Matthew Thomas, whose debut novel is receiving rave reviews, talks to Tom Deignan.
Before he became a celebrated debut novelist, Matthew Thomas was an English teacher, so he could surely spot the flaw in the following item from The New York Post’s infamous “Page Six” gossip column.
“Matthew Thomas is the toast of the publishing world overnight after We Are Not Ourselves — a novel he took 10 years to write — sparked a bidding war. Sources say it got more than a $1 million advance in North America, and closed a six-figure UK deal at the London Book Fair.”
To characterize Thomas’s success as “overnight,” while also noting that he’d been working on his book for a decade, is an inconsistency any teacher would surely take a red pen to.
But that’s a minor point in what has turned out to be the publishing industry’s best Irish feel-good story since another former English teacher wrote a little memoir about growing up in Limerick and Brooklyn.
“[Angela’s Ashes] has been a blessing, I’m hugely grateful for it,” Thomas said recently of Frank McCourt’s memoir. It’s a warm August morning, and we are seated outside a bakery in Montclair, New Jersey, just up the road from where he now lives with his wife and twin three-year-olds.
Thomas – bearded and bespectacled, thoughtful, admirably humble – spoke at length over coffee and muffins about his family’s deep connection to Ireland, the “pervasive” influence of National Book Award winner Alice McDermott (who was Thomas’s creative writing teacher), and the degree to which We Are Not Ourselves is autobiographical
“Two things I wanted to avoid,” he said, “were sentimentality, and the kind of solipsism that emerges when you’re writing about something close to yourself. I wanted to spare the reader a lot of that.”
We Are Not Ourselves is about a New York Irish American family and weighs in at over 600 pages, but critics have been wowed by how swiftly the story flies by.
Entertainment Weekly noted: “If you took a stroll around the EW offices, you’ll see a curious brick of a book on all our desks. We Are Not Ourselves has made quite the stir and it seems we’re all reading for it, talking about it or begging those who have read it and won’t stop talking about it for their copy. Why? Because it’s amazing.”
Publisher’s Weekly added: “Thomas’s emotional truthfulness combines with the novel’s texture and scope to create an unforgettable narrative.”
We Are Not Ourselves revolves around Eileen Tumulty, the daughter of Irish immigrants born in Queens in 1941. The first page announces the centrality of the Irish-American experience to the Tumulty family, as well as to Thomas’s vision.
Eileen’s 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 novel follows Eileen for her entire life, from her love for her gregarious yet mysterious father to caring (foreshadowing a nursing career) for her alcoholic mother, through courtship with her husband, to the birth of the son she never thought she’d have, to the diagnosis of a disease which tries the family unmercifully.
In short, the “tumult” in Eileen’s name is no lie.
Thomas’s book focuses closely on Eileen’s budding ambitions to achieve the Irish-American dream to rise above her immigrant working class origins.
“[Eileen] never dreamed of being a nurse,” writes Thomas. “She would’ve preferred to be a lawyer or doctor but she saw these professions as the purview of the privileged.”
Indeed, the early sections of the book dissect the intricacies of class and culture so painfully familiar to generations of New York Irish Americans. More broadly, Thomas’s treatment of the theme of striving for status rivals F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton, albeit within a more modest milieu. Eileen, though, is never emptily materialistic or shallow. She simply wants a better marriage than her parents had and a better life for her children.
What can occasionally seem like self-hatred is actually a genuine, even reasonable wish to have access to the kind of comfort and privilege others take for granted.
“[Eileen] began to look forward to the day when she would take another man’s name. It was the thoroughgoing Irishness of Tumulty that bothered her, the redolence of peat bogs and sloppy rebel songs… She wanted a name that sounded like no name at all, one of those decorous placeholders that suggested an unbroken line of WASP restraint. If the name came with pedigree to match it, she wasn’t going to complain.”
Instead, Eileen meets and marries Ed Leary (another revealing name), from a similarly humble background, but an educated man, a college professor. Eileen sees in her husband a chance to grasp the kind of respectability so elusive for the working class.
Ed is honorable, respectful and hard-working, but principled to a fault, or possibly himself intimidated by advancement. He passes up several promotions for understandable, even noble reasons. This, nevertheless, draws Eileen’s ire. (Thomas’s eye for the small battles of marriage is amazing.)
Depicted with similarly stunning emotional accuracy are Eileen’s difficulties becoming pregnant. But a son, Connell, soon comes along. Ed proves to be a warm, loving father, sharing a passion with Connell for baseball and the New York Mets. But Ed soon begins behaving unpredictably, even erratically. The family eventually learns he has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. What follows is, according to a rave review by New Yorker magazine critic Stefan Merrill Block, “the truest and most harrowing account of a descent into dementia that I have ever read.”
The sadness of Ed’s sickness, however, never cloaks We Are Not Ourselves in gloom. Ed and Eileen’s marriage is a loving, even sensual one, and they are flawed (sometimes deeply) but loving parents. A highlight of the book is an astonishing letter from Ed to Connell that is not only bound to make any human being cry, but would also sell millions of copies, if it were sold separately to parents who struggle to express their love to their children.
