An Interview With Matthew Salesses

Matthew Salesses is an editor, teacher, and writer of nonfiction and fiction. During Matthew’s Idyllwild Arts visit, Parallax editors spoke with him about his writing style and the process of writing I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying.

Q: What was the process of writing a novel in flash fiction like? How does it compare to writing a traditionally styled novel?

 

A: I was writing the book, a flash fiction book, as a kind of side project next to writing The Hundred Year Flood. I had been working on The Hundred Year Flood for seven years at that point, and it just seemed interminable–I had to do something that was going to end soon. I had been asked to contribute one flash story to a series of flash fiction posts on a website called jmww, so I sent a first chapter as a stand alone. When I was getting tired of the The Hundred Year Flood, and had to write something else, I had to think about what I had to work on, and remembered that first chapter was unfinished. I started writing more one page stories with the same character. When I had about twenty, I started sending them out in chunks. One magazine asked for twenty of them. The original twenty had already been accepted so I just wrote twenty more and sent them those. Then I had forty. Then my publisher asked for a novel. So I had 40 of those chapters and they asked me to write 120 of those chapters for them to look at. I wrote another 100 for them.

 

Q: Did that affect your sense of narrative?

 

A: Yes. Because each one of them was a standalone, you could take any one of them out, and hopefully they could stand as a small story. I had enough movement in each of them. And when I was going back and trying to figure out how they’d fit into a larger narrative, I started looking at how those movements added up to a greater movement. I spread them out on the floor. My daughter was a baby at the time and would want to walk all over them, so my wife had her go up into a separate room. I was moving around the stories by hand.

 

Q: Was the revision process more difficult because each piece is a stand alone, but still only one part of an entire story line?

 

A: I would write one every morning when I got to work, and was doing so by looking at my surroundings. I’d find a single object, write it into the stories (so that I had something to kind of anchor the piece), and then I would spend the night revising it. The thing about them being so short, is that you can do them quickly. I was basically doing one a day, everyday. And when I sold the book, I had to look at them as a whole so I could find a bigger arc to the story. I just repeated too much. I was explaining things multiple times for the sake of the story’s arc. I didn’t need all those. I cleaned language for just the book itself.

 

Q: Do you usually use objects or metaphors as the basis for your characters?

 

A: No, not usually. I like to set myself little challenges. When I was doing a flash story, I was thinking, can I do this all in one paragraph stories based off of everyday objects? I don’t usually do that.

 

Q: Do you find that challenges make for a better story?

 

A: I don’t know what is better, but I think taking a challenge is more interesting. I think if you think of writers who write basically the same thing over and over again, it doesn’t seem that fun.

 

Q: Did you use aspects of your own life to help the storyline of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just saying develop? Is any of it nonfiction?

 

A: Almost none of it is nonfiction. What I did use was the fact that my daughter was so young and I had a fear of how she would grow up, but I think pretty much everything else was all made up. I was using my fears in a kind of ‘what if’ situation. Like what if your kid shows up one day, and they’ve been formed by your absence. For me, parenting is a lot about how your child comes out perfect, and then you try very hard not to screw her up. There is this sense that there’s a point where she will get screwed up and how do you help that?

 

Q: Many of your flash fiction pieces are very poetic. What determined which pieces leaned more towards prose poetry than flash fiction? Did it depend on what part of the storyline the piece was focused on?

 

A: I think of them all as mostly fiction. They could all be prose poetry I suppose. I wasn’t trying to make some more poetic than others, although there was the list that might be more prosaic. What probably makes them seem more poetic is that they’re operating on the same level of sentence, and that’s what I was trying to do with all of them, to have the plot happening in each sentence, one that starts in place and goes until the end of it.

 

Q: Why did you call it I’m Not Saying, I’m Just saying?

