Welcome back to the Fiction Reboot! No Friday Fiction Feature this week (Tabatha is busy recuperating from Halloween), instead we bring you the inside scoop on fiction; an interview ith Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves, which was released just this last August. Welcome Matthew!
Born in 1941, Eileen Tumulty is raised by her Irish immigrant parents in Woodside, Queens, in an apartment where the mood swings between heartbreak and hilarity, depending on whether guests are over and how much alcohol has been consumed.
When Eileen meets Ed Leary, a scientist whose bearing is nothing like those of the men she grew up with, she thinks she’s found the perfect partner to deliver her to the cosmopolitan world she longs to inhabit. They marry, and Eileen quickly discovers Ed doesn’t aspire to the same, ever bigger, stakes in the American Dream.
Eileen encourages her husband to want more: a better job, better friends, a better house, but as years pass it becomes clear that his growing reluctance is part of a deeper psychological shift. An inescapable darkness enters their lives, and Eileen and Ed and their son Connell try desperately to hold together a semblance of the reality they have known, and to preserve, against long odds, an idea they have cherished of the future.
I have always identified with the Asimov quote: “I write for the same reason I breathe—because if I didn’t, I’d die.” Does this describe you? Could you say a bit about your early writing experiences? Your favorite work?
I was a regular kid. I played in the street and wanted to be a baseball player. I was a reader, though. I liked adventure stories: Around the World in Eighty Days; Robinson Crusoe; The Three Musketeers; Kidnapped; Captains Courageous. I had a vague notion, even then, that I wanted to write. I suppose I wanted to generate that feeling that books put in my chest. But it was the vaguest idea, until my early teens, when I started writing some poems. I do remember, at a pizza place on the way back from baseball practice, looking at a picture of T.C. Boyle in Time magazine and thinking, I want to do this with my life. I was probably fourteen. I wrote a lot of “poetry” throughout high school and into college, though I did read a good deal of actual poetry. In high school I remember being moved by Hesse’s Demian; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; The Grapes of Wrath; Kennedy’s Ironweed; and e.e. cummings Six Nonlectures, a compilation of the Charles Eliot Norton lectures he gave at Harvard. In college I began writing short stories. These were rudimentary efforts, nothing I would ever show anyone now, but I look back on them with affection.
Not unlike many an author, I come from an academic background where writing fiction is a somewhat closeted affair. Can you talk about when you decided to “write for real”? How and when did you make the decision to write for publication and give your work the time and energy it so deserves?
I guess I started writing for real in college, in the sense that I began to shape a life trajectory that would include writing and largely exclude a good deal else. I wasn’t pursuing summer internships, for instance. I wasn’t studying economics. I wasn’t considering applying for a job at any of the corporations that visited the school’s jobs fairs. And I began to deliberately avoid taking the sorts of jobs that might be absorbing and creatively fulfilling. I looked for jobs that would provide a paycheck and leave something in the tank when the workday was over. I was a guard at a library for a while, for instance. After graduate school, however, I had to make enough money to be able to afford living in the city, so I took a job as a teacher, which was something I enjoyed and found absorbing, and there was more danger that I would just fall into that life, because it is a good life, and a life in which one feels one is doing some good. But I kept wanting to write and kept making the time to do it.
Your novel begins in the 1950’s and spans 60 years. What made you decide to tackle this particular era in history? Did you find it challenging to aptly represent so much of American history?
I wanted to write about this period of time because it was one in which the experience of women in America changed dramatically from the beginning to the end of the years I cover in the book. I remember as a young boy being impressed by my mother, her friends and colleagues, and the women whose exploits as corporate professionals and elected officials I read about in the newspaper. Even then, before I could put the pieces together with any real understanding, I knew that there was something remarkable about the way 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 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 happened to become collective, that they simply weren’t going to stand any longer for the prevailing conditions of inequality.
Eileen is intimately aware of how much the power structures in America favor men. Throughout her career, she’s seen male colleagues take their place atop the pyramid for granted. And part of why she’s frustrated with Ed, I think, is that she sees how many more opportunities for advancement American society wants to offer him than her, opportunities he turns down. I see her as taking pride in how far her generation has come.
