By Daniel Ford
Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves was one of the best novels I read in 2014. Honest, compelling characters, a heartbreaking and intimate plot, and a Queens, N.Y. setting made it a book that I couldn’t put down.
Thomas recently answered some of my questions about how he developed into a writer, how he used his personal experiences to create the foundation of We Are Not Ourselves, and how writing longhand opened up his voice.
Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
Matthew Thomas: I remember as a kid having a sense that I wanted to write, but it was more that I enjoyed reading and being absorbed in words and how they were put together, and I wanted to create that feeling myself. In my early teens, I started writing “poems” (heavy quotes around that word), and in college I began writing short stories, nothing I would show anyone now. I guess I started “deciding” to be a writer when I began to shape a life trajectory that excluded the usual possibilities for advancement. I wasn’t studying anything immediately “useful”; nor was I on a track that led to the academy. I wasn’t pursuing summer internships. I never went to jobs fairs or considered applying to any of the corporations that recruited on campus. When I graduated, I avoided taking jobs that might be absorbing and creatively fulfilling, and instead found work that left something in the tank when the workday was over. After graduate school, I had to make enough money to be able to afford living in the city, so I took a job as a high school English teacher, and there was more danger that I would fall into that life for good, because it was absorbing and worthwhile. But I kept making the time to write. So in some ways I “decided” I wanted to be a writer when I kept doing it no matter what. I suppose we decide every day that we want to be writers.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you outline? Listen to music?
MT: I write by hand. Every couple of months I stop and type what I’ve written, which serves as an editorial pass. Then I go back to the notebook. When I have a big chunk typed, I make hand edits to a printout, type those in, and then resume writing longhand. I work from an outline in my head, and when I’m deeper in and know what I’m writing, I get one down on the page. But it’s just a set of suggestions to myself. I’ll go where the book takes me.
When I wrote my first book, I had over a hundred students, and every section met every day. Papers were due every three weeks or so, and there was always something to grade. The only way I could write with any mental clarity was to have all the work done for the next day, which often meant I started writing around midnight or one in the morning. I tried to write two hours a day or a thousand words. There comes a time, somewhere between 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning, when it’s really hard to fall asleep. The good thing about being scared of insomnia is that if I sat down to write at one in the morning and wanted to write for two hours, I would get right to work. When you’re tired it’s easier to avoid getting caught up in distracting thoughts. A strange kind of clarity emerges.
I worked in libraries, in classrooms, wherever I could. I wrote a big chunk of the book at Paragraph, a workspace for writers on 14th Street in Manhattan. It was close to where I taught, and I could pop over there after teaching to get some work done before heading home.
When my twins came around, my wife and I were living in a one-bedroom apartment, with the kids in the bedroom and us in the living room. I wrote at the kitchen table. Sometimes I went to a coffee shop so that my wife wouldn’t have to be quiet on the other side of the room. I didn’t think I’d be able to work effectively at coffee shops with all the noise, but I was happy to find I could. I read something recently about low-level, ambient noise helping concentration. Now that I live in a house, I write in an office, looking at a blank wall. I never put on music.
DF: How did the idea for We Our Not Ourselves originate?
MT: My father was dead a year, and I had a little distance from his death. I started writing this book that I’d been intending to write for a while.
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.
At some point, 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 the reader would understand how Eileen’s husband’s getting this particular chaos-steeped disease would be hugely disrupting, like a bomb going off in her life.
I remember as a young boy being impressed by my mother, her friends and colleagues, and the corporate professionals and elected officials I read about in the newspaper. Even as a kid, before I could put the pieces together with any real understanding, I knew that there was something remarkable about the way in which that generation’s women were remaking civilization. They were the first to hold positions of authority in the workplace in any real numbers. They seemed able to balance so much—pursuing high-powered careers, being mothers and wives—and they possessed apparently inexhaustible reserves of energy. This wasn’t yet the era of sensitive, duty-splitting fathers; the expression “Mr. Mom” was significant for the divergence from expectation that it conveyed. Women ran households in the evening and still marshaled the fortitude necessary the next morning to win workplace battles in the fight for equality. Maybe they were heeding the encouraging arguments feminist thinkers were making, or maybe they were individually answering a more personal call that they simply weren’t going to stand any longer for the prevailing unequal conditions.
