A Conversation with Matthew Thomas

By Simon McDonald, Editorial Manager |

Matthew Thomas spent 10 years writing We Are Not Ourselves. He submitted a portion of the novel to his last workshop at UC-Irvine, having spent two years handing in short stories comprised of material that would eventually find its way into the final novel, and he entered post-graduation life without anything close to a finished manuscript.

During the following years — as Matthew moved from Los Angeles to New York, married, became a father of twins, and lived frugally — he continued working on the novel and signed with an agent in March 2013. A month later, the novel sold, and come August 19, 2014, readers will finally have the opportunity to read We Are Not Ourselves.

Extolled as a great American novel, Matthew’s debut is a delectably rendered testament to the era in which we live, rich with indelible characters and moments, and certain to be a rewarding experience for readers.

The story behind the writing of We Are Not Ourselves has been – and will surely continue to be – widely broadcasted as your career blossoms.  Forgive me for asking the obvious question, but was there ever any doubt you’d see the novel through to its end? How did you overcome those moments of uncertainty?
The worst doubts crept in during stