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'The Sense of Wonder' combines the author's love of basketball and Korean dramas


Korean American writer Matthew Salesses has turned his love of basketball and Korean dramas into a novel. It's called "The Sense Of Wonder," with his protagonist, Won Lee, being dubbed The Wonder when he goes on a winning streak for the New York Knicks. Won Lee is the only Asian American in the NBA. Salesses told me he was partly inspired by the Taiwanese American Jeremy Lin, who captivated audiences back in 2012 when he played for the Knicks.

MATTHEW SALESSES: I, as a kid, wanted to be an NBA basketball player, and so it was a really huge moment for me. And it seemed, for maybe a week and a half, that the world was kind of on Lin's side. And - but the whole time, everybody was kind of holding their breaths and some wondering how long this could go on before the backlash happened. And as soon as he lost that first game, there was a racist headline on ESPN and a lot of racist comments, both on TV and on social media, that it seemed almost like people were saving up. And so this happens to Won, too, and he has to kind of deal with the fact that - both that he was living in this kind of bubble of media attention for a short period of time, and then also that the bubble has burst.

FADEL: A lot of this book has Won struggling with the burden of the, quote, "model minority" stereotype and his struggle of when to call out the racism he's dealing with from his coach, from the industry, from the media, versus when to play that role of I'm just happy to be here. I'm a team player. If you could just talk about writing that tension and what you were trying to portray.

SALESSES: That's something that fascinates me about the NBA in general, is there's a sort of language that players have when they speak to the media, which is a very different language than they have when they're talking to each other. And then there's - they're constantly code switching. But in the NBA, that power is always on display. And you kind of forget sometimes - though I'm sure the players don't forget, right? - that this is a business and it's their jobs, actually. And so they have to both protect their work selves while also trying to be true to who they are. And I think that's a really interesting tension, especially when there's so much on the table and when the dynamic can be so racially charged.

FADEL: Another character in the book is an ESPN writer, Robert Sung. He has a connection with Won Lee and also a jealousy. They're both Korean American. Sung is adopted by white parents; Won Lee is not. They both were college and high school basketball players with aspirations to be in the NBA, but Lee makes it as the only Asian American in the league, and Sung doesn't make it. If you could talk about that really fraught relationship and the way they're linked almost no matter what.

SALESSES: Yeah, so they've had similar circumstances. They both played the same superstar, Powerball, who was Sung's high school teammate. Sung was the - you know, the second-best player on that team and eventually ended his career. But he still, you know, is in that world of basketball, and this dream is still alive for him. So he ends up becoming a sportswriter. And in this kind of interesting twist of fate, he ends up being the beat writer for the Knicks. And his job is basically to write about Powerball. Enter into that Won, who now is playing with Powerball and then, for this kind of brief period, rises to stardom and becomes everything that Robert Sung and Won both kind of dreamed that somebody could become. And so there's a lot of jealousy there.

But I also - I'm adopted from Korea, and I've often felt like that dynamic in the Asian American community is kind of a strange and sometimes uncomfortable one. But I kind of feel as if I'm within the community, and I gain a lot of support from the community, but also sometimes feel on the outside because I haven't grown up with the same cultural touchstones. And so Sung is an insider in certain ways, but also an outsider in other ways - right? - even with basketball, but also with his identity.

FADEL: You have three sort of distinct stories going on at the same time - the story of Won, which we discussed at length; the story of his girlfriend, Carrie, the TV producer who's obsessed with K-drama and is trying to bring it to an American audience; and then the story of K-drama itself. Why did you decide to incorporate K-drama as a character in the book?

SALESSES: So the K-drama - K-drama is one of my other great loves.

FADEL: Yeah.

SALESSES: And at some point I thought, I'm going to write this book so that I can say that the things that I'm doing - that I already do and like - are research, so that I can watch basketball and watch K-drama and no one can say I'm not actually writing in some way. But the K-drama then started to be a way that I could see for introducing to readers unfamiliar with this kind of story, a story more driven by fate and a story surrounding a love story and hitting on certain tropes that I wanted to tell. And I thought that if I put these K-dramas in there, that they would help readers understand the frame of reference for the book.

FADEL: I love that, where you're like, I love basketball. I love K-drama. That's going to be the main...


FADEL: ...The main parts of the book.

SALESSES: Sometimes you just got to, like, keep yourself happy and...

FADEL: Yeah.

SALESSES: It's a long process.

FADEL: Yeah. So I don't know if this is giving stuff away, but your last line just made me laugh - sarcastically, probably. But you end this book with this line, this is our story's frame of reference. Now go back and read the book again. Just tell me why you ended the book like that. I just loved it.

SALESSES: Thank you. I'm glad you liked it. I think that on second read, knowing the frame of reference that people might get different things from the book. Sometimes I think we finish a book and we think, now I'm done with it, right? Like, wipe your hands. Move on with your life. But the way that we understand a book is only possible once you've read the entire book. And so I hope that people will think about the things that happen in the story that I was telling now with the frame of reference of understanding the entire story.

FADEL: Matthew Salesses' new book is called "The Sense Of Wonder." Thank you so much.

SALESSES: Thank you so much. This was so wonderful.

(SOUNDBITE OF OJ SON'S "ACCADE DE BALI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.