Novel talent

Novelist Matthew Thomas, AB’97, talks about learning to hear the story that wants to be told.

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When Matthew Thomas’s first book, We Are Not Ourselves (Simon and Schuster), appeared in August, reviewers lavished the sprawling family novel with praise. The New York Times called it a “gorgeous epic, full of love and life and caring” and said it was one of the year’s best novels.

The reception was a surprise to Thomas, AB’97. For a decade, he had slaved over the 620-page book in his spare time while working as an English teacher at a boys’ high school in Manhattan. For most of that time, he showed the draft to no one. “I was working in the shadows,” he says. “I had no ratification of my labors at all.”

The novel follows Eileen Tumulty from her working-class upbringing in Queens to her marriage to eccentric neuroscientist Edward Leary, who is diagnosed with Alz­heimer’s disease at 51.

Thomas first began to write seriously in high school with attempts at poetry he calls “earnest” and “fitful.” As a UChicago undergraduate, he studied English, German, and Slavic literature with influential teachers like William Veeder; Richard Strier; Curt Columbus; Ian and Janel Mueller; Robert von Hallberg; Robert Pippin; David Powelstock; Malynne Sternstein, AB’87, AM’90, PhD’96; Richard Stern; Edward Wasiolek; and Karl Weintraub, AB’49, AM’52, PhD’57. Each of these scholars, he says, helped to shape his thinking about literature.

In an interview, edited and adapted below, Thomas reflected on his writing career and undergraduate days.—Susie Allen, AB’09

What has life been like since the book came out? First of all, it was incredible to finish the book in the first place. I had worked on it for 10 years. I wasn’t showing it to anybody, because for the longest time I could see all its flaws myself so readily that it was pointless to show it to someone else.

I just held it and held it and held it as long as I could to myself, with the fear the whole time that maybe it would come to naught, other than the pleasure I’d taken in writing it. Finishing it and feeling good about it was a huge psychic relief. For a while I was giddy at the thought of being done, let alone publishing it.

I went to Chicago on my book tour the other day, and seeing it on the shelf at 57th Street Books was pretty awesome.

When did you first start thinking of yourself as a writer? I started writing “poems” (and I want you to put quotes around that word) in high school. They were the sort of thing you write in high school. I was reading poetry at the time as well, so I was certainly interested in writing good stuff, even if I wasn’t capable yet. 

I started writing a lot in high school, and I continued when I went to Chicago. I wrote poetry and short stories, and I was one of the editors of the Chicago Literary Review, along with the poet Jennifer Kronovet [AB’98], in my second two years. 

What else did you do in college? I wrote art and theater reviews for the Maroon and did plays at University Theater. We would get together to rehearse, and we would talk afterward at the coffee shops—something like a salon society, but really a bunch of friends who were in plays together. It was my major activity there, along with the Chicago Literary Review.

UT was an interesting culture at the time, because there were a lot of dedicated and often quite talented people who were acting, directing, and designing everything from stage to lighting to sound, but there wasn’t an official program or a major or anything like that.

Some of the people I acted with were heading toward professional careers. Others—Susanna Gellert [AB’99], Chloe Johnston [AB’99], and Joshua Epstein [AB’97] come immediately to mind—went on to become professional directors and designers. It was a pretty fecund time for a theater nerd.

Which faculty members influenced you as a student? William Veeder taught me how to read critically and sensitively. He taught me how to think as a reader, which was fundamental to thinking as a writer. He has an extraordinarily gifted sensitivity to the nuances of writing. I shudder to imagine what would have been without his influence—it was that profound.

Richard Strier, who is a luminary, and had such a wonderful sense of humor, and brought these difficult texts down to a level of immediate comprehension for us with extraordinary ease. These world-class scholars are teaching undergrads with just as much dedication as they would an average grad course. You’re getting the greatest outpouring of these tremendous minds at the age of 18 or 19. It’s an incredible privilege.

Do you see a connection between the great works of Russian literature you read here and We Are Not Ourselves? There’s a Russian tradition of novels that try to tell the story, not just of the individuals in the book, but also of the society from which they emerge and the period of time that birthed them. I think I learned that tradition in part by reading those books—in translation, of course. I have always had the big works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky on the mind as something to try to shoot for in the distance.

How have you changed as a writer? I’ve grown up as a person, which helps the writing, certainly. The preoccupations of a young writer, I think, are very different from those of somebody even 10 years later. When I was at the beginning, I was interested in formal experimentation and swayed by the high modernist stuff I enjoyed reading—William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood.

Maybe teaching helped me over the years, because my students were a pretty good crowd of critics. They’re skeptical about everything and easily moved to frustration and impatience with books. I watched them appreciate Chekhov and Hemingway and even some of Joyce and the Russian tradition—they connect to storytelling and to character-driven stuff. That was something I understood more as I got older.

Over time, I just got better at the craft. My dialogue was less ham-fisted. The descriptive writing was more pointed, necessary, scenic, and particular. I stopped writing for the sound of my own voice and started writing for the story that wanted to be told. I got out of its way.

What are you working on now? At the very moment, nothing because I’m on tour. But another novel. Another character-driven novel about a family—a totally different kind of family. This one I hope won’t take me 10 years.

What was it like to be back on campus? I went with a friend down to campus the other day. School hadn’t started yet, so there was a possible feeling in my mind that I was in the place that I had been in. There weren’t that many students around, so I was populating it in my mind with the characters I remembered. It was nice to do that, to come at that moment, because I could still see it as the place I was walking around in as a student. What I found amazing is that gestalt sense you get of a place that’s really just a spiritual sense of what the place is like that told me that this was the same place. There might be all these new buildings, but the soul of the place has been preserved. I was so gratified to feel that, and thrilled, because I love the place so much.

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