As an Irish immigrant in Queens in 1941, Eileen has dreamed of more in her life—but when she and her family seem to be moving closer to that dream, devastation hits and they must learn how to not only hold on to their reality, but to each other.
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 how much alcohol has been consumed. From an early age, Eileen wished that she lived somewhere else. She sets her sights on upper class Bronxville, New York, and an American Dream is born.
Driven by this longing, Eileen places her stock and love in Ed Leary, a handsome young scientist, and with him begins a family. Over the years Eileen encourages her husband to want more: a better job, better friends, a better house. It slowly becomes clear that his growing reluctance is part of a deeper, more incomprehensive 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.
Described by The New York Times Book Review as “A long, gorgeous epic, full of love and caring...one of the best novels you’ll read this year,” We Are Not Ourselves is a testament to our greatest desires and our greatest frailties. Through the lives of these characters, Thomas charts the story of the American Century. The result is, “stunning...The joys of this book are the joys of any classic work of literature—for that is what this is destined to become—superbly rendered small moments that capture both an individual life and the universality of that person’s experience” (The Washington Post).
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||9.00(w) x 6.00(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
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We Are Not Ourselves
Instead of going to the priest, the men who gathered at Doherty’s Bar after work went to Eileen Tumulty’s father. Eileen was there to see it for herself, even though she was only in the fourth grade. When her father finished his delivery route, around four thirty, he picked her up at step dancing and walked her over to the bar. Practice went until six, but Eileen never minded leaving the rectory basement early. Mr. Hurley was always yelling at her to get the timing right or to keep her arms flush at her sides. Eileen was too lanky for the compact movements of a dance that evolved, according to Mr. Hurley, to disguise itself as standing still when the police passed by. She wanted to learn the jitterbug or Lindy Hop, anything she could throw her restless limbs into with abandon, but her mother signed her up for Irish dancing instead.
Her mother hadn’t let go of Ireland entirely. She wasn’t a citizen yet. Her father liked to tout that he’d applied for his citizenship on the first day he was eligible to. The framed Certificate of Citizenship, dated May 3, 1938, hung in the living room across from a watercolor painting of St. Patrick banishing the snakes, the only artwork in the apartment unless you counted the carved-wood Celtic cross in the kitchen. The little photo in the certificate bore an embossed seal, a tidy signature, and a face with an implacably fierce expression. Eileen looked into it for answers, but the tight-lipped younger version of her father never gave anything up.
• • •
When Eileen’s father filled the doorway with his body, holding his Stetson hat in front of him like a shield against small talk, Mr. Hurley stopped barking, and not just at Eileen. Men were always quieting down around her father. The recording played on and the girls finished the slip jig they were running. The fiddle music was lovely when Eileen didn’t have to worry about keeping her unruly body in line. At the end of the tune, Mr. Hurley didn’t waste time giving Eileen permission to leave. He just looked at the floor while she gathered her things. She was in such a hurry to get out of there and begin the wordless walk that she waited until she got to the street to change her shoes.
When they reached the block the bar was on, Eileen ran ahead to see if she could catch one of the men sitting on her father’s stool, which she’d never seen anyone else occupy, but all she found was them gathered in a half circle around it, as if anticipation of his presence had drawn them near.
The place was smoky and she was the only kid there, but she got to watch her father hold court. Before five, the patrons were laborers like him who drank their beers deliberately, contented in their exhaustion, well-being hanging about them like a mist. After five, the office workers drifted in, clicking their coins on the crowded bar as they waited to be served. They gulped their beers and signaled for another immediately, gripping the railing with two hands and leaning in to hurry the drink along. They watched her father as much as they did the bartender.
She sat at one of the creaky tables up front, in her pleated skirt and collared blouse, doing her homework but also training an ear on her father’s conversations. She didn’t have to strain to hear what they told him, because they felt no need to whisper, even when she was only a few feet away. There was something clarifying in her father’s authority; it absolved other men of embarrassment.
“It’s driving me nuts,” his friend Tom said, fumbling to speak. “I can’t sleep.”
“Out with it.”
“I stepped out on Sheila.”
Her father leaned in closer, his eyes pinning Tom to the barstool.
“How many times?”
“Just the once.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“The second time I was too nervous to bring it off.”
“That’s twice, then.”
The bartender swept past to check the level of their drinks, slapped the bar towel over his shoulder, and moved along. Her father glanced at her and she pushed her pencil harder into her workbook, breaking off the point.
“Who’s the floozy?”
“A girl at the bank.”
