Skip to main content

Author Talk: August 22, 2014

A graduate of the University of Chicago, Matthew Thomas has an MA from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and an MFA from the University of California, Irvine, where he received the Graduate Essay Award. His first novel, WE ARE NOT OURSELVES, was more than a decade in the making, and tells the sprawling story of Eileen and Ed Leary, a wife and husband drawn apart and together again by their complicated relationship with the American Dream. In this interview, Thomas talks about what compelled him to keep writing through all those years --- more practical than mystical --- and offers some advice to aspiring writers. He also discusses how, ironically, his characters were finally able to live when he stopped trying to recreate the real-life people on whom they are based, and why the language of baseball and identity are indefinitely intertwined.

Question: Congratulations on publishing your debut, WE ARE NOT OURSELVES. What has the experience of having your book published been like? Did you find anything surprising? If so, what? 

Matthew Thomas: I’m thrilled to have my book published and grateful that it found a home at Simon & Schuster, with the extraordinary Marysue Rucci as its editor. 

What has surprised me is just how many people play a vital role in getting a book into the hands of readers. Once its writer is done with it, a book owes its eventual existence on shelves to a remarkable team effort by untold talented people --- editors, copyeditors, jacket designers, production editors, sales reps, book reps, publicists, even publishers themselves --- who make crucial, often unsung contributions. 

Q: You’ve said it took you more than a decade to write WE ARE NOT OURSELVES. What made you keep writing? Do you have any advice for aspiring writers? 

MT: I kept going because I didn’t want to regret not finishing it. I’d invested a great deal of time, energy and spirit in it and passed up many other opportunities while working on it. I think of that famous line of Macbeth’s: “I am in blood/Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” I would say “I had to finish it,” but I’m uncomfortable invoking the idea of a ferocious creative mandate that needed to be fulfilled, because I think that’s too hifalutin a notion to describe an activity, novel writing, that’s more often like long-haul trucking than some ineffable mystical experience. It’s closest to the truth to say that not finishing it would have dealt my psyche a blow whose imagined pain was worse than the considerable frustration of facing my limitations every day. 

To aspiring writers, I would say: Don’t give up. It’s never too late. You’re never too old. The success of others is proof of the possibility of your own success. There’s enough opportunity to go around. When you’ve taken your book as far as you can take it on your own, and at least one trusted person has read it and provided feedback that has allowed you to see its flaws clearly and attend to them faithfully, and you know it’s ready, really know it’s ready, it will find a home. Despite the doomsday scenarios we hear about the death of reading in general, there will still be people looking to publish good books whenever you’re done with yours. Having a day job helps take the pressure off your earning a living as a writer while you’re working on your book. Take as long as you need. Go alone down the stormy peninsula of your thoughts and trust that when you return there will be someone at the other end of your travels and you won’t regret the journey, however discouraging or frightening it might be at any given moment. 

Write by hand, if you can. It’s the easiest way to eliminate distractions, and it provides tremendous forward momentum, because it’s harder to stop and edit when you’re writing by hand, and it’s especially difficult to get caught up in trying to perfect every sentence as you write it. Writing a first draft on a computer often yields the spectral experience of watching your sentences disappear off the screen shortly after you write them, because they’re seldom just right the first time and if you give yourself any chance to get rid of them, you will do so. It’s harder to delete bad sentences when you handwrite; you really have to cross them out a lot, and a vestige of them remains behind despite your best efforts. And that’s good. Because when you go back and look later, with a kinder eye than you possess in the white heat of composition, at the first sparks the unconscious mind threw off, you often find something in them worth preserving. 

Q: Chad Harbach calls your protagonist Eileen Leary “a real addition to our literature,” praising her as a “mother, wife, daughters, lover, nurse, caretaker, whiskey drinker, upwardly mobile dreamer, retrenched protector of values.” She’s so vividly rendered that she feels familiar. How did you come up with her character? Is she based on anyone in your life? If so, can you tell us a little about them? 

MT: Eileen was rooted originally in my mother, who is a more dynamic and complex person than I could ever have hoped to capture on the page. Eventually I found creative freedom in letting Eileen be who she wanted to be. In general, the novel came fully to life when I allowed my characters to be characters and abandoned any attempt to mimetically reproduce the fathomless humanity of any individual person. 

