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The subject of this chat is Matthew Salesses . Matthew is the author of a slew of stories, a very tremendous chapbook (“Our Island of Epidemics”), the forthcoming The Last Repatriate as well as the fiction editor of The Good Men Project and the former editor of Redivider. And it was these various roles (that he handles always so brilliantly) that I wanted to talk to Matthew about.

My thanks to Mr. Salesses for helping out with this ongoing series of conversations.

Q: We both went to Emerson, although apparently you were there a little after my time. There’s such a close proximity there between the publishing and the creative writing programs that I want to begin there. From my point of view, I never wanted to spend any time with the literary journals or the publishing students (except for my wife, of course) because at the time I thought a writer should entirely focus on the craft of writing and conjuring the muse, so to speak. I wonder if to any extent you had similar notions or conflicts or if you entered the program thinking about the opportunities offered by writing and editing?

A: When I decided on Emerson, the publishing thing seemed a great asset. It probably was. I didn’t take much advantage of it. I never took publishing courses, though I had a friend who ended up in the publishing program, by chance (she claims), at the same time.

I did, however, get involved with Redivider rather immediately. Part of that was an immediate network of friends that were involved with the journal (I was lucky), and part of that was a desire to enter into a community, which I thought, and probably still do think, was the thing an MFA most had to offer. I actually applied to MFAs only in NYC, San Francisco, and Boston–I didn’t know anything about funding until after the acceptances came with paltry sums.

Redivider was fantastic. A great opportunity, and one of the two best things about Emerson–the other being Margot Livesey. It was so valuable to see the behind-the-scenes process, to see what made a submission rise to the top of the pile or get immediately put aside. I also met most of the people I know now (in the writing world) through the magazine.

Q: Did those behind the scenes processes drastically affect the way you wrote?

A: I think it helped me to keep in mind that someone would be reading what I wrote and looking for a reason to keep reading or to stop. To keep reading, a reader needs to settle immediately into a compelling situation and voice. To  stop, a reader needs only an out-of-place word, or action, or cliche. It’s easy to stop reading. This sounds obvious, but when you are buying books you already know you want to read, it isn’t obvious. It’s only obvious when you are reading in the face of time or obligation.

Q: Did any of the submissions you recieved or writers you worked with at Redivider directly influence your direction as a writer?

A: In issue 7.1, I did an interview with Alexander Chee (author of the amazing novel, Edinburgh). Among other things, he says,

It’s more like teaching people to stay close to their excitement. The thing that I see so many people do with their books is they break it up into all these nutty little pieces where they’re talking to me about character development and backstory. All these phrases that were really just meant to describe something have suddenly become orthodoxies. And they’ve lost their sense of the unity of the thing. They keep asking me, “How do I develop my character?” And I say, “Tell the story?” I feel too many people are working from the wrong end of the stick. They’ve got something very abstract they’re trying to make specific and exciting, and they’re doing it in this Frankenstein’s monster sort of way. So it’s like, “Here’s my backstory sewn onto my character development sewn onto my climax, and now I add the ending and apply electricity!”

This was when I was at the end of my time at Emerson, and to hear this was to articulate a lot of what I felt was wrong with workshops. I think it is eye-opening to hear an evaluation of writing as either exciting or boring (though of course I’m paraphrasing). Exciting/boring is something a reader thinks immediately, but writers are almost trained out of this thinking by workshops. I think that many times when a writer says, more backstory, or try a flashback here, or even I don’t believe this, really what is being said is: make this more interesting. Because if a piece of writing is interesting enough, all those problems fade away. There is a Lynne Tillman quote about how she hates backstory. I am interested in why a reader wants to know more about a character’s history or not, or why a reader questions a character’s believability or not. I think what happens is, if the reader is excited by what she is reading, then those questions never come up, and if the reader is bored, then she wonders why.

I am starting to think that the most helpful critique a writer can get is for her reader to say, these are the parts where I was bored, and these were the parts where I was reading happily. I also think this is a taboo thing to say in a workshop.

I’m not saying you can’t teach writing. I think the tools learned in workshop are helpful once you start thinking about how to increase excitement in the reader–through greater stakes, more conflict, etc. But often the “technical” evaluations made in workshop are made out of a sense of obligation to the workshop setting. It can be hard for a writer to hear her own voice in the chorus of suggestions. Part of the MFA experience is finding those readers you trust and staying in touch with them later.

Q: Earlier you mentioned the importance of finding a “community.” Other than cultivating that handful of trusted readers how has this idea of community affected your writing?

I think that handful of readers is the main way. I’m not sure the community affects one’s writing so much as one’s writing life. The people you meet can provide conversation, support, motivation, opportunities, etc. They might steer your writing in a certain direction if you let it be steered, whether through pressure to publish or desire to be accepted or by stoking interest in a certain style or genre, or so on. And maybe that has happened to me to a certain extent–I write more short shorts than I might have, for example–but mostly the effect is one of infrastructure or something. I’m not explaining this well. What I’m saying is, I *think* my writing is more influenced by what I read than by my personal relationship (if such exists) to a writer, or writers.

Q: To what extent are your decisions as a writer or an editor affected by audience or venue? For instance, has your approach changed at all with your work on the Good Men Project?

I think one’s audience should certainly influence one’s writing/editing. We all know who we’re writing/editing for, even if we say it’s ourself, and even if it is. There is an audience we have an mind. I wrote a thriller last summer. I paid a lot of attention to plot. I gave my characters guns. The whole thing would have been pointless if I hadn’t tried to satisfy a reader who likes thrillers.

Also, it’s not just the writer for whom an intended audience is important. I blew through all those Harry Potter books at about a hundred pages an hour. When I started reading them, I expected to read like a certain type of reader I am not when I read The Alexandria Quartet. We make these adjustments all the time. We are happiest when our expectations are fulfilled.

There was this study done (I was told this, so can’t cite) that showed that people were far more likely to see a movie if the trailer gave away the plot than if it did not. This might seem counter-intuitive–you might think we want to be surprised–but people are mostly interested in seeing things they expect to happen happen.

All of this applies to the Good Men Project, as well. I always want to push the boundaries of a reader’s expectations–that’s what makes a reading experience in any genre, including literary, special–but I don’t want him to feel as if his expectations were misguided.

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