Matthew Thomas is one of those overnight success stories that takes a lifetime to happen.
The native New Yorker’s soaring, powerful début, We Are Not Ourselves, was sold in the US last April in one of the most feverishly heated auctions in recent memory, with Simon & Schuster stumping up a cool seven-figure sum a matter of days after WME’s Bill Clegg submitted it to publishers. With hype cresting—the multi-layered family epic had many christening Thomas “the next Franzen”—the novel was the “book of the fair” at the 2013 London Book Fair a couple of weeks later, with Fourth Estate (perhaps not uncoincidentally, Jonathan Franzen’s UK publisher) snapping it up for a six-figure sum, along with a host of international deals.
But it was a long road to get to this point. Thomas took a Tarttian 10 years to write and refine the book, a period that he says contained “long stretches of pure despair. Actually, it was more like sheer terror that I wouldn’t finish because in many ways I had gambled my life on this”.
The book’s first seeds came as part of his creative writing course at the University of California, Irvine—the book’s long gestation period had much to do with Thomas having a day job for the past eight years, teaching English and creative writing at Xavier High School in New York City.
His teaching workload was not exactly conducive to producing the Great American Novel: around seven hours of class time a day plus meetings, prep time and take-home work. “I was often grading exams until one in the morning,” he says. “Then I would write in the wee hours but I would sometimes literally fall asleep while writing. I spent half a decade, at least, in a state of permanent sleep deprivation. People who just teach have that; the life of a teacher is not for the faint of heart.”
Time for the writing life was further squeezed four years ago when his wife gave birth to twins. Yet he persevered, and eventually showed the manuscript to his wife in 2012.
Somewhat ironically for a novel whose early incarnation was in a creative writing workshop, she was the first person to read the book—other than himself—in 10 years. He explains: “She wasn’t in a hurry to read it; I wasn’t in a hurry to show it. If I showed it to her earlier, it would’ve been a bloodletting.”
Still, even though Thomas had been signed by Clegg, he was not convinced the novel would see the light of day. Particularly after the young Thomas family—the four of whom had been rather too cozily sharing a one-bedroom New York flat—bought a house in New Jersey. “We needed to move, we needed more space,” Thomas says. “And when we closed on the house, I thought: ‘This is it, I have responsibilities, I’m going to be a high school teacher for the next 30 years.’ The next day my book was sold.”
Personal is political
We Are Not Ourselves is family story. It is anchored by Eileen Leary (née Tumulty), the daughter of Irish immigrants, in mid-20th Century New York. We follow her through the years as she breaks out of the shadow of her parents, gregarious local fixer Big Mike and her alcoholic mother, and their disastrous marriage. Eileen, somewhat against her better judgment, meets and falls in love with scientist Ed. Their relationship is keenly observed, at first passionate, moving to functional (around the time son Connell comes along) and settling into one of compromises and, at times, bewilderment.
At first the bare bones of the plot sound rather all too familiar, yet We Are Not Ourselves succeeds by the strength of the writing. It is deft, powerful and moving, humane and humorous, particularly in the latter half of the book, where Eileen and Connell are dealing with Ed’s early onset Alzheimer’s.
A novel with a major plot point revolving around dementia could easily slip into the maudlin, but it never does. Thomas says: “With emotionally charged material of this kind there is always the danger of writing sentimentally. But that’s what I tried to avoid above all: sentiment and cliché.”
There is more than a tad of the autobiographical here. The bulk of the book takes place in Jackson Heights, Queens, where Thomas grew up. Eileen becomes a nurse and later a healthcare executive, while Ed is an academic, just like Thomas’ parents. And yes, Thomas’ father did contract Alzheimer’s; he passed away in 2002.
“It’s rooted in autobiography, that’s inescapable,” says Thomas. “But when I started, I had this anxiety about it and I tried to deny the autobiographical, for example giving these characters professions that my parents didn’t have. But that really didn’t work. And strangely, when I loosened up and started putting actual autobiographical elements into the story, the more the characters took on a life of their own and became more fictional.”
The book is on the one hand a self-contained family story, but it also falls into that Great American Novel category as it concerns itself with huge issues that continue to vex the US. Undercurrents include Jackson Heights’ rapidly changing racial profile, the state of healthcare in the US, and the experience of immigrants.
Large social forces
This is intentional, says Thomas. “My ambition was to meld two types of book: to write a novel of ideas that at heart is a character-driven story. Those things don’t have to cancel each other out. If you take long enough with a book and get deep enough into characters, you find that every personal story, however ordinary seeming a life you are always accessing large social forces. I mean, every time you get out of bed, you come in contact with large social forces.”
Next up is another family-based, character-driven novel—without the day job, Thomas hopes to finish it in two to three years. Although he does quote some sage advice he received from novelist Alice McDermott, who taught on his writing course: “Writing a first novel doesn’t prepare you for the next one. Yes, there are parts of the craft that are easier, but until you get the characters and plot, it is still like feeling around in the dark for a light switch.”
With the hefty advances and the hype—when mentioned in the same breath as Franzen, Thomas blushes scarlet and his eloquence briefly descends into stammers—how is he dealing with the pressure? “Sure, there is pressure for the book to sell. But whatever pressure I feel now is so different in kind than what I felt when I was writing the book. The long years of fear, insecurity and doubt, and having no history of publication . . . the pressure then was enormous and ever-present. I was in a fairly dark place for a lot of that time. I’m in the light and the clearing now, in many ways.”
ISBN 9781476756677/ 8224
Rights Sold into 10 territories, including North America (S&S) and Berlin Verlag (Germany)
Editor Claire Reihill
Agent Elizabeth Sheinkman WME London (co-agent)/Bill Clegg WME New York
1975 Born in the Bronx, NY; grew up in Queens
1997 Earned a BA in English Literature from the University of Chicago
1999 MA in Writing Fiction, John Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland
2002 MFA in Creative Writing, University of California, Irvine
2003-2013 Adjunct professor of English, high school English teacher in New York City
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