Every year, a handful of books are singled out for big advance buzz months in advance of the fall season: debuts and "break-out" titles carrying the weights of hope (the author's) and expectation (the publisher's). Needless to say, not all of these work out. September and October are brutally competitive as publishers line up their blockbusters and heavy hitters ahead of the holidays, and sometimes a book just doesn't live up to its pitch.
Among this year's most highly anticipated books is Matthew Thomas's debut novel, We Are Not Ourselves, which we first learned of in early spring, when Thomas made some early rounds visiting booksellers. It's an American family saga on the epic side--in both scope and page-count--drawing favorable comparisons to The Corrections and The Art of Fielding, and while that grandness might have compounded its already high expectations, we're pleased to say that the book has certainly earned its acclaim. In selecting We Are Not Ourselves for Amazon's Best Books the Month, Neal Thompson writes:
What's special about this book is how Thomas takes us, slowly and somewhat unexpectedly, deep inside a family battling the gray-toned middling place of their middle-class existence ... It's oddly addictive to watch this family unfold, age, and devolve. Intimate, honest, and true, it's the story of a doomed father and a flawed son and the indefatigable and loving woman who keeps them all together, even as they're falling apart.
Thomas set aside a few minutes from his busy Book Expo America schedule to chat with us about the book, his inspirations, and the experience of publishing his first novel. (An edited transcript of the conversation is below.)
Matthew Thomas at Book Expo America (transcript)
Could you tell us a little bit about your book, and a little bit about and the process of writing it?
It is a story about an Irish-American family, set in Queens"”initially. It largely focuses on a woman named Eileen, who's born to Irish immigrant parents. It follows her through the course of her life, as we watch her develop ambitions for a life greater than the one she has, and pursue a different course. She runs into obstacles at various points, overcomes them, and eventually runs into something that she can't overcome. And the story becomes, in large part, the focus of how she handles this obstacle. Her marriage to her husband, Ed, is a focus of the book, and their relationship becomes the heart of the story. And in many ways, the way that she handles what happens to her husband--this calamitous event that occurs--reveals her character, and the essence of it.
I worked on the book for 10 years. I started the book at the end of my time at UC Irvine. I submitted to workshop--as the last submission I made--after writing and submitting short stories. I finally worked up the courage to write this story--because it involved some difficult emotional material--and I submitted the first portion of it, got some feedback, and then was off on my own in the real world. I worked as a high school teacher for eight years"”the last eight years"”while I wrote.
Where did you draw inspiration for the book? Was it based on your own experience or your family's history?
It's rooted originally in autobiographical impulse, but I think the book improved when I got away from that. It eventually became impossible for me to think of this book as anything but the novel it wanted to be. The characters started asserting themselves and being individuals I couldn't entirely control, so it quickly got away from autobiography. But the emotional reality of the story certainly extends from my experiences. My father, in particular, is an inspiration for Ed (in what happened to my father), and in fact, I started writing this book after he died. A year later, I found the courage to begin it.
Did you have any literary heroes, or any model, that you wanted to emulate?
A few. 100 Years of Solitude was certainly in the back of my mind as I was writing this: the inter-generational aspect of it, and in the way he [Gabriel Garcia Marquez] conveys so much about the inheritance of traits and the playing out"”unconsciously"”of themes from one generation to the next. The scope of that book was something I admired and I wanted to try to write toward.
Gatsby was always on my mind, as well, for a lot of the thematic content in that book. Mrs. Bridge was another book that gave me a model for how to write with short chapters, and manipulate short chapters in a larger whole.
So this is your first book, and presumably your first Book Expo. What has been your experience? There's a lot of hype building around it.
It's been a big thrill! The biggest thrill for me was meeting the fellow panelists on the Buzz Panel. I got to chat with them for a few minutes beforehand, and it was exciting because everybody had a similar experience, in the sense there was a shared excitement and enthusiasm for what was going on--and gratitude to be here. And it was fun to be part of a group of people who were potentially going to make a mark, and it was exciting to think about reading their books. It's also amazing to be here because it's such an unbelievably huge event... it's like the Metropolitan Museum of Art: you can't take it all in at once. But it's a big thrill to be here.