Debut Authors / Fiction / Interviews

Q&A with Matthew Thomas

Matthew Thomas wrote his debut novel, We Are Not Ourselves, over the course of ten years. During this time he finished graduate school, moved back east, met and married his wife, taught English to a lot of teenagers at Xavier High School in Manhattan, and had twins. That’s some serious backstory at work—and some serious work. We Are Not Ourselves hits the shelves this week, and Thomas was good enough to take some time to talk to Bloom about some of what went into its making, the Alzheimer’s Association, Mrs Bridge, Mets vs. Yankees, and fathers who leave skulls—not their own—to their children.

Bloom: You worked really hard on this novel for eight years before you showed it to anyone, including your wife. How did you keep yourself believing in it in the absence of feedback?

Matthew Thomas: If you pay enough attention to the rhythms of sentences, paragraphs, and books, you eventually develop a version of the “shit detector” Hemingway sees as essential to all good writing. An ability to see what wasn’t working was probably my greatest ally when I was writing without feedback. It gave me faith that I wasn’t going down blind alleys.

Seeing what there was to fix streamlined the editing process for me. In the middle of writing the book, I could see I had a lot of work ahead of me, and I figured potential readers were probably going to tell me the same things I was telling myself, so I simply cut that step out by deciding to keep the book to myself as long as possible. I wanted to be as hard on the book as I could, for as long as I could, until I handed it over. Teaching made it easier to see the weak areas, because in spending the day analyzing stories with the kids and going over how to improve their essays, I inhabited a mindset not unlike the one an editor would bring to a text.

And then, after I turned the book over to my early readers, I quickly saw that no matter how honed you think your own perceptions are, no matter how clearly you think you see your work’s flaws and blind spots, there are always problems you’re unaware of. . . .

Eventually there came a time when I would read the book over and not hear the nagging voice that had told me to change this, fix that, cut this, add to that. I found I was just reading it. That was when I knew it was time to send it out.

Bloom: Speaking of your wife, she’s a hero twice over—going back to work so you could take the time off when your kids were babies, and taking on extra familial duties when you went back, so that you could write at night. Obviously the novel’s publication and reception gives this story a happy ending, but how was it, on your end, being the recipient of that kind of faith?

MT: During my leave of absence to finish the book, my wife ran her business, I wrote, and between the two of us we took care of the babies. When I went back to teaching, things got much harder. The book wasn’t done, and I needed to write whenever I wasn’t grading papers or planning lessons. That often left my wife alone with the kids, who were by then older, more mobile, and generally harder to handle. I tried to finish as quickly as I could, but I also wanted the book to be as good as I could make it. Every month that passed that I wasn’t done left me feeling guiltier and my wife more exhausted and disappointed that there wasn’t a break in the intensity of our lives. We were both drained and our nerves were frayed. We’d gone all in on this and sacrificed a lot for each other. It was a great relief to finish the manuscript and an even greater relief to find an agent who wanted to represent it.

Bloom: This novel is going touch the nerves of a lot of caregivers and family members, and I’m sure you’ll be hearing from people with their own stories and questions. Are there any particular organizations you want to steer people toward?

MT: There’s no arguing with the work the Alzheimer’s Association does. They’re fighting the good fight. They provide a host of valuable resources—support groups, practical information, action plans, Safe Return. They do important advocacy work. They sit at the crossroads of all the efforts to cope with, educate people about, and find the cure for this disease. Anyone looking for a philanthropic cause to support would find a worthy one in the Alzheimer’s Association.

Bloom: One thing I haven’t heard mentioned much in terms of the novel’s family dynamics is that it’s also an only child’s story—if Connell had had brothers or sisters, his experience with Ed’s illness (and Eileen’s, of course) would have been so different. Similarly, Eileen is also an only child in a time when that wasn’t the norm for immigrant families. There’s a huge shift over the course of the book in both characters from selfishness to a sense of oneself as situated in a bigger picture—do you imagine that was a harder journey for two only children?

