The Rumpus Book Club chats with Matthew Salesses about his second novel, Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear (Little A, August 2020), the George Costanza method of writing, exploring the paths we do and don’t take in our lives, theoretical physics, puns, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Alison Stine, Jenny Hval, Beth Alvarado, Mattilda B. Sycamore, Randa Jarrar, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Matthew Salesses about his new novel, Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear!
Matthew Salesses: I’m here! I’m so excited! Thanks, all, for reading and taking the time to chat about the book!
Marisa: Thanks for joining us today, Matt! I’m super excited to talk about this book, which is one of my favorites of the year.
Matthew Salesses: It was so great to hear that it took you out of pandemic brain for a while, Marisa.
Marisa: It really did! It’s the only novel-length book I’ve been able to read all the way through easily post-February.
Matthew Salesses: That should be the blurb! It’s the only blurb worth having these days…
Marisa: To get us started, Matt, can you talk a little bit about the writing Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear? What was the road to its publication like? Was your process for this second novel different from your first?
Matthew Salesses: I actually started this book in either December of 2011 or January of 2012, when The Hundred-Year Flood wasn’t selling. I thought maybe I needed to write something more plot-propulsive, so I decided to just do the opposite of whatever I would normally do (the George Costanza method of writing). But what happened was that things just kept disappearing and reappearing again, so I had to make that into a cohesive narrative.
I sold this book in 2015, on an outline and fifty pages, so that was another huge difference in the process. It took me years to figure out how to write it and what I was writing it for, if selling it was off the table—I realized the goal had been to sell the book, and once it was sold, I had to have a different goal, a better goal. Which of course made the book far less commercial and far more “literary,” so I destroyed my original purpose, ha.
Marisa: Oh, wow, I didn’t know this story predated The Hundred-Year Flood! It must have had many iterations then, or you are perhaps a future-teller? I’m very curious actually about the politics in the book. The novel certainly has a political point of view, and so do its characters. The book speaks very much to our current moment, and to the white supremacist systems that America is built upon, without feeling didactic. I’m curious to know how you approached issues like racism, classism, and so forth while writing—and now, also curious when the KKK-endorsed presidential candidate entered the narrative.
Matthew Salesses: I think of all of that as craft, so I didn’t approach it any differently than I approach characterization or plot or structure, etc. Or, rather, I approached all of those things at once, together, since they all contribute to what makes a good story, to my mind.
What I think about in terms of character, and also in terms of mental/emotional state, I guess, is what the character’s world is like and how that world puts pressure on them. Who I am is inextricable from the forces that constantly influence my life—racism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc.
Bret M. Weaver: I thought this book was insightful but more about the character’s mental health. Was that your objective?
Matthew Salesses: Can you say more, Bret? What do you mean by mental health?
Bret M. Weaver: Well, it explains an alter ego, right? It kind of felt maybe the character had a split personality. At least that’s how I took it.
Matthew Salesses: Interesting, Bret. I’d love to hear what it was like to read the novel that way! I meant the doppelgängers to be as real as any other idea of reality, but of course the book is up to interpretation.
Bret M. Weaver: Can you clarify the definition of superposition in the context of your book?
Matthew Salesses: A superposition is a term from theoretical physics that describes the idea that things are about probabilities and not about single paths, like you throw a cup at the wall and it shatters. In the superposition, the cup also doesn’t shatter, maybe it’s caught by someone, maybe it just bounces off the wall, etc.
Life for Matt Kim is always in the superposition. At once one kind of life and many others all at once. This is out of his control.
Bret M. Weaver: Got it. Thanks!
Matthew Salesses: Sure, Bret!
Marisa: How did you come to be interested in the idea of doppelgängers? Was there an impetus for that focus?
Matthew Salesses: Doppelgängers are a way to explore the paths we take in life—to be adopted or not adopted, for example. I feel like the other path doesn’t go away. In fact, in quantum physics, it doesn’t go away. But to me, it feels like a kind of ghost or doppelgänger life. Your own life is haunting you.
Marisa: So, you are a writer named Matt who wrote a novel about two characters who write and are both named Matt and in which an ancillary third character name Matthew Salesses also appears. Can you talk about the choice to bring Matthew Salesses into the story in the last third of the book? Are any of these Matts a doppelgänger for the real Matt Salesses? Or, are all of them? I don’t think this is autofiction (and kind of hate those sorts of labels) but I’m pretty fascinated by all the Matts here!