 

A: I thought it was funny. I had that title as one of pieces. It makes me think of this story “Dogs I Have Known,” which is all centered around dogs. Each section is about a different dog that the narrator has known in his life, and one section that anchors the piece and is about dogs in general. Dogs don’t have anything to say except “I have things I need to say!” Maybe that’s what I was thinking about. That the narrator didn’t have anything to say except to say something. There’s a lot stuff built in around that.

 

Q: Why did you choose to only use nicknames like, “the wifely woman” instead of real names?

 

A: I wanted to be really close to the narrator’s head, but also I think that the length or the brevity really means that you have to characterize people more quickly, and names don’t do that much characterization work. They do a little, but I feel like the name of the relation does a lot more. Like “mother” does a lot more for the relationship than “Joan.” Mother plays on archetypes. So the ‘wifely woman” is kind of playing on what a wife is and cultural conceptions. The narrator is trying to think of the boy as a son; it didn’t seem right to call him the son.

 

Q: Do you find that your voice resembles the style used in I’m Not Saying I’m Just Saying, as well as other pieces? Or did you particularly develop the voice for the narrator in I’m Not Saying I’m Just Saying? (Do you vary your style?)

 

A: Yeah I do, I think it’s very good for me to change it up. I also think it’s harder, like right now I’m working on a novel with a very different voice. A very disaffected narrator. The novel itself is a lot about voice, so I feel like I need a lot of time developing it before I can work on the book. It requires a lot headspace, which I don’t really have right now. Which is why I keep throwing pages out.

 

Q: Would you classify yourself based off of your voice or based off of your content?

 

A: I don’t know. I think the content is more consistent. There’s a lot about parenting, adoption, race, masculinity. I think that’s usually how I’m characterized.

 

Q: When and why did you start writing?

 

A: I wrote a book about the sting ray who wanted to find the shine of his teeth in elementary school. My teacher, who was a great teacher, said that I didn’t write description well. I still don’t write description well. But it was always something that stuck with me, something for me to be like “I’ll show you.” I think she knew what to say to me. Why did I become a writer? In part I think it’s kind of the same as what I often write about. What is one way of learning to be who you are in a world that doesn’t value that? Writing has been a large part of that for me.

 

Q: How does your culture affect your writing?

 

A: I’m often writing characters who are very far from accepting who they are, whether or not they even know who they are. And that’s an experience that seems very close to mine. I get this feeling that the great American arc is denial. It’s this person who refuses to accept whatever is the truth and that’s an experience that resonates very strongly with me and my history.

Wednesday

Grace Meyer’s piece depicts the melancholic demise of a friendship.

 

Ten o’clock is too late at night to meet for a date,

but our young hands ache from pencils and

TV dinners told us we should be together.

 

We walk to the The Oriental Pearl,

where a quiet raisin of a woman

serves us a sleepy bowl of rice.

 

We sit silently as rain slides down the windows.

The waitress wants to go home to her soap operas.

I think about kissing another boy, maybe a girl.

 

You tell me you don’t think things are working out:

I’m distant, we both deserve better,

your dad is hounding you about baseball.

 

You slowly put on your wet coat, smile at me with pity.

I stare at droplets of spilled tea on the waxy wood.

They look like the shapes of continents undiscovered.

 

 

Grace Meyer is a junior at Brookline High School in Brookline, Massachusetts. She won a Fine Arts Award for Creative Writing from Interlochen Center for the Arts. When she is not writing she enjoys running, baking, and photographing her dog. 

 

Art by Holli Shelton.

Tonsillectomy

This poem, by Farah Ghafoor, explores synthetics in processes and personality.

see, you were a doctor.

see, I was a virus, a tumor, an obstacle

to your breathing, swallowing and

suctioned to you with a surplus of pixie dust

(but of course, you didn’t know that

because magic isn’t real, right?)

 

see, an atheist told me that eyes

really are windows to the soul, so I scrubbed

your irises with antiseptic until they gleamed

but it seems that I forgot to clean my own.

I found something rather undesirable

and slipped through your optic nerve.