MT: I think it was a harder journey, and I made a deliberate choice to isolate both Eileen and Connell in this way, for the sake of dramatic tension and thematic cohesion, and because it just felt like the right choice for the book. It took some imagination on my part, because I have a sister and have always seen the world through the lens of someone with a sibling. But once I made the decision to make them only children, the rules of the book cohered around that decision.

I do think it’s harder for them to come to a place of empathetic understanding, particularly Connell, who isn’t forced into service at a young age the way his mother is. When he’s given his chance to serve, he grabs it to the best of his ability, but since he still has some developing to do, he flubs his opportunity. I think if he’d been only a few years older when he was dealt the hand he was dealt, he would have handled it differently, been more mature about it. That emotional fallout is one of the many casualties Ed’s illness inflicts on the psyches of his loved ones.

Eileen’s having been an only child informs both her constant comparison of herself to others—that seeking of a normative standard that only children are often subject to—and her desire to gather a critical number of people around her as often as possible. It also informs her determination to see her life as a series of choices she makes, and to understand her tribe as comprised of the people closest to her in blood or predilection. It’s only when the choices are not hers to make—when fate moves her around at will and she is reduced to her most primal feelings—that she begins to evolve into someone who sits back a bit and sees the larger tapestry of life that she, as a small detail among many, is woven into.

Bloom: Connell’s name offers an explicit reference to Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, and Eileen herself a more implicit one. She’s something of the anti-Mrs. Bridge, deeply determined not to be passive about anything—often making her life more difficult in an effort not to bend. Still, the seeds of that generation—Eileen’s parents’ generation—are in her; Mrs. Bridge lives that genteel life she aspires to. Did you have additional reasons for using Connell’s name?

MT: One reason I invoked Evan S. Connell in this book is simply that I have such high regard for him as a writer and for Mrs. Bridge as a book. He’s an extraordinary crafter of sentences, and it’s impossible to read a single paragraph of Mrs. Bridge and not feel oneself in the presence of an artist working the language like a musical instrument. But the remarkable thing about Connell’s prose style is that no matter how lush and artful the language is, it’s always in the service of furthering the story and advancing characterization. Richard Yates, John Williams, and Paula Fox come to mind alongside Connell as writers whose sentences overwhelm you one after another with their eloquence but never trumpet themselves or announce their presence on the page.

Eileen and India Bridge do share at least one characteristic: the desire not to look too closely at their lives. Neither is given to much introspection, though in Eileen’s case introspection is, I think, something she instinctively fears, for the implications that might ensue from it, rather than something that has been more deliberately scared out of her by society, which I think is the case with Mrs. Bridge. We see Eileen thinking things through fairly lucidly almost despite herself. Her increased access to interiority is partly a function of her coming a generation later than India Bridge. Society has permitted her more introspection, though it is still trying to relegate her to a bit player in the larger drama of her times. She is asserting her right to take center stage.

Bloom: A decade in anyone’s life brings some major shifts in worldview. Were there parts of We Are Not Ourselves that you had to go back and rework as your consciousness changed over that decade?

MT: There were a few parts I wrote at the beginning that I rewrote about halfway through. Then, recently, I rewrote them again. Both times, the earlier text revealed a deficit of perspective and experience. And there are parts I could never have written had I not been a parent myself. I lacked the insight into that slice of human experience. It’s humbling to realize that a lot of what you thought you knew you never actually knew. It makes you wonder how you’ll feel down the road about what you think you know right now.

Bloom: You dealt with some serious sleep deprivation while finishing up the novel. What are your preferred methods for writing through exhaustion?

