There's Just a Page: Writing a Debut Novel
An interview with Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves
The 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize finalist talks with our Writing Programs Director, Sara Batkie, about writing about illness, the American Dream, and Queens as a crossroads. Thomas's book was published in paperback this June. For more information on the First Novel Prize, please click here.
You began work on We Are Not Ourselves while you were in the MFA program at UC Irvine?
Yes, I submitted the first pages I wrote to my last workshop at Irvine, in the spring of 2003, and I sold the novel in the spring of 2013, exactly ten years later. I had written around some of the material in a couple of short stories before I began the novel. So in a sense I was working on it longer than a decade, but a decade is a round number and I don't really want to think about how long it actually took.
I'm curious because you were working on We Are Not Ourselves for so long, what your first entry point into the novel was because it covers so much territory and there's so much that happens.
The very first thing I wrote in the novel was an in medias res moment -- a version of the section in the book where Eileen gives Ed a surprise party for his birthday. I had an idea of the sweep of the life of this character and this family, but I wanted to start somewhere in the middle. There's something useful about getting into the middle of something and looking around to see where you are. I was drawn to that as an entry point.
Eventually I figured out that to create the emotional impact on the reader that I wanted to create, I would need to tell the story of Eileen’s entire life. If the reader had a window into Eileen’s early childhood experiences and the way she spends a lot of her energy seeking a kind of psychic equilibrium, then he or she would understand how Eileen’s husband’s getting this particular, hugely disrupting disease would be like a bomb going off in her life.
One of the difficulties people have in achieving empathy is that between two people there are always the shorthand versions of stories. Other people’s lives are sometimes hard to access with any kind of personal attachment. We hear somebody has a certain disease or has suffered from calamities or misfortunes and we don't go to a context that allows that to resonate. It doesn't seem as alive to us as it does to the person suffering it. I knew that a story of Alzheimer's in the abstract would not resonate as loudly as a story of Alzheimer's in the particular. Ultimately it would matter to a reader much more if he or she knew who Eileen was from the beginning and had a sense of her desperation for a settled life, for normalcy, for upward mobility, for all the things we are encouraged to want and need.
So I went back and I wrote a lot of that material -- that is not the first stuff that I wrote.
Did the novel always start out because you were interested in writing about illness?
Yes, this particular illness. My father suffered from early-onset Alzheimer's. First of all I made peace with writing about Alzheimer's in this novel after just trying many different ways not to write about it, trying to write about other things. I had two different stories in mind at one point, writing about Eileen as a professional woman of her generation at a time when there were so many changes for women in professional life in the 20th century. That story was something I wanted to write about for a long time. And then I decided I wanted to write about Alzheimer's.
I found a way to twin these stories because I accepted that this material that I knew intimately actually quivered with all sorts of significance in a way that would be beyond the personal for me. I could comment on upward mobility generally, on the American dream motif, and on this notion that life is always getting a little better. Alzheimer’s struck me as a way to undercut a lot of the assumptions in that dream. So I was able to get beyond a personal relationship and accept the material as something I had to write about as a novelist.
Can you talk about Eileen as a character? What drew you to her?
I remember as a kid being fascinated by my mother and her colleagues, her friends. She was a working mother who was a professional and also took so much of the responsibility at home in a way that women of her generation were really forced to do.
These women were really superhuman in some ways. I remember also as a youngster being attuned to the fact that this was a time of change. It was something discussed explicitly in the culture at large when I was growing up. So, the impact of feminist thinking on American life in general was always something I was intrigued by.
I wanted to write about a woman in New York in particular because I found New York to be a wonderful cauldron in which a lot of the themes could bubble up: immigration, race relations, class relations. And with Eileen, as the daughter of Irish immigrants, there is the sense that people are always being a little bit set on edge about where they are in relation to where they want to be. This is something I grew up around and saw a lot of. I was interested in the hypocrisy in the way otherwise liberal-minded people might sometimes carry ideas that are not as, let's say, high-minded as their ideals.
For example, when a neighborhood's changing, do people need to leave, and why can't they stay? Things get discussed in terms of security in a literal way. And those become covers for a more uncomfortable reaction to demographic shifts that I think these characters, not Eileen exclusively but also the milieu from which she emerges, might not have been able to articulate but are feeling.
Can you talk about why you decided to set the book in Queens?
I grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens so it was easy for me to write about it. Just as I had to make peace with the material at my disposal in writing about Alzheimer's, I also had to decide actively to write about Queens. I tried to set it elsewhere and I eventually came around to thinking that writing about Queens also provided tremendous opportunities for me because it is such a crossroads, populated by working class people, and middle class people and even some upwardly endowed people, who are basically all living together in close quarters. It doesn't have the glamour of a borough like Manhattan or even lately Brooklyn. It has about it a texture of real life and as a novelist that was extraordinarily interesting and useful.
