INTERVIEW: Matthew Salesses

Interview conducted by Kathy M. Bates

Transcribed by Melanie A. Wilson

In March, the University of Central Arkansas’s Spring 2023 artist-in-residence and internationally acclaimed writer and professor Matthew Salesses sat down with Arkana’s managing editor, Kathy M. Bates, to discuss writing craft, literary engagement, and influence.

Kathy M. Bates: Teaching, parenting, writing, editing, and all the interwoven hats you have to wear, how do you juggle all of these roles?

Matthew Salesses: I often don’t know. It just kind of happens. Things have to get done, and so they get done. I think a lot of it is about what we prioritize. I have to feed my kids. They have to eat. They have to get to school. Those things are going to have to happen either way, and then I try to make time to write and fill in the rest of the time as I can. 

KMB: Do you have a typical writing routine?

MS: Yeah, it changes. I think it can be helpful sometimes to train your brain to get into writing mode. Y’know, the way they say that before you go to bed, you should do the same three things or whatever. So, I light a candle and meditate for about 10 minutes, and then I drink coffee. Well, not actually in that order. I drink the coffee first. I write during the day after the kids are in school, so it’s probably about 9 o’clock. 

KMB: What’s your favorite thing about writing?

MS: You know, no one has actually asked me that before. I like revising. I like the puzzle of it. I like trying to figure out what I was doing in the first place and why I was doing it. It’s like moving things around.

KMB: What would you say was your most challenging project to complete and why?

MS: It was Disappear Doppelganger Disappear. I sold it on a partial, and I thought it would be great to take selling it off the table and feel less pressure then, but I ended up feeling a different kind of pressure when I realized that I had written the other books to try to sell them and now that goal was gone. So I had to find a different kind of goal, and it took me three or four years of writing and rethinking the entire book to figure out what it was I wanted to do and who it was for. A lot of stuff from Craft In the Real World came from that project. 

I started writing Disappear Doppelganger Disappear in 2011-2012, and it came out in 2021, so it took about ten years. 

KMB: What inspired you to write The Sense of Wonder?

MS: That inspiration comes from“Linsanity.” So, in 2012, I don’t know if you’ll remember this, but Jeremy Lin had this two-week rise into stardom, and I’d grown up wanting to play basketball, be a basketball player, and having no models for it, right? This was the first time I had ever seen an Asian American player in the NBA at all and then suddenly to become a big star. It was really amazing. I say this as a joke all the time, but I actually mean it very seriously that it was the best I had ever felt about America. It’s still probably the best I ever felt about America. 

So, when I was thinking about what to write next, I wanted to write about that kind of sense of wonder, that feeling of America going to be or being as good as it said it is. I kind of had this idea for what if instead of having an observer kind of looking at Gatsby, or the bigger-than-life character, if you switch it around. What if I just started with the Jeremy Lin type of character and looking at, talking about, and observing the side character? 

KMB: So, how do you think your writing process has changed from your first novel, The Hundred Year Flood to The Sense of Wonder?

MS: I’m not sure the process has changed that much. I think the writing has changed a lot, my sensibility, I think all kinds of things have changed, but the process is still basically, you sit there and think you’ve got something. You try to make your book match the thing you’ve got, then find out you didn’t have that thing, and then try it all over again. It’s still the same thing the whole time. 

KMB: So, the process stays the same, but what you seem to be putting in it craft-wise, that seems to change. So, would your advice for writers be that the journey never ends?

MS: Oh, the journey never ends. Hopefully. I think, ideally, you want to get into something where you never reach the destination because once you reach it, that’s the end of the fun. It’s over. 

KMB: In 2015, Buzzfeed named you one of 32 Essential Asian American Writers. Prior to this, you were already considered an asset to the literary community. Who are some of the writers that inspire you now? What are some of your go-to favorite stories for yourself or to share with others? 

MS: Alexander Chee is a favorite of mine, Maxine Hong Kingston, Michael Ondaatje, and Anne Carson. I tend to teach a bunch of these writers and then teach Justin Torres’s book a lot. I’m often looking for things that can teach a certain aspect of craft to my students but also be short and engage with the world as it is right now. Those are the things that I’m usually looking for in the classroom. I guess those are the writers that I look to, too, to read and reread. 

