Matthew Salesses Believes Being Better People Makes Us Better Writers
Akanksha Singh interviews Matthew Salesses about his new novel “The Sense of Wonder,” decolonizing storytelling, and what K-dramas can teach us about plot.
Craft in the Real Worldaha
The Sense of Wonder
Akanksha Singh: You chose to tell this story from two points of view—Won’s and Carrie’s—alongside sections dedicated to two different K-drama plots Carrie’s working on. Before we talk about the K-drama as a form, I wanted to ask how you arrived at the decision to have two viewpoint characters.
AS: That’s so interesting! Coming back to K-dramas more generally, I think there’s something to be said about how they’ve garnered a global following, sort of proving that there is room for “unfamiliar” stories—something the novel itself acknowledges. Yet, the novel’s protagonists themselves are constantly brick-walled by their identities. Was it important for you for this book to be about alternative storytelling forms as much as it was about how two non-white characters navigated the world?
AS: If you were to give viewing suggestions to readers who weren’t familiar with the K-drama as a form of storytelling, which ones would you pick?
AS: I thought the structure advanced the story well, and I liked that we saw notable overlaps in time between Carrie and Won’s narratives: it wasn’t one of those books where one character picks up where the last one left off. Knowing what I know now, of how you wrote this, was this deliberate or did it happen organically?
AS: One thing I appreciated about this novel was how it challenged a lot of what Global North readers know/feel/think about storytelling. You write,“Unlike in Hollywood, in Korea, plot happens because of who people are, not what they choose. They have to deal with the circumstances of their lives whether they cause those circumstances or not.” You touch on this in , but can you speak to me about the importance of decolonizing the idea of “plot,” as a writer?
AS: Would you say there’s more space for these decolonized voices in publishing? Have you seen a shift in your own time as a writer?
AS: There’s a character’s death in the novel. There’s a buildup to the death but how it happened was completely unexpected! How do you choose how to kill off a character?
MS: It felt as if the book was leading toward a death. The character [who] dies in the book is the character who is the least supportable character in the book and is also going down a certain kind of path that might lead toward death. Yet I didn’t want her to shoot somebody up or commit suicide. I think what happens to us [in real life] is far less predictable than that most of the time. So, I thought it’d be more both amusing to me and to readers, but also more true to the way that life seems to work.
AS: Do you believe character deaths have to serve the plot? I feel like, a lot of the time, we (mistakenly) believe fiction owes us answers, and I didn’t necessarily get the closure I expected with a lot of characters, which is how real life goes. Do you think that is part of decolonizing our expectations as readers?
MS: For sure, it sometimes seems like a very Western idea. The idea that we have, like, even the sense that in the West, there’s an apocalypse, right? We have this sense of apocalypse coming. But in many cultures, the world kind of just goes in circles, right? There’s no apocalypse, because every ending is also a beginning. Closure’s like that, too. I think we expect closure. We especially expect closure in certain situations like grief, where there is no closure—and closure [itself] often seems very untrue to me. I don’t think actually we get those kinds of stories [with closure] that often, except for when we’re kind of making it up. [Finding closure] in our minds seems much more important to me; [what] we are making of [something] as readers. I think some people will find closure in ways that they want, or maybe ways that they don’t want, in the book. But the book itself is not going to offer something like that, because it doesn’t believe in it.
AS: Another thing that struck me was that a lot of the basketball stuff wasn’t explained in the same way the protagonists’ racial experiences were explicitly spelled out. I’m curious how you go about balancing the identities of your characters as a writer. Do you think we have a duty to let people (especially white people) into our worlds with some hand holding or is it up to them to do the work?
MS: I think it’s about what you want to explain and which audience you’re writing to. Like the basketball, I find it interesting, but it doesn’t really help you understand how to read the story. So I didn’t feel like I needed to explain that. If you know more about basketball, you might enjoy the basketball parts more. I felt I had to explain more of [the K-drama] because I’m using it as a way for somebody to understand how to read the book as they’re going. So, even though I, in some ways, didn’t want to explain that much about how K-dramas work, I felt that it would help explain the “rules” of the book in a way that didn’t feel like it was explaining the rules of the book.
And [with regards to] thinking about and reflecting on incidents of racial tension and aggression in the book, I wasn’t trying to explain how those felt, but rather to show that I understood how they felt—and to reflect the kind of experience that somebody who has had it before can relate to and see meaning in. In real life, we don’t find a lot of meaning in [these experiences]—it’s just a kind of thing that happens [and] brings up trauma. I’m not really interested in re-traumatizing readers, but I am interested in thinking about the ways in which these moments can, on reflection, tell us something about our lives in a way that we often find difficult in the moment.
AS: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to (primarily white) writers incorporating racial minorities in their fiction?
MS: I would say live a life that incorporates BIPOC! Don’t try to do it if you’re not living that life.
Akanksha Singh is a journalist and writer based in Mumbai, where she covers travel, culture, and social justice. She has previously written for the BBC, CNN, HuffPost, and more. Follow her on Twitter @akankshamsingh and read her work at akanksha-singh.com.