 

see, I almost forgot about the whole “soul” part

and found a home in the crevices of your gyri.

sure, it was deep and it was dark

but you taught me the surgeon’s alphabet

in anagrams in order to whisper pretty things

that people seem to worry about.

 

see, around here people have tasted pluots

and glycerin and roses in your throat.

all I found were dead ends

in hidden caves, deep inside cavities.

all I found was a uvula never belonged to me.

 

so now whomever you Hollywood-smile at

will see me here: attached to the back

of your mouth, hanging like sour apples

and growing only the best remedies.

 

 

Farah Ghafoor is a fifteen year old poet and a co-founder/editor at Sugar Rascals. She lives in Canada where she enjoys smelling perfume samples and thinks she deserves a cat. Her work is published or forthcoming in Alexandria Quarterly, alien mouth, Really System, Moonsick and elsewhere.
Art by Heidi Li.

The First Real Funeral

Emma Crockford explores the connection between mourning and childhood, through the alluring analogy of snake skin.

You grieved for the skin we found stuck to the sidewalk;

not knowing the garden snakes were only molting,

like boys running towards the water, their elbows popping out of T-shirt sleeves.

 

At nine and a half in dress up clothes on basement steps, we held mass like Priests.

Wearing Father’s ties, you wrote eulogies for everything that tasted like tragedy.

We learned to mourn on Saturday mornings, in bare feet with dirty hands,

planting tulip bulbs upside down in Mother’s garden.

 

I am buttoning my black coat to my chin, standing in the kitchen,

feeling your silence on my skin.

I am at the corner of your grief, and you are

somewhere in the middle of its country,

in the middle of his absence,

small again.

 

At night, I wake up and I am close enough for a minute

to hear the boys, sixteen, and calling to the shore

The night they raced to the water.

I dig my feet into the cold sand and watch them

spitting salt water from their cheeks.

Children with sunburns peeling down their backs.

Sea snakes, shedding their skin.

 

 

 

 

Emma Crockford is currently a sophomore at Rising Tide Charter Public School in Massachusetts. Her interests include goats that look like old men, and dogs that look like their owners. In the summer of 2014, Emma was the recipient of Stonehill College’s advanced studies program for teen’s Creative Writing Award. In 2015, She was chosen to attend the Grubstreet Young Adult Writer’s Fellowship. She is the founder and editor of her high school newspaper. Emma’s work has appeared in The Noisy Island, Teen Ink’s Print Magazine, and Grub Street’s Fellowship Anthology.

Art by Fiona McDonald

A Conversation with Kelly Luce

Parallax editors sit down with Kelly Luce to discuss writing, publishing, and her latest book: “Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail”

What themes did you plan to explore before you started writing, and which ones cropped up naturally?

The themes in the collection curate themselves. A story collection is difficult to put together in the same way as a you would novel, because you want everything to feel connected while still being distinctive stories. When I started the collection, I didn’t know it was a collection, so I wasn’t purposefully trying to explore any specific themes, as you would with a book. I was just writing a ton of stories at the time, trying to see if I could succeed at it. I noticed that a lot of the stories took place in Japan, so I started putting my writing energy into that setting, where I lived and worked for three years. Something about my distance from Japan, for about four years at that point, allowed me see my experience there as an expat, or a foreigner living in a new place. Culturally, it was super interesting to learn about the food and mythology, but it was overwhelming to process while I was there, so the distance helped me refine it. 

A few people I knew died during the period while I worked, so themes of loss and grief naturally appeared in the collection. I also wrote stories during the period that had nothing to do with Japan, that the editors found not to fit. Curation is more of an editorial process. Publishers will take your pile of stories and order them, or take pieces out that don’t seem to flow with the others.

What do you think are the most important aspects of Japan in your writing?

The experience of being an outsider is very interesting to me. I grew up in a very homogeneous place. Everyone in my high school was white like me, and I never had too much experience with diversity. My years living in Japan really allowed me to experience the opposite of that.

