Not long ago, Matthew Salesses learned a lesson, cherished by many writers, that truth can be stranger than fiction. Unfortunately, he had to learn it through a relationship (and a literal) trial by fire.
As it turns out, he said, the story of accidentally setting his wife’s hair ablaze — while in the act of apologizing for accidentally breaking her hand in a slammed door — made for pretty good material.
“In fiction, you’re always trying to make it feel like an event could actually happen,” said Salesses, whose stories have been published in “American Short Fiction,” “Glimmer Train,” and elsewhere. “When you’re writing something that’s already true, people just accept it, even if it seems insane.”
He certainly has enough real-life material to write about. For the past two years, Salesses, a faculty and staff assistant at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), has been balancing a full-time day job with a thriving, productive writing career he pursues by night. In December, he learned he would soon be adding another ball to his juggling act: fatherhood.
Although trained in fiction writing, Salesses, 29, has been chronicling his young marriage, and now the road to parenthood, at the online men’s magazine The Good Men Project, where he also serves as fiction editor. Like his fiction, his “Love Recorded” column injects a sharp dose of insight into everyday domesticity. When he writes of himself and his wife, “We are worriers,” it’s a sign of both their impending-birth anxieties and Salesses’ tendency to read meaning into the most mundane events.
“I wasn’t interested in writing memoir at all, until I started writing this column,” he said. “Now I almost enjoy it more than fiction.”
Salesses was born in South Korea and adopted by American parents at age 2. He grew up in Storrs, Conn., and attended the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he studied English and creative writing.
After college he decided to teach English abroad, first in Prague and then in South Korea. He spoke no Korean, and ate Frosted Flakes for three weeks because he couldn’t figure out how to order food.
“It was awful,” he said. “I lost 20 pounds.”
Salesses met another English instructor, Cathreen, a Korean woman who would become first his translator, then his wife.
“There was a period of time where she was like, ‘I’m never going to marry an American,’ ” he said with a laugh. “I think at the end of that period she still didn’t like America, but she liked me.”
He moved back to the United States in 2006 to pursue an M.F.A. at Emerson College, where he worked closely with novelist Margot Livesey and edited “Redivider,” Emerson’s literary journal. The period was fruitful; he has already published a book of flash fiction, “Our Island of Epidemics,” and has a novella, “The Last Repatriate,” coming out this fall.
After graduating, he took the job at HKS, organizing weekly seminars for the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy, and assisting Christopher Jencks, Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy, and Jane Mansbridge, Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values.
He’s grateful to have a day job at Harvard, but recognizes that as a writer he’s had to embrace a double life.
“There’s no career path for this,” he said.
Still, Salesses wouldn’t be the first person in his position at HKS to crack the code of the literary world. In 2009, Jencks and Mansbridge’s former faculty assistant, Paul Yoon, published a collection of stories, “Once the Shore,” to rave reviews, including in the New York Times Book Review.
For now, Salesses is busy editing a manuscript for a novel and preparing for baby Grace, due July 4. But the arrival of a new daughter won’t deter Salesses from his writing, he said.
“I think writers are always thinking about writing as high a priority as anything else in their lives, or they’d quit,” he said.