Matthew Salesses: Setting Restrictions Leads You to Narrative Possibilities
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
In this episode, Mitzi talks to Matthew Salesses about his new novel, The Sense of Wonder.
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From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: You said something about having to see the whole novel in front of you as you write. And I think some people write as they go because they haven’t figured it out. And it sounds like you didn’t totally figure it out either with The Sense of Wonder, because you worked on part of it for a while and then came back to it years later. Can you talk more about that?
Matthew Salesses: You know people often say that the beginning is the last thing that you write for a novel, or the last thing that you get right for a novel. And I found that often to be the case. And so, I don’t think it’s about understanding really what the novel is going to be, but more about imagining where it might go. When you’re writing that beginning, you know, I’m always trying to pack in a lot of possibility and a lot of rules for what it looks like to read the book, and a lot of voice and a lot of characterization and a lot of expectations for what could go on, the stakes, all of these things have to go into the beginning of a novel.
And so, you know, there’s a sense in which you’re narrowing the infinite possibilities of what a blank page can be into certain doors you might go through in a novel. And so, each time I had to do this, I had to think, if I fit this all the whole novel into an hour or a day or something, then it’s going to look different, right? Even if some similar things happen, or if the same themes are going over, I’m going to need to figure out how to set up those rules and how to even conceive of the novel in that time space. And if I’m going to write everything in these one- or two-page chapters, then I’m going to have to think of it in a different way than if I’m writing something more like Age of Innocence.
So, each of these kinds of restrictions then limit the infinite possibilities but in a different direction. So, each time I had to think, if I want to write a story about this Asian-American NBA basketball player, how do I conceive of a beginning that can tell this story in the the novel form that we’re looking at? And so it wasn’t that I could kind of think of the entirety of the novel in specifics, but sort of in a sense of, what could it be. And in the end I had to go back and rethink things many times before I could have a draft that I could show someone.
Matthew Salesses is the author of eight books, including The Sense of Wonder, the national bestseller Craft in the Real World, and the PEN/Faulkner Finalist and Dublin Literary Award longlisted novel Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear. He also wrote The Hundred-Year Flood; I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying; Different Racisms: On Stereotypes, the Individual, and Asian American Masculinity; The Last Repatriate; and Our Island of Epidemics.