But Japan itself is still a very homogeneous place. They have a saying: the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. In America, we really pride ourselves for standing, but in Japan, it’s the opposite. There, you just fit in, otherwise, you’re out. A lot of Japanese friends I met talked about the pressure of fitting in, and I thought that was a really interesting aspect of character. It was a fertile place for me to imagine the different battles a character would come up against in Japan.

How has your degree in cognitive science influenced your writing?

There are topics in the field that led to major topics in my writing, because I learned a lot about how memory functions. It’s not that different from writing fiction because both fields ask questions about humanity. Fiction is about creating, while cognitive science is an experiment in creation, which is a part of how emotion functions in the brain. They both come at human truth from opposite ways, but it’s the stuff in the middle draws me to both. The things like the amorameter, that measures love, are super fun to write about. That device seems crazy but people are researching it for real.

I’m actually crappy at science. I ran this experiment about music emotions and memory, and I fudged my data and changed it to tell a better story. Maybe that’s a better way of approaching fiction.

When did you start writing?  What was your first professional opportunity as a writer?

Since I was a kid, I wrote stories. I loved reading, so I wanted to create something just as powerful. For my 11th birthday I wanted a typewriter, and since then, I’ve written a number of books.

I had written for fun in my twenties and decided to send some stories to magazines for publication. I thought I would get rejected, but 5 months later, one got published in the Gettysburg Review, a story called “Ash,” which is in the new collection.

 

What advice would you give to young writers?

Read a shit ton! Read widely, and read stuff that you might not like: non fiction, or about cognitive science, or music, or history. The wider your net, the more material you have to draw from when you go to write your own.

Always carry a notebook and train yourself to write every day, even if it’s just a few lines.

Practice noticing what people say and the sounds you hear: usually great lines can relate to some great story. Become a trained observer of life.

Don’t worry about publishing yet. It shouldn’t be your only goal, because it takes so long.

Now that we have so many websites for publishing young writers, there are a lot more opportunities, but don’t get suckered into paying contest fees!

If you send it anywhere, revise it 10 more times than you think you need to. It always feels great to be done, but what seems done to you, an editor will think is not quite there yet.

That’s the hardest lesson I had to learn; don’t send work out too early. An editor won’t read it ever again.

My Childhood Essence

This poem by Calli Hilvitz identifies the relationship between growing up and traumatic experiences.

It happens in screenshots

The screams

The shouts

Next is the reaching

Reaching high

Wide

Down

Up

Around

Stretch until you can’t reach anymore

Then standing

Awaiting the sound you have always listened for

Then you hear it

And you jump

As far as you possibly can

And straighten out-

You are in the air for seconds

But you have enough time to think,

What happens when I hit the water?

Then it happens before you decide on an answer

Then it’s silent-

Absolutely silent.

The only thing you have

Is the air in your lungs,

Your arms stretched above you,

And the bubbles of course.

And you know that when you break the surface

The air is your only ally.

 

Calli Hilvitz is a senior at Peak to Peak Charter School where she is currently working on poetry in her Literature and Composition Class.

Art by Audrey Carver.

Melon Groves

In this poem, Segolene Pihut explores the interchangeability of terrain and relationships through the physicality of the human body.

melon groves, boyo. rows of young boys, backs exposed like the inner sliver of a green bean, hacking and picking away in the steaming soil.

 

  1. for real
  2. magnetized by high eyes
  3. treat me my body; a full mountain expanse
  4. drawing arrows down
  5. i am an epitome of forlonging
  6. dullness in my muscles
  7. as a stinging shower
  8. heat on skin
  9. how can you demand control
  10. blossoming oranges
  11. thank you for the way your wet mouth rolls over them
  12. we are the grinning acquaintances on your ascent in hell’s mountains.

 

Segolene Pihut is a senior at Idyllwild Arts and she is majoring in creative writing. She is the poetry editor for Parallax and loves dogs. 