“You’ll tell her the idiocy is over.”
“I will, Mike.”
“Are you going to be a goddamned idiot again? Tell me now.”
A man came through the door, and her father and Tom nodded at him. A draft followed him in, chilling her bare legs and carrying the smell of spilled beer and floor cleaner to her.
“Reach into your pocket,” her father said. “Every penny you have stashed. Buy Sheila something nice.”
“Yes, that’s the thing. That’s the thing.”
“Every last penny.”
“I won’t hold out.”
“Swear before God that that’s the end of it.”
“I swear, Mike. I solemnly swear.”
“Don’t let me hear about you gallivanting around.”
“Those days are over.”
“And don’t go and do some fool thing like tell that poor woman what you’ve done. It’s enough for her to put up with you without knowing this.”
“Yes,” Tom said. “Yes.”
“You’re a damned fool.”
“That’s the last we’ll speak of it. Get us a couple of drinks.”
• • •
They laughed at everything he said, unless he was being serious, and then they put on grave faces. They held forth on the topic of his virtues as though he weren’t standing right there. Half of them he’d gotten jobs for off the boat—at Schaefer, at Macy’s, behind the bar, as supers or handymen.
Everybody called him Big Mike. He was reputed to be immune to pain. He had shoulders so broad that even in shirtsleeves he looked like he was wearing a suit jacket. His fists were the size of babies’ heads, and in the trunk he resembled one of the kegs of beer he carried in the crook of each elbow. He put no effort into his physique apart from his labor, and he wasn’t muscle-bound, just country strong. If you caught him in a moment of repose, he seemed to shrink to normal proportions. If you had something to hide, he grew before your eyes.
She wasn’t too young to understand that the ones who pleased him were the rare ones who didn’t drain the frothy brew of his myth in a quick quaff, but nosed around the brine of his humanity awhile, giving it skeptical sniffs.
• • •
She was only nine, but she’d figured a few things out. She knew why her father didn’t just swing by step dancing on the way home for dinner. To do so would have meant depriving the men in suits who arrived back from Manhattan toward the end of the hour of the little time he gave them every day. They loosened their ties around him, took their jackets off, huddled close, and started talking. He would’ve had to leave the bar by five thirty instead of a quarter to six, and the extra minutes made all the difference. She understood that it wasn’t only enjoyment for him, that part of what he was doing was making himself available to his men, and that his duty to her mother was just as important.
The three of them ate dinner together every night. Her mother served the meal promptly at six after spending the day cleaning bathrooms and offices at the Bulova plant. She was never in the mood for excuses. Eileen’s father checked his watch the whole way home and picked up the pace as they neared the building. Sometimes Eileen couldn’t keep up and he carried her in the final stretch. Sometimes she walked slowly on purpose in order to be borne in his arms.
• • •
One balmy evening in June, a week before her fourth-grade year ended, Eileen and her father came home to find the plates set out and the door to the bedroom closed. Her father tapped at his watch with a betrayed look, wound it, and set it to the clock above the sink, which said six twenty. Eileen had never seen him so upset. She could tell it was about something more than being late, something between her parents that she had no insight into. She was angry at her mother for adhering so rigidly to her rule, but her father didn’t seem to share that anger. He ate slowly, silently, refilling her glass when he rose to fill his own and ladling out more carrots for her from the pot on the stovetop. Then he put his coat on and went back out. Eileen went to the door of the bedroom but didn’t open it. She listened and heard nothing. She went to Mr. Kehoe’s door, but there was silence there too. She felt a sudden terror at the thought of having been abandoned. She wanted to bang on both doors and bring them out, but she knew enough not to go near her mother just then. To calm herself, she cleaned the stovetop and counters, leaving no crumbs or smudges, no evidence that her mother had cooked in the first place. She tried to imagine what it would feel like to have always been alone. She decided that being alone to begin with would be easier than being left alone. Everything would be easier than that.
• • •
She eavesdropped on her father at the bar because he didn’t talk much at home. When he did, it was to lay out basic principles as he speared a piece of meat. “A man should never go without something he wants just because he doesn’t want to work for it.” “Everyone should have a second job.” “Money is made to be spent.” (On this last point he was firm; he had no patience for American-born people with no cash in their pocket to spring for a round.)
As for his second job, it was tending bar, at Doherty’s, at Hartnett’s, at Leitrim Castle—a night a week at each. Whenever Big Mike Tumulty was the one pulling the taps and filling the tumblers, the bar filled up to the point of hazard and made tons of money, as though he were a touring thespian giving limited-run performances. Schaefer didn’t suffer either; everyone knew he was a Schaefer man. He worked at keeping the brogue her mother worked to lose; it was professionally useful.
