It’s no surprise that Matthew Salesses turned to basketball for his latest novel, “The Sense of Wonder.”
The author grew up in Storrs, the hometown of the perpetually basketball-obsessed University of Connecticut. He got his bachelor’s degree at the University of North Carolina — Michael Jordan’s old stomping grounds — and his Ph.D. at the University of Houston, where people still talk about the legendary Phi Slama Jama team of the early 1980s.
“I grew up playing basketball, and I played it all through middle school and high school, and then pickup right at the end of high school and through college,” Salesses recalls via phone from New York, where he now lives and teaches at Columbia University.
His love of the sport is apparent in “The Sense of Wonder,” which follows Won Lee, a Korean American point guard for the New York Knicks who becomes a phenomenon when he replaces the team’s star starter after an injury.
Won makes a frenemy in Robert Sung, an ESPN journalist whose own dreams of basketball stardom were dashed after blowing out his knee in a high school game. Won has a much easier (but still not easy, exactly) time dealing with his girlfriend, Carrie Kang, a producer who’s trying to bring K-dramas — South Korean television series — to the States.
The character of Won, Salesses says, was inspired by Jeremy Lin, the former Knicks point guard whose success in 2012 inspired the “Linsanity” phenomenon that swept the nation.
“I started this three or four years after that, and it had been in my mind for a long time,” Salesses says. “At the time, things finally seemed possible even though it was all kind of shut down after a couple of weeks. But for those two weeks, I really felt like we lived in a country of possibilities, the country that they keep promising us we live in.”
Fans thrilling to an Asian American basketball star didn’t have long to enjoy Lin’s success before racism kicked in. After the Knicks lost a game in which Lin turned over the ball several times, the ESPN website ran a headline containing a racist slur; something similar happens to Won in the novel. Salesses, who is Korean American, recalls hearing about the ESPN headline shortly after it happened.
“I remember seeing that headline on the front page the next day and feeling really crappy about it,” Salesses recalls. “It was so disappointing because when he was winning, the coverage was really good. But as soon as he lost, it was as if every bit of criticism that people had been holding onto just came pouring out.”
The character of Carrie also endures racism in the novel and perseveres, because she’s determined to share the K-dramas that she loves with Americans who might not be familiar with them. Salesses shares Carrie’s love of the television genre.
“They’re a lot of fun,” he says. “You know how they’d have special episodes of ‘Lost’ or whatever, where they’re directed by J.J. Abrams or some famous movie director? The K-dramas are all directed like that. The production value is so high and the actors are really good. There’s much less bowing to having to have multiple seasons and cashing in on the series. Instead, they’re just like, ‘I’m going to start the story and end the story and we’re just going to direct everything like a novel.’”
Salesses points to the popularity of “Squid Game” as a sign that other K-dramas could do well in the American market.
“Sometimes I turn on Netflix and there’s a K-drama somewhere in the top 10 international list,” he says. “It’s still trying to get through, I think. But there are a lot more students of mine who are watching K-dramas now than ever before.”
(For readers interested in dipping into K-dramas but aren’t sure where to start, Salesses has some recommendations: “The Lonely Shining Goblin,” also known as “Guardian: The Lonely and Great God,” “Crash Landing on You,” “Twenty-Five Twenty-One,” and “Master’s Sun.”)
Salesses is doing some events for the book, including one that will bring him back to Houston, where he went to graduate school. But he’s also keeping busy teaching his students at Columbia and raising his two children, 6 and 11, following the death of his wife Cathreen in 2018. Salesses says that even as a teacher — and the author of a critically acclaimed nonfiction book on writing, “Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping” — he still learns about fiction with every book he writes.
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“I always tell my students, the hard thing about writing a novel is you only learn how to write the novel that you’re writing,” he says. “And then you start over, and for me, I always think, Oh, I can do this now. Then I realize, no, I actually can’t do this because it’s a different book, and I have to learn how to write that book.
“But it’s a lot of fun. I don’t know if I would keep doing this if it weren’t for the learning, but that’s probably just because I just like to make things hard for myself,” he says with a laugh.