I decided to write about a woman who is intimately aware of how much the power structures in America favor men. Throughout her career, she’s seen male colleagues take for granted their place atop the pyramid. And part of why she’s frustrated with her husband is that she sees how many more opportunities for advancement American society wants to offer him than her, opportunities he turns down. And when she was younger, she watched her father frustrate her mother in a similar way. I decided to give Eileen’s mother enormous intellectual potential and have her get swallowed utterly in the maw of the immigrant experience as she disappears into a job as a cleaning woman. That leaves a deep impression on Eileen.
I pursued a storyline that would suggest how women’s roles in society have changed over the years and how their assumptions about the possibility of their own agency have evolved. At the outset of her career, when she’s still in nursing school and paying her tuition as a model at Bonwit Teller, Eileen dreams that a man might come and save her from the career that awaits her. But she eventually figures out that she has to be her own savior. And she experiences great success in her career.
I decided to pick moments—Eileen’s cousin Pat going off to Vietnam, for instance—that would bring the historical backdrop to life without having to foreground it. Most people’s lives are lived off to the sidelines of history. I wanted to argue implicitly that individual lives are just as important as the lives of historically significant figures.
As for the Alzheimer’s aspect of the book, I didn’t set out to write an Alzheimer’s novel. I wrote a novel that had a plotline in it that concerned itself with Alzheimer’s disease. Rather than write a case study, I tried to write a set of convincing character studies, a string of carefully-wrought sentences.
DF: Your name comes up a lot when I talk to other authors (in a positive way, trust me), and one of the things that always gets mentioned is how long it took you to write the book. As someone who has also been writing a novel seemingly forever, I’m curious if you ever had doubts about actually finishing it.
MT: Is there a writer alive who doesn’t have doubts?
Of all the doubts I felt, the worst came during stretches when I wasn’t writing. The demands of paper grading made it difficult to carve out time to work on the book. It’s not hard to lose your connection to what you’re writing if you get away from it for a couple of weeks. It can start to feel like someone else’s book.
Even if you deliberately tell yourself that you’re leaving your book alone for a while, that you’re giving yourself a break from trying to be hyper-efficient and productive all the time and you’re just going to read for a few weeks and just be a teacher and a person, the book doesn’t leave you alone. It doesn’t let you off the hook or give you a guilt-free day or a mental vacation. It makes you feel like an imposter.
Several years in, there was a period of a few months when I found it difficult to write at all because I was preoccupied by not being finished. I knew that it must have looked to my friends and family that this thing I thought of as my calling, writing, was really only a hobby I was doing. I became preoccupied by the desire to finish and to publish my book, and this preoccupation ground my work to a halt.
One day, I asked myself why a successful publication would be meaningful to me. And I realized that it would be meaningful because it would give me time to write. And then I thought: Every time I sit to write for a couple of hours, it’s no different from what I would do if I were a successful author. It hit me with the force of an insight that it wasn’t about the product, that the enjoyment of doing the work was the point of the work. Everyone, published or unpublished, has to sit (or stand) at the desk. And so I got back to work.
It strikes me that one needs to wear horse blinders to get a novel done. Otherwise you can get spooked by doubt and just stop.
DF: You told The Guardian that you were “a fool” when you started writing, and that by the end of the process you were a different person all together. I don’t know if you’ve actually done this, but when you look back at any or all of the early drafts of the novel, do you remember where in life you were at each point and notice where your evolution as a writer and a person happened?
MT: To see the evolution of my writing, all I have to do is to look at the earliest pages and see how little of them remains in the book. You work at something long enough and you get better at it.
I think apprentice writing often tends to be more defensive in the prose. As you mature as a writer, you settle into something that's a little more comfortable in its skin. I stopped writing for the sound of my own voice and started writing for the story that wanted to be told. I got out of its way.
Teaching helped me. My students were a pretty good crowd of critics. They were skeptical about everything and easily moved to frustration and impatience with books. I watched them connect to the more character-driven work—Chekhov, Hemingway, the Joyce of “Dubliners,” Saunders.
