I FIRST MET Matthew Salesses in 2005, when we were both students in an Emerson College MFA Program workshop. I was struck not only by the fierce, strange beauty of Matthew’s fiction, but also by his lightning-sharp insights into the stories of his peers. So when Matthew spoke up in workshop, and when we exchanged drafts in the years after graduate school, I listened, and my work was better for it. My admiration for Matthew’s work — I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying; The Last Repatriate; Different Racisms; Our Island of Epidemics — deepens each time he puts a new thing into the world. I was lucky enough to be an early reader for his extraordinary latest, The Hundred-Year Flood, which will be published by Little A/Amazon Publishing in September and is the occasion for this interview, conducted over email during the month of August. This novel is sweeping, daring, lyrical, and haunting.
LAURA VAN DEN BERG: I was lucky enough to read The Hundred-Year Flood in the draft stage, and I was curious to hear you talk about the novel’s trajectory. How did this book come to be?
MATTHEW SALESSES: I started my book when I was living in Prague in 2004. I had no clue what I was doing either as a writer or as a person. I also had no clue what I was doing in Prague, or I was in Prague because I had no clue what else to do. It took me as long to figure out what I was writing as it took me to figure myself out. In my final edits, I spoke with another writer who told me he had to do therapy to figure out his book in his final edits. And I realized that what was haunting my protagonist, Tee, who is also a Korean adoptee, was what was haunting me. In 2004, I had no idea anything was haunting me. Then there was this strange moment where I realized I had always been writing a kind of love letter to my birth mother, without knowing it.
What about you? I remember a ghost ship that didn’t make it into your book. It’s a hard decision to cut something as awesome as a ghost ship, isn’t it?
Cutting a ghost ship is never easy, and, oh yes, I can totally relate to this. It took a lot of looking within for me too, not so much in terms of my own experiences but more like — what about this story is important to me? Could you talk a little more about how your own looking within informed your character Tee?
I always had this ending where Tee wants to know more about his birth mother, and that always seemed like the right ending to me, even though I didn’t really know why. The plot deals more with this American kid in an affair in a foreign country, in over his head, kind of mirroring the bad decisions his father has made in the past, wondering why he is doing so and who that mirroring makes him. Of course his birth mother is a part of that, but for a while I couldn’t really figure out why I clung to that ending.
At first the ending seemed to work well, but as I revised I found it lost a lot of its power. I struggled with trying to understand why. I even wrote other endings, but I kept coming back to versions of what is there now. It wasn’t until I actively thought about what I was hiding from myself, and — like you say — what was really important to me, that I realized I was holding onto the ending because it was my real darling. I know you like this thing Elisa Gabbert said about keeping your darlings and killing everything else. I didn’t kill everything else, but realizing how important the birth mother narrative was to me and to Tee, though he doesn’t admit it, helped me rework earlier parts of the book and focus everything better thematically. After that, the ending clicked again, even better than before. It had always felt right because it was right — I just wasn’t able to listen to what it was telling me because I wasn’t listening enough to myself.
The narrative of finding a mother, of wanting a mother, is one of the things I wanted to talk to you about. Joy grows up motherless and sees her mother first on TV, then sets off to meet her. What is it about these missing mother narratives? What makes them so compelling, and what made it compelling to you? You seem to have a great relationship with your mom. I’ve never met my birth mother, so that’s where a lot of it comes from for me.
I do have a good relationship with my mom. At the same time, there is a lot that feels unknowable in my family. I think this is probably true for all families, to varying degrees, but sometimes I feel plagued by the sense that a part of a person I’m close to is missing — not literally but in the sense that there are parts of their story one simply doesn’t have access to. That, and my own experiences encountering young women with proudly fractured memories, fueled Joy’s story.
Can you say more about “proudly fractured memories”? In general, I have an awful memory, and I always thought I couldn’t remember anything from before I was five. Yet recently I’ve been recalling this Korean exchange student who lived with my parents when they adopted me. They hardly ever talk about her, so she took on the weight of a secret for me. It felt like something illicit to remember her. She must have been burned into my memory as the only Korean face in a completely new country.
Of course. The condensed version goes: When I was a teenager, I was in a therapy group of young women, some of whom had endured truly horrific childhood traumas and had fragmented memories, or in some cases vast stretches of “lost time,” as a result. The conventional thinking was that they had to remember in order to heal, but of course there’s a real terror inherent in that process: Can I live with what’s uncovered? Not remembering was killing them, but remembering might kill them too. Their struggle was not my struggle — i.e., my memory is just fine except for when I do things like put my apartment keys in the freezer — but I’ll never forget witnessing it.
How has it impacted you, for some of those early memories to return? Do you think you would ever ask your parents about the exchange student?
One of the things you hear as an adoptee, whether directly or implicitly, is that some memories are better left unrecovered. But which ones? How you remember things that happened to you seems more influential in shaping who you become than what actually happened. I’m not sure I want to know what my parents would say about the exchange student. I know they had a difficult relationship with her.
Memory works this way in my fiction, too — I’m more interested in how a character remembers or imagines something, and when, and where, and why, than in what happened. The past should enter a story where it exerts the most pressure on the present, some wise writer said.
Was there a particular stretch of work on The Hundred-Year Flood that you found particularly challenging? How did you get to the other side?
I had some trouble with the beginning, and in the way that everything you change changes everything else, that caused me trouble with later parts of the book. It was hard to figure out how to navigate Tee’s confusion, emotionally and physically, while remaining clear. I wanted to write about the confusion I had felt in Prague, but it’s difficult to convey confusion without becoming confusing. One of the things I love/hate about the revision process, too, is how when you make one part better, suddenly you see how much worse other parts are. I eventually liked the beginning more than the rest of the book, which meant I had to go back and improve the rest, and then I liked those improvements more than the beginning, and so on. The satisfaction causing dissatisfaction and vice versa.
