Doubles, Fiction, and the George Costanza Method: An Interview With Matthew Salesses

Matthew Salesses

Since the beginning of 2020, a pair of books by Matthew Salesses have reached bookshelves wherever books are sold. On the surface, they couldn’t be more different. Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear is a distinctive spin on the idea of the fictional double, blending the surrealism inherent in the concept with a harrowing take on contemporary politics. Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping offers a stunning take on how fiction and writing are taught, and where some of the foundations of the form fall short. I talked with Salesses about the writing of both books and whether they helped to shape one another — and what George Constanza had to do with it all.

You’ve had two books come out in the span of a year, one fiction and one nonfiction. Did the two inform one another at all? Were you working on both simultaneously? 

I was writing a lot of Craft in the Real World while working on the novel, and many of the questions that I had while trying to figure out why I was writing Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear went straight into the kind of things that I was figuring out in the classroom as well. And so as I was figuring things out on the Craft side, I was also thinking them out in order to implement them in Doppelgänger. And as I was figuring things out in Doppelgänger, I was also kind of trying to figure out how to import that into the classroom as well.

Have you ever had a point where the theorist version of you and the writer version of you find themselves to be in conflict, somehow?

Not really? No, it seems strange to me even to say that to myself. It seems like I would have more conflict? Self conflict? I have plenty of self conflict, just maybe not in that area. I think if it came down to it though, I’d just be trying to figure out what I really stood for. I mean, that’s always what I’m trying to think around, and maybe that’s why there’s not much conflict in those areas. 

I’ve definitely had similar things happen where I’ve tried to write out what, for me, makes for an interesting story. And then I’ll be sitting down and writing a story and thinking, “Okay, am I actually following my own guidelines here?” Am I basically describing the same aesthetic that informs the fiction?

Like you’re trying to justify it or something. I mean, I think about that a lot. I was just tweeting about this recently, where I was thinking maybe, there’s a whole book to self justify, maybe [to] convince myself that fiction really is as powerful as I kind of just hope it is.

There is a long cultural history of doppelgängers and doubles, and there’s a long literary history of doppelgängers and doubles.What first drew you to that? Were there particular works that inspired you, or were there elements of doubles and doppelgängers that you felt you hadn’t seen something really grappling with and you wanted to step into the fray yourself?

I hadn’t read a lot of the doppelgänger literature, I think, when I started writing the Doppelgänger novel. It just seems like a way to explore my own kind of life experience. Doppelgängers already seemed to me, maybe too on the nose to talk about my own life as an adoptee. And so, I was kind of coming to the doppelgänger literature while I was writing the book and kind of reading Dostoevsky and Saramango and these other books that came afterwards for me. I was more just trying to explore what’s troubled me, and that always seems like a kind of double life, where at the point of adoption, your life just splits in two. It seems so arbitrary and full of outside forces and not within your control. It always felt like, to me, that that other life was continuing somewhere with or without me, and so doppelgängers just seemed like an easy way, or a fruitful way, to explore that.

You have the narrator and his double, but then you also have a character who shares your name, who seems very, very different from you. Did you kind of always have this sense of both doppelgängers and this sort of metafictional counterpart of yourself who’s also not a metafictional counterpart of yourself? 

No, definitely not. That was a way of trying to show that I had personal stakes in the narrative. That character’s name was, I think it was Walter Parsons, for a long time, for years, and I just thought it was funny that as the last name, that sounds like ‘person.’ And by the other part of it, Walter was close to my confirmation name. And so, it was just somewhat a play on my own identity in terms of that. 

At a certain point, I thought, who would kill off these doppelgängers of me? When I was thinking about who kills them off, I thought, “Oh, well, it’s like a kind of a version that buys totally into white death.” And, for me, that was pretty personal, of course, because of adoption and having a white name, and growing up in a white family. And so I need to just kind of go all the way, and make it clear that this really is something that has real life consequences or meaning.

I feel like with the doppelgänger novels or with metafiction, it seems like a kind of game. It’s fun and games, and it’s like a thought experiment because I don’t have to take responsibility for these fictional characters. But for me, it feels very real, and it has really serious consequences. And I was kind of resentful of the way some people felt, like they had the privilege to just play around with this idea of having a fictional life. The fictional life often seems more real to me than the life that people tell me is real.

There are aspects to the book that feel very realistic, and there are aspects of the book where it gets very surreal. As someone who reads both realistic and fantastical books, I’m always curious, did you kind of have a sense of what the ground rules of the world that you were writing about here were going to be, or was it more intuitive? 

I did not know any of that was going to happen. I started the novel, I’ve said this in other interviews, but I started it with a self prompt, and I often do this. At the time, The Hundred Year Flood was not selling, and I’d done many major revisions on it, and I felt kind of depressed about it. And I thought, “Oh, well, maybe it’s just like I have bad instincts, and so I’m just going to do the George Costanza method where anytime there’s a plot point, I’ll just make something happen that’s exactly what I would normally do. I’ll make the most unexpected thing for me happen.” And so, that’s how we ended up going to the wall, and things were kind of disappearing and reappearing again, and even the doppelgängers, it just came out of this one thing that I was trying to do in order to write what I thought would be a more successful novel.

And then after I had done that, the walking through the wall, that seemed cool, but the rest of it… There were so many disappearances and reappearances and they made very little sense, and they were only really shocking the first or second time they happened, not endlessly. And so then I had to figure out why I had done that, why I had thought that was the thing I wouldn’t ever do, and why that seemed to feel unexpected to me. And so a lot of it was just trying to figure out if disappearance is this thing for me, that I thought I wouldn’t go to, what does that mean for the book?

Throughout the novel, you have characters who are writers, and there’s one section where it’s told in an epistolary manner. Did your views on methods of storytelling inform this book, and did writing this book change any of your views on different methods of storytelling one could use?

It definitely did it. With Hundred Year Flood, even in the formatting of the book, I wanted everything to look pretty uniform, so that even when it was in different media, it all kind of looked the same and it was like a kind of continuous text. But with Doppelgänger, you can see it turns into different forms, and I asked for as much to go on as possible. And they very wisely said, “Well, we can’t have 20 different fonts on the page, maybe five?” I thought, “Okay, fair enough. You know, I guess we could narrow it down a little bit.” But I did want to kind of represent what seems to me often, like we’re living in this world where we’re interacting with all of these different kinds of texts all the time.

And there’s a kind of fiction that is an escape from that, and there’s just kind of this one dreamlike text without interruption. And then there’s fiction that is all about digression, interruptions, and kind of tries harder to represent the massive world that we live in. And so, I wanted to write that kind of novel this time.

During the pandemic, have you been writing? Have you found that it’s changed your writing at all? And have you been working on anything new?

It took me a really long time to write. And oddly, I felt okay reading. And then there was a period where I couldn’t read or write, and now I’ve been writing for the last, maybe, five or six months? But reading less, except for classes, which always makes me wonder, is it really reading less because you’re reading for class all the time. You’re still reading all the time, but it’s never anything new. But I’ve been working on a novel about a Jeremy Lin-type Asian American basketball star, and a woman who produces Korean dramas. So it’s a kind of mashup of love and dusk. I really wanted to use the title Love and Basketball, but the movie has really ruined that for me. But yeah, it’s like a K-drama/basketball mash-up.

Before I had enough head space to read and write and watch TV, and do multiple kinds of stories at once. But now, I have only enough head space to do one of those things at a time.

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