If Eileen scrubbed up the courage to ask about her roots, he silenced her with a wave of the hand. “I’m an American,” he said, as if it settled the question, and in a sense it did.
• • •
By the time Eileen was born, in November of 1941, some traces remained of the sylvan scenes suggested in her neighborhood’s name, but the balance of Woodside’s verdancy belonged to the cemeteries that bordered it. The natural order was inverted there, the asphalt, clapboard, and brick breathing with life and the dead holding sway over the grass.
Her father came from twelve and her mother from thirteen, but Eileen had no brothers or sisters. In a four-story building set among houses planted in close rows by the river of the elevated 7 train, the three of them slept in twin beds in a room that resembled an army barracks. The other bedroom housed a lodger, Henry Kehoe, who slept like a king in exchange for offsetting some of the monthly expenses. Mr. Kehoe ate his meals elsewhere, and when he was home he sat in his room with the door closed, playing the clarinet quietly enough that Eileen had to press an ear to the door to hear it. She only saw him when he came and went or used the bathroom. It might have been strange to suffer his spectral presence if she’d ever known anything else, but as it was, it comforted her to know he was behind that door, especially on nights her father came home after drinking whiskey.
Her father didn’t always drink. Nights he tended bar, he didn’t touch a drop, and every Lent he gave it up, to prove he could—except, of course, for St. Patrick’s Day and the days bookending it.
Nights her father tended bar, Eileen and her mother turned in early and slept soundly. Nights he didn’t, though, her mother kept her up later, the two of them giving a going-over to all the little extras—the good silver, the figurines, the chandelier crystals, the picture frames. Whatever chaos might ensue upon her father’s arrival, there prevailed beforehand a palpable excitement, as if they were throwing a party for a single guest. When there was nothing left to clean or polish, her mother sent her to bed and waited on the couch. Eileen kept the bedroom door cracked.
Her father was fine when he drank beer. He hung his hat and slid his coat down deliberately onto the hook in the wall. Then he slumped on the couch like a big bear on a leash, soft and grumbling, his pipe firmly in the grip of his teeth. She could hear her mother speaking quietly to him about household matters; he would nod and press the splayed fingers of his hands together, making a steeple and collapsing it.
Some nights he even walked in dancing and made her mother laugh despite her intention to ignore him. He lifted her up from the couch and led her around the room in a slow box step. He had a terrible charisma; she wasn’t immune to it.
When he drank whiskey, though, which was mostly on paydays, the leash came off. He slammed his coat on the vestibule table and stalked the place looking for things to throw, as if the accumulated pressure of expectations at the bar could only be driven off by physical acts. It was well known what a great quantity of whiskey her father could drink without losing his composure—she’d heard the men brag about it at Doherty’s—and one night, in response to her mother’s frank and defeated question, he explained that when he was set up with a challenge, a string of rounds, he refused to disappoint the men’s faith in him, even if he had to exhaust himself concentrating on keeping his back stiff and his words sharp and clear. Everyone needed something to believe in.
He didn’t throw anything at her mother, and he only threw what didn’t break: couch pillows, books. Her mother went silent and still until he was done. If he saw Eileen peeking at him through the sliver in the bedroom door, he stopped abruptly, like an actor who’d forgotten his line, and went into the bathroom. Her mother slid into bed. In the morning, he glowered over a cup of tea, blinking his eyes slowly like a lizard.
Sometimes Eileen could hear the Gradys or the Longs fighting. She found succor in the sound of that anger; it meant her family wasn’t the only troubled one in the building. Her parents shared moments of dark communion over it too, raising brows at each other across the kitchen table or exchanging wan smiles when the voices started up.
Once, over dinner, her father gestured toward Mr. Kehoe’s room. “We won’t have him here forever,” he said to her mother. As Eileen was struck by sadness at the thought of life without Mr. Kehoe, her father added, “Lord willing.”
No matter how often she strained to hear Mr. Kehoe through the walls, the only sounds were the squeaks of bedsprings, the low scratching of a pen when he sat at the little desk, or the quiet rasp of the clarinet.
• • •
They were at the dinner table when her mother stood and left the room in a hurry. Her father followed, pulling the bedroom door closed behind him. Their voices were hushed, but Eileen could hear the straining energy in them. She inched closer.
“I’ll get it back.”
“You’re a damned idiot.”
