I wanted the story of this family to resonate as loudly as the great historical events of that time

Interview of Matthew Thomas by Lara Touitou (January 18, 2015)

Matthew Thomas was born in the Bronx and grew up in Queens. A graduate of the University of Chicago, he has an MA from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and an MFA from the University of California, Irvine. His New York Times bestselling novel We Are Not Ourselves has been shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction and longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.

How did the title We Are Not Ourselves lead the narrative and the writing process?

Thinking of a title and writing the book were very different enterprises. It was more that the book in its themes made the title obvious, because I had the title relatively late in the process, not quite when the book was done, but a year or so before. I think I had been teaching King Lear to my students, and I came across this phrase. I had to have a previous title for the book, a working title that I was OK with but in which I wasn’t entirely confident, and when I came across this phrase in the text, “We are not ourselves”, it suggested so much of what my book was trying to communicate that it struck me that that had been the title all along. When I saw the phrase, it was as if the phrase was sort of reintroducing itself to me.

The idea of the title for me is multipartite. It felt appropriate as a title for many different reasons. The characters in this book are not allowed to be themselves, they’re affected by experience and they are always working in a way that is distressed psychologically. So if there is an idea of a kind of perfected self, they’re not allowed to access it at the moment, because of interfering noise, psychological disturbance, having a father who’s ill, having a spouse who’s ill. So that’s one way. Another way, for me, was that we are not only ourselves. We are not islands onto ourselves, we exist in community, we need each other for our greatest happiness on the planet, and that it is only in relationship that happiness can really be measured most effectively. We are not only ourselves, an implied “only” was there for me.

Another way to resonate was that we are not ourselves in the sense that we are not reducible to our biographies. We contain multitudes, inside, that are not apparent to anyone else. Each person walks around with an imagined world, a sense of possibilities, something that may never be realizable and yet is something that dies with that person, and it’s a profound loss. There’s the biography in the world, the facts of the person’s life, the measurable and the empirical, and those things tell a part of the story of a life, but who knows what’s in someone’s heart, who knows what’s in someone’s head. We are not ourselves, as it were, in the sense that we are not only what we appear to be in our lived and public empirical lives.

Finally, there’s a way in which we are always coming into being, and this for me resonated a lot with Eileen’s character. We are not ourselves just yet, we haven’t gotten there quite yet, we are works in progress in a sense. There’s something for me hopeful in that, in the sense that someone has the capacity to learn, even late in life, as I was trying to show her doing so, in that last scene. There’s the sudden surprise, the evolution of a person, when we least expect it. We are not ultimately fixed in place.

The question of appearances dominate the major part of the book. The title is echoed is the characters’ personality and their evolution, as Eileen who fantasizes her life and what she wants it to be, such as the house she’s seeking to buy, which encapsulates everything she wants her life to look like. There’s also Ed, her husband who always seemed distant in his marriage to Eileen, constantly dedicated to his work, until his illness. There’s a line in the book that says “He had been a stranger in the world for most of his life”, as if his life has prepared him for the illness. Was “We Are Not Ourselves” the only way that they could be themselves?

I think Eileen’s background is maybe the only way that she would have wound up with Ed as a spouse, because she’s a beautiful woman, she’s a desirable single woman in her early twenties, and she’s not meeting people who are surprising her very often. She stays with her people, she is friends with people she knew when she was younger, her context is not very broad. She’s suspicious of the characters she’s grown up around, because she’s aware of the limitations of desire in predicting the future, the strapping and overtly masculine men that she knows she might actually be inclined to be attracted to, in a more kind of visceral way. The disappointments and frustrations of her life have been so palpable that they have actually provided enough of a kind of corrective to the instinct and impulses of biology and desire, that they actually do quash, in some ways, her desire for this kind of guy. So a guy like Ed, who is more cerebral, more articulate, more subtle, has a chance with a character like Eileen, in this case, simply because of the limits of her experiences on the planet. They do dovetail with each other nicely in the way that the limits of their lives have imposed a few outcomes that sort of match each other, just by accident. She sees him as the avatar of all that she hopes for, in a way, a kind of quiet, a dignity, a reaching for something higher. I think she implicitly respects his scholarship, and the notion that he has devoted himself to a higher ideal. She’s not a particularly idealist character, but she does contain in her this one ideal, which is “a better life”, and she hasn’t fully articulated what it means, but she measures it in empirical terms: a better house, more money, better standing among her peers. There is a kind of implicit idealism in that, which is to say that she’s living for a notion that is not actually visibly present. In a way, strangely, because at times she’s so ruthless, and so pragmatic, there is an idealism about her that draws her to a character like Ed. We see evidence throughout the book that he is really idealistic, in a way that is frustrating to her. He wants to teach these kids well, he wants them to get a better education than they would get from anybody who might replace him, and he resists the lures of money and advancement, all the things that she has understood to be what will bring her happiness. There’s a perfect dovetailing at the beginning of the book, of them as partners for each other, and they also work perfectly as opposites in a way that causes the greatest tensions, I think.