I would say the biggest leap forward I took came when I went back to writing by hand. The shift from computer to pen and paper opened my voice.
Life teaches you. 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.
In the last half-decade of writing, I rewrote almost the entire book. Other than the brief prologue, the book is arranged chronologically, but I didn’t write all of it in a straightforward march from page one to page 620. The earliest pages ended up getting completely rewritten.
Rewriting what you thought you’d already written takes patience, and I learned to have more of that. The deeper I got into the book, the more willing I was to sit at the desk for hours and not wonder what he rest of the world was doing. You begin to find in the mundane textures of life something that is actually exciting.
Ultimately, the enforced concentration on other people’s problems and emotional lives requires you to get outside yourself and grow up.
DF: Those were two heavy questions, but I swear it’ll get easier from here! How much of yourself and your interactions with family, friends, and the rest of the world did you put into the story?
MT: My father had Alzheimer’s, and the emotional life of this book is informed by my experience with that disease, but the characters are invented, and the plot is made up.
When you’re hamstrung by fidelity to real people, you end up making saints out of everybody. When you invent characters, you can ascribe to them the flaws we all possess, the textured humanity that makes us interesting. You get away from hagiography and begin to paint a more realistic portrait.
Eileen was originally rooted in my mother, but as she became a character in her own right, I started making decisions to give her predilections my mother didn’t share. Eileen is fearful of the change in the neighborhood, for instance. Early childhood experiences make her crave order and stability, and now the balance of her adult life is being upset. And that fear is expressed in a kind of racist thinking. My mother never had that attitude, but it’s an attitude that many had during the white-flight years in New York. I was interested in dramatizing the psychology of the fear of change leading to fear of the Other. It was fear of the future, I think, that created the ugly historical moment known as “white flight” that we as a civilization look at with more perspective now. There was fear that the economic and hegemonic promise of postwar America wouldn’t be fulfilled, at least in one’s own life, and it came out, I think, for many white Americans, as a fear of people who didn’t look like them.
I also faced the dilemma of possible readerly conflation of character with author. I decided to go at that problem head-on by being a little hard on Connell, having him make mistakes that I didn’t make. I remembered something Jim Shepard had said to us once in class: be a little tough on your characters and your readers will be easier on them. Your readers will say, Hold on a second, this isn’t such a bad guy as you’re saying! Once I knew that Connell was a fictional creation, once I actually believed it, I wasn’t worried anymore that anyone might think he was me, because I knew he wasn’t. But I had to risk the Rothian response: Well, this author wasn’t very responsible when he was younger. He treated his father shabbily.
I believe I did a better job than Connell of taking care of my father, but the truth is that the missteps, the faltering, the moral failures are all things I could imagine for the book precisely because they were never far from the realm of possibility. I was young when my father’s disease hit, and not always responsible at times. I was, in short, a kid, though I had the benefit of a couple of extra years of life on Connell, who is younger when the disease hits than I was. I was able to avoid more future regret than Connell is.
And with Eileen—well, my mother never had an affair with a Russian man. She never got pulled into a kind of cult. I had to risk that her friends would read the book and say, I had no idea she was that kind of woman.
Thankfully I wasn’t writing a book that was trying to skewer anyone. I was trying to capture a certain amount of the truth of lived experience as I perceived it. And I was trying to bring to life on the page a people and a place and time, and so if people influenced these characters, they were many in number, and not just the immediate people in my nuclear family.
DF: Since you’re a New York writer, I have to ask if you were conscious about avoiding the clichés that can crop up when writing about the city, or did you feel comfortable knowing that Queens was unexplored territory for most readers?
MT: I think what you mean by clichés is the way in which New York so often stands in symbolically for other things: capitalism, immigration, decadence, urban living, race and class relations, inequities in the distribution of resources. I would say the bigger preoccupation for me wasn’t the avoidance of cliché so much as the permanent awareness of the impossibility of ever capturing on the page something so gargantuan and sedimentarily layered as New York. And yet there was the desire to attempt to do so.