“I’ll make it right.”
“How? ‘Big Mike doesn’t borrow a penny from any man,’ ” she sneered.
“There’ll be a way.”
“How could you let it get so out of hand?”
“You think I want my wife and daughter living in this place?”
“Oh, that’s just grand. It’s our fault now, is it?”
“I’m not saying that.”
In the living room, the wind shifted the bedroom door against Eileen’s hands, making her heart beat faster.
“You love the horses and numbers,” her mother said. “Don’t make it into something it wasn’t.”
“It was in the back of my mind,” her father said. “I know you don’t want to be here.”
“I once believed you could wind up being mayor of New York,” her mother said. “But you’re satisfied being mayor of Doherty’s. Not even owner of Doherty’s. Mayor of Doherty’s.” She paused. “I should never have taken that damn thing off my finger.”
“I’ll get it back. I promise.”
“You won’t, and you know it.” Her mother had been stifling her shouts, practically hissing, but now she sounded merely sad. “You chip away and chip away. One day there won’t be anything left.”
“That’s enough now,” her father said, and in the silence that followed Eileen pictured them standing in the mysterious knowledge that passed between them, like two stone figures whose hearts she would never fathom.
The next time she was alone in the house, she went to the bureau drawer where her mother had stashed her engagement ring for safekeeping ever since the time she’d almost lost it down the drain while doing dishes. From time to time, Eileen had observed her opening the box. She’d thought her mother had been letting its facets catch the light for a spell, but now that she saw the empty space where the box had been, she realized her mother had been making sure it was still there.
• • •
A week before her tenth birthday, Eileen walked in with her father and saw that her mother wasn’t in the kitchen. She wasn’t in the bedroom either, or the bathroom, and she hadn’t left a note.
Her father heated up a can of beans, fried some bacon, and put out a few slices of bread.
Her mother came home while they were eating. “Congratulate me,” she said as she hung up her coat.
Her father waited until he finished chewing. “For what?”
Her mother slapped some papers on the table and looked at him intently in that way she sometimes did when she was trying to get a rise out of him. He bit another piece of bacon and picked the papers up as he worked the meat in his jaw. His brow furrowed as he read. Then he put them down.
“How could you do this?” he asked quietly. “How could you let it not be me?”
If Eileen didn’t know better, she would have said he sounded hurt, but nothing on earth was capable of hurting her father.
Her mother looked almost disappointed not to be yelled at. She gathered the papers and went into the bedroom. A few minutes later, her father took his hat off the hook and left.
Eileen went in and sat on her own bed. Her mother was at the window, smoking.
“What happened? I don’t understand.”
“Those are naturalization papers.” Her mother pointed to the dresser. “Go ahead, take a look.” Eileen walked over and picked them up. “As of today, I’m a citizen of the United States. Congratulate me.”
“Congratulations,” Eileen said.
Her mother produced a sad little grin between drags. “I started this months ago,” she said. “I didn’t tell your father. I was going to surprise him, bring him along. It would have meant something to him to be my sponsor at the swearing in. Then I decided to hurt him. I brought my cousin Danny Glasheen instead.”
Eileen nodded; there was Danny’s name. The papers looked like the kind that would be kept in a file for hundreds of years, for as long as civilization lasted.
“Now I wish I could take it back.” Her mother gave a rueful laugh. “Your father is a creature of great ceremony.”
Eileen wasn’t sure what her mother meant, but she thought it had to do with the way it mattered to her father to carry even little things out the right way. She’d seen it herself: the way he took the elbow of a man who’d had too much to drink and leaned him into the bar to keep him on his feet without his noticing he was being aided; the way he never knocked a beer glass over or spilled a drop of whiskey; the way he kept his hair combed neat, no strand out of place. She’d watched him carry the casket at a few funerals. He made it seem as if keeping one’s eyes forward, one’s posture straight, and one’s pace steady while bearing a dead man down the steps of a church as a bagpiper played was the most crucial task in the world. It was part of why men felt so strongly about him. It must have been part of why her mother did too.
“Don’t ever love anyone,” her mother said, picking the papers up and sliding them into the bureau drawer she’d kept her ring in. “All you’ll do is break your own heart.”
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for We Are Not Ourselves includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Matthew Thomas. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Epic in scope, heroic in character, and masterful in prose, We Are Not Ourselves is a multigenerational portrait of the Irish American Leary family.
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. Although she encourages him to want more, as the 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.
