Thu 28 Feb 2013
Matthew Salesses is a staff/faculty assistant at Harvard Kennedy School of Government working for the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality & Social Policy and a widely published young author. He also writes a column for the new online magazine The Good Men Project about being a new father. His novel, I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying is divided into small, easily digestible bits of flash fiction. Josh Denslow, staff editor at SmokeLong Quarterly asks him a few questions.
Josh Denslow: This might sound unbelievable (what with me being a writer and all), but after I read through your book a second time, I took an afternoon nap and had a dream that you and I were half-brothers. In the dream, it was very important that I track you down, but instead, I found your roommate who I knew to be having an affair with your other roommate’s father. None of this is even close to your real life, of course. I know you’re married and write a wonderful blog for The Good Men Project about being a new father. But the dream underscores the sneaky way your book burrowed under my skin. Why do you suppose that tension-filled familial relationships can be scarier than the most terrifying horror story?
Matthew Salesses: I’m most scared by the sudden appearances in scary movies—the cheap scare. So I couldn’t say. I’m most scared by dolls and skin disfigurement. I’m most scared by my own personal hang-ups—these things are probably far less frightening to other people than they are to me. Maybe that’s exactly what you’re saying, though, that the terror of the personal is the most lasting terror.
JD: I have a theory that readers will only like unlikable characters if that character dislikes himself. Were you ever worried about having a main character that some readers might find deplorable?
MS: I was just discussing this with a class I teach. Self-awareness seems key for the reader to be able to sympathize with an “unlikable” character. It helps if the character knows he’s imperfect. It’s like the way we want to be in on the joke, not the butt of it. I feel like a reader can feel assaulted by an unlikable character, if there’s no room for us between the character’s actions and his thoughts.
I was worried about having an unlikable narrator. I hope he’s dislikable, but not unlikable, if that makes sense.
MS: The book is so voice-driven, so ego-driven. It’s very much through the eyes of the narrator, and this is the way the narrator sees the other characters. When the relations are given in place of names, those labels are always in the forefront of the reader’s minds, and the relation between the characters is key to understanding the conflicts at play here, wifely instead of wife or girlfriend, or boy instead of son, or racial definition.
JD: Race and perception play a huge role in your book. The Boy is half white. The Asian Girl is the type of Asian that only white guys like. The White Woman is a borderline stalker. The Wifely Woman is the wrong kind of Asian for the main character’s parents to approve. Do you think these kinds of generalizations in our culture make people act in a way that is expected of them?
MS: Sure. Culture is a powerful force. And it’s hard to separate out the effect of culture from the effect of parents, peers, etc., since culture also affects your parents, peers, other people.
It’s probably obvious through a simple Google search that race and perception have had a huge influence on me. And inherent in that is expectations of culture and other outside forces. Those expectations get under your skin. It’s a very long and difficult and painful process to dig those things out of you and acknowledge that they are internalized, not internal.
JD: The novel is divided into small, easily digestible bits of flash fiction. Many of them can stand alone, but they achieve a kind of power when read together. Were these written in chronological order?
MS: They were written in three or four batches, except for the first story. I wrote about twenty in chronological order (to the end of a year). Then I wrote about 20 more, not continuing on from the end of that year, but selectively (and chronologically) filling in gaps. Then I wrote the rest in the same way, in a couple of gos. It’s still the story of that same one year that I started out writing. In revision, I reordered the chapters several times, so the chronology was changed then.
JD: After reading a few of these pieces on the internet, I wrote you and said: “Each one is like a fleck of skin from a living, breathing animal that never once stops moving as it plows through walls and dining room tables stacked with food and two lovers embracing. Or something like that.” That statement still makes very little sense, even to me, but there is a visceral quality to these stories that make me think things like that. And I stand by it! By focusing on these tiny moments, your book can pack punch after punch after punch. Do you think you could have told this story any other way?
MS: The way the story is told is part of the story, here a huge part. So I guess I would say: hopefully not.
JD: I’m obviously a huge fan and supporter. If I had a superpower, it would be to make a copy of your book magically appear in the hands of everyone. Until I can figure that out, Sundog Lit has a blog of writing inspired by your book. How’s that going?
MS: It’s amazing! I was lucky enough to recruit a great group of writers, and their interpretations of the cover or stories/essays/poems about best or worst pick-up lines is worth an entire other book. And it will be another book! We’re going to give it away to people who buy I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying. Hold onto your receipts.
Josh Denslow’s stories have appeared in Third Coast, Black Clock, Cutbank, Pear Noir!, and Wigleaf among others. He is a staff editor at SmokeLong Quarterly and an Associate Editor editor at Unstuck. He has written and directed five short films, and he plays the drums in the band Borrisokane.