What happens over the course of the book is that Eileen, ultimately, has learned something, I think, from the limits of her dream. She has figured out, for the first time, that sitting and enjoying is greatest, in terms of the happiness that is available for a person. At the end of the book, she just sits still and enjoys a meal, and it’s maybe the first time in the book we’ve seen her really sitting still.

All has had to be taken away from her, in a way, for that to happen. Obviously, there’s a tragedy in that, but it suggests that if someone can figure out that being present is actually the greatest happiness, it doesn’t matter when it happens, late or early in life.

You’re referring to the scene at the end of the book where Eileen goes back to her former house in Jackson Heights, and has dinner with the Indian family to whom she sold the house. It is the first time in the book we see her enjoying food. It seems like Eileen is always ridden with guilt, that she feels she cannot enjoy anything because she has to put her family’s happiness before her own. As the Leary family is an American family of Irish descent, is it related to a kind of Irish guilt?

I think, somewhat, but I think it’s larger than that. It’s the guilt of the child of immigrants. Those children always have a little more pressure on them than people who’ve been in a place for a while, whether that’s externally imposed on them or not by their parents.

For Eileen, I think it’s guilt, but it’s also a kind of fear, a terror of sitting still. She is like a shark in that way—as soon as she stops moving, she thinks she’s gonna die. It is guilt, but it is also the idea that if everyone around me is not gonna conspire with me, in heading toward this one particular goal, I will carry them along with me anywhere, and if I don’t do that, we all are gonna just suddenly die. I don’t think that’s what she explicitly thinks, and when I say die, I don’t necessarily mean actually die, but all of the light will go out of the room, and there will be left just the darkness.

Because, underneath it all, she is also the child of an alcoholic, at least one alcoholic, or one and a half. I think there’s a terror that’s in her from the beginning, that is expressed in a desire for comfort and security and peace and a settledness in her home, that if it’s all arranged perfectly, it will quiet the demons. What resonates for her, looking over those windows on Fifth Avenue at Christmas time, it’s the perfected nature of the world behind a glass, it’s what she’s driving toward.

It’s interesting, because, whether she realizes it or not, she is pursuing sitting still and experiencing joy, herself, although I don’t know that she’s aware of that as a philosophical goal. She thinks she needs everything to be perfect, in order for her to feel that peace, but what she needs is just to appreciate the human interaction that’s before her. I think she learns that very late, in that last scene.

What’s interesting in that last scene is that this is an Indian family, this is in part the reason she left the neighborhood, she has all these incoherent fears that are driven into a kind of racism, and a suspicion of the poor, because of what she comes from, she’s sort of groping for answers to make things simple. For once, she doesn’t see a difference between her family and the Indian family, she is just experiencing the moment.
I don’t know that it’s Irish guilt necessarily, I think it’s the guilt of being alive, in a way, and having the responsibility of living a life.

Eileen is kind of stuck in time, she has a hard time accepting the evolution of her neighborhood, and on the contrary, before his illness, Ed is actually kind of stuck in space, he doesn’t want to leave his neighborhood. Was the illness a way to erase the fact they’re stuck in two different dimensions?

First of all, I have some personal experience with Alzheimer’s, which allowed me to write about it from the inside. But I resisted writing about it for a long time, because I didn’t want to just write about it automatically. In a way, I wanted to earn it, by having it resonate in whatever particular book I was going to write. I wanted it to be thematically important beyond the personal. I figured out what that was in this book—it’s a disease that runs totally counter to most of modern life. It’s about inconvenience. It’s about chaos versus the way that contemporary life is about ordering everything. It’s about the obviousness of mortality, whereas, in contemporary experience, we try to forget that we’re ever going to die. It kind of runs almost directly counter to Western thought, at the most basic and guttural level, which is an increase in capital, an increase in comfort and security, in some ways all the things Eileen is desiring. She is a very typical sort of Western thinker.

