I first encountered Matthew Salesses when he came to a career panel hosted by my MFA program. He sat between a recent MFA graduate/current law school student, and a poet, who was much too enthusiastic about the adjunct grind. As he talked about the need to write everything all the time, he seemed like the most level-headed person in the room.
Salesses is the Fiction Editor for The Good Men Project; author of the novella, The Last Repatriot; an instructor at Grub Street, an independent writing center in Boston; and the author of many essays dealing with parenting, race, and adoption. His novel in flash fiction, I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, is an explosive but touching exploration of these themes. The narrator zooms between girlfriends and affairs, jobs and jail, and traditional parents and untraditional fatherhood. The form of flash-chapters give a sense that everything is happening all the time to the narrator, and he can only parcel it out to confront one faltering relationship at a time.
I recently sat down with Matt to discuss the form of flash fiction and novels, the selective nature of adoption narratives, and how his narrator confronts the fear of parenting.
The Rumpus: What is flash fiction? Do you have a definition of flash fiction? Because I have a really hard time pinning down what it is. When I talk to people, I say I’m doing a longer piece out of short shorts, or very shorts—
Matthew Salesses: I think some people call them vignettes in that case. Or you kind of get people telling you what they think it is.
Rumpus: Right, it’s always defined by a publisher or a scholar, right?
Salesses: I teach a class in flash fiction. I have students write a story each week based on a prompt. For the purposes of the class we just define “flash fiction” as a story—you know, something with a beginning, middle, and end—under five-hundred words. The definitions kind of vary; they’re usually based on arbitrary word counts, up to a thousand words usually. Then there’s a difference between flash fiction and prose poetry.
Rumpus: What is that difference? Is it plot?
Salesses: I think there’s a difference between the way a story feels and the way a poem feels. It depends on the work they are doing. A poem can often be going for a tone or an idea. A story needs to have some kind of plot, I guess you could say, but it’s also usually character-based, whether it’s a character’s transformation, or a slice of life, something with some slight—or large—shift in perception.
Rumpus: I mean, you look at Amy Hempel or Lydia Davis—
Salesses: Yeah, I’ve heard Amy Hempel say she wishes she could be a poet. I’ve seen her read a few times, and twice I think she told this story about how she read a story of hers, and Billy Collins came up to her later and said it could be a poem. And she loved that.
Rumpus: But then if you take the line breaks out of Billy Collins, maybe you have a story.
Salesses: It’s very slippery territory. I thought of my pieces as somewhere in between flash fiction and prose poetry, and then I was also thinking of the book as a whole, longer piece as I was going. When I wrote the first one I was just thinking of it as a flash fiction. I only wrote one to begin with.
Rumpus: How did the others come to be?
Salesses: They were on request, basically.
Salesses: I wrote the first one on request for JMWW, and I didn’t know what to write about, so I walked around for a while thinking about a possible image, because sometimes the way I think flash fiction can work well is to attach a story to a short scene or an image, and a voice.
So I was kind of walking around trying to come up with the right compelling picture in my head. And at some point I started seeing this beach full of dead starfish, and then I was seeing this image and I felt like I was remembering something that someone had told me once, where I was at a bar, playing pool or something, and this woman said, “Once you go yellow, you never go back”—and I thought I’d forgotten it but I guess it had always stuck with me. At the time I was like, That doesn’t even rhyme; it’s very uncreative. So I had this voice in my head and a situation where like, What would have happened if I had said yes at that time? So I started imagining people on a beach and kind of drew from there.
It was very short; it was like 300 or 250 words or something. Then a few months later, I was working on a novel—a different novel—and I needed a break. I like to do flash pieces when I’m working on something longer or revising something longer because you feel like you can actually finish something. You need that pick-me-up when you’re working on something longer that seems like it will never be finished. I’m on year nine of that same novel right now. And so I thought of that story for JMWW and how I’ve never really felt like it ended, you know it felt kind of like a beginning. I think some flash fiction stories work really well in that sense—that they suggest that things will go on from there. But now I wanted to write what happened. So I started writing more and I wrote like nineteen more pieces or something. So I had twenty at the end of that.
Rumpus: Were they the next nineteen? So did you write it chronologically?
Salesses: I did write it chronologically, but I wrote it chronologically like three or four times—three different times I think. I was filling in places chronologically where it felt thin. So I wrote these pieces and I started sending them out. I sent some to The Lifted Brow—I sent three or four to The Lifted Brow—and they said they wanted to do this thing where they published twenty pieces throughout the issue, and they asked if I could send them twenty. I had already published a few of them, so I had maybe ten left or something. So I wrote twenty more just on the fly. I was writing one a day, or two a day, and I sent them to Ronnie Scott there and he published them, so then I had forty.
