Tag Archives: Matthew Salesses

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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How to Fast Forward to the Real Story

22 Sep
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.

A smart guy named Aristotle once wrote that a dramatic structure (story) has three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. This sounds like common sense until you try to put it into action. Pretty quickly, you’ll realize that something as simple as a beginning is actually difficult to find. Where does a story begin? Unless the story starts with your character’s birth or conception or with the Big Bang, the first page won’t necessarily be connected to any chronological beginning. So, you must locate a moment somewhere in the character’s lifespan that makes sense as a place to start.

Matthew Salesses uses a great fast-forwarding strategy to discover such a beginning in his new novel The Hundred-Year Flood. You can read an excerpt at Hyphen Magazine.

How the Novel Works

When I was in grad school, it was a running joke in workshop that the professor would, at some point in a class, hold up the story being discussed and tear off the first three pages. The point was that writers, like old television sets, often needed time to warm up. The place where the story began was usually on page four, not page one. What got dropped to the floor usually consisted of backstory. With that in mind, look how Salesses begins The Hundred-Year Flood. (It’s actually the start of Chapter 2. The first chapter is a teaser for where the novel is headed: a hospital rehabilitation center, with the character remembering who he is.)

The day Tee decided to go to Prague, his girlfriend pulled him aside at a birthday party in Boston. The talk had turned to 9/11. “Stop acting so tragic,” his girlfriend said in his ear. “For God’s sake, others are suffering worse. Your uncle only killed himself. He didn’t die in the towers.” That was when Tee knew he couldn’t stay in America. He downed his IPA and said, “Only?” Everyone was talking about death, but he had to keep quiet. He was filling a container inside of him. Into it, he put the things he couldn’t say—about the seduction of forgetting. When his container was full, he would dump himself out in one dramatic move. A case in point: by the end of that week, he had broken up with his girlfriend and requested a leave of absence.

This paragraph contains multiple opportunities to begin a story: 9/11, the day Tee’s uncle committed suicide, and any number of scenes that would have charted the rising conflict between Tee and his girlfriend. All of these could have been good places to start. In fact, another writer might have chosen one of them. But Salesses did not. He chose to begin the novel with his character moving to Prague, and all of the action takes place there, with the flood from the title serving as a kind of ticking clock for Tee to resolve the issues that took him to the city in the first place. As an arc, it makes perfect sense, and it gives the novel a sense of coherent wholeness.

That said, given the events identified in the paragraph above, there was no structural requirement for Salesses to frame the story as he did. One of the mistakes that beginning writers often make is believing that there is some golden ratio for narrative, that if they can simply locate that ratio in their story, everything will come together. This is part of the allure of screenwriting books that lay out story beats like connect-the-dots puzzles. Those guides can work for some writers, but for many other writers, discovering the arc for their stories is a process of trial and error. The genius of Salesses’ novel is not that it frames the story as it does but that it identifies its frame and then quickly moves the reader into it. There’s no need to rip away the first three pages. He condenses them into a single paragraph, orienting the reader, and then the novel is on its way.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write fast-forward through alternate beginnings using The Hundred-Year Flood by Matthew Salesses as a model:

  1. Identify the story you want to tell. One approach is to think about what will appear on the back cover of the book. Here’s what appears on Salesses’ novel: “Tee contemplates his own place in life as both mixed and adopted and as an American in a strange land full of heroes, myths, and ghosts.” This is what the novel is about, and the story is whatever series of events best allows Salesses to portray Tee’s contemplation. In literary fiction, the story, or plot, often stems from an internal conflict as much as from an external one. So, figuring out where to begin often requires knowing what that internal conflict is. Try summing it up with an internal action word: contemplates, struggles, grapples, wrestles.
  2. List possible starting points for that conflict. Perhaps the conflict predates the character, which is sometimes the case with internal conflicts that result from external conflict (war, bias, hatred). Perhaps it begins with a relationship gone sour (romantic, parental, work, neighbor). It might start with an event with a quick resolution (like death, as in the death of Tee’s uncle or the deaths on 9/11) but with emotional consequences that ripple away from the event. Or, as in Salesses’ novel, the conflict might begin in earnest when the character makes a decision. After all, a conflict requires two actors. If one side is doing nothing or not resisting (even passively), then there isn’t really a conflict, only the potential for one. List as many possible starting points for your conflict as you can.
  3. Pick one. The story has to begin somewhere. Which of the points on your list seems to have the most immediate potential for narrative? The answer might leap out at you, or you may need to start writing from each point and see where your writing sustains itself and keeps going and where your writing peters out. To some extent, a beginning is about energy. Without that energy, the story can’t go anywhere.
  4. Summarize the points leading up to the chosen beginning. Try giving yourself a temporary title for a paragraph: How the character/narrator got to this point. Keep it short and quick. If you’ve got kids, imagine telling someone this summary over the phone while your kids jump up, reaching for your phone. You may end up using this paragraph to start your story. Or, it may serve as a warm-up that eventually is discarded. Either way, the paragraph can prepare your mind for the narrative you want to tell and the arc that you’ve created.

