All the World is a K-Drama: A Conversation with Matthew Salesses


Writers tend to stick with familiar territory when choosing backgrounds for their characters, which means we get a lot of novels that focus on authors, teachers, or visual artists. The protagonists of Matthew Salesses’s new novel, however, are not your average literary characters. Instead, Won Lee is a professional basketball player and Carrie Kang is a television producer. They are dating, both Korean-American, and dealing separately with industries that exploit their talent and throw barriers in the way of their success because of who they are.

Won is signed with the New York Knicks and gets a chance to prove himself when their star player, Paul Burton (known to all as Powerball!) is injured. Carrie, too, gets her big break when the New York production company she works for decides to send her to Korea to work on a miniseries. Yet Won has to deal with Robert Sung, a Korean-American sports reporter, who seems to follow Won’s career too closely, and Carrie must make repeated trips back to the US to be with her sister, who is being treated for cancer.

Salesses himself has been a fixture in the literary world for years, with a nationally bestselling handbook for writers called Craft in the Real World and Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award in fiction. His essays have been featured in The New York Times, NPR’s Code Switch, and The Guardian, among other venues, and he is an assistant professor of writing at Columbia University.

I spoke with Salesses by phone about reality TV as research, creating unique voices in fiction, and choosing work that will fulfills us.


The Rumpus: The novel’s protagonists, Carrie and Won, both work in entertainment-related fields. What drew you to those occupations for your characters?

Matthew Salesses: Those were just things that I like and I thought, “Let’s write a novel that I don’t have to do so much research to understand, or at least where the research will be really fun for me.” For a long time, I was watching K-dramas and thinking about writing and pretending that it was research or calling it research, and my wife would say, “You’re not doing research, you’re just watching TV.” I thought, “Okay, well I could make it real if I just write a book about K-drama.”

In terms of research for Won’s job, I played basketball for a long time and wanted to be an NBA player when I was a kid. That was my ideal job. Of course, I didn’t make it that far, but I did watch an old show, it’s called Basketball Wives or something, as research. That helped me imagine what life was like behind the scenes, especially as I was trying to figure out what it would be like for some of their partners. I got a better sense of what it would be like to be on the court and to play the game, to enter free agency and do the kinds of things that we only see on the TV.

Rumpus: On a similar note, Carrie and Won both have co-workers whose approval they need for their careers and emotional health as characters. I think for Carrie that’s the production designer (who is referenced in the novel by the abbreviation for her title, “PD”) and for Won, it’s Powerball! What brought you to these characters and why were they important for this story?

Salesses: Powerball! always was going to be a large part of the book because when I was thinking about the way that Jeremy Lin entered the team and was able to [achieve] just a brief period of stardom, I was also thinking a lot about Carmelo Anthony, and the ways that NBA teams are built around these marquee players whose personalities really dominate many aspects of the game.

I wondered what it would be like to be on a team like that and really admire the person you’re playing with and yet also know that your relationship with them is a variable in whether or not you’ll be able to play more and how well you’ll be able to do on court, which I think is an interesting dynamic.

With the PD, I have watched a couple of shows about how K-Dramas are made. On some level, I relate better to the people behind the scenes, doing the writing or directing the show, and I thought that would be a really interesting position. I also felt that somebody coming in from the outside like Carrie would need to find a person they could work with well and who would understand them from at least one angle.

For Carrie, the angle is being a woman in this male-dominated industry and an industry that often objectifies the female body. I think you would need a certain camaraderie in order to feel good about your job at all. You’d have to have somebody on the inside.

As I was writing their relationships, I wasn’t thinking about the two characters as mirrors, but it’s interesting you put them in conversation because there is a similarity, except for the power dynamic is almost the opposite. Powerball! is the more powerful player, but the PD is actually in a subordinate position to Carrie. Yet because of her insider status, she’s in a similar position to Powerball! in that she knows everything that’s going on. She understands everything on the Korean side of the production and on the intricate workings of the set while Carrie is always going to be an outsider.

The Rumpus: Moving on to a structural question, the book begins with a joke about race or racism and also includes sections that outline the K-Drama that Carrie is producing. Both of those elements act as asides and as frames. Can you talk a bit about how those structural elements came about?