I was like, Okay, I have a chapbook. I’ve published a couple chapbooks before. I like the form. It’s a form that’s attractive because of its brevity and yet the way it can suggest a larger story, and it seemed like a good length for this book. And then Civil Coping Mechanisms asked me if I had a novel. And I said, “Well I have these forty pieces,” so I sent them those, and they said something like, “Yeah keep going, see the project through.” I thought the project was finished, but guessed I could write eighty more. They wanted 120 and so I just started writing more.
Rumpus: Where were you in the plot with those forty?
Salesses: It was the entire year. The book takes place over a year and each time I wrote another bunch of stories I just started filling in the spots that needed more fleshing out. And then, you know, things got rearranged quite a bit. There’s a period in the book that is an extended fight between the narrator and his girlfriend, whom he calls the wifely woman—his long-term girlfriend—so I had to move that around at various times and shorten and lengthen it, and other things in the book felt like they needed to be put in a different place to make the arc more full and more pronounced.
Rumpus: A lot of the story takes place offstage, off the page, you know? The fight, basically, you see the effects of it, you see things alluded to, the official adoption, all these things.
Salesses: Sure, the cat dies, that was something.
Rumpus: Well, you walk in and you see a dead cat, right?
Salesses: Yeah, but you aren’t there for it dying. The effects of things are more interesting in some ways. You’re dealing with consequences, right? And the consequences of those consequences. I think it’s less interesting sometimes to just show the seed of those consequences. I think it’s more interesting to see how something has affected characters, especially if you have such a short space to work with.
Rumpus: Yeah, it seems like—the information you include was very tied to the form. If you wanted to write an 800-page novel—
Salesses: You kind of have to write those scenes.
Rumpus: Exactly. And a standard cast. Your novel in flash has a very tight cast.
Salesses: I have a friend who just wrote a post-apocalyptic novel. He said he hated writing the scenes that you just have to write if you write that kind of novel—people rioting or wandering roves of people in a post-apocalyptic landscape—but when you can let people fill in the blanks the way you can in flash fiction, you can kind of leave those things out. You write about the consequences of having seen this roving mob or been in the middle of this huge conflict.
Rumpus: So how are you doing with those scenes in the novel that you’re working on? How’s that going?
Salesses: Well, there are a lot of short chapters in there, too. There are several very long chapters. It’s funny. When it was sent out originally, some people would say, “You know exactly when to get out of a scene,” and then other people would say, “This scene cut off too short,” and then I even had one person say, “This is like an Impressionistic painting”—as a reason why he didn’t like it.
If you had said that to me when I was twenty-two years old, if you had told me I was going to write something that an editor at a major publishing house is going to call an Impressionistic painting—that would have made my day. That was what I really wanted to do at one point in time. So it’s so subjective, the feedback you get.
Rumpus: That’s funny. One of the ways I try to describe a longer piece made up of various short pieces is as a pointillist painting—you know, where it all comes together.
Salesses: Yeah, but it’s not really like that, right, because if you extrapolate those points they don’t have something unto themselves.
Rumpus: Hm, yeah, so Impressionistic is probably a little better.
Salesses: I don’t know. I don’t know. Some people don’t like that.
Rumpus: It’s all in the brush stroke.
Rumpus: So, you talked about this a little bit. You have the novella, and then you have this novel in flash fiction. So it seems like short forms fit your style. I didn’t know that you were working on a novel—
Salesses: It’s a short novel.
Rumpus: So what about the form is appealing? And is it something about the way that stories are told, or does it come down to the writing process where you find yourself saying, this is what I can focus on at this moment?
Salesses: I guess there are a lot of questions packed in there, right? I once read something about how George Saunders says he will write ninety pages or something to get a fifteen-page story. For the novel I’m writing, I’ve probably written something like 1,200 pages and it’s a 240-page novel. I think you have to cut a lot out to carry the weight of the reader. I like a book where the reader feels very involved.
When I teach classes, I often start the first week saying that stories are about connections—about making connections and the interesting ways that you make connections. Amy Hempel wrote her first story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Johnson is Buried,” based on a prompt from Gordon Lish that was something like, “write about the moment that dissembled your sense of self.” I often, on the first day of a course, have my students write down three things that they’d never want to tell anyone, then I give those things to someone else in the class and have them write a story that connects at least two of those things and hopefully all three of them. I think what gives a story depth and movement is making the connections between seemingly disparate things that are connected by some emotional tenor or something.