Through the Leary family, novelist Matthew Thomas charts the story of the American Century. At once expansive and exquisitely detailed, We Are Not Ourselves is a riveting and affecting work of art––one that reminds us that life is more than a tally of victories and defeats, that we live to love and be loved, and that we should tell one another so before the moment slips away.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Thomas begins his novel with two epigraphs, one from Stanley Kunitz and one from King Lear. Did the epigraphs inform your reading of the novel? How did they relate to each of the members of the Leary family? Why do you think Thomas chose to use the phrase We Are Not Ourselves, taken from the King Lear epigraph, as the title of his novel?
2. When Eileen is growing up, she’s aware that “men were always quieting down around her father” (pp. 3–4), whom “everybody called…Big Mike” (p. 6). Describe Big Mike. Why does he command so much respect from the outside world? Does this influence Eileen’s behavior? In what ways? How does Big Mike’s legend compare with the reality of what he is like when he is at home with Eileen and her mother?
3. Even after Eileen buys the apartment building from the Orlando family, she’s obsessed with the idea of owning her own house. Why is this so important for Eileen?
4. When Eileen enters nursing school “she knew that even if nursing wasn’t the field she’d have chosen, she’d been training for it without meaning to from an early age” (p. 38). Describe Eileen’s childhood. How have Eileen’s experiences with her mother helped prepare her for the job? Occasionally Eileen feels the instructors are “treating her with something like professional courtesy” (p. 38), and it makes her think of the way men in the neighborhood treat her father. Why? And why does this make her uneasy?
5. When Ed turns down an offer to be the chairman of his department, he tells Eileen, “It’s all about having the right ambition” (p. 85). What does Ed think the “right” ambitions are? Why is Eileen so upset that he has turned down the job? How does his ambition conflict with Eileen’s?
6. After Ed has lost his temper and “flipped out” on Connell, Eileen tells him that “it had better not [happen again]. I don’t give a damn what your father did to you. That boy’s not him” (p. 186). Why do you think Ed is so reticent to talk about his relationship with his own father? Does Ed’s relationship with his father inform his parenting style with Connell? If so, in what ways?
7. On moving day, when Eileen arrives at her new house, “Her first thought as she took in the house through the window as that it didn’t look the way she’d remembered it” (p. 278). Contrast Eileen’s memory of her new house with the reality of what it looks like. What accounts for the change in the way that Eileen views the house? Why is she so baffled when her movers ask her where they should place her belongings within it?
8. Connell attends one of Ed’s classes in order to complete a school assignment. Describe Connell’s experience in the classroom. Although Connell is unnerved by his time in Ed’s classroom, he keeps his word to Ed and decides not to tell his mother how strange it had been. Why do you think Connell chooses to keep this information to himself? Do you agree with his decision to do so? When Ed apologizes to Connell, Connell tells him, “It’s all right . . . I already know what kind of teacher you are. You teach me every day” (p. 162). How does Ed teach his son?
9. Who is Bethany? Do you think her friendship with Eileen is healthy? Why or why not? Why does Eileen agree to accompany Bethany to the faith healer? Compare and contrast Eileen’s experiences with Vywamus with her experience going to a therapist. Why does Eileen think that going to the faith healer is “better than therapy” (p. 444). Do you think going to the faith healer has helped Eileen? How?
10. Ed is reluctant to attend a party with Eileen at the home of one of her colleagues and tells her, “They’ll never know the real me” (p. 393). What does he mean? Were you surprised by Ed’s diagnosis? Were there any instances of foreshadowing in the novel that led you to anticipate what Ed’s illness was? What were they? Who do you think is “the real” Ed?
11. When Connell tells his friend Farshid that he and his family will be moving and expresses reticence about it, Farshid tells him, “You just need to reinvent yourself” (p. 240). Do you agree with Connell that “I have to invent myself before I can reinvent myself”? (p. 240). Why does Connell tell his mother that he wants to move even though he’s ambivalent about the prospect? What does moving into a new house mean to each member of the Leary family?
12. When it comes to dating, Eileen would “rather be alone than end up with a man who was afraid” (p. 51). What traits is Eileen looking for in a partner? How does Ed measure up to Eileen’s ideal partner? Were you surprised that she ends up marrying him? Eileen sees them as “coconspirators in a mission of normalcy” (p. 124). What does she mean? Describe their relationship. How does it evolve?
13. After Ed gets sick, Connell avoids going back home. Why is he so afraid of going home? Connell tells Eileen that caring for Ed is “too hard for me. It’s too much” and that “I’m not you. . . . That’s the problem right there” (p. 466). How does Eileen react? Is she justified? Compare and contrast the way that both Eileen and Connell deal with their sick parents. In what ways, if any, are they alike?