I too am really interested in writing about confusion and ambiguity, but as you say it’s so hard to write about muddle-ness with clarity. How did you find your way around that challenge in the end?
I hope I did. Can I ask how you did, first? It seems in some ways linked to the disease? For me, I think it can be linked to physical things too, like ghosts and micro-aggressions and fireworks shot down the streets instead of up into the air.
I am not sure I did do it! But I am trying, trying, trying. I like what you’re saying about linking to the physical. With Find Me, the memory-loss epidemic gave me a concrete means of exploring the holes in Joy’s memory, for sure. For a long time, the epidemic was more generalized, but as I focused more on memory I could feel the story begin to deepen and intensify. I think a lot about genre in this context; I’m interested in how one can use the solidity of genre to leap into the abyss.
I love what you’re saying about genre here. I’m working on something now that has a very confused narrator who has to solve the murder of an alternate version of himself. And I think that the genre of noir causes readers to expect certain things [AND YOU MAKE A TACTICAL DECISION WHEN TO] veer away from the familiar. In The Hundred-Year Flood, I tried to use physical details to make the defamiliarization concrete, as it can be when you’re traveling abroad, like how the cars are smaller or Americans sound louder. But I was also using the romantic arc to establish expectations. Really, I ran into a lot of resistance with people’s expectations of what a novel (and its characters) should look like. I think about how a novel, to steal a friend’s phrase, is a structural machine, and how if it is hitting certain expected notes at certain times, even if the way it’s hitting them is unexpected, a sense of familiar movement can give the book leeway for more defamiliarization in voice and time and so on.
That feeling of intensification you mention — I’m curious about that. Is that one way of guiding your revisions?
Yes, I think so. One lesson I got out of my process with Find Me was don’t hold on to stuff you feel “meh” about for too long. This is in line with what our wonderful former teacher, Margot Livesey, would tell us: if something is boring you, it is likely to bore a reader too. But once an element has been hanging around for a while, it can be hard to cut it for all kinds of reasons, and I spent too much time trying to massage characters and subplots that needed to be stricken from the record entirely. I’m working on a new novel project now, and my promise to myself is that when I get that “meh” feeling I will cut that shit and not look back. So learning to trust my own interest, which I associate with intensity, and to trust my own boredom too.
Speaking of intensity: The landscape of Prague is so richly evoked in The Hundred-Year Flood. What was it about Prague that grabbed you?
In America, we think of things as really old and rare if they’re a century old or so. In Prague, and in Korea, where I went afterward, you see buildings far older in regular use. They’re just the building next door to your apartment. Someone is stepping out of them for the day to go to mass in a cathedral built in the 1700s. Often in Prague, you can find several different periods of architecture on a single street. For an adoptee always dealing with a loss of the past, that constant presence of the past and the way people live with it and in it — and the way it has actually saved the city from invading armies who spare Prague as a monument — was full of potential significance.
We both deal with memory in ways that are linked to the external. Maybe that’s one strategy to use when exploring memory?
We also both teach, and that ineffable intersection between who we were as people and what we write is often something that gets left out of workshop conversations, which tend to focus on “craft.” Sometimes for good reason too — “Are You Aware of What’s Haunting You?” is a pretty tough question to ask or answer in workshop. But after a certain point those questions maybe matter more than anything else. Do you agree? Have you found ways to address those kinds of questions in the classroom?
I do this thing on the first day that I modified from an exercise I think you told me about at some point. I talk about vulnerability in our first class, because I think it is foundational. Anyone can take the stop of letting oneself be more vulnerable on the page, which can improve writing much more quickly than craft lessons. We talk about Amy Hempel’s great “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” which came from her teacher Gordon Lish’s prompt to write your worst secret, what “dismantles your sense of self,” and how that was Hempel’s first short story. Then I share three of my own secrets and I ask them to each write three of their own and we will pass them around anonymously, and someone else is going to make your secrets into a story. Often there is not enough distance yet for them to write their stories themselves, and I want to show them what distance looks like, and how fiction that is both distanced and vulnerable is powerful. There’s grumbling, but the stories that come out are often some of the best pieces I get the entire course. What do you do?
Oh wow, I love the secrets exercise — that’s fantastic.
I teach some essays that explore this kind of “intangible” material: “Not Knowing” by Donald Barthelme, “Where’s Iago?” by Susan Neville, “Telling Tails” by Tim O’Brien, Charles Baxter’s essays in Burning Down the House. So I’m often directing students’ attention toward the “intangibles” in one way or another. My aim as a teacher is to be able to talk about the presence of mystery with the same clarity that I could bring to a discussion of, say, how dialogue can work in a scene. And of course this stuff comes up in conferences too. A number of years ago I had a student, very talented, who wrote a sharply funny essay about failing her high school driving test. But it ultimately was a situation, to use the parlance of Vivian Gornick, and not a story; something essential was missing. In conference, I asked her why, out of all the things she could have written about, in the entirety of her life so far, she chose this? It turned out there was a major personal conflict lurking behind the driving test — none of which was on the page. It’s fascinating how, even though we intellectually understand that narrative thrives on conflict, we still hold much back in our work; we fight it. This goes back to what you were saying about vulnerability, it seems, and also risk.
Do you have any favorite books about confusion and vulnerability? Books that were important to you along the way?
Some of the books I like that deal with a certain kind of collision between individual confusion and collective confusion are Asian American books, like Native Speaker or No-No Boy or The Woman Warrior or Dictee.