Salesses: Yes. The K-dramas were actually ideas that I had for K-dramas. I think they’re pretty good ideas, but, of course, I don’t write K-Drama and I can’t speak Korean and I can’t write in Korean. I didn’t really see a possibility for those things happening, but here was an opportunity to tell some of those stories.

As I was writing them in, I started to realize they could be used to help people understand the rules of the kind of story that I wanted to tell. K-Drama has very strict rules. The rules of K-Drama are structural, but they’re also rules about how the world works—through coincidence and faith—through people being drawn to each other in certain ways—through having certain expectations about how relationships start, or love starts, or even how people act when they’re in love.

Like how whimsy works with K-Drama or how white people work in a K-Drama. I wanted to use those to reveal those tropes and forms and moves, as a way to help the immersion into the story that I was telling as a kind of K-Drama. There are these, the K-Dramas that help in the structural way, the stories around who people are supposed to be because of their race. Those, I think, are stories we’re much more familiar with but also of course, they’re constantly framing the ways in which we read stories and the ways in which we understand people of certain minorities or marginalized identities. I couldn’t really write the book without acknowledging the forces of those things on these people’s lives.

I wanted to be able to frame the story within this understanding that these are powerful forces and that these are stories we’ve heard a lot before, and that these stories get in the way of, or make it hard to understand or even listen to, a more authentic or more real story about who people are or can be. People thought there was no frame of reference for [Jeremy] Lin, and so they weren’t able to see that he could be successful at all.

Rumpus: The novel uses an alternating first-person point of view. Was it a challenge to create separate voices for Won and Carrie?

Salesses: It’s always a challenge for me because character usually comes later than I think it does for certain writers. So many things in our lives affect the ways that we talk, right? Of course, we have our individual voices which are also brought by all those things, and those are things that we’ve lived and they’re real experiences for us. It’s hard to imagine another voice because you have to imagine from the limited experiences that you’ve had. I think it’s always difficult in multiple first-person narrated books to have the narrator seem distinct. As I was revising, I tried to develop a kind of vocabulary for each of the characters.

We have certain territories, terms, jokes that the characters come back to, themes that they’re thinking about all the time. There’s actually a great section in the Milan Kundera book The Art of the Novel about this, where he says that he attaches seven words, or a certain number of words to each character, and this helps him understand how the characters are different because they have different kind of lexicons.

For Carrie, there are the [“It’s a Cake!” videos she follows on YouTube] which is something she finds funny, but also something that represents these larger ideas in life. She has the K-Drama language, and her sister’s cancer, her family dynamic, the producer life. There are all these different things that inform the way that she thinks and talks because, again, she’s a woman in a male-dominated industry.

Then for Won, there’s the basketball angle. He also lives in a different world from her. His words come from K-Town and this kind of bubble within a bubble of the [New York] basketball world. There are all these different ways in which I was thinking about how to make their voices distinct that were also tied to how their worlds are distinct.

Rumpus: It’s interesting that you said you think about characters second because I was very drawn to the characters in this book. This is another character question, and it’s about Robert Sung, who I viewed as a kind of foil for Won. There’s also a sense that Robert is out of place or maybe more uncomfortable with himself than Won is. Can you talk about the difference between those two characters?

Salesses: Yes. Sometimes, I think of Robert as how Asian Americans think of adoptees, as a person within the group, but also somewhat on the outside of the group. As I was writing, I was thinking Won is pretty self-aware. He understands a lot of things, but he really does not understand Robert at all. The things he says about Robert maybe shouldn’t be totally taken as true—that he’s not able to see Robert well also because he’s a foil, right? Robert has been in the same role as Won, and had his career cut short, so he represents a fear for Won—Won thinks, this could be me. Won’s perception of Robert is mixed up with all these other emotions that make it even harder for him to see Robert.

Yet there’s this connection between them because they’re both basketball players, Asian American basketball players, who both played with the same star, understand a lot of the same problems, and there are so few other people like them. In a sense they’re stuck together, there’s no other choices of people to connect with.

Robert is probably the person most like me as well, but I wouldn’t say that he’s very much like me. In a sense I’m asking, what if you took things that were traumas in my life, and then didn’t give the character as much time and space to work through these things because there were other preoccupations in the way?

Robert is somebody who has had some of the experiences that I’ve had but hasn’t really gone to therapy and worked through them. I wanted to include an adoptee, a Korean adoptee in the book because there are so few novels written by Korean adoptees about Korean adoptees. I also knew that he would not be the protagonist of the book. Still, I wanted to think about the ways in which we’re a part of a community without always being accepted as a part of the community. Of course, all the characters are like that in a way. All the characters are part of the community without really being a part of the community.

