An Interview with Matthew Salesses
by Sharon Van Epps
Matthew Salesses is a rising literary star. His recent novel, The Hundred-Year Flood (Little A/Amazon Publishing), populated with a cast of wounded and unforgettable characters, was described as a “meditative, poetic, modern fable” by Kirkus Reviews. The book landed on must-read lists at Gawker, Refinery 29, Buzzfeed, and The Millions.
I first learned about The Hundred-Year Flood in an unlikely place: an online discussion group for adoptive families. Salesses was born in Korea and adopted by an American couple as a toddler. The combination of his unique perspective and stunning talent makes his an essential voice in many literary and cultural discussions. He’s written about adoption, race, and parenting for NPR’s Code Switch, The New York Times Motherlode, Salon, The Toast, The Millions, the Center for Asian American Media, The Rumpus, and The Good Men Project. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, PEN/Guernica, and many other journals.
Matthew Salesses is currently a Cambor Fellow and a third-year Ph.D. candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Houston. He also serves as Online Fiction Editor for Gulf Coast.
Matthew Salesses Interview for Tishman Review
Set primarily in Prague, The Hundred Year Flood revolves around Tee, an Asian American ex-pat who was adopted as an infant from Korea. Tee is grappling with family secrets and tragedies, plus rising emotions about his past, as the city floods. Prague really did flood in 2002, the same timeframe as the book. I was struck by how the setting and the historical circumstances provide the perfect mirror of Tee’s interior life. To use a screenwriting term, Prague itself seems to function as Tee’s “reflection character.” The city of ghosts and myths literally floods, while Tee floods emotionally as he wrestles with his own personal ghosts. Can you talk a little bit about how setting and character came together in the writing process?
To Tee, Prague is a place where no one will know him by some presupposed myth (such as his adoption or his uncle’s suicide or his father’s sins), where he has more of a say in who he is. Of course this doesn’t end up being true. The Prague in the book is a city in which story is a method of survival. It’s a city in which story, myth, art, has conquered armies.
I wanted to depict Prague as I found it, its haunting quality, its beauty, its oldness, its coldness and warmth. It took me longer to figure out how it fit with the story of Tee. I went to Prague basically because I didn’t know what to do with my English degree and teaching English in Prague was presented as an option to me in my senior year of college. Tee needed a better, thematic reason to be there. That reason was always staring me in the face, but I had to figure out how to see it. To see that all Tee knows of himself is myth.
SV: In an interview with Drew Arnold at The Rumpus, you claim that “one of the best things for a writer to do is to write about the things that really hurt them—that are their most vulnerable points.” In other interviews, you’ve also talked about how early drafts of The Hundred Year Flood featured a white main character. The novel didn’t really gel until you started pulling from your experience as a Korean American and an adoptee, some of that painful. For me, the book felt intimate and vulnerable, yet I never had the sense that I was reading an “autobiographical novel;” the world you’ve created feels both real and richly imagined. As a novelist, how do you balance personal vulnerability with the creative and imaginative aspects of the work?
MS: I don’t understand the question. Why would those things be separate or at odds?
SV: Autobiographical fiction isn’t respected in some quarters. In an essay titled “In Defense of Autobiography” for The Millions, novelist Jennifer Miller blames literary critics and MFA programs for giving this very old form a bad rap. So I guess my question is: if a writer is consciously bringing autobiographical elements into a novel, how does that writer a) shut out the critics during the writing process and b) make sure the work goes beyond memoir? Or the question itself still problematic, because the mostly white literary world doesn’t understand or value the lived experiences of writers who aren’t white men?
MS: “Autobiographical fiction” does seem to me most attributed to women and writers of color. One might say “accused of” instead of “attributed to.” There’s a long history of Asian American literature being read by literary critics as autobiographical fiction. Of course, any writer draws on the material of who she is.
There seem like a number of questions embedded here. Should a writer keep her critics in mind as she writes? I’m not sure. The writer is often the writer’s toughest critic. Yet the act of imagination–to imagine someone else’s critique–might help save a work from the author’s own biases. Perhaps. What does it mean to “go beyond memoir?” Does it mean a novel has more supposed worth than memoir? I don’t see that as the case, but I do understand the frustration with having one’s novel read as memoir. For me, those terms belong to the audience, not to the writer. Does the literary establishment value the lived experiences of people who aren’t straight cis white men? Yes, but either not as much or more than they think they do.
It’s interesting to me that all of these questions are webbed up together. Sometimes the difficulty can be trying to figure out what is being asked of you and/versus what one would ask of oneself.
You wrote a powerful piece for NPR’s Code Switch blog about diversity in the university writing workshop, titled “When Defending Your Writing Becomes Defending Yourself.” In that essay, you ask, “What happens when the workshop pits a person of color’s lived experience against a white perspective of how that experience should read on the page? For a writer of color, the defense of one’s work can quickly become a defense of the self.” You went on to explain how writers of color must choose between silence and what bell hooks calls a “killing rage” whenever the issue of race comes up. There are personal and professional costs to speaking up, and personal and professional costs to keeping quiet. Did you workshop portions of your novel? If so, how did you protect yourself in that process, and how did you protect your artistic vision of Tee, particularly from readers who didn’t bring a lived understanding of the Asian American or adoptee experience to the table?
I wasn’t able to protect my novel from the workshop. I feel very strongly now against workshopping novels in piecemeal. I don’t think it works, at least not in a traditional workshop. The short fiction workshops I’ve been in tend to read each piece of a story in terms of how it relates to the whole. Which is what we revise towards—making everything “count.” So if you don’t workshop the whole of the novel, the workshop eats it.
I didn’t even get far enough in novel workshop for my racial etc. experience to become the difficulty.
I always love reading an author’s acknowledgements. In The Hundred Year Flood, you thanked your editor at Little A, Vivian Lee, noting that it was “amazing to work with an Asian American editor on an Asian American novel.” A recent survey of publishing professionals found that the industry is overwhelmingly white and female, with Asians making up less than 8 percent of staff. How did this positive partnership with Lee come about?
Vivian says she stole it from Ed Park, whom I knew was at Amazon (at the time) and asked my agent to send to. Amazon was the one publishing house with an Asian American editor we sent to.
You’ve got a couple of books forthcoming, also from Little A: an essay collection titled Own Story, set for 2017 release, and The Murder of the Doppelganger, a new novel scheduled for 2018. Will you be working again with Vivian Lee on those titles?
The Hundred Year Flood took you a decade to write, but prior to its publication, you released a novel in flash fiction, a novella, and a collection of essays. Obviously some of these books came together more quickly than others. Given that you have deadlines for two books looming, I’m curious what experience has taught you about your own creative process. Have you developed an accurate feel for how long a particular book will take? Does the thought of spending a decade on some future book make you cringe, or are you open to letting a unique creative process unfold as needed for a particular work of art?
I wish I could tell how long it would take! I always feel like I do, but it hasn’t been my experience that I’ve been right about it. I’m deathly worried right now about getting my next novel in by its deadline. I would love to let the process unfold at its own pace, but that is a privilege you only acquire through privilege.
Sharon Van Epps is a Seattle-based freelance. Her work has appeared at Brain, Child, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Kitchn, On Parenting at The Washington Post, Motherlode at The New York Times, and many more venues. You’ll find her at: sharonvanepps.com