Fact Vs. Fiction
“The book’s roots are autobiographical in the sense that I’m from an Irish American family and I grew up in Jackson Heights [Queens],” notes the 39-year-old Thomas, whose maternal grandparents came from Cavan and Galway.
Other broad details of the book are also rooted in Thomas’s own life. His father was a professor who indeed, suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s. (His father died in 2002.) Thomas’s mother was also a nurse, and Thomas (like Connell in the book) attended Regis High School in Manhattan.
However, Thomas said earlier versions of the book revolved around a character similar to Connell. A key artistic decision for Thomas was deciding to make Eileen – her determination, her disappointments, her heroic strength in the face of adversity – the central character.
“Eileen was just such as interesting character to me…. I grew up seeing these amazing women who were trying to remake the world,” Thomas said of his mother’s generation, who were moving into the work force but also handling the vast majority of home-making and child-rearing duties.
Family Trips to Ireland
Though born in the Bronx, Thomas moved to Queens at an early age. The Irish influence was powerful, from his first trip to Ireland as a baby to the step dancing classes he took.
“I was surrounded by my mother’s family…close cousins, aunts and uncles. It was a very Irish environment,” he said, adding: “I was taken [to Ireland] when I was seven months old. I like to think that the experience of being there informed my subconscious mind.”
Another trip to Ireland, when Thomas was 20, allowed him to see much of the entire country, before staying with family outside of Dublin.
“I love Cork. It really appeals to me. Because it’s slightly smaller but still has all of the attractions of a larger city.”
There was, however, a sad edge to that trip.
“It was the last trip (my father) ever made. He wasn’t in a good way.”
Alice McDermott’s Influence
After high school, Thomas flew off to the midwest to study English at the University of Chicago. By then he was a devoted student of literature and had the transformative experience of reading the novels of Alice McDermott, whose beautiful novels Charming Billy, That Night, and (most recently) Someone explore terrain similar to Thomas’s.
“She is one of our great living, working writers. It wouldn’t surprise me if she won the Nobel Prize someday,” Thomas said, becoming animated.
No surprise, then, that he wanted to attend John Hopkins University in Baltimore, where McDermott teaches creative writing. Thomas said McDermott was not only an amazing teacher, but an even better person.
“There’s no way to exaggerate what a decent human being she is. I get choked up thinking about it.”
Thomas later received a Master of Fine Arts from U.C. Irvine and he admits his mother was skeptical – though ultimately supportive – about his career choice.
“Her reaction was a very Irish one – practical, pragmatic.”
He adds: “Out of love and concern she was worried about me. One generation in, she just wanted me to do better than she did. And I love her for it. It was pretty smart.”
A teaching job at Xavier High School in Manhattan provided much-needed stability – especially after he married and had children – but took a tremendous amount of time away from his writing.
That’s when Thomas and his wife took the ultimate leap of faith.
He took an unpaid year off from teaching to finish We Are Not Ourselves, the title of which comes from Shakespeare’s King Lear.
“You have distinct fears that nothing will come of this thing,” said Thomas.
Suffice to say, things turned out for the best.
Thomas’s mother, who now lives in Westchester, New York, finally had the opportunity recently to read the novel her son spent a decade writing. Thomas asked his mother what she thought about the book.
“Her response was quick,” he says with a smile. ‘It’s good. Very good.’ And then we moved on to talking about something else.”
This fall will be a whirlwind of publicity for Thomas, who adds that, at least thus far , there has been no talk of selling the TV or movie rights to We Are Not Ourselves. (This will likely change now that the book is out and praise has been gushing forth in The New Yorker, The New York Times and other respected outlets.)
Thomas has begun writing a second novel which he describes as a “family drama” about twin sisters. Again, he will explore the New York Irish.
“I think I’ll end up writing about the Irish a lot. I have so much respect and admiration for the Irish in New York. There’s such an unbelievable amount of vitality. Even several generations in they retain this identity. It’s not even about Ireland, it’s about Irish America, which is its own world. The number of characters you meet over the course of a life spent in the Irish American milieu…its incredible.”
In the end, We Are Not Ourselves stands with the giants of Irish American literature, from McDermott and William Kennedy to the family dramas of Eugene O’Neill. The penultimate scene in the book is one of the most eloquent – and important – in Irish American writing. Eileen is drawn back to the house she and her husband had purchased, a home that, to her, had become a symbol of the American dream. Of course, things didn’t turn out so dreamily. (Indeed, Thomas even manages to make household financial decisions compelling.)
A family from India eventually purchased the home. Though herself the daughter of immigrants, Eileen had struggled – as generations of previous New York immigrants had – with changes in the neighborhood. Nevertheless, here’s Eileen, in the home that had been such a towering presence in her life, being asked to sit for dinner by an Indian Catholic family bearing the unusual last name (get this) Thomas.
This unsentimental, even awkward scene reminds us of the simple yet powerful bonds that unite yesterday’s immigrants and today’s, a bond easily forgotten by many people – not a few of them Irish American, like Eileen herself.
“The world is full of mysteries,” Eileen thinks to herself at one point early in We Are Not Ourselves. Matthew Thomas has taken those many mysteries – birth, family, love, the frailty of our bodies – and transformed them into a lasting work of art.