I like to tell my students, one thing does not make a story—it just doesn’t. Two things might make a story, and three things —I find that three things often do make a story. Like I’ll start with an idea, and I’ll go somewhere with it and it seems like it’s failing miserably, and then I’ll have another idea that doesn’t seem directly related but if I can connect the dots—like connecting these two dots that seem like they’re in completely different territories—it starts to get really interesting, and then you introduce another thing. But of course there’s a point of no return. It seems like two to three works pretty well in general, for a story. I feel like I only answered one part of your question.
Rumpus: What about writing style? Someone told me that the reason Pamela Painter started writing flash fiction was because she was dying to write a novel, but with kids and life and whatever and she could only fit in the flash pieces. And they came together and they worked, and she kind of pioneered the form.
Salesses: Have you read Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever? That’s also kind of a novel in flash pieces or vignettes. You should check it out, it’s really amazing. It’s very associative.
I think that’s what I’m drawn to style-wise, in general, even with something much longer. With longer, sustained sections, what’s interesting is the associations that you can make between things. The way that something can be planted at the beginning of the novel and come back and have different connotations, or the same connotations that reveal a lot of depth in between—those are the things that are really interesting to me, when you can go from one place to another. Or from one thing to the same thing and you feel like you’ve gone a long distance to get there. It’s like the two points that are right next to each other but you’re not taking the straight path.
Rumpus: The structure of your novel returns to the same place in the most physical sense. And also in the first flash piece we learn that the boy discovers how “mean and hopeful” he can be, right? And it seemed to me that the whole book was an exploration in how mean and how hopeful the narrator could be, and then we return to the ocean and it seems like hope wins out.
Salesses: That’s nice. Thank you for reading so carefully. That’s great. You know I didn’t set out to do that purposefully, but I think the way my mind works—I don’t want to keep saying “associative” over and over again, but those things are in the back of my mind, even though I’m not directly writing toward them.
Rumpus: Because then you’d write an essay, you know?
Salesses: Right. And I do like writing essays. But yeah, I do like to be a little more subtle. I like writing with a point, but it’s not fiction.
Rumpus: Speaking of your essays, you’ve written about your troubled relationship with the children’s book, We Adopted You, Benjamin Koo—
Salesses: Yes. That book. It has some special place in my subconscious.
Rumpus: It seems like the book you’ve written has a lot of, not similarities, but maybe thematic issues—adoption, obviously, missing parents, the formation of racially different families—so I’m assuming that’s something that happens subconsciously?
Salesses: I don’t think the themes are something that came from that book, but that’s probably why that book has stuck with me, and in some ways plagued me, because I have those issues. Getting a book like that when I was young, and it being one of the few or one of the only books portraying a similar or similar-ish situation to what I was living, that seemed like something I felt had to be normal—or the normal way of feeling—but at the same time it was also something that I was rejecting, because I didn’t want to be like that. There’s this push-and-pull that was going on—so the book has definitely stayed with me.
But the issues really are underlying, they really are far deeper than that, they are kind of the genesis to why that book has been important to me—or not important, but been formative or something. So when I write, those issues are often what come out.
I do think that one of the best things for a writer to do is to write about the things that really hurt them—that are their most vulnerable points—and those are my most vulnerable points, and that’s also why that book would stick with me.
Rumpus: The issues of race carry through in every flash piece. First of all, you’re not naming characters, you’re saying the white one, the one that looks like his mom.
Salesses: I kind of worried at times that race fell off the radar, but it’s good to hear that it’s still there. Because there are lots of things that go on—a lot of themes—and it’s a very short book. There were times when I worked hard at restructuring it so the themes were not dropping off for too long, or staying on stage for too long continuously.
One reason I didn’t name anybody was I like the idea of somebody so insecure about race that he would position people by race, but also because I think the voice is really driving the book in some ways. It’s very voice-centric—very narrator-centric —and in those short pieces it sometimes works better for the characters not to be named, or for them to be referred to by relation to the narrator, because the narrator is so centric that it makes it seem like the story’s filtered through those eyes.
Rumpus: You also don’t really think of people by their names, you think of people by how they relate to you. Like his “girl on the side on the side.”
Salesses: One thing that I heard in college writing workshops, that I had never really thought about before, is that people don’t really call each other by name very often, and you often get stories in workshops where people are saying “Dave, pick up the garbage.” But people don’t really say that when they’re talking to someone directly, they just say, “Pick up the garbage.”
Rumpus: I think the only person named in the book, besides celebrities, is Randy. And he’s a mess. That’s something I want to talk about. Randy’s a mess all to his own—pulling out brass knuckles at the bar and all of that—but the narrator is not much better off. He’s certainly self-destructive. He gets laid off, he uses sex as therapy—and then you have all these other women who seem overall to be level-headed and productive. The wifely woman is a saint, you know, so I’m wondering if you could speak to that.