I noticed in the novel just how important, both to Eileen and to the narrative, the houses are. One moment that really struck me was when they're thinking about moving to the suburbs and Eileen goes to the house out there that’s for sale. It's just a very vivid and very beautiful moment.
Thank you. I think houses occupy such a space in the minds of Americans. The idea of a home and what home represents is so related to our DNA as humans. There's something beautiful in the naïveté of thinking that one can actually improve one's life with a home. If there is anything at all good in that it’s the notion that we're always thinking that something better could be around the corner. And obviously the downside to that is the fact of reality, most of the time. But there can be affection for people's optimism about their circumstances. It doesn’t have to become something we disdain, particularly in cases like Eileen’s where she's thinking of her husband, she’s thinking of her son. She thinks of the house as something that will be a balm for all of them.
Was there anything in the novel that changed as you were writing, the focus or the structure or the story that you were telling?
I think my control of my sentences got better over time; I got to be a better writer. And I learned to write less for the sound of my voice and more for the characters and for the reality of the lives these people were living, to articulate that as well as I could on the page. I think apprentice writing tends to be often more defensive in the prose. And as you mature as a writer you settle into something that's a little more comfortable in its skin.
But certainly structurally over time what happened is I found a way to tell a larger story than the one I was originally telling. I hoped from the beginning to write a book with large themes, but I hadn't figured out a way to do that. I only knew what I had to do was write a domestic story and stay in that. If I got that part right, then I could expand from there. And as I did that I started to see ways to ask larger questions: What is the nature of the happy life? What does it mean to be really happy? How much happiness is inherent in ownership of goods? All of the themes began to present themselves as possibilities as I started writing deeper into the book.
It sounds like a lot of what you were writing about was inspired by your own experiences but did you do any research?
Yes, I researched a lot of New York history. I also did a lot of research into the health insurance practices that were current in those years, the effects of Alzheimer's on the body so that it wasn't just a series of memories of my father dying of Alzheimer's. I wanted to know that what I was telling was accurate in a way that would be useful in a real sense. At the same time I also wanted to try to write a book that could stand free of that research. So it was a delicate balance for me.
Did you have fiction writers that you would read while you were writing?
I wasn't reading this while I was writing but I was always thinking back on One Hundred Years of Solitude because of the way Marquez could get so much done across the generations, the repeating experiences that certain people wouldn't even know they were replicating from an earlier generation. Then Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary because of the complex portraits of female characters and women in a state of conflict. More Anna Karenina than Madame Bovary, probably, because I think Tolstoy is kinder to Anna than Flaubert is to Emma. And Gatsby because of how successful Fitzgerald is at directing larger scenes in the context of the story. When you're reading it you're largely just marveling at how beautiful the story is and how accurate the characterizations are; it’s when you take yourself out that you see how much he's saying about American life and culture. I wanted to try to write a book where big ideas would lurk quietly in the background and not be obtrusive.
And Blood Meridian was something that was always on my mind in the last couple of years, because of just how little Cormac McCarthy is present in that story. He has so much faith in the material and the telling that there's never an interpolation of the authorial consciousness.
And then there’s Alice McDermott. I mean I could go on forever but I won’t. It’s her ability to anatomize the internal lives of characters and demonstrate how their actions are not necessarily always in congruence with their internal lives. At times that she draws your attention to hypocrisy but she does it in a way that's still loving. There's a complicated embrace. She never shrinks from the textures of her characters' lives and internal lives, even at times when they're the farthest thing from heroic.
Yes, I think that's something you also do very well in the book.
I just have one last question for you, and it's the big one: what advice do you have for first time novelists?
I would say as soon as it's possible for you to get into a habit where your writing becomes a regular part of your life, however regular it can be, make it a habit. Because the more it’s a habit the easier it is to keep going. With a caveat, which is to say I think the thing the young writer needs to do is to forgive himself or herself whatever failures have amassed until this point, to be kind to him or herself when a day passes and no writing has happened because it's so hard to write a book and there's so much anxiety and stress around it. Work within the limits of what is available to you psychologically and in terms of your resources, both of time and energy and everything. Do as much work as you humanly can. But when there are days when it's not possible for whatever reason forgive yourself because there's going to be plenty to feel bad about throughout the whole process.
I’d also say write longhand if it’s possible because it give the writer tremendous power over his or her circumstances. There is no need for a plug-in. It doesn't have to be a particular way; it can be just done in a notebook anywhere. And when you write by hand and you don't have your computer with you, there isn't a way to go on the internet because there's no internet to go to. There's just a page.
Matthew Thomas was born in the Bronx and grew up in Queens. A graduate of the University of Chicago, he 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. He lives with his wife and twin children in New Jersey. We Are Not Ourselves is his first novel.