Art by Noah Jones

An Interview With J. Robert Lennon

Parallax staff members talk writing and strange, short fiction stories with J. Robert Lennon.

J. Robert Lennon is the author of Pieces for the Left Hand.  He lives in Ithaca, New York, where he teaches at Cornell university.

Although his book Pieces for the Left Hand is fiction, the journalistic tone makes it read as nonfiction. In one hundred anecdotes, the narrator walks us through life in a small town in upstate New York, revealing the unsettling and strange in everyday life: questioning memory through a boy’s false recollection of his father’s chopped-off fingers, measuring loneliness by a deceased mother’s collection of teabags, exploring the bizarre tragedy of students trapped in a water pipe. Through these anecdotes inspired by the fictional narrator’s daily walks through town, Lennon adds an eerie yet philosophical layer to the flatness of everyday life. Parallax staff members Linnea Zagaeski and Evan Lytle discussed the writing life over email with Lennon.

“What inspired you to write this collection of short stories?”
When I started writing this book, I had a toddler, and my childcare “shift” coincided with his naps. He didn’t sleep for long—maybe half an hour—so I started thinking about writing projects that I could accomplish in that small amount of time. I wrote a few of these and liked them enough to do a whole book.
Why did you choose the story “Lefties” to base your title off of? Are you yourself left handed?
Yes, I am! I’ve always found the rhetoric about lefties being special to be kind of silly, so I decided to write a story about that.
Why did you write the introduction in third person? What effect did you want it to have?
My editor suggested that—she thought it would be interesting to frame the stories somehow. The character who narrates the stories isn’t me; he’s older and has a different kind of life. It took me 20 stories or so to understand this, actually. In the end, I almost think of this book as a novel about a guy who writes 100 stories.
Are some of these entries directly from a personal journal or diary, or based on true stories encountered personally or through friends?  If so, what was the process of developing them into fictional anecdotes like?  Are any of the anecdotes nonfiction?
They are all fiction. About half of them are inspired by details from my actual life, but I pushed them into fiction from there. “The Mad Folder” is the closest thing to nonfiction, I guess, though it really isn’t. Some of the stories are inspired by local news articles. In general, the fiction came in when I thought, “Hmm, wouldn’t it have been funnier if it worked out this way instead?” I don’t keep a journal or diary, for some reason.
Walking is introduced as part of the narrator’s writing process in the introduction to Pieces for the Left Hand.  There is a long history of writers who found walking integral to their creative process (Thoreau, Wordsworth, Joyce, Woolf, Stein, etc.), and recent studies reveal the benefits of walking for one’s creativity. What kind of role did walking play in your creative process as you worked on Pieces for the Left Hand?  Did you always see walking as integral to this narrator’s storytelling, or did you develop that idea after you had already started writing the anecdotes?
I walk a LOT. Like, four or five miles a day, when I have time. My head is pretty cluttered and I am extremely emotional and the walking calms me down and lets me think. Once I realized that the stories were being written by a character who was not me, I imagined him walking around near his house, which was not my house. Although, oddly, some years after the book was published, I moved pretty much into the house where he lives.
What kind of relationship do you want your reader to have with the narrator?
Oh geez, I don’t care. I suppose I intend for you to mostly like him but be a little skeptical of his motives, his judgments.
Did you want to raise certain questions with this work? If so, what kind of questions?  What questions were raised for you either while writing or when you went back through the collection?
No, I was pretty much doing this automatically, without any themes in mind. I imposed the sections later.
How many drafts did you go through on average for each anecdote?
Two or three. A few popped out just about how they ended up in the book. Some I had to really work over. Once I had the voice going, though, I could crank them out pretty efficiently.
Did you have any more anecdotes that you cut out during the editing process?  Why did you decide to organize them into the seven sections that appear in the book?
There were maybe ten more? Most of them were at the beginning, when I didn’t have the voice down yet. Once I had the voice, I didn’t write any rejects. My editor, again, told me to break it into sections. My original idea was the same idea that the 1980s post-punk band The Minutemen had for their most famous album, Double Nickels on the Dime: they should be read at random. (Now, in the digital era, you can shuffle the Minutemen album as they intended!) But my editor favored a little more organization. I still have mixed feelings about that, but it did enable me to write those little extra-short stories that introduce each “chapter.” Those were really fun to think up.
By the way, I play music as a hobby, and recorded an accompanying album of 100 really short songs, which is out there on the Internet. Also, I once recorded a cover of a song your teacher wrote. Your teacher is an awesome songwriter.
Thank you for reading my book!

