Matthew Thomas read from his debut novel We Are Not Ourselves, an family novel based around Irish immigrants in New York City, at BookCourt in Brooklyn. Thomas was born in the Bronx and raised in Queens, but he says his grandmother lived in an apartment in Brooklyn not far from BookCourt until the 1990s. Then she paid, he estimated, a mere $170 a month. In college at the time, he had begged his family to hold onto the apartment. Now he figures the apartment is probably closer to $4,000. “Brooklyn is so different in general,” he muses.
Thomas skipped around the novel, reading from several sections. The focus of the novel is Eileen Tumulty in Woodside, Queens, and her marriage to Ed Leary. Eileen remains the center of the novel’s perspective, a perspective that took several drafts to come to as he bounced between characters. He says her voice was simply the one that asserted itself the most in the process of revision.
Eileen emerged as the center of the story but also there were elements Thomas wanted told that could never be expressed by her husband, Ed. Besides, he says, he finds women of her generation fascinating since they were beginning to make the inroads into positions of power, beginning to take jobs, remaking the traditional rules of gender. “Men hadn’t evolved,” he explains.
Though the novel focuses on Irish immigrants, Thomas likes to think the immigrant story could be any ethnicity. “I had access to these characters more readily,” he says. There are elements that he sees specifically characteristic of the Irish immigrant. Italian immigrants for instance, often arrived with trade skills that Irish immigrants lacked, setting up Italian immigrants into better circumstances. “The Italian version of this would be very different.”
The novel began as the final short story he submitted to his workshop during his MFA at University of California Irvine. The other stories he had written during his time in graduate school, he says, would have been twenty pages long, but could have been distilled to four lines. He submitted the story that eventually became his novel last intentionally because of a self-consciousness. That was ten years ago.
For a long time, writing was terrible, he says, describing the process as a progression of decreasing humility, until eventually resulting in a text he can feel satisfied with. Writing is difficult when he does it, and even more difficult when he is not. “I learned how to write this novel.”
He says there were periods when he wasn’t writing the novel. He teaches English full-time, and the work sometimes interfered with writing the novel. Not writing, he says, was much worse, because writers feel guilty about not writing. In other instances, particularly near the end, he would find himself writing for fifteen hours a day. “You feel forced by the work,” he says.
The first draft of the novel was written long form by hand. One of the hardest things he found was physically writing portions of the novel fast enough. Ideas would come and his hand literally could not move across the page as quickly as his brain worked. He spent a lot of time suppressing the ideas just long enough to get them out on the paper before they left him.
Thomas takes inspiration from other art forms, especially paintings, a few of which ended up in the text. Paintings, especially large scale work, he says, shares a lot in common with novels in that they are both telling narratives. He read a lot of poetry over the years as well. It took him a long time to figure out he wasn’t a poet. When he wrote poems, they always eventually became narratives, more like stories.
The novel is rooted in his own autobiography. Many of the characters have inspirations from his own life, like Ed, Eileen’s husband, who takes cues from Thomas’s father. Eventually though the novel became a series of events that never happened to him or his family, but merely could have happened. For the novel to be finished, he says, the autobiographical seed had to go away.
Ultimately writing the novel did help him become more sympathetic and have a better understanding of everyone involved. It helped him understand his mother as a creature of history. More importantly he forgave himself.