MT: Tea. Lots of it. And maybe staying up late enough and for the unconscious mind to assert itself. The hardest time to write is around two in the morning, when it might still be reasonable to turn in. Your throat starts to hurt; you’re sure you’re getting sick; your head feels like a sponge. You get acid reflux for some reason. It’s as if you can physically feel your body breaking down. After 2:30 or so—well, there’s something that happens when it’s late enough and you’re really, unbelievably tired, and you have a word count that you’re determined to hit for the day. It’s not a second wind, exactly, though it feels like it, somehow. You’re desperate to get your work done and fall into bed for a few winks, and you start to focus, maybe out of fear of what you’re doing to your body and how you haven’t gotten a lick of good work done though you’ve been sitting there since midnight. You begin to just write. You stop thinking so many conscious thoughts and begin to let the work come out of you. The inhibition that dominates when you’re at your best mentally, that interpolating editorial consciousness, goes by the wayside, and you find yourself just writing.

Bloom: You’re a fan of writing by hand—what are your preferred tools?

MT: Uniball Super Ink pens or Pilot G-2 07’s. I find it hard to write with ballpoints. The pen doesn’t move quickly enough across the page. And I use spiral bound notebooks with perforated sheets, so I can make the especially terrible passages disappear wholesale. I try to resist tearing pages off, though, and prefer to just draw a line through a big chunk of dreck, on the chance that the dreck might later, upon reflection, yield a morsel worth preserving.

Bloom: Aside from curriculum requirements, what are you giving your students to read?

MT: I’m not teaching at the moment, but when I was teaching creative writing, we read a lot of short stories, which is the nature of the beast when you’re teaching workshops. I gave them excerpts from Díaz’s Drown, Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Proulx’s Wyoming Stories. I gave them Dubliners in its entirety, as well as all of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia. We went over a good number of the selections in the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Chekhov’s stories, as well as in Hemingway’s first 49 stories and Where I’m Calling From. I made them read “The Cask of Amontillado,” “Young Goodman Brown,” and “Bartleby the Scrivener,” one each from the holy trinity that more or less invented the American idiom in short fiction. We read selections from Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Andre Dubus’s Dancing After Hours, and Ethan Canin’s Emperor of the Air. We read “Ranch Girl,” by Maile Meloy, Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols,” Barry Hannah’s “Testimony of Pilot,” Coover’s “The Babysitter,” Bausch’s “All the Way in Flagstaff, Arizona,” and Tobias Wolff’s “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs.”

Bloom: Born in the Bronx, grew up in Queens. . . does that make you a Yankees or a Mets man?

MT: My father was a Yankees fan, because he was a brokenhearted Dodgers fan who turned his back on the National League. My mother was a Mets fan, as was my sister. I rooted for both teams. It wasn’t hard to do so at the time, because they never played each other. And rooting for the Yankees wasn’t a philosophically indefensible position at the time—it wasn’t “rooting for IBM”—because I came of age in the era when the Yankees played the worst ball they ever played, other than at the tail end of the Mickey Mantle days. . . . My father took me to Yankees games with his friends, and we went to Shea as a family, and I guess I tipped over into the Yankees column, though I enjoyed the ride with the Mets in the late ’80s and appreciated the crazy characters. I got to Shea more often than Yankee Stadium because it was only a few stops away on the train. I made Connell a Mets fan because it just made sense for him to be a Mets fan. Placing Mets games in the story and casting Ed’s and Connell’s lives against the complicated backdrop of Mets fandom offered me great thematic possibilities and irresistible dramatic opportunities.

Bloom: My father left me with an “orphan skull” after he died. Is this a thing that happens to more people than I realized?

MT: Not that I’m aware of, but it’s not hard to imagine it, because relics of the body, any body, not even that of a cherished fellow traveler, have a numinous quality, and I suspect it would be hard to toss them in trash. They almost quiver with significance. Teeth, locks of hair. Who would throw them out without a qualm? It’s easier to just pass them on to the next person. In a way, that’s what civilization is, as Antigone makes clear: the mutual willingness to find ceremony in the body, even in death.


Click here to read Lisa Peet‘s feature essay on We Are Not Ourselves.

Bloom Post End

Homepage photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan

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