KMB: You mentioned engagement. With the contemporary literary landscape, how do current events or pop culture influence your writing? There is a timeliness to your projects.

MS: I think, sadly, most of the things that I write about will always be and have been for a long, long time be timely in this country. I don’t think we are going to see the end of racism anytime soon, or sexism, or ableism. I’m interested in the ways in which we live with these things, whether it’s through working on ourselves, or finding community, or telling stories. All of the above, really. Pop culture kind of comes in as a moment in time, but for me, I’m always thinking about it. There’s a history of these things that have always been a part of our country and the ways we live with it. 

KMB: How do you approach community necessity with your students?

MS: It’s hard sometimes. I think the students have to come to that for themselves, mostly. I talk about it all the time, but I get the feeling that students either come in ready to talk about those things or aren’t ready to talk about those things and become ready at some other point down the line. I’ve had students leave class and then a year or two later write me and say, ‘I just had all these realizations, and now all these things that we talked about in class are suddenly really clear to me.’ I think sometimes it’s about people being ready for it. So, I just try my best to talk about the relevance of creative writing in our everyday lives and talk about the world as a place that is built on stories, and hope that they are going to take that with them, and I hope that will impact them at some point in their lives if they haven’t already been impacted by it. 

KMB: Arkana is online and accessible on an international scale, working in and around the literary communities fueled by the impact and relevance of creative writing. In the classroom, we often talk about finding literary communities. As a creative writer and professor, can you discuss the importance of establishing and maintaining these communities?

MS: As a writer, I just tried to find the people who were writing what I wanted to read. I would contact those people and get in touch with them, meet them at AWP, just try to be a good person, if that was a friendship or just like a colleague or contemporary. I started it early enough that a lot of the people that I met when I was really trying to find people, now are my community of writers who are publishing a lot. We sort of came up together. 

In the classroom, I’m always trying to impart that upon my students, to let them know that the people that they are meeting now that are in the same stages of their careers will also be in later stages of their careers. So, you grow together and share information together. You apply to things together. You do all these things so that every time somebody has a success, it’s everybody’s success. 

KMB: How has your work and interaction with your students changed the direction of your writing?

MS: It’s made me think a lot about what kind of information I’m giving and how to give it. It’s made me think about the ways that I talk with them about being in conversation with other writers are things that I also think about or vice versa. I think a lot of the stuff in the classroom that I do came out of trying to work on Disappear Doppelganger Disappear, but also things that I was trying to do in the classroom to better serve my students ended up informing, y’know, trying to understand how to write the book, which I started as kind of a mystery, thriller, crime novel and then turned into a novel for a much smaller and different audience. I’m always trying to live it all together, so I’m not separating these different sides of my life off from each other.

KMB: What are you working on now? What’s next for you?

MS: I sold The Sense of Wonder with a memoir-in-essays. So, I’m working on trying to turn a bunch of older essays into something that’s more like a memoir. I’m also working on a novel about an Asian American revenge cult. I like revenge stories. I think they are really fun, and they are my favorite kinds of k-drama. I just want to write a revenge k-drama. 

KMB: I know many of us will be excited to see both of those! Thank you, again, for speaking with us.

Matthew Salesses is the author of eight books, most recently The Sense of Wonder (Little, Brown, 2023), the national bestseller Craft in the Real World (a Best Book of 2021 at NPR, Esquire, Library Journal, Independent Book Review, Chicago Tribune, Electric Literature, and others), and the PEN/Faulkner Finalist and Dublin Literary Award longlisted novel Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear. He also wrote The Hundred-Year Flood; I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying; Different Racisms: On Stereotypes, the Individual, and Asian American Masculinity; The Last Repatriate; and Our Island of Epidemics (out of print). Also forthcoming is a memoir-in-essays, To Grieve Is to Carry Another Time (Little, Brown).

Read more at his website:

Image Credit: edith lüthi (eluela31)