When The Wise Man Speaks

Grace Vedock explores the conflicting drive of creative passion and its often exhausting nature in this piece.

I don’t mind sleepless nights
utterly unmanageable
afraid of drowning in
piping hot cups of coffee

So wind me up, watch me go
seventy-five down the metro
and moving from predator to prey
has not been easy, but natural

Rather mindful indeed, and not
an ounce of shame to show
proud and pearly whites
or matte black silhouettes

I’d play for you if I could
the melody of a thousand notes
the key change of a single song
if I mustn’t choke back
the fear (a dangerous
concoction when mixed
with passion)

To this day, I am
convinced that
He sang it better.

Executive entanglement, I’d like
to say, yet words fail me;
you belong on the couch
feet on top of mine;
tucked, frightened, and ready to run

The yellow pencil trembles
while I grasp it
I beg to communicate
a foreign and mental narrative
Pen for me not ten verses, but one.
The scraps of memories that live
in the darkest corners
and compartmentalized
into the ephemeral seasons

When pure bliss was mine,
I didn’t know.
Brilliant ideas rarely appear
in the “comfort zone”

But who you are is not
who I want you to be-
you belong to the people
who love you
hopelessly lost
in the labyrinth
of life

When you took a shot
at change, it worked.
You transform the intolerable
into the sentimental,
much like everything else:
Ideas that didn’t die.

 

By Grace Vedock

Grace Vedock is an aspiring poet. When she isn’t finishing her schoolwork, Grace enjoys looking to outside sources of inspiration for writing. Throughout her high school career, poetry and literature have been of great interest to Grace. On her own time, she decided to study and begin to write poetry. A handful of her poems have been published, most notably by Crashtest Magazine and The Noisy Island. She has an acute desire to share her poetry with the young readers and writers of the world.

Artwork by Sumin Seo.

I’ll Sing to Both

Sophie Coats explores the intimacy of music and family memories in her poem, “I’ll Sing to Both”.

 My father dances to women
singing jazz, black birds and blue
jays. I dance to the sound of his
footsteps and stand on his black
 
penny loafers. We don't talk
about my parents' childhoods except
for Midwest winters, but I wonder if they played
jazz on vinyls, what it sounds like when it gets scratched
       if the sound still echoes.
 
My mother doesn't like jazz or
poetry. She listens to Sheryl Crow
on broken CD players that skip my favorite
parts in the summer, and I want to sing
 
to sunshine and sadness, but my mother
says I'm no good. So I listen to Alicia Keys
on my sister's portable CD player that isn't broken and pretend
she is singing to me, calling my braided hair beautiful, while I wait
        for the click of my father's heels back from work.
 
My teacher says she doesn't trust the new
ipods, says they can't sound like records
on Sunday afternoons. It's just not possible
that something so tiny can hold so much.
 
My father doesn't know that Uncle
Kracker's song Follow Me is about adultery
so I download it along with Sheryl Crow's
album, but I sing to both when no one
               is watching.
 

Sophie Coats was born in Texas, but raised a Jersey girl. Junior year of high school, she traded out
public school life for the boarding school experience at Interlochen Arts Academy where she studied
creative writing. She was awarded a gold key for flash fiction and a gold key for poetry in the
Scholastic Art and Writing awards. Her work can also be found in the Interlochen Review.
Art by Sarah Little.