Beyond my mother in specific, I was also trying to evoke the spirit of some of the women I’d admired when I was growing up: strong, career-minded women at the forefront of the next wave of feminism making historic inroads into a male-dominated professional hierarchy. 

Q: Eileen’s story manages both to be highly personal and universal. Publishers Weekly praises it in a starred review, saying Eileen’s “life, observed over a span of six decades, comes close to a definitive portrait of American social dynamics in the 20th century.” Did you do any research about American social history while you were writing WE ARE NOT OURSELVES? 

MT: Writing about New York is almost by definition writing about American social history, because New York is freighted with so much significance in the American imagination and perhaps the human imagination in general. The city bears the weight of nearly limitless thematic importance as a symbol of capitalism, immigrant opportunity, decadence, urban decay and renewal, race and class relations, and inequities in the distribution of resources. I wanted to render New York as accurately as I could on the page, so I ended up doing a good deal of research into the city’s history, the history of Queens in particular. I researched immigration patterns, to see which neighborhoods different ethnic groups settled in, because I wanted to place my characters correctly on the map. I researched the manufacturing sector in New York, to see what was sold and where, because manufacturing jobs --- paints and pigments, watches, the garment and meatpacking districts, the millinery industry --- were the incubator of the middle class in the area, and the loss of those jobs was the loss of that incubator. One thinks immediately of Detroit when one thinks of the collapse of manufacturing, but the boost given Ed by the manufacturing sector was once fairly typical in New York, and its loss had an impact on social mobility. 

I consulted box scores, recaps and newspaper articles to learn as much as I could about the specific New York Mets games that appear in the novel. This was more than a diversion for me. I see baseball as being woven inextricably into American social history. For years, baseball was a point of entry into American culture for immigrants who found they could share a language with established Americans in the joys and tribulations of fandom. And it was a primer for many males in the performance of the rituals of masculinity, beginning with stickball or Little League or the catch with Dad, and continuing, the idea went, into one’s relationship with one’s own child. Baseball fandom became a signifier of one’s willingness to assume certain ratified, prescribed male roles. And affections for teams were tribal, and epic in scope. If a girl’s father was a Yankees fan, then she was a Yankees fan. That bone-deep identification is fertile territory for fiction, because it activates the most basic impulse of storytelling. This is who I am --- a Yankees fan.

The kind of research I found most compelling (aside from the fun of figuring out which styles of watches, cars and clothing were popular at different junctures) was the sort not readily available in documentary texts, the sort James Joyce wrote back to Dublin about when he was composing from abroad. What’s the name of that store on the corner? How far is it from such and such a church to such and such a house? The facts on the ground. The Internet is an extraordinary resource for this kind of thing. Google Earth is a miracle for fiction writers. But nothing is as fruitful as naked-eye observing. So I went to sites and looked around. I got a feel for places whenever I could. 

Aside from my research into New York, I researched nursing practices, the state of medical insurance practices and Medicaid and Medicare law in the last couple of decades, the history of the development of Alzheimer’s drugs, intake procedures for nursing homes and the effects of Alzheimer’s on the bodies of sufferers, including the rates of deterioration and so forth. But I never wanted to write a case study. I sought to write a novel first, and a novel that had to do with Alzheimer’s, second. 

Probably the most productive research I did was simply interviewing friends and family members. Eyewitness accounts might lack the rigor of historical sources, but they preserve an unusual amount of the rich human texture of the past. 

Q: It’s apparent that Ed loves teaching and that, until his illness manifests itself, he’s widely respected by both his students and colleagues. How did your own experiences in the classroom inform Ed’s character? 

MT: Teaching at a Jesuit school, where an ethic of service is inculcated not just in the students but in the faculty and staff, gave me insight into how a teacher like Ed, who is so dedicated to his students, might think. Ed derives genuine spiritual sustenance from his work, and I’m not sure I could have understood that if I hadn’t been a teacher myself. Teaching is a job in which something critical --- the molding of the minds of others --- is always at stake in the routine performance of the task. In its purest form teaching is a vocation, and as is true with the performance of any vocation, you get back from it more than you put into it, even when you put a lot into it and even when it’s not always “fun.” It’s a privilege to teach. It’s a privilege to spend all day helping people with their writing and their thought processes. And it’s a privilege to discuss books with developing minds.

