August 5, 2019KR BlogBlogChatsLiteratureReadingUncategorizedWriting

The Most Direct Good: An Interview with Matthew Salesses, Author of Craft in the Real World

This post is the fifth in a months-long series that explores the topic of craft: what it is, how it has evolved, who has historically had access to it, and the ways it is used in the classroom today, among other things. This week’s interview is with Matthew Salesses, author of the forthcoming craft book Craft in the Real World (Catapult Books, 2021).

Matthew Salesses is the author of the novel The Hundred-Year Flood (Little A, 2015). Three new books are forthcoming: Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear: A Novel (Little A, 2020); Craft in the Real World (Catapult Books, 2021); and Own Story: Essays (Little A, 2021). His previous books and chapbooks include I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying (Civil Coping Mechanisms), Different Racisms: On Stereotypes, the Individual, and Asian American Masculinity (Thought Catalog Books), and The Last Repatriate (Nouvella).

Ruth Joffre: What was the first craft book you remember reading, either in part or in full? What did you learn from it (about craft or about craft books as a genre)?

Matthew Salesses: I’m guessing it was John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. There are some useful things in there, especially about psychic distance, if I remember correctly. But the result of reading it was to make me think, at the time, I don’t think these books are for me. I thought I could find my way better by reading widely.

RJ: Knowing what you know now about craft and craft books, what craft books or essays would you recommend to a young writer today who has never read anything about craft? Explain your reasoning and what you hope writers will take away from your list.

MS: Assuming this is an American, I would recommend Margot Livesey’s The Hidden Machinery and Hirohiko Araki’s Manga in Theory and Practice for more traditional approaches, Michael Ondaatje’s The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film for editing, and Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider for an understanding of what writing does and can do in the world.

RJ: Craft as we know it today has largely been defined by institutions—universities, MFA programs, publishers, and literary magazines in particular. This has unfortunately resulted in a narrow definition of craft that perpetuates itself through these systems of power. As an Assistant Professor and the Website Editor of Pleiades (a magazine supported by a university), how do you navigate the tension between working within a system and wanting to change it?

MS: The tension is nothing compared to living in the world.

RJ: In your essay “‘The Reader’ vs. POC” in Gulf Coast, you write, “The danger of MFA programs isn’t a singular style; it is a singular perspective.” This perspective treats every story as if “the reader” is always the same (by default, a straight cis white male). What can individual instructors do to combat this in the classroom? How can MFA programs address this at the institutional level?

MS: We need to talk about A) what culture has to do with craft, B) who we are writing for and why, and C) how power operates in creative writing and the creative writing workshop. On the institutional level, this starts with hiring people who can do this work—not only the work of making but the work of interrogating making—and supporting them with actual resources.

RJ: As Website Editor at Pleiades, you wrote a three-part essay called “What Is Craft and What Does It Do.” That second question (what does it do?) speaks to an important point that does not get discussed enough: craft has repercussions. It affects how we think, how we teach, the language we use to define literature and ourselves. What are some of the repercussions of craft that you’ve seen in the real world?

MS: I’ve been thinking a lot about individualism and the real dangers of thinking it’s the individual who makes things happen or not, rather than historical and cultural context and broad systems of power. We definitely do not have as much agency in the world as characters have in most American fiction. This sense of individualism is tied closely to how we tell and enjoy stories. And sometimes I feel like it is at the base of what has led to the destruction of social support, neighborhoods, the environment… It is so easy for Americans to think “that doesn’t affect me” or “I would do things differently,” instead of facing the fact that it is only their circumstances that allow them to stay free of, say, being locked in concentration camps at the border.

RJ: In your series of craft essays “Some Attempts at (Re)Definition,” you take common craft terms like plot and pacing and redefine them. For example, you redefine “setting” as “awareness of the world.” I’m curious: how would you (re)define “point of view”? What do you hope to achieve through this (re)definition? [Note: I realize your posts explaining these definitions are longer and require a great deal of work, so do not feel the need to answer at length unless you want to.]

MS: POV seems to me less necessary to redefine, at least in general. Right now, it functions as a way of labeling different expectations for narration (1st, 2nd, 3rd, free indirect, omniscient, etc.). It is worth thinking about each individual choice and what lies behind our expectations for, say, a first-person narrator to be more unreliable than a third-person narrator, but generally I find the categorical aspect useful in terms of identification.

On the other hand, I am thinking about what I learned about POV in traditional Chinese fiction, how the narrator and narratee might both show up as characters and complicate expectations about truthfulness and authenticity. I would have to think more about it.

RJ: In many ways, the work you’re doing at Pleiades and with your writing on craft can be seen as a longterm literary citizenship project, because it is changing our collective understanding of craft. Do you think of it that way? What are some other literary citizenship projects that you admire and why?

MS: I have thought of it as the most direct good I can do with my writing. To be honest, I would prefer not to do it, I would prefer to work on my own fiction. But I do think we have literary responsibilities, if not citizenship. I think this because we don’t write in a bubble; we write in the real world. Our writing is read and evaluated in the real world. In that respect, I admire the work of organizations like VIDA, everything Roxane Gay does, the speeches and essays Audre Lorde left us, translators, and programs like Kundiman and the AAWW dedicated to specific communities of underrepresented writers.

RJ: What non-craft books have you read in the past few years that, either through their success or failure, forced you to rethink some aspect of craft?

MS: I keep returning to two books by Han Kang: The Vegetarian and Human Acts. I also read a lot of theory these days, especially psychoanalytic. I doubt a writer could read much contemporary theory without rethinking craft. I give up very quickly on books I don’t like. Most books are not for me. I’m not sure these are failures. I want fiction to account for its place in the world, and, when it doesn’t, it often fits the expectations of some other literary audience perfectly well, just not me or mine.

RJ: Your craft book, Craft in the Real World, is forthcoming from Catapult Books in 2021. How do you envision it contributing to and reshaping the discussion of craft in the larger literary community?

MS: I hope it helps people who need a way of talking about things that on some level they already know to be true. Though I have little hope for the future of our world, I have great hope for the immediate future of writing.