Alzheimer’s forces chaos on people, it forces a kind of humanity on people, because the person suffering from Alzheimer’s suffers a loss of bodily control. It forces the person into relationships with others because someone has to take care of that person. We tend to think, in the West, of people taking care of themselves, of this sort of atomisation of individuals to their own sort of controlled existences. Alzheimer’s forces someone else to be a part of another person’s life. It’s about forgetting, in a way, forgetting the distinctions that make people individuals. That is the last thing Eileen wants. She wants to be distinct from anyone else around her, she wants her life to be kind of identifiable as noble and good and in some way, worthy of attention. What I find interesting is that her life is actually worthy of attention, just in its ordinariness. As a novelist, I think Eileen would like to have a distinctive life, a special life, a noteworthy life. In some way, I think what’s important is that she has one regardless of whether she has one or not.

I think that Alzheimer’s in the book functions as that which breaks down a lot of the artifice that keeps people apart, that is in some way the dominant mode of how we interact with each other, in contemporary life. It forces this person, Ed, to be dependent on someone else. It forces Eileen to have to interact with people, in a less controlled way. It forces her to also lose the buffer of her highly articulated self. She is forced, ultimately, to appear to be in need, to appear to be in distress, to appear to have everything not under control. I think that runs very counter to the Western way of living in general.

The novel took you ten years to write. Were there any major changes during the writing process?

Yes, the book changed quite a lot in those ten years. I came to know the characters better. I came to understand them more particularly in their individual psychologies which revealed things to me that I wouldn’t have known. For instance, at the beginning of the book, when I was writing it, I thought of Ed as a more traditional masculine figure, in a sense that he was maybe more closed-off emotionally at the start of the book than he was as I got deeper into the book. Eileen became herself more emotionally withholding over the course of the book, she began to play a more traditional masculine role in some ways. As I realized that, part of the story I was telling was the rise of women into positions of power in the second half of the century, and the way that that happened against the desires of men, and certainly without the help of men. Individual women had to drive at advancement and promotions, and this was, in some ways the story of that time. As I realized I was telling this story, I understood that for Eileen to be successful, in the way she is, she would have to be so single-minded and so focused, and so determined, that there wouldn’t be a kind of emotional withholding that happens in those environments to begin with. She would have to be a relatively severe woman who was not so available emotionally. When that emerged, Ed, maybe in compensation, started to soften and I certainly wouldn’t have imagined that the character I was writing at the beginning would write the letter to his son that he writes in this book. I think I understood them in the context of the book as evolving in relation to each other.

But as you write a book, characters emerge that you’d never have predicted. I never would have imagined Sergei would be in this book. He entered the book as a character really because of the way the story unfolded, and I just understood that he existed suddenly. Things like that happened quite a lot, not all of it was mapped out in advance, although I had a notion of what I was heading towards. I was trying to be open-minded to the suggestions of the unconscious, to how these characters would choose, and how those choices would ultimately affect the narrative.

We follow the story through a third-person narrator, which feels very protective of the characters, but it also allows for a sort of distance.

It was a hard thing to pull off. I wanted to be close in their heads, in a close limited third-person way, and also preserve the possibility of a kind of larger narrative, or a framework for it. I resisted going into omniscience, because I thought it would be too distancing. Omniscience in a book like this would have a tendency towards a kind of ironizing, and certainly a tendency toward judgment of the characters might emerge.

I think the protectiveness you’re talking about is a function of how close the narrative is to these consciousnesses. Except for maybe one place in the book, I really never allowed a kind of authorial consciousness to intrude upon the points of view of these characters, and it’s one slight moment that I won’t even mention.

I was willing to forgo an obvious platform for social commentary in an explicit way, in a thesis-driven way that would be more in a Tolstoyan mode, where I would comment on society. I decided I would rather let that commentary emerge out of the book and out of the material in the book than out of my voice. The protectiveness is just a function of respecting the characters enough to let their story be the story of the book.