Matthew Salesses: None of them, but all of them are in a kind of writing way—in the way that any character is a creation of the self.
My decision to bring Matthew Salesses into the book was a decision to put myself on the line, to show my own stakes in all of this. The murderer of Matt is a white Matt. The murderer of any character is its author. But also the murderer of the self, in a model minority context, is at least in part the self that wants to become someone more acceptable. It’s like reiterations of the same figurative value.
Marisa: I love that. Yes, an author is always the murderer of her characters; that’s so true. The choice to make Matthew Salesses white was a powerful one, too.
Matthew Salesses: Thanks! Re: the KKK candidate, by the way, I wrote it in after the election—or rather, I just gave it a bigger role.
Judy Lewis: I found it difficult to relate to the characters. It was quite a while before realized that Sandra and Yumi were the same person and not a type of split personality. And it seemed that Matt was trying to be super Matt and incorporate the best of super Matt into regular Matt so that people would like/love him and he would become the Matt he thought he wanted to be.
Matthew Salesses: Hi, Judy! Yeah, that’s definitely one way to read what Matt is doing.
Marisa: Is there a particular character who you felt closest to? A character who came to you most easily? Or, the opposite: one who was hardest to get on the page?
Matthew Salesses: I’m personally not interested in relating to characters, so that’s beyond me. But I understand that some people take pleasure in seeing themselves in a character or a character in themselves. I just finished writing an essay about this, but for me, a novel’s power is in its difference from the real world, not in its similarities. Ideally, I want books to help me see what I can do because I am not a character but a person in the real world.
I’m not sure I felt very close to any of the characters. Maybe the detective in XXXXXX. I’m very fond of the puns.
Marisa: I LOVE puns. I’m in the process of indoctrinating my kid into loving puns, too.
Matthew Salesses: Kids of a certain age love puns, in my experience. Like, what is language! This thing that we think of so rigidly actually has no existence that is not symbolic. It’s a trip.
I had to figure out for myself how Sandra and Yumi were so different—it was easier for me to see Matt and the other Matt as different—and the letters between Sandra and Yumi were a big part of that and of understanding what they are doing in their own lives and how the pressures of the outside world are so different when factoring in gender and other details.
Marisa: That’s so interesting, because as a reader I felt the differences between Yumi and Sandra more than Matt and Matt. Perhaps that comes from the time you spent wrestling with it.
I noticed that you noticed my comment to members earlier this month about the novel being funny. Curious whether you, as its author, agree? I did find there to be a dark humor all the way through, even in the most serious moments. But maybe that’s my own twisted brain?
Matthew Salesses: It’s supposed to be funny!
Marisa: I find myself reaching to find humor in horror a lot these least four years, and even more in the last few months.
Matthew Salesses: I wanted to write something I could have more fun reading aloud, something where I could get into persona and crack jokes. After reading The Hundred-Year Flood aloud so many times, it’s a real bummer that you can’t really get those big laughs. I like readings that make you laugh so much more than serious readings (I mean at events or bookstores).
Also, Matt is seriously depressed and the humor is hopefully a good counterbalance.
Marisa: It’s true, and prose readings can be harder to sit through than poetry readings, even when the prose is gorgeous. But funny prose almost always goes over well. I can definitely imagine sections here being great when read aloud.
And yes, for me a lot of the humor felt like the gallows humor of a person who is struggling with depression and grief but at least a little aware of it, if that makes sense?
Matthew Salesses: I wanted to do my own audiobook, but then the pandemic happened, so that was canceled. But yeah, I think it’s fun to read it aloud
Marisa: There’s always Zoom! (So. Much. Zoom.)
Matthew Salesses: Humor is transformative; puns transform language, and the symbolic values of the world are really getting Matt down. He needs puns. He needs some way of making new symbols and disappearing the symbols of his oppression. I kind of wanted to keep writing this book for the rest of my life until every sentence contained a pun.
Marisa: Now all I want is for you to write a book where every sentence contains a pun.
Matthew Salesses: It could have been this one! My editor did not seem too fond of the idea of never turning in the book, though.
Marisa: Yeah, us editors and our deadlines are no fun, it’s true.
Matthew Salesses: I love editors! I love my editors! I even appreciate deadlines—otherwise I would never finish anything.
Marisa: Can we talk about the structure of the book? The pacing of the story makes this novel a “page-turner” or did for me; I had trouble putting it down. How did you decide on the novel’s structure? Did it change through the years, as you reworked and wrote more?