I remember thinking, early in my career, when we were digging into “Ozymandius,” What an extraordinary thing this is, to be standing here talking about this poem with these young people at one in the afternoon. I never forgot that feeling, even when exhaustion made the profession a challenge. Certainly, grading papers late into the night, and experiencing the foggy mind that results from sleep deprivation, enabled me to write my way into the section where Ed is having a hard time getting his lab reports graded. 

Q: When WE ARE NOT OURSELVES was first acquired for publication, you told Page Six, “I’m humbled…Working on it for more than a decade, I faced a lot of self-doubt and threw out hundreds of pages.” Clearly, your writing process involved a lot of self-editing. Can you tell us more about it? Did you know how the novel would end when you began writing? 

MT: There was an enormous amount of self-editing, particularly in the final two years of composition. Self-editing, in fact, was part of what made the book take longer than I would have liked. When I began the book, I was writing by hand, but I switched to the computer about halfway through and found that I was editing everything as I wrote it and not getting enough forward momentum. It was only when I switched back to hand-writing that I began to make a real dent in the story. 

I had an idea of how it would end, and I progressed toward that ending, though the textures of the idea changed in the course of my writing the scenes leading up to it. Part of the pleasure of writing a novel is watching your initial conceptions evolve as the characters guide you in different directions than you’d imagined going in. 

Q: Charles Bock calls WE ARE NOT OURSELVES “a true epic in the best sense of the word.” Were there great American epics that inspired you while you were writing? What were they? 

MT: INVISIBLE MAN. THE GREAT GATSBY isn’t epic in size, but it’s epic in scope, and the dream Gatsby pursues is the quest of an epic hero. MOBY DICK. LIGHT IN AUGUST. BLOOD MERIDIAN. THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN. THE ADVENTURES OF AUGIE MARCH. THE GRAPES OF WRATH. AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY. IRONWEED. LOLITA. John Berryman’s THE DREAM SONGS. William Carlos Williams’ PATERSON. MRS. BRIDGE and MR. BRIDGE together form an epic of ordinary lives. CHARMING BILLY. The Rabbit Angstrom books. The first two of Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe books, THE SPORTSWRITER and INDEPENDENCE DAY, had a big influence on me. THE MOVIEGOER. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. BELOVED.

Q: Each of Ed’s friends and family members reacts differently to his illness, and you present each of their reactions with great empathy. How were you able to do so? 

MT: I tried to take cues from the characters themselves in presenting a range of possible reactions that might capture the manifold ways people handle bad news. Within scenes I saw that each character would respond in his or her own way, according to the logic of how I drew them, and I tried to let them have autonomy to an extent. I think presenting them empathetically was made easier because I wasn’t writing a book that was trying to skewer anyone. I was trying to capture some of the truth of the lived experience of a people in a particular place and time --- a tribe, a dominant culture, a subculture, whatever you choose to call it --- as best as I understood them. Basically, I tried to love all my characters with a full heart without turning a blind eye to their flaws, prejudices or failings. The more I let go the reins of how they would be perceived or judged, the more human they became and, I hope, the more lovable, despite their sometimes unsettling idiosyncrasies and predilections. 

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from Eileen’s story? 

MT: I hope readers will find solace in reading about another person going through what Eileen goes through and coming out the other side. I hope the book inspires people to feel hope in the face of despair and believe it’s possible to preserve dignity amid experiences that profoundly reduce one’s power and dignity. I hope it leads them to conclude that we’re always capable of learning something, even the most intransigent among us and even late in life; that, while people might never really change, they can evolve into more loving versions of the selves they already are. I hope it might make some readers who live lives outside the margins of what the media considers “important” feel recognized and perhaps less alone. And I hope it inspires people to value the time they have, and their relationships, and maybe give the people who matter to them a hug. 

Q: Are you working on anything now? Can you tell us about it? 

MT: I’m writing a novel about a different kind of family from the one in my first book. It, too, is rooted in the lives of its characters. I don’t intend to spend 10 years writing it, that’s for sure. But who knows? We can control only so much in life.