Indigo Spotlight is taking over the Simon & Schuster Canada Tumblr today with an exclusive Q&A with Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves.
We Are Not Ourselves is a powerful and moving multigenerational debut novel that follows an Irish-American family.
1. We Are Not Ourselves is a debut novel that was reportedly many years in the making – and it shows on every page. Can you describe the experience in writing and publishing this novel?
I wrote this novel for over ten years, most of which I spent as a high school teacher. I usually wrote at night, after I’d graded my papers, often late Into the night, and in the final couple of years of writing the book I was raising twin babies with my wife in a one-bedroom apartment. I was thrilled to finish the book in the first place and even more thrilled to find an agent interested in representing it. My experience publishing it at Simon and Schuster, with the extraordinary Marysue Rucci as my editor, has exceeded any hopes or dreams I might harbored for the book’s reception.
2. We Are Not Ourselves can wear many hats, and be described many ways - and many of the subplots could carry an entire novel on their own. Did any of the novel’s themes change or grow or shrink in the execution of the writing?
As I wrote deeper into the book and did more research, I became more familiar with the ins and outs of the healthcare system in America and the unique challenges a family dealing with Alzheimer’s would face. The more comfortable I became with the facts of the law and standard insurance practices, the more emboldened I felt to address in my book the problems of the American healthcare system.
3. Do you anticipate the creation of your second novel being similar to that of your first?
It is already a very different process for me, writing this next book. I’m not writing it in the wee hours, for one, so I’m less tired; I spent years in a state of semi-permanent sleep deprivation. And I have a better handle on craft than I did when I began writing the last book. At the beginning, I was feeling my way around in it, learning how to write convincing scenes and naturalistic dialogue, learning how to describe things effectively, how to shape a plot. I’m working with more tools than I had at my disposal before. But writing one novel, as Alice McDermott once said to a workshop I was in, doesn’t prepare you to write another. I have to learn the rules of this next book as I write it. So in the end, though there are ways in which I feel like a more mature writer in my sensibility, and though I’ve acquired craft skills I likely won’t lose my grip on, in the end I don’t expect this book to be much easier to write than the last one was.
4. Your book is specific about whose perspectives the reader can see and hear. For the reader, this has a late but rewarding payoff. Was it hard for you to steer the novel in this way?
I would say the difficulty came in having to withstand the desire to delve into Ed’s perspective. It was an attractive fruit that I wanted to pluck at times, but I had made the decision not to provide his perspective, because in doing that I could reproduce for the reader some of the experience Eileen and Connell have of the unknowability of Ed’s interior life, as he begins to drift away from them mentally. The more rigorous I was about keeping Ed’s perspective out of the book, the more opportunity I created for the reader to relate empathetically with Eileen and Connell—and Ed, for that matter, who is eventually stuck on the other side of a divide, his thoughts and feelings at least partially inscrutable to even his closest companions on the planet.
5. The novel spends a good deal of energy on examining the strains that a serious medical condition places on a family, both emotional and financial. Did you have difficulty finding a balance between those two different impacts, and not stressing one over the other?
The emotional and financial strains a family faces in dealing with this disease are interrelated, in many ways, and feed each other. The balance came once I accepted that I would have to write about something potentially less-than-riveting—the ins and outs of an ordinary family’s unexceptional financial situation—if I wanted to capture in any real way this family’s authentic experience of being on the planet while enduring an extraordinary stress. The more I let myself write that material, the less I actually had to. I wrote what was necessary to tell the story, and it became just another aspect of the narrative. It strikes me now that not writing about the unexciting particulars of people’s financial lives means avoiding a good deal of what they think about in a given day, and can lead to a story feeling strangely disembodied.
6. One final question, one from the Proust questionnaire: who are your favourite prose authors?
Joyce. Fitzgerald. Hemingway. Bellow. Nabokov. Tolstoy. Melville. Dostoyevsky. Woolf. Marquez. Austen. Flaubert. Alice Munro. Saunders. Yates. Cheever. Carver. McDermott. Conrad. Greene. Faulkner. Ellison. James. Roth. Wharton. William Kennedy. Dickens. Poe. Cormac McCarthy. Forster. Hawkes. Sebald. Proust. Evan S. Connell.
We Are Not Ourselves is on sale now.