Matthew Salesses: The novel follows the kishotenketsu structure: intro, development, twist, resolution. It’s an East Asian structure that doesn’t necessitate conflict to work. Though of course the conflict in my book is disappearance.
I wanted the book to be propulsive, but I don’t know if this is in the structure? Many of the chapters end on mini-cliffhangers. The book tries to raise more questions than it asks, so that there’s a constant process of being prompted to want to learn something new and the satisfaction, I hope, of learning some of those things.
I thought a lot about how to end the book, because in the early drafts, the book ended with more of a resolution.
Marisa: Oh, I’m super curious to know what the early-draft ending was! I’ll have to ask by email. What made you move away from that ending with more resolution?
Matthew Salesses: As I said about what I hope a book can do, I think tying things up actually prohibits a book from taking its force into the real world. There’s a way in which catharsis means that you can put the story down. Without catharsis, it’s like how an unfinished drawing freaks people out and make them want to finish it—you have to find your own way of completing something that has always really only lived in your imagination.
I feel like the ends of movies where the good guy triumphs in some huge battle always means you leave the theater satisfied and not feeling like the battle is still out there—but it is still out there, or at least the battle of disappearance and appearance is.
The original ending was more like Matt finding wholeness. I didn’t want that because you can’t find wholeness except in a fiction. I wanted to suggest that Matt really needed to disappear, to take apart the ways that he appears.
Marisa: So, again with the disclaimer that I sort of don’t believe in genre and labels, do you see this as a detective story? Speculative fiction? Science fiction? Were you purposefully borrowing from any of these genres or playing with them?
Matthew Salesses: Regarding genre, I wanted to write a murder mystery, at first—the book started with the title, “The Murder of the Doppelgänger.” Every story is a detective story, they say. But again, I find the solving of a mystery to be a kind of cheap out.
Anyone is free to call the book whatever genre they like! It seems to me that this is all genre is for, anyway, for a person to simplify her preferences.
Marisa: Are there specific authors and/or books you looked to while working on the novel, and/or feel the novel is in conversation with? Or, outside of writing, other artists?
Matthew Salesses: Originally, the novel was in conversation with Murakami and Zelda—I wanted to write an American Murakami novel, one with Asian American characters rather than Asian characters; America for an Asian American is already so surreal anyway—and I also wanted to write a book like a video game, with boss battles and power-ups and health bars, etc.
A lot of that was a lost in the many revisions. Over the eight years or so, the conversation I wanted to be in was with other Asian American literature.
Judy Lewis: I felt like Matt had gained some understanding that he hadn’t had before; come to grips with parts of himself. We are, after all, a work in progress, don’t you think? Until we aren’t.
Matthew Salesses: Yes, Judy, for sure! I hope that readers see that Matt comes a very long way in the book, and that a lot of that way is in deconstruction, disappearance, in taking apart the ways he’s gone wrong.
I always tell my kids that the purpose of life is to keep changing. They like to ask why we are alive.
Marisa: That’s beautiful. Kids are much smarter than us, I’ve come to see in the last almost-six years I’ve had one.
Matthew Salesses: One of my mentors would say that we spend our whole adult life unlearning what we learned as kids. The younger kids are, the less they’ve learned that they will have to later unlearn.
Marisa: We’re almost out of time, so I’m going to ask the question I always end with: what are you reading right now? Any new and forthcoming books you’re especially excited about/want to shout-out here?
Matthew Salesses: Yes, I’m so excited about some other books coming out on the same day as mine: Elisa Gabbert’s The Unreality of Memory, Lyz Lenz’s Belabored, Margot Livesey’s The Boy in the Field. Laura van den Berg’s latest collection, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, is a stunner.
I really want to recommend some writers of color, though. I’m rereading Katie Kitamura’s great, great A Separation, starting Akwaeke Emezi’s The Death of Vivek Oji, and excited to read a book that has been sitting on my bedside, The Hole by Hye-young Pyun.
Marisa: Great recommendations! Matt, thank you so much for your time today and for your thoughtful answers. But mostly, thank you for writing the book that distracted me from the apocalypse for a week. Truly, I cannot overstate how nice that was!
Matthew Salesses: Thank you, all, so very much, for honoring my book and me with your time and attention. It’s so much, especially in the current moment, when I’m grateful for any shared time at all, any connection. Thank you.
Marisa: Thanks to everyone for joining us, and have a good afternoon! Stay safe and sane out there.
Photograph of Matthew Salesses by Matthew Salesses.