Matthew Salesses was born in Korea and adopted at age two. He is the author of The Last Repatriate and Our Island of Epidemics. His new book, I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying, is forthcoming from Civil Coping Mechanisms in Feb 2012. You can find recent stories in Witness, Guernica, Quarterly West, Puerto del Sol, Hyphen Magazine, and others. Matthew edits fiction and writes a column for the Good Men Project.
Five pieces from his book I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying appear in Issue Thirty-Five of The Collagist.
Here, Matthew Salesses speaks with interviewer Joseph Scapellato about the arts of composition, revision, and distance.
1. Where did these five pieces begin for you, and how did they get to here?
I think one of these, “Good Thing She Had Money,” was a part of my original manuscript of about twenty less-than-one-page stories. The book these are from, I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, is 115 pieces that make a novel about a man whose illegitimate son shows up, surprise, when his mom is dying. The man has commitment issues, shall we say. I started with one story, the first story in the book, and maybe a year later, when I was looking for a new project to keep my mind off the frustrations of novel-revision, I thought of that story and how I had never felt done with that character and situation and voice. Especially voice.
I ended up writing twenty more or so, then sent those out to a few places. The Lifted Brow asked if I had 20 they might sprinkle throughout an issue. I said, I could. I wrote twenty more. As a way of generating the stories, I was using objects around my house and trying to incorporate them. Objects are something I think are very important to fiction, but that I often overlook until later drafts. In “Good Thing She Had Money,” the object was just a bed. I was trying to turn sentences around, trying to make each sentence close to a journey of its own.
With about 40 pieces, I had a chapbook manuscript. I sent it one place and was told it was too short. For a while, I left it there, waiting for submission periods to open. Then Civil Coping Mechanisms wrote asking if I had a book. I said, I could. They wanted 120 pages, so I had to write a lot more. Anyway, there was still a lot of room for the story to grow. And I was still addicted to that voice, to what I was trying to do with those stories. And I also liked the idea of a novel of these tiny pieces. My thanks to Michael Seidlinger—without him, this would never have been a book.
The other four stories were written in this later period, filling in gaps while trying to maintain gaps.
2. I love the decision to not designate these pieces as “shorts” or “short shorts” or “flashes”—here, they appear as “five from I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying.” For me, this hints at how they “belong together,” at how they tell a larger story. Can you talk a little about your decision to leave these pieces designation-less?
I’m actually very unsure about what to call the pieces, which is why I try not to designate them. They’ve all been published as fiction, but I’m not even sure they’re more fiction then poetry, or at least what poetry I can make. It is important to me how they fit together. But it is also important to me that they can stand apart.
Though I think I like them more as a whole and that I was thinking a lot as I wrote about how attrition works in fiction, how little by little, something can lodge in your heart.
3. These pieces are rich in mystery. Compelling distances expand and collapse between the characters: the boy seems to be as far away from his mother as he is from the narrator and the woman; the narrator refers to the woman not as “wife” or “fiancé” or “girlfriend,” but more mysteriously as “the wifely woman.” What role do you think distance plays in evoking mystery? (In evoking relationships?)
Distance, I suppose, is what I’m calling “gaps” above. I think it’s important not to tell a reader everything. Most writers would agree with that, I’d bet. I’m more likely to take that idea too far than not far enough. I like for readers to draw their own connections.
There was this study I heard about once, where people were shown a drawing that wasn’t fully completed, though they could fill in what was missing in their head. What was missing was obvious. This stressed people out, not having it finished. It made them really want to fill in the gaps. I guess I think this is a good thing: that unsettledness, that desire to complete the image. It means your mind is working. I like leaving the gaps a little wider, so that the drawing isn’t so obvious, so that people still want to fill in the missing pieces but can do so with their own images as much as with what is there.
4. To what degree are these pieces representative of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying? I’d love to hear about how they do/don’t “fit” with the work as a whole.
These pieces are just one small thread in the story. In the way that they talk about accepting the boy (or not) into the “family,” they are representative. A lot of the book is about this transition, and the effects of this transition on the narrator. There are a few threads that aren’t represented here (or at least as fully): like race, infidelity, “goodness,” commitment, owning who you are.
5. You recently finished up a wonderful stint as Writer-in-Residence at Necessary Fiction. In your second post, you write: “Here’s the selfish reason I wanted to do a Revision Month. I wanted other people’s knowledge.” After soliciting so many thoughts on revision—and sharing your own—how have you “revised” your personal understanding of revision?
I haven’t revised it so much as edited it. I’ve learned things. But I still believe what I believed before about revision, that it is where you do the work. That people need to know more about it then they are given in workshops, yet that it can be taught.
6. What writing projects are you working on right now? (The novel that you mentioned during your residency?)
I am working on a novel, yes, currently titled, The Artist’s Model, though it has had several other titles. It’s about an American who goes to Prague and gets in an affair with the wife of a famous artist. It’s set in 2002, when a major flood swept through Prague and destroyed a section of the city, Karli'n, in which the American and the wife are trapped.
I’m also working on a book about adoption, with an adoptive father, a conversation of sorts, that I hope will be of use to people confused about how adoption defines them. I’m confused.
The revision posts may also become a book, perhaps. We’ll see if anyone wants that.
Then there’s a story collection. I’m stretched pretty thin.
7. What knock-out writing have you been reading recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?
I am glad you asked this. I’ll recommend some books by Korean American writers, since people don’t read enough Korean American writers. I can’t recommend more highly Forgotten Country, by Catherine Chung. I also very much enjoyed Don Lee’s new book, The Collective. Jay Caspian Kang is coming out with a novel soon, The Dead Do Not Improve. I’ll actually be writing about Asian American authors for a new magazine, ALIST, that looks to be something important and special in a difficult landscape for minorities.