14. After Ed’s diagnosis, Eileen takes “a third path, the pragmatic one. It hadn’t happened for a reason, by they would find something to glean from it anyway” (p. 382). What does Eileen’s reaction tell us about her character? Describe your first impression of Eileen. Did you like her initially? Did your impression of Eileen change as you read on? In what ways and why?
15. Eileen’s mother tells her, “Don’t ever love anyone. All you’ll do is break your own heart” (p. 12). Why does she offer this advice to Eileen? In what ways has Eileen’s mother’s heart been broken? Do any of the other characters in We Are Not Ourselves suffer heartbreaks? What has caused those instances of suffering?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Baseball is important in the Leary household. Ed and Connell relate to each other through the sport. When Eileen goes to a game with Ed and Connell, she realizes that “she did some of her best thinking at ball games, or while Ed was listening to them on the radio” (p. 172). Watch a baseball game with your book club. Discuss why Eileen might find watching games calming. Did the experience have the same effect on you?
2. When Eileen is a young girl, her father takes her to visit friends in Jackson Heights and she feels an amazing sense of peace because “the people who lived in this building had figured out something important about life, and she’d stumbled upon their secret. There were places, she now saw, that contained more happiness than ordinary places did” (pp. 15–16). What is it about the building that feels exceptionally special to Eileen? Are there any places like that in your life? What makes them so important to you? Share your thoughts with your book club.
3. When Matthew Thomas sold We Are Not Ourselves for publication, it was major industry news. Read more about it here http://www.thewire.com/entertainment/2013/04/high-school-english-teacher-who-sold-his-debut-novel-1-million/64342/ and here http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/high-school-teacher-lands-deal-for-debut-novel_b68806
4. Go on a virtual walking tour of Queens, New York, by following this link: http://www.thirteen.org/queens/ to learn more about the neighborhoods where Eileen grows up and where she raises Connell. Eileen knows “it was possible to see the changes as part of what made the city great…but only if you weren’t the one being displaced” (p. 128). Talk about how Eileen reacts to the changes in Jackson Heights with your book club. Were you surprised? Explain your answer.
A Conversation with Matthew Thomas
Congratulations on publishing your debut, We Are Not Ourselves. What has the experience of having your book published been like? Did you find anything surprising? If so, what?
I’m thrilled to have my book published and grateful that it found a home at Simon & Schuster, with the extraordinary Marysue Rucci as its editor.
What has surprised me is just how many people play a vital role in getting a book into the hands of readers. Once its writer is done with it, a book owes it eventual existence on shelves to a remarkable team effort by untold talented people—editors, copyeditors, jacket designers, production editors, sales reps, book reps, publicists, even publishers themselves—who make crucial, often unsung contributions.
You’ve said it took you more than a decade to write We Are Not Ourselves. What made you keep writing? Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
I kept going because I didn’t want to regret not finishing it. I’d invested a great deal of time, energy, and spirit in it and passed up many other opportunities while working on it. I think of that famous line of Macbeth’s: “I am in blood/Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” I would say “I had to finish it,” but I’m uncomfortable invoking the idea of a ferocious creative mandate that needed to be fulfilled, because I think that’s too hifalutin a notion to describe an activity, novel writing, that’s more often like long-haul trucking than some ineffable mystical experience. It’s closest to the truth to say that not finishing it would have dealt my psyche a blow whose imagined pain was worse than the considerable frustration of facing my limitations every day.
To aspiring writers, I would say: Don’t give up. It’s never too late. You’re never too old. The success of others is proof of the possibility of your own success. There’s enough opportunity to go around. When you’ve taken your book as far as you can take it on your own, and at least one trusted person has read it and provided feedback that has allowed you to see its flaws clearly and attend to them faithfully, and you know it’s ready, really know it’s ready, it will find a home. Despite the doomsday scenarios we hear about the death of reading in general, there will still be people looking to publish good books whenever you’re done with yours. Having a day job helps take the pressure off your earning a living as a writer while you’re working on your book. Take as long as you need. Go alone down the stormy peninsula of your thoughts and trust that when you return there will be someone at the other end of your travels and you won’t regret the journey, however discouraging or frightening it might be at any given moment.