Rumpus: I think maybe a similar character or companion character obviously in more ways than one for Robert is Brit, who is Powerball!’s wife, but who Robert Sung also seems to be in love with.

Salesses: Yes.

Rumpus: Kind of an insider-outsider. Can you talk about how you came up with her, the idea of her as a character?

Salesses: Yes, the one section from the book comes from these prompts, or at least started as prompts, from Robert Boswell. In my PhD program, we were given these prompts that were sometimes seven or ten pages to write five pages. They were really amazing. One of them was to steal the opening from another book and use it to write the opening of your book. Brit came from Brett in The Sun Also Rises. If I remember right, Robert is also a character in the beginning of that book. There’s this weird antisemitic opening to the book from the narrator who is really not a very good understander of a side character there.

Rumpus: Were those prompts how you started? Was that when you started to write the book?

Salesses: Yes, I started to write the book in that class. I had the idea for this book maybe a year or two before that, and I’d written it down a summary just of Won’s parts, because at the time, the whole idea was only one story. Then in this class, we were reading—I think four books—and we read all the beginnings together, and then we wrote four different beginnings, or five different beginnings for the same novel. Then we read all the middles together and we wrote four different middles, and then we read all the endings together and we wrote four different endings.

It was really interesting because they were all in different forms, and each week, it meant that you had to reimagine the same book in a different structure. All the discoveries we make through revision—there’s a way in which the course was asking me to make a lot of them early on.

I started with the beginning, middle, and end, and to put it together into that. I remember asking [Boswell], “What do I do now? I’ve got these three very distant parts from each other.” He was like, “Oh, you just connect them.” I thought, “Oh, that’s easy to say,” but I didn’t really want to do that, or I wasn’t interested in the connections as much as I was interested in the part that I did.

Then later on I was writing during my wife’s chemotherapy appointments. We had to take her up and down on this train. She was really sick, so she was often sleeping. Then when we got out to the hospital, between treatments, she would often fall asleep again.

The chemo takes days—like three or four days—so I was in this cancer ward with a lot of time to write. I was trying to work on something new because I had so much time, and I remembered the draft that I’d written. I went back to it and I was looking at it, putting it together, putting long parts together, revising that, and I thought, “Oh, well I have to write the rest because I only have like seventy pages or something.”

I still didn’t want to do the connecting part, so I thought, “Oh, you know what? I’ll just write an entire different first beginning, middle, and end of the novel.” Then I wrote Carrie’s parts like that and, after I’d written another 70 pages or something, I tried to fit them together and added and revised according to what I had there.

Rumpus: How long did it take you to write the entire book?

Salesses: Six or seven years, but there was a pretty long period after the first year or so where I wasn’t really working on it. I don’t know maybe four years or something total.

Rumpus: That makes sense. You write something and then come back to it.

Salesses: Once I was writing Carrie’s parts, then I was really working on it.

Rumpus: Are there any authors you see as influences for this book or for your writing in general?

Salesses: When I’m writing, at least for the last few books, I’ve been thinking of them within a tradition of Asian American literature and so trying to make sure that the books are speaking within that tradition—adding to it in some way and also talking to other books that attempt to tell big stories through specific incidents and specific characters. For me, that’s The Woman Warrior all the way through Native Speaker and I Hotel.

They also have a lot of structural moves that are going on, different voices that come in, and the ability to make themselves large. There’s this Kingston quote that plays with the idea of “I contain multitudes,” but I know I’m forgetting it. It’s something like we make ourselves large enough for contradiction.

The Rumpus: What are you working on currently?

Salesses: I’m working on essays. I have a memoir coming out supposedly next year, but probably later than that in reality. I’m still working on that, and then I’m also working on a novel about an Asian American revenge cult. I wanted to write a revenge novel. Right now, it’s just called Revenge Story because that was the working title, but now I like it as a title.



Author photo courtesy of author

Chelsea Voulgares lives in the Chicago suburbs, and is the editor of the literary journal Lost Balloon. Her work has appeared in The Millions, Passages North, Midwestern Gothic, Bust, and elsewhere. You can find her online at or on Twitter @chelsvoulgares. More from this author →