I did find writing historical material challenging, but I overcame that challenge by remembering that I wasn’t attempting to write a work of history, but rather a novel. I could 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. And the truth is that most people’s lives are lived off to the sidelines of history. So while the world as it was needs to be rendered accurately, and while the specific historical conditions of any given moment yield specific responses, conscious or unconscious, in the people who live through them, there is something about individual lives that resists the sweeping, synthesizing impulse that gives rise to the delineation of eras in history. So I made a particular point of leaving the Kennedy assassination out of this book, even though Eileen is Irish-American and takes such pride in Kennedy’s election. I wanted by doing that to suggest that while the assassination was a watershed moment, and would have hit her hard, in the context of the book I was writing it could take a backseat to some more pressing material from her personal life. And while there is a notion (accurate, I find from anecdotal evidence) that everyone alive then remembers where they were when Kennedy was assassinated, there is a different truth about the ways we relate to historically significant moments that I wanted to capture in setting this important moment offstage. Eileen has a life to live, a career to carve out. And I guess I’m making an implicit argument that individual lives are just as important as the lives of historically significant figures.
As an author and medical humanist, I am always interested in the intersections of history and fiction. Given your recent novel, can you say a bit about the relationship between research, history and the creative process?
Research aids the writing of fiction by shoring up the writer’s confidence in the story he or she is telling. The more authority one grants oneself through research, the more willing one is to take full command of the story and arrogate to oneself the right to speak on behalf of people who lived in eras different from one’s own. But research can also be a crutch. It’s not hard to give in to the temptation to spend a good deal of the time one has earmarked for writing in research, because it feels productive, but it’s easier than sitting down and digging into the work. In the end, no matter how rich the source material, writing fiction comes down to the imagination, the ability to tell a story, and the willingness to inhabit the subjectivities of the characters one is writing about. Research can provide a skeleton, but the only thing that puts flesh on the bones is the hard work of imagining a world and endeavoring to bring it vividly to life.
As the mentor for a university writing club, I often preached to my students about the value of workshopping. Could you say a bit about your own responsive readers and mentors? Your approach to criticism? Beta readers?
As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I received a wonderful education in the sensibility of a working writer in the workshops taught by Richard Stern. My literature classes were also invaluable in my development as a writer. William Veeder taught me how to read critically and sensitively. He taught me how to think as a reader, which is fundamental to thinking as a writer.
During my graduate education, I benefited from the perspective of a great network of extraordinary teachers: Alice McDermott, Stephen Dixon, Jean McGarry, Tristan Davies, and Judith Grossman at Johns Hopkins; Geoffrey Wolff, Michelle Latiolais, Jim Shepard, and Mark Richard at UC-Irvine.
I submitted short stories to workshop at Hopkins, and later at Irvine, and as my last submission at Irvine I turned in part of what became We Are Not Ourselves. Then I was off to write it in the world. I was excited to be on my own, to be working on a novel without the expectation that anyone would see it for a long while. I wanted to fall into the world of the book, to take the time to work at my pace in every corner of the canvas without having to produce anything like the presentably spit-shined work one has to generate for workshop.
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. 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. That’s the bedeviling nature of writing fiction. There’s a limit to one’s own unaided perceptions. A few conversations with my wife and a couple of other readers helped me to see all the work I still had to do to fix the book. You can only take something so far on your own, but it’s important that you take it as far as you can, because doing so builds confidence in your instincts and craft.
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.
Every writer has a different writing strategy—or so I tell my novel-writing students. How do you approach the writing process? Revision? Writers’ block?
I write by hand, on legal pads. 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. There is plenty of time to edit when it’s time to edit. I did an enormous amount of editing in the final three years of composition. Much of that editing involved wholesale rewriting or the generation of large chunks of new material.
Teaching shaped my writing routines. With essays to edit and classes to prepare for, I ended up writing a good deal of the book late at night, after I’d gotten all my other work done. I couldn’t sit with a clear head until after the papers were graded, which often meant I was sitting down at the kitchen table at midnight to write for a couple of hours. I found that it was easier to stay up later and work and then catch a few hours sleep than it was to try to rise early and write, because I already had to be up so early to teach.
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. 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, so sometimes I would go to a coffee shop to work 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 distractions, but I was happy to find that the low-level, ambient noise helped my concentration. And now that I live in a house, I write in an office, looking at a blank wall.
Who do you consider your inspiration? (Literary or otherwise?)
I guess at this point my children are my biggest inspiration. The exuberance and joy with which they greet the world in the morning is something to behold; it provides a useful corrective to the tendency to take life for granted. They also make me want to write the best books I can, so that I might leave a legacy they can be proud of.
Finally, are there any forums, books, blogs or other sites and services you would recommend to new writers?
The Millions is a terrific site. It aggregates so much useful news about the literary world, and the original essays it runs are often superb. It’s no surprise that many of its staffers have gone on to great success as fiction writers—Emily St. John Mandel, Garth Risk Hallberg, and Edan Lepucki come immediately to mind, though that list is by no means exhaustive—because collectively the site has been making a vital contribution to letters for years now.