We caught up with author and veteran Putney leader Matthew Salesses to talk about his forthcoming novel The Hundred-Year Flood. Due out in August, Matt’s first full-length novel is a coming-of-age story set in Prague, where he lived for a year and also led our Writing in Prague program in 2014. Roxane Gay calls the novel “epic and devastating and full of natural majesty,” while Kenneth Calhoun writes that Matt “artfully weaves an intricate tapestry, shifting effortlessly between time, place, and identity while exploring all three subjects in the process.” Matt’s nonfiction writing has appeared in NPR Code Switch, the New York Times Motherlode blog, and Salon, and his fiction has appeared in PEN/Guernica, Glimmer Train, and American Short Fiction, among others. He is the fiction editor and a contributing writer at the Good Men Project and the author of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying. During our conversation, Matt shared his thoughts on Prague as setting, the power of fiction and myth, and his advice for young travelers and writers.
Pre-order The Hundred-Year Flood here.
First of all, congratulations on the upcoming publication of your first novel, The Hundred-Year Flood! You’ve been working on it for a long time. Can you talk a bit about how you got the idea for the project and any major ways it has evolved between its inception and completion?
I taught English in Prague for a year in 2004-2005, my first year out of college. Mostly, this meant having conversations while emphasizing grammar and pronunciation. I liked to talk about the myths and superstitions of Prague, which are many and amazing. For example, a hill under which an army sleeps, ready to defend Prague in some apocalyptic situation. One of the myths was a prediction that half of Prague would be destroyed by water and half by fire. In 2002, a “hundred-year” flood (a flood said to come only once every hundred years) destroyed a part of the city. I started a novel in 2004 about the group of expatriates I hung out with. After many drafts, and eleven years, the novel turned out to be more about the myths, the flood, and adoption.
The book centers on the story of a young person leaving home and immersing himself in another culture. What impact do you feel this type of experience has on an individual’s personal development? What about on their writing?
The immersion for me is always also outsiderness. It’s a strange mix. There’s this sense of dislocation not only from where you used to live but from yourself. It can actually be really freeing, though, maybe unlike outsiderness can feel at home. Sometimes you need to step away from yourself to see who you are, I think. The same goes for your writing.
Have you seen this come to pass in your own life? How about with students on your Putney program?
My time in Prague and my time in Korea the year afterward were two of the largest influences on my life and my writing. I think we saw a lot of change in the students we had in Prague last year. For many of them, it also seemed to allow them to be more themselves.
You have spent a fair amount of time in Prague, where The Hundred-Year Flood is set and where you led our Writing in Prague program in 2014. Can you tell us about your relationship to the place and why it seemed like the right setting for your the novel?
Prague is this crazy mix of magic and hard reality. It’s a place that has survived invasion after invasion, a place where you can see architectural periods slammed up right against each other, a place that glows at dusk, a place of religion and pogroms and paganism and Secret Police, a place where Hitler once wanted to create a museum in the Jewish Quarter to an extinct race. Myth and story survive everything, but not as seriously as ironically, it seems to me. There is an imaginary Czech hero named Jara Cimrman who did things like invent an airplane cabin before the airplane, who was once voted representative historical figure or something of the Czech Republic. My novel is invested in these questions of what is real and what is not, and what is maybe realer than reality, what is hidden or made real by myth.
You work in both nonfiction and fiction, and some elements of The Hundred-Year Flood are drawn in part from your own life. What does the art of fiction lend to the ideas you explore in this project?
Well, for one, my time in Prague was a lot less interesting than the story I’ve written. I never fell in love with a woman who inspired a famous artist. The flood happened two years before I got there. In a way, fiction allowed me to put a lot more pressure on the themes and events of my own life. What does love look like if you’re the lover in an affair with a married woman? What if your own father had an affair with his sister-in-law and it led to your uncle’s death? What if you were a more dramatic version of yourself? It would be more fun for readers, and maybe carry more weight for them, as well.
Finally, what advice do you have for young writers? How about for young travelers?
For both: let yourself be vulnerable.