I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying: An Interview with Matthew Salesses

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Matthew Salesses is the author of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying and The Last Repatriate. He was adopted from Korea at age two and has written about adoption, race, marriage, and parenting for The New York Times Motherlode blog, The Good Men Project, The Rumpus, Hyphen Magazine, ALIST Magazine, and others. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, Witness, American Short Fiction, West Branch, and elsewhere.

You’re currently tumbling a novel about adoption and your experiences in Korea. What motivated you to do this?

My wife and baby are in Korea right now, and I’m lonely. I’m also concerned about my daughter, how parental absence affects kids, and whether this will affect her, too, or is only an issue of mine.

Your work seems very concerned with Korean identity, adoption, and displacement, perhaps especially that last one. How important is cultural identity to your work?

Vulnerability is important to me. Those are the things, or some of them at least, that show me at my most vulnerable, and when I explore those things, I feel like I am coming closest to representing true emotion, in the particular way that I can represent it.

Tell me about the structure and style of I’m Not Saying, I’m just Saying. The Last Repatriate was, structurally, much more classical and had a wider lens, but I’m Not Saying feels narrower, more focused.

The story I was telling in The Last Repatriate—which includes war, torture, PTSD, love and heroism—seemed very cinematic to me, so I tried to use a cinematic lens. With I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, I’m trying to tell a story that’s less about America, perhaps, and more about the fringes of America, a story that’s less about a time and place and more about voice, a sensibility, and language in conflict with America at large. That probably also factors into the briefer bursts, the less continuous passages, attempts to capture attention when you don’t have the kind of life or skin color or self-confidence represented in mainstream culture.

I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying is about adoption and being a Korean American, which are topics near to you, yet it’s narrated in a very emotionally closed way. Why did you approach the novel in this way?

It wasn’t a conscious decision, though I could say something to explain it by positioning the Korean American as an outsider, like the above. Truthfully, I started with the voice. If it seems right to me that an emotionally closed-off voice might be the voice of someone who has had to battle that outsider status from birth, and hasn’t yet realized that battle in himself, perhaps that goes into it. But I didn’t choose to write an emotionally closed-off narrator. That voice came naturally from (or maybe more accurately: with) those issues.

The narration, for me, was the most distinct things about I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying. And probably I should’ve described it as distant rather than emotionally closed off, because I do think it illustrates a distance, or maybe disconnect, that’s grounded in being an outsider. Do you typically begin with a voice and let that dictate the story or is it more of a case by case thing? I guess this is a question about process so I’ll just ask it plainly: What is your writing process? Your habits?

It is case by case, but the voice is always there very early on in the process, if not from the very beginning. The voice guides everything: from word choice to the decisions the character makes (plot) in a 1st-person narration. It sets the tone, establishes the pace, turns on the atmosphere, contains many of the rules of the story, makes promises to the reader.

If you’re asking how do I sit down at the computer—is that more process?—then usually I have to spend enough attention elsewhere first that I feel forced by inner conflict to start writing at last. Hopefully some of that inner conflict gets on the page. I hope this doesn’t mean I need to be so self-conflicted to concentrate.

I think every artist has some emotion or context or moment in their life that allows them to express themselves in a more full way. Would you say vulnerability drives your fiction? If not, then what?

I’m not sure vulnerability doesn’t drive all good fiction. What is it that assignment Gordon Lish used to give: write about the moment that dissembled your sense of yourself? That emotion or context or moment, if that’s what helping expression, I’d bet that’s an emotion or context or moment born of or containing or under the circumstances of vulnerability.

What are your top five books at this moment?

Ever? Or at-this-moment reading?

Ever:

Gatsby, Housekeeping, The English Patient, Norwegian Wood, The Alexandra Quartet

Or at-this-moment reading:

Here are three recent books that should have won all the awards: Forgotten Country, All Is Forgotten Nothing Is Lost, The Instructions. Also, recent for me: Bluets, Florida.

What or who has had the greatest influence on your fiction?

Reading.

The cover for I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying is awesome. Did you have any input there?

I put it in my contract! I actually wrote the image into the book—one of the chapters can be read side by side with the image, and another refers back to that earlier chapter. But I fell in love with this image long before, when I was editing Redivider and was looking for cover images. It didn’t seem right for the journal, but I kept it on file for years before I finally wrote something that fit it, or maybe it had already wormed its way into the narrative without me even noticing.

Either way, that image was my one main “demand” when I signed up with CCM.

It makes perfect sense to me that the image would seep into the novel, as your writing is very visual. The Last Repatriate is especially cinematic in that sense but that vivid imagery exists in your short story for The Way We Sleep as well as here, in I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying. How important to you is imagery? Or, for me, the image exists before the characters, plot, and anything else, but how important is the image to your writing?

I like to start with voice, but I think imagery is part of voice. I think of Marilynne Robinson talking about how she kept a notebook full of images, and then one day saw that they were all related, and wrote Housekeeping. I’m summing up, obviously. But images are specific to a book, a voice, and the connections between those images is the kind of plot that I am drawn to.

Do you listen to music while you write? If so, any specific artists/genres? Who were you listening to while writing I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying?

I need silence to write. I sometimes listen to music to revise, but only the kind of music that I don’t have to listen to and is only background noise, or rather a wall between me and other background noise.

Which artists, past or present, inspire you the most?

Amy Hempel, Anne Carson, Alice Munro. Those are some A’s. The list goes on. I’ve often thought the perfect writer would be some love-child of Amy Hempel and Alice Munro’s, though, that attention to detail and sentences and that sweep and structural surprise.

When you were in Korea, did you love soju for the first week and then promise to never drink it again?

I had one terrible night early on where I couldn’t gauge how much alcohol is in a shot (it’s that weird middle zone of twenty percent) and blacked out and lost my wallet/got it stolen. Though the next day, hungover so badly I could barely function, might have been the start of my relationship with my wife.

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edward j rathke is the author of Ash Cinema published by KUBOA Press (2012) as well as various short stories online and in print. He writes criticism and cultural essays for Manarchy Magazine, and edits and contributes to The Lit Pub. More of his work may be found here.

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