In some ways writing about Queens did offer me a partial way out of the traditional New York narrative, while also offering the chance to attempt to do something like what William Kennedy does with Albany. Queens is a world of its own. It offers the writer tremendous opportunities, because it is such a crossroads, populated by working class people, middle class people and even some wealthier 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, but it has about it the texture of real life, and as a novelist that is extraordinarily interesting and useful.
DF: Your novel made me incredibly homesick for my beloved Queens (You get bonus points for having one of your main characters attend my alma mater St. John’s). What’s one of your favorite Queens-related stories that may not have made it into the novel?
MT: There was a lady in Jackson Heights everyone called “the goddammit lady.” She walked up and down the block in front of St. Joan of Arc church pushing a shopping cart and saying, “Goddammit, goddammit, goddammit, goddammit,” over and over and over. She was suffering from some kind of mental disturbance, but she was as much a part of the neighborhood as anybody else. Then one day she was gone. Or it’s more accurate to say, one day you noticed you hadn’t seen her, and then enough time passed and you knew you would never see her again. You would never hear the “goddammit” call again. It was something that would live now only in your memory.
DF: The accolades for We Our Not Ourselves could fill an entire bookstore! After working on the novel for so long, what did it feel like to have the novel so celebrated and has the response affected the way you think about your work?
MT: I’m grateful that some people have enjoyed it. But I’m also just grateful that I finished it in the first place, after working on it for so long, and that now I get to work on something else.
I remember hearing once from Alice McDermott that writing one book doesn’t prepare you for writing another. Now I see firsthand now how right she was.
If having a book out in the world has made me conscious of anything with respect to composition, it’s the fact that while the form a book is written in may be the organic outgrowth of the book’s internal logic, form is also a signifier. The choice of form suggests something about a writer’s poetics. If I write another traditional, linear, realistic, character-driven human drama, as opposed to, say, a work like Invisible Cities or Wittgenstein’s Mistress, I am implicitly making an aesthetic statement that may in fact be a poor representation of the range of my interest in many forms and modes. And yet my next book is taking shape in a realistic, straightforward mode, because the emotional life of the book is demanding it. You can only write the books you’re drawn to write. This next book will inevitably be read as a response to my first, even if the two have nothing to do with one another.
DF: What advice would you give aspiring writers?
MT: Work as hard as you can and forgive yourself when you’re either not working as much as you think you should or producing work that you think is worth showing anybody. It’s a hard life in the first place and as productive as it can be to censure oneself, and as useful as it sometimes can be to feel bad about things like a lack of productivity, it can also be damaging, because there may be a reason you aren’t writing much at a certain time. Maybe you’re soaking up some of life, reading more, internalizing unconsciously the rhythms of the language, or learning about human beings and understanding people as characters. I think that if one chooses the writing life, there is so much failure, difficulty, and seemingly fruitless striving in it that the kinder one can be to oneself at any point in the process, the better. Also, I would say the most important thing is to not look at one’s first draft as the final draft—not to be discouraged by what you see when something is in its nascency, as it’s not, in fact, proof of anything. It’s not proof of your inability to ever do it for it not to be done yet. This is crucial because everybody’s first drafts are terrible. Even when they’re not, they are. If you have a real inclination to write, there has to be a kind of self-protection, because there are so many reasons not to write. Part of that self-protection comes in just realizing in advance that for a long time the work will not be very good. But if the work gets done, and done enough, you sweat out all that bad writing you have to do. On the other hand, if you look at that bad writing and you tell yourself that this is who you are as a writer, this is the limit of what you can do, what’s going to happen is, unless you have an iron constitution, you may just stop. I just think that there has to be an openness to failure, and to failure as the opposite of proof.
I would say also that 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. Work within the limits of what is available to you psychologically and in terms of your resources of time, energy and spirit.
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 can be just done in a notebook anywhere. And there isn't a way to go on the Internet because there's no internet to go to.
DF: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?
MT: I did Irish step dancing as a kid. I quit when I was young, and I don’t remember any of the steps—not that I could do them all that well to begin with. But having done step dancing allowed me to write with some familiarity about Eileen doing it. So the kilt was worth it after all.