Good luck.

An Interview with Matthew Salesses

11 Jul
is the author of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying (2013), The Last Repatriate, and two chapbooks, Our Island of Epidemics and We Will Take What We Can Get. He was adopted from Korea at age two, returned to Korea, married a Korean woman, and writes a column about his wife and baby for The Good Men Project. He also serves as the Project’s Fiction Editor. Photo Credit Stephanie Mitchell

Matthew Salesses is the author of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, The Last Repatriate, and two chapbooks. He was adopted from Korea at age two, returned to Korea, married a Korean woman, and writes a column about his wife and baby for The Good Men Project. He also serves as the Project’s Fiction Editor.
Photo Credit Stephanie Mitchell

When Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days,” she could have been talking about the writer Matthew Salesses. He was adopted from Korea at age two and then, as an adult, returned to Korea, where he married a Korean woman with whom he now has a child. The questions of identity inherent in such a life are enormous, and, fittingly, Salesses has dug deeply into those mysteries in his work. He’s the author of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just SayingThe Last Repatriate, two chapbooks, plus numerous essays that have appeared in The New York Times Motherlode blog, NPR, Glimmer Train, The Rumpus, Hyphen, and American Short Fiction.

In this interview, Salesses discusses his revision process, avoiding distractions that keep him from writing, and where he draws the line between fiction and nonfiction.

(For an exercise based on his story, “In My War Novel,” which uses repetition to devastating effect, click here.)

Michael Noll

I once heard Robert Stone explain the difference between a story and a novel by saying that a novel was like a baseball game and a story was like a single pitch. This story seems to fit that description. It’s a single movement. To use another metaphor, it’s almost as if the narrator has an immense lung capacity, and this is the story that he can tell before he runs out of breath. Did you conceive of this story in a rush or is that sense of a single, seamless movement the result of a lot of revision?

Matthew Salesses

In a way, both. I wrote the first draft in a rush. Revision took years. Most of my fiction is written in this way–the rush of the first draft and the long work of shaping that draft into something that reads with that rush. For this story, that meant cutting it up several times and moving the pieces around on my floor, adding and deleting pieces, trying to get the length down and also have enough of an emotional arc.

Michael Noll

Even though the story uses a style of repetition and variation (the phrases “In my war novel” and “Before my wife left me” reoccur in various ways) it actually contains a story that’s been told many times: the demise of a marriage. The difference between all those past tellings and this one is, obviously, the telling. How do you typically approach the plot in a story? Do you outline the events/scenes? Or do you start with the voice and discover where it will take you?

Matthew Salesses

It’s a different process for me from story to story. I wish I plotted everything out beforehand every time–I think that would be easier–but I often start with much less. Here I did start with the voice, and let the anger and sadness and frustration in the voice carry the story where it wanted. Then I trimmed it down like a hedge and guided it closer to where I wanted it.

Michael Noll

Here's a cool book trailer video for I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying.

Here’s a cool book trailer video for I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying.

You’ve written quite a bit about your own experience as an orphan from Korea, and this story–and others–pick up on that idea. How do you determine what goes into a nonfiction piece and what gets used in a story? Where do you draw the line between the genres–or, how do you separate them?

Matthew Salesses

I don’t determine, other than to keep certain things out of nonfiction that might hurt people close to me. I draw the line at telling the truth about what happened, as it happened, versus telling the truth about what happened through changing what happened.

Michael Noll

You’re a prolific writer. In addition to a story collection, novella, and a chapbook plus numerous nonfiction pieces, you also an editor for The Good Men Project. And, you update your blog often. How do you a) keep up with it all and b) produce so much material. You’re also a father, which means that you’re producing all of this while caring for children. How do you do it? I recently asked Roxane Gay this same question, and she attributed her enormous output to living in the middle of nowhere and insomnia. What’s your method?

Matthew Salesses

Roxane produces far more quality work than I do. I do what I can by not watching TV (except for an occasional kdrama), limiting Facebook time, relying on my wife and Twitter for the news, cutting out most sports (I can’t seem to get rid of my love for football), and not going out much. I also have taken up drinking copious amounts of coffee and only sleeping 6-7 hours a night.

