motherlode, Salon, The Good Men Project, The Toast, The Millions, Glimmer Train, PEN/Guernica, and has received awards from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Glimmer Train, Mid-American Review, PANK, HTMLGIANT, Emerson College, Inprint, and the University of Houston.

To read an excerpt from The Hundred-Year Flood and an exercise on finding a story’s beginning, click here.

In this interview, Salesses discusses chapter beginnings, the inspiration of The English Patient, and how the critical rhetoric around a book matters.

Michael Noll

The first paragraph of Chapter II is dazzling in how much information it handles in such a compact, tight narrative passage.
 How long did it take to get it into its current form? 

Matthew Salesses

It was actually shorter before. I added Tee’s response and the container (as a way to show Tee’s version of passivity and activeness) very late in my edits. Tee’s girlfriend’s words in Boston act like a kind of prophecy. She says things that can guide him either by following them or resisting them, but they break up before the plot starts. Her words echo.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the pacing of this novel. There’s a kind of dreamlike quality to it. It switches back and forth between characters (Katka and Ynez, for instance) in a way that they begin to blend together. And in the switch, the narrator will do things like pick up a book and read a line like this: “The presence of want awakens in him nostalgia for wholeness.” It’s such an ethereal, meaning-packed line. What models did you have for this sort of narration?

Matthew Salesses

I thought a lot about Ondaatje’s The English Patient, even as far as the books he uses in it as a guide. The line from Anne Carson [“The presence of want awakens in him nostalgia for wholeness”] was, for a long time, a line from Henry Miller: “the guardians of secret crimes” or something.

Michael Noll

Matthew Saleses' novel The Hundred-Year Flood has been called "epic and devastating and full of natural majesty." It follows a young man to Prague as he struggles to understand his identity and how it fits into the world.

Matthew Salesses’ novel The Hundred-Year Flood has been called “epic and devastating and full of natural majesty.” It follows a young man to Prague as he struggles to understand his identity and how it fits into the world.

The novel is very much about art and questions of how the artist and subject are revealed (or not) in a piece of artwork. So, the characters discuss poetry, we see various paintings and their creation, and the narrator spends a lot of time thinking about big questions about identity, memory, and art. This seems to be where the heart of the novel lies, which makes me curious about plot. How did you find or develop a plot mechanism that would give you the space needed for the characters to address these questions?

Matthew Salesses

Interesting! It makes me happy that different readers can bring to the book different interpretations. I didn’t think about the art/subject question in terms of plot. The plot is basically a love story. Though it’s a love story that begins with Tee as an artist’s model, as an object, of sorts.

Michael Noll

You’ve written in various places about how people of color are treated in American literature. It’s not, you’ve said, simply that most books are about white characters but that when people of color do appear in novels and stories, they’re portrayed in a handful of predictable ways. There aren’t many novels in which, as in this case, a Korean-American travels abroad. The Innocent Abroad and The Ugly American are almost always white. Do issues like these inform your writing? In other words, do you see a lack or absence in the books around you and think, “I’m going to fill that absence?” Or are you simply writing the stories that occur to you and then realizing that there is very little else like them?

Matthew Salesses

I was actually thinking of books about other Americans abroad as “like mine.” Most people don’t seem to see the book as part of that tradition. It’s kind of fascinating. We need more books where people of color do things white Americans have done in fiction for ages. But on the other hand, the fact that my book is seen as filling an absence creates the situation where we don’t get more of those books. It’s like we’re expected to plug holes.

September 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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