Salesses: I guess I see them all as having their own problems, with the wifely woman being the most adjusted of all of them. Certainly the other women have their own large problems going on. The white woman starts buying everything with her savings when she feels there’s no reason to save anymore, and then gets rid of everything.
Rumpus: Yeah, you could see that there was real turmoil going on in her life.
Salesses: I did worry that the narrator would be too unlikeable.
Rumpus: I love the guy, but I could go out drinking and ski naked.
Salesses: Too unlikeable to women in particular, maybe.
Rumpus: Here’s a question for you, then. I know this is the exact same question that the white woman asked, but why do women love him so much? Is there an answer to that?
Salesses: I’ve kind of come across the phenomena, where men, it seems like men—
Rumpus: Where horrible men get all the ladies?
Salesses: Not that horrible men get all the ladies. I don’t want to reduce it to something. But that sometimes people are attracted to horrible people, or just people that are willing to risk everything at any one point, who just don’t have a sense of a safe place. There’s an attraction to that. There’s an attraction to that as a character in a book, but also to the kind of person who that is.
Rumpus: And I think despite his self-destructiveness, he has self-confidence, which is an attractive quality. He knows he can walk into the big boss’ office with a bottle of booze and get a promotion.
Salesses: I think of it as, he knows he can play the systems that he knows, but clearly life is not really one of them. But that workplace situation, and his affairs: he thinks at least that he can play that game.
Rumpus: So we’re talking about his job. The narrator is in advertising. The wifely woman is in PR. Both of these industries have their own representations of truth; at worst, they present distortions of truth. And I was wondering how do their occupations relate to the narrative and to a vision of the world?
Salesses: I think you’re kind of right on it. It is kind of a version of the truth, or the version of truth that people want to buy into, right? He’s not very good at it, right?
I think jobs are very important for characters. They say a lot about characters and sometimes they’re sort of oddly left out of the equation. But people have jobs and jobs are a big part of our lives, even when we hate them. Or maybe especially when we hate them. So the kinds of things that make him good at advertising are the things that he hates about himself. Maybe he feels that if he used them well, he would be giving up that last piece of goodness in himself.
Rumpus: He’s most successful at his job when he, as his boss says, wages a war between the sexes. Which is essentially what he’s doing in his personal life with all his girlfriends, right?
Salesses: You could say that.
Rumpus: I want to get back to form. There’s certain information left out of the story. The narrator leaves out certain information when he interacts with all his girlfriends and with work, and with what we read on the page, there’s the absence of the scenes that you don’t want to write, and then even the title, I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, is a way of saying something and leaving something out. So it seems like the form really fit the content, is I guess what I’m getting at.
Salesses: Well, thank you. I mean, everything has to work together, right? I’m interested in what people leave out in real life as well as in fiction. Writers often talk about leaving things out in fiction but much less so about what people leave out in a normal conversation. I also think about it a lot in terms of adoption, too. There’s a lot of discussion going on around adoption and a lot of selection going on in those discussions.
I saw this documentary recently, Somewhere Between. It follows the lives of four teenage Chinese adoptees. The director is an adoptive mother, and images of her and her child and a little bit about her story frames the movie. And I thought a lot about what is left out, because you’re making a conscious decision, first of all in which questions you ask, and then in which character you follow when, because presumably you can’t follow all four of them at the same time. And then also when you’re editing the movie, there’s what you’re cutting out. I think there are certain things that an adoptee director would weave in as opposed to an adoptive director.
And so what you leave out, whether in real life or a documentary or something that’s written to be reflective of the truth in a situation, or reflective in the truth of these people’s lives, is not just a matter of what you’re omitting, it’s largely a matter of what you choose to include.
Rumpus: I think it’s hard to talk about portrayal of truth because, like you’re saying, it’s subjective. What’s true about one person and their experience can be contradicted by the next, but how you frame it and what you choose to include, that’s what storytelling is, right?
Salesses: Right. I mean it’s as simple as, you’re in a relationship and you say “I love you” to your girlfriend and your girlfriend says nothing. How different is that from your girlfriend saying “thank you” or “I love you” or “I like you” or “I hate you.” What our choices leave out, I don’t know if people think about it as much in real life. But I do, often, because a large part of adoptive families is what is left out of the story.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Moses recently, because he’s one of the first adoptees I ever heard about. He’s sent down the river in the basket and he’s pulled out of the river by the daughter of the pharaoh, and he’s raised there, but his mom is still in the court, too, as his nursemaid. Then when he comes of age he ends up killing an Egyptian who’s been beating up a Hebrew. And because of this he has to flee his home, because even at that point he’s still a Hebrew who has killed an Egyptian. He would be tried and sentenced because of the law, even though he comes from part of the pharaoh’s family. And so he goes out into the desert and he lives there for forty years or something, and he sees this burning bush and it’s God talking to him.