July 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

How to Use Repetition in a Story

9 Jul
Matthew Salesses' story "In My War Novel" was a finalist at HTML Giant and appeared in Fictionaut, a journal that creates reading and writing communities using the tools of social media.

Matthew Salesses’ story “In My War Novel” was a finalist at HTMLGIANT and appeared in Fictionaut, a journal that creates reading and writing communities using the tools of social media.

One of the greatest novels you’ll ever read is The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Many of the stories/chapters use repetition (the title story, “How to Tell a True War Story,” and “The Man I Killed” are good examples). Because the book is so good, thousands of admiring writers have probably tried to imitate its style, and almost all of them have found it impossible. But here’s a story that uses repetition successfully: “In My War Novel” by Matthew Salesses.

“In My War Novel” was a finalist at HTMLGIANT and appeared in Fictionaut, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is built on two pieces of repetition. In the first, the narrator repeats the phrase, “In my war novel…” In the second, he keeps returning to an idea laid out early on: “These are the things I know about my wife” and “When my wife left me…” Both pieces cue the reader into the narrator’s obsessions—and in a story like this one, those obsessions are the story.

Here is an excerpt that states those obsessions clearly:

“The hell with those famous wars. I would write about the Korean War. I would write about the Korean War to show that I was Korean and also to rub it in people’s faces. Nobody knows anything about the Korean War except Koreans.

In the time before my wife left me she said I was 100% American. In fact I was 100% Korean, but then my mother didn’t want me anymore, so she left me at the orphanage. When I was 3 I was sent to America. So what does that make me?”

Many writers might avoid using repetition because it seems incompatible with plot. After all, how can a story move forward if it keeps repeating itself?

Matthew Salesses’ answer is to work within a loose plot structure. He lets us know from the opening two paragraphs that the narrator’s wife has left him but that they’re not divorced and that she’s kept his last name. The rest of the story essentially answers the questions any reader naturally asks: Why did she leave him? Why didn’t she divorce him? Why did she keep his name? These questions don’t have simple answers or answers. It’s difficult to look back at their marriage and point to a clean, linear progression of failure. Instead, there are bad periods and good periods, times when both parties are trying and times when they’ve become disconnected. As a result, the marriage plot of “In My War Novel” is ideal for a story using repetition. The pressure to trace a clear storyline isn’t as strong. And, when we reflect back on events, our thoughts tend to move in circles—and so a story about reflection lends itself to strategies of repetition.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try using repetition, with “In My War Novel” serving as a model.

  1. Choose a basic plot to work within. Salesses uses the story of a failed marriage (in a way, it’s a version of the old star-crossed lovers plot). The key is to choose a plot that doesn’t require a step-by-step, chronological explanation. Possibilities include any story of failure or success (business, relationship, parenting) or any story that tries to explain a general circumstance in the present day by looking back over a vast time period (How I became rich, poor, sad, happy, imprisoned, outcast, exiled, embraced, or famous).
  2. Choose one or more obsessions for the narrator or character. Ideally, the obsession should tie in to the plotline. In Matthew Salesses’ story, the obsessions are central to that character: why did my wife leave me and why don’t I have a clear identity? In “The Man I Killed” by Tim O’Brien, the narrator keeps revisiting the wounds on the body of a man he killed. In “The Things They Carried,” also by Tim O’Brien, the story returns to the items carried by the soldiers and, ultimately, to those items’ emotional as well as physical meaning. In both those stories, the obsession is central to the characters’ situation. Their days are spent killing people and carrying stuff.
  3. Begin writing paragraphs that begin with some version of an obsession. Salesses tends to begin with variations on the phrases “When my wife left me…” and “In my war novel…” O’Brien, in “The Man I Killed,” often begins with the phrase “The man I killed…” Use the paragraphs to examine the obsession from as many different angles as possible. For instance, what would the character/narrator’s parents or wife or husband or kids or friends or coworkers or boss say about it? What does the obsession look like in private, in public, with particular people? What does the obsession look like during the morning/afternoon/evening/night?
  4. Write as many paragraphs as you can for each obsession.

It’s true that what you write will likely have no forward momentum. It won’t resemble a story. With a strategy like this one, revision becomes key (though, to be honest, it’s necessary for all stories). After you’ve exhausted your ideas (not just after a day but perhaps a few weeks or months of writing), you’ll need to go back and scramble the paragraphs into coherent sense. You’ll need to discover the story and, perhaps, add connecting tissue between the paragraphs. If you reread “In My War Story,” you’ll see those bits of tissue, paragraphs that don’t begin with either obsession.

Basically, you’re starting a story that may take a year or more to finish. That’s fine. It’s good. It means you’ll always have something to work on.

Have fun.

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