Write by hand, if you can. 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. Writing a first draft on a computer often yields the spectral experience of watching your sentences disappear off the screen shortly after you write them, because they’re seldom just right the first time and if you give yourself any chance to get rid of them, you will do so. It’s harder to delete bad sentences when you handwrite; you really have to cross them out a lot, and a vestige of them remains behind despite your best efforts. And that’s good. Because when you go back and look later, with a kinder eye than you possess in the white heat of composition, at the first sparks the unconscious mind threw off, you often find something in them worth preserving.
Chad Harbach calls your protagonist Eileen Leary “a real addition to our literature,” praising her as a “mother, wife, daughters, lover, nurse, caretaker, whiskey drinker, upwardly mobile dreamer, retrenched protector of values.” She’s so vividly rendered that she feels familiar. How did you come up with her character? Is she based on anyone in your life? If so, can you tell us a little about them?
Eileen was rooted originally in my mother, who is a more dynamic and complex person than I could ever have hoped to capture on the page. Eventually I found creative freedom in letting Eileen be who she wanted to be. In general, the novel came fully to life when I allowed my characters to be characters and abandoned any attempt to mimetically reproduce the fathomless humanity of any individual person.
Beyond my mother in specific, I was also trying to evoke the spirit of some of the women I’d admired when I was growing up: strong, career-minded women at the forefront of the next wave of feminism making historic inroads into a male-dominated professional hierarchy.
Eileen’s story manages both to be highly personal and universal. Publishers Weekly praises it in a starred review, saying Eileen’s “life, observed over a span of six decades, comes close to a definitive portrait of American social dynamics in the 20th century.” Did you do any research about American social history while you were writing We Are Not Ourselves?
Writing about New York is almost by definition writing about American social history, because New York is freighted with so much significance in the American imagination and perhaps the human imagination in general. The city bears the weight of nearly limitless thematic importance as a symbol of capitalism, immigrant opportunity, decadence, urban decay and renewal, race and class relations, and inequities in the distribution of resources. I wanted to render New York as accurately as I could on the page, so I ended up doing a good deal of research into the city’s history, the history of Queens in particular. I researched immigration patterns, to see which neighborhoods different ethnic groups settled in, because I wanted to place my characters correctly on the map. I researched the manufacturing sector in New York, to see what was sold and where, because manufacturing jobs—paints and pigments, watches, the garment and meatpacking districts, the millinery industry—were the incubator of the middle class in the area, and the loss of those jobs was the loss of that incubator. One thinks immediately of Detroit when one thinks of the collapse of manufacturing, but the boost given Ed by the manufacturing sector was once fairly typical in New York, and its loss had an impact on social mobility.
I consulted box scores, recaps, and newspaper articles to learn as much as I could about the specific New York Mets games that appear in the novel. This was more than a diversion for me. I see baseball as being woven inextricably into American social history. For years, baseball was a point of entry into American culture for immigrants who found they could share a language with established Americans in the joys and tribulations of fandom. And it was a primer for many males in the performance of the rituals of masculinity, beginning with stickball or Little League or the catch with Dad, and continuing, the idea went, into one’s relationship with one’s own child. Baseball fandom became a signifier of one’s willingness to assume certain ratified, prescribed male roles. And affections for teams were tribal, and epic in scope. If a girl’s father was a Yankees fan, then she was a Yankees fan. That bone-deep identification is fertile territory for fiction, because it activates the most basic impulse of storytelling. This is who I am—a Yankees fan.
The kind of research I found most compelling (aside from the fun of figuring out which styles of watches, cars, and clothing were popular at different junctures) was the sort not readily available in documentary texts, the sort James Joyce wrote back to Dublin about when he was composing from abroad. What’s the name of that store on the corner? How far is it from such and such a church to such and such a house? The facts on the ground. The Internet is an extraordinary resource for this kind of thing. Google Earth is a miracle for fiction writers. But nothing is as fruitful as naked-eye observing. So I went to sites and looked around. I got a feel for places whenever I could.
Aside from my research into New York, I researched nursing practices, the state of medical insurance practices and Medicaid and Medicare law in the last couple of decades, the history of the development of Alzheimer’s drugs, intake procedures for nursing homes, and the effects of Alzheimer’s on the bodies of sufferers, including the rates of deterioration and so forth. But I never wanted to write a case study. I sought to write a novel first, and a novel that had to do with Alzheimer’s, second.
Probably the most productive research I did was simply interviewing friends and family members. Eyewitness accounts might lack the rigor of historical sources, but they preserve an unusual amount of the rich human texture of the past.
It’s apparent that Ed loves teaching and that, until his illness manifests itself, he’s widely respected by both his students and colleagues. How did your own experiences in the classroom inform Ed’s character?
