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.

Two Poems by Zahava Lior

Zahava Lior’s poetry takes us through the memories of a blurred childhood and the Modern Museum of Art, making us re-think our definition of truth and art.

On Size and Truth

1.
In her dream last night
she looks inside a dusty chamber
with walls echoing
not yielding
she wants to be her mirror reflection so badly
but her voice just comes back
again
and again
through that glass and coated silver.

Then she hurries through the water
the antechamber and the sand
scurrying out, out of
the cliffs
and the rock face.
That image is only a small glimpse.
Mother asked: “Is it like looking at a pinhole of a sweater?”
“Of a blanket,” I said.
(Well, it’s hard to say
when you stare into absolving water and dust.)
It’s funny you mention size:
I was once predestined to marry
a man I had never met.
He told my mother fresh sweet lies
about his past
the sad fate it was to me, her precious little girl. (Sweet little good girl)
Mother asked, “How many lies did he make? A dozen?”
“A thousand,” I say.
(Well, it’s hard to remember,
they seemed so real).
It’s funny you mention
truth:

2.
I had this itch to see you last night
when the white picket fences in Iowa take on a bluish sort of hue in the
fading light
and the birds and trees stoop down to trees–
I wanted to see all of you
when I stopped
and realized
that you were just about
as convincing to me
as the lies I told myself to sleep,
(for how could I be sure when the little holes seemed so precious?
when I loved the thought of you, not you?).

 

On Museums and Freesias

The MOMA guarantees
that you will see
at least one new piece
every time you visit:
I’m looking at a blue stained
miniature marble house on a pedestal
it looks like my childhood
it smells like Copper and wine

I’m looking at some nude paintings
filled with apples and pears and a tabby
I am reminded of my virginity
and the solidity of touch.

he takes me into the main art gallery
and the attendants scold us
we’ve been trying to eat French fries
where they won’t let us
we’re trying to do something different

there’s a homeless girl who just walked in
and who doesn’t know
what art is.
the man who composed “living trash”
is visiting his own installation
and volunteers her to stand
in the center of the room.

she thinks they must want her
as a part-time employee
or the janitor
but I wanted to tell her
to run out of the doors
and save herself
before they make an excuse
to call her greasy hair
a tragic masterpiece.

so we ate or fries in peace that day
out on the front steps,
not inside the museum,
we kissed and
held hands in a simple sort of way
our foreheads touched and we smiled
at the innocent reminder, because
we knew what we really wanted to see,
the Freesia smell of comfort was by my side
and it was enough for me.

 

Zahava Lior is a 10th grader who hails from Los Angeles and attends the Hamilton High
School Academy of Music. An avid writer, Zahava aims to pursue a singing as well as a writing career. In December 2014, Zahava released her debut album, performing 13 of her original songs, “Keriselle Box” available on iTunes and CD Baby. Her poetry can be found on her blog, www.goldenstarpoetry.com.

Art by Sterling Butler

Sorry

Rachel Hertzberg’s “Sorry” examines the often tumultuous patches of the relationship between Mother and child. Far from simple, this poem explores many familiar feelings and evokes a strong sense of nostalgia and sympathy.

You come from transient men.
Men who join the priesthood without warning
and run away to Florida and sell houses that weren’t theirs
but you come from women who are solid.
Women who fold their arms and
stare at you like Washington stared at the Delaware
like you are just something to be crossed
women you don’t talk back to
who stop at the grocery store after a funeral
who sew their own clothes and
keep leftovers for months to be stewed on some anxious winter evening
Women who tell you who you are
leaving you with the feeling
that you did something wrong.
All the recanting in the world
could not repent for the sin
of trying to correct them.
You are starting to look like your mother
Your features are carved by the same hand
Your nose is the same bridge; your eyes are the same river
Your fingers are the same half-closed drawbridges.
One day she notices your shorn hair
and your bare eyes and she says
Are you trying to turn yourself into a boy?
She says you have grown sullen, rebellious, dishonest.
But she does not see how the bones of your face
have grown strong as her own.
All of your apologies are backward glances
they are checking for monsters in the dark
they are stockpiling canned corn
they are knitting a suit of armor out of steel wool
they are whispering in the darkness
          so quietly
          so still
          your voice trembles, a fawn that does not know how to return to the forest
I will write down all your apologies
inscribe them in ebony ink and encircle them in gold leaf
bind them with red leather and velvet.
I’ll deliver them by hand to your mother’s feet,
so that she will know how you love her.