But there’s so many things left out of that story. If you read it through a different lens, if you project your own life onto that, there could be a completely different reason for him to kill the Egyptian. I could imagine—I spent a while rejecting my Korean self—and I could imagine him doing the same thing with himself and that moment as kind of like this switch being turned, where he kills the man because he recognizes something in himself being beaten. Then suddenly, even though he probably hadn’t come to that realization, and I can’t imagine that he would’ve, maybe it’s just a feeling in the moment—suddenly he just does it. And then, by law, he is delineated as a Jew and not as an Egyptian, even though he has grown up his whole life as the pharaoh’s grandson. There’s so much you could read into it either way, and we just have these really huge plot points, and a lot of the things that I would be interested in are left out.
Rumpus: That kind of comes back to the idea of subjectivity and truth. It comes down to who’s telling that story. When you write your story of Moses, it’s going to be different than the one in the Bible.
Salesses: In a way, sure. Though I’m not changing the story, only choosing which blanks to fill in.
Rumpus: All those Bible stories are ripe for expansion. There’s this Ray Wylie Hubbard song that came out recently that I’ve been loving, and that I’ve wanted to expand into my own story. The chorus is, “At least we ain’t Lazarus and have to think twice about dyin’.”
Salesses: Yeah, right.
Rumpus: I mean, it’s this great miracle by bringing him back to life, but then, oh shit, he’s got to die again.
Salesses: Yeah, oh man. I could see how that could be really awful. Although then maybe you know what to expect. A lot of fear of death seems to be not knowing what’s going to happen. Sometimes people who have a strong religious belief seem less afraid of dying. Or just people who seem certain about what will happen after death seem less afraid of dying. It’s the uncertainty that can be so frightening.
It’s the same with parenting for me. The uncertainty is the most frightening. It’s a lot like death, parenting! That sounds really awful. But I’m not saying that like, once you have a kid, you die—more like, imagine death thirty years from now, hopefully longer than that. It’s so uncertain what will happen or how it will happen. Every little thing you’re doing now might lead to your death or not. In that way, it’s similar to trying to imagine what it will be like when your daughter grows up. You just don’t know. How you’re raising her could be great or it could be terrible. You have no idea until she’s absorbed all that and grown up.
Rumpus: But you could get really neurotic about it, right? If you’re talking about the stress of uncertainty. It’s like, What’s going to happen when I walk out into the street? I don’t know, but I’m not going to let that stop me from walking out to the street the way that I walk out to the street.
Salesses: It’s not the short-term consequences that are frightening to me. It’s the long-term ones.
Rumpus: Does the narrator in the book share the same sort of fear of his parenting? I mean, when he sees the boy holding the beer mug of milk when the social services worker comes, he recognizes something of himself in that, and you could get down to nature versus nurture on that, but is he afraid that his son is going to make the same mistakes?
Salesses: I think in some part, yes.
Rumpus: Or that he’s going to somehow corrupt his son with the things that he’s already done? He also seems to be avoiding having a lasting relationship with everyone, but especially with his son, which is understandable in some ways. A five-year-old kid walks into your life and you don’t know he existed—that’s a shock.
Salesses: Yeah. Some people just own up to it and take responsibility. Some people can’t. But then I don’t think he’s necessarily a bad person who just doesn’t want to take care of a kid. I guess he is fearful, or as fearful as I am. Fearful of screwing up his child or that the child will grow up to be like him, but also fearful that he’s in the kind of relationship where he has enormous influence over somebody else. I think he knows that he’s not in that good of a place to be a good influence. I feel like if you know that some part of you wants to be better but also doesn’t, or thinks you can’t, then you worry about what effect you will have on other people, especially somebody who already comes from your blood and now you’re combining nature and nurture. Maybe he’s only half fucked-up when you start taking care of him, and then what if you screw him up the rest of the way?
Rumpus: The end, the last chapter/story is called “They Call Time Father,” which seems to point to that it will take time, he’s going in the right direction, but it’s not going to happen immediately.
Salesses: I think it’s nice that you think he’s going in the right direction.
Rumpus: Do you not?
Salesses: No, I do, too. I like a sense of hope.
First and third photographs © 2011 by Stephanie Mitchell.
Second photograph © 2012 by Stanley Dankoski.