Teaching at a Jesuit school, where an ethic of service is inculcated not just in the students but in the faculty and staff, gave me insight into how a teacher like Ed, who is so dedicated to his students, might think. Ed derives genuine spiritual sustenance from his work, and I’m not sure I could have understood that if I hadn’t been a teacher myself. Teaching is a job in which something critical—the molding of the minds of others—is always at stake in the routine performance of the task. In its purest form teaching is a vocation, and as is true with the performance of any vocation, you get back from it more than you put into it, even when you put a lot into it and even when it’s not always “fun.” It’s a privilege to teach. It’s a privilege to spend all day helping people with their writing and their thought processes. And it’s a privilege to discuss books with developing minds. I remember thinking, early in my career, when we were digging into “Ozymandius,” What an extraordinary thing this is, to be standing here talking about this poem with these young people at one in the afternoon. I never forgot that feeling, even when exhaustion made the profession a challenge. Certainly, grading papers late into the night, and experiencing the foggy mind that results from sleep deprivation, enabled me to write my way into the section where Ed is having a hard time getting his lab reports graded.
When We Are Not Ourselves was first acquired for publication, you told Page Six, “I’m humbled. . . . Working on it for more than a decade, I faced a lot of self-doubt and threw out hundreds of pages.” Clearly, your writing process involved a lot of self-editing. Can you tell us more about it? Did you know how the novel would end when you began writing?
There was an enormous amount of self-editing, particularly in the final two years of composition. Self-editing, in fact, was part of what made the book take longer than I would have liked. When I began the book, I was writing by hand, but I switched to the computer about halfway through and found that I was editing everything as I wrote it and not getting enough forward momentum. It was only when I switched back to hand-writing that I began to make a real dent in the story.
I had an idea of how it would end, and I progressed toward that ending, though the textures of the idea changed in the course of my writing the scenes leading up to it. Part of the pleasure of writing a novel is watching your initial conceptions evolve as the characters guide you in different directions than you’d imagined going in.
Charles Bock calls We Are Not Ourselves “a true epic in the best sense of the word.” Were there great American epics that inspired you while you were writing? What were they?
Invisible Man. The Great Gatsby isn’t epic in size, but it’s epic in scope, and the dream Gatsby pursues is the quest of an epic hero. Moby Dick. Light in August. Blood Meridian. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Adventures of Augie March. The Grapes of Wrath. An American Tragedy. Ironweed. Lolita. John Berryman’s The Dream Songs. William Carlos Williams’ Paterson. Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge together form an epic of ordinary lives. Charming Billy. The Rabbit Angstrom books. The first two of Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe books, The Sportswriter and Independence Day, had a big influence on me. The Moviegoer. To Kill a Mockingbird. Beloved.
Each of Ed’s friends and family members reacts differently to his illness, and you present each of their reactions with great empathy. How were you able to do so?
I tried to take cues from the characters themselves in presenting a range of possible reactions that might capture the manifold ways people handle bad news. Within scenes I saw that each character would respond in his or her own way, according to the logic of how I drew them, and I tried to let them have autonomy to an extent. I think presenting them empathetically was made easier because I wasn’t writing a book that was trying to skewer anyone. I was trying to capture some of the truth of the lived experience of a people in a particular place and time—a tribe, a dominant culture, a subculture, whatever you choose to call it—as best as I understood them. Basically I tried to love all my characters with a full heart without turning a blind eye to their flaws, prejudices, or failings. The more I let go the reins of how they would be perceived or judged, the more human they became and, I hope, the more lovable, despite their sometimes unsettling idiosyncrasies and predilections.
What do you hope readers will take away from Eileen’s story?
I hope readers will find solace in reading about another person going through what Eileen goes through and coming out the other side. I hope the book inspires people to feel hope in the face of despair and believe it’s possible to preserve dignity amid experiences that profoundly reduce one’s power and dignity. I hope it leads them to conclude that we’re always capable of learning something, even the most intransigent among us and even late in life; that, while people might never really change, they can evolve into more loving versions of the selves they already are. I hope it might make some readers who live lives outside the margins of what the media considers “important” feel recognized and perhaps less alone. And I hope it inspires people to value the time they have, and their relationships, and maybe give the people who matter to them a hug.
Are you working on anything now? Can you tell us about it?
I’m writing a novel about a different kind of family from the one in my first book. It, too, is rooted in the lives of its characters. I don’t intend to spend ten years writing it, that’s for sure. But who knows? We can control only so much in life.