Near the end of the book, there is a letter from Ed to Connell. How meaningful was it for you to include this written communication from a father to his son in the narrative?

It was essential to the novel for that letter to be there. I think so much of the novel comes together because of that letter. It’s the only truly point of view moment in the book from Ed’s point of view.

I’ve made the very explicit decision to avoid going into his head, for any sections. I had written much of this book in different ways at some point that never appeared in the final version. There were sections from Ed’s perspective, and many hundreds of pages that never made it into this version. But it occurred to me that, if I don’t provide his point of view, it’s a much better experience for the reader of understanding the inscrutability of this character’s mind for these characters. They might be as close to him as wife or son, and still not be able to know what’s in his head. There’s a kind of poignancy to that inscrutability, and I wanted that to be the case for the reader as well, always wondering from the outside. I think this letter becomes a kind of platform for his philosophy of the world, in a way. It’s his last chance, at least in his mind, to articulate these things before he can’t do it as effectively as he does in that moment, and he might know that it’s possible, that he might say some things later, but they would never be quite like this.

It was important to me that Ed got a chance to speak, and this was the only way he could do it, because I had prevented him from that point of view, in any chapter, at any point. More importantly, I think, in this letter, is the articulation of a philosophy that says that the way that we measure people and the value of people in the West, and maybe really in all of humanity, wherein we look at their achievements and defeats and say that this is the best mode of evaluation, that this way of looking at people, was bankrupt in some way. That we tend more and more toward that as the years pass, the value of a person is how noteworthy that person is, how much of a contribution that person’s made to civilization, how much money that person has made, whether that person had done something worth talking about. If that is not the case, as this is increasingly a media-driven society in which noteworthiness is somehow the greatest measure, Ed’s philosophy is counter to that, a correction to that. He is saying, ultimately, that it really doesn’t matter, compared to how much you love and how decent you can be. Your life may not be a story that is written about, but it will be just as important as an apparently important life. I guess I wanted him to be saying that because certainly if he can’t say that, as the idealist in the book, I don’t know who could. I guess it’s my philosophy, ultimately, but I tried to stay out the book as much as I could. I tried to be a kind of absence, and I wanted that absence to be palpable. I wanted to speak louder through my silence.

The novel is composed of numerous short chapters, in which you zero in on mundane moments in the life of the Leary family, as if you had put a microscope over their life. As a novelist, is this a comparison you relate to?

One of the things I wanted to do was to deliberately ignore some of the bigger moments in life, the ones that might appear on a timeline of a life, and to leave those out on purpose. I wanted to zero in on some of the more apparently insignificant moments. In doing so, I wanted that to resonate as the philosophy of the novel. For instance, I didn’t mention the Kennedy assassination at all. I wanted that to stand in, in some ways, for the book’s philosophy. At the time of the assassination, she’s very excited about the inauguration, it means an awful lot to her as an Irish American, she’s emotional about it. I wanted to suggest that if you know her character, then you would be able to imagine what her reaction to the assassination would be. I’m sure it was what we think it was, but it’s also true that she was working a full-time working life, and that she was a busy person, and as much as it resonated with her in a probably shocking terrible way, it was also another of the big events in her life. Because I had written a lot of material around the assassination, I made the conscious decision to leave this out. That speaks to the soul of this book, in a way, that I hope will resonate loudly.

I also wrote about the fifth game of the World Series, in 1986. The sixth game was a far more important game, a far more consequential game. The fifth game was a nothing game, in which nothing happened. I wanted that to be also a stand-in for what I was trying to do in this book, which is to write meaningfully about the lives of characters, who are often on history’s sidelines. I would make jumps in time, I would leave certain years unaccounted for, and I made the deliberate decision to move briskly through time in that way, certainly in the first couple of parts of this book. It was a conscious organization of material around some philosophy about how I wanted the material to be read.

We get peeks into the larger world, but I wanted the story of this family to resonate as loudly as the great historical events of that time. I hoped that it would suggest the importance of individual lives and the lives of families, in the way that much historiography and history is now teaching us that the story of great men is only a part of history, and that the story of artisans and ordinary people is actually just a kind of compelling parallel narrative that is just as important.

In effect, I wanted to do something like that with this book. I thought that if I could tell the story of that time without telling the story of the major events of that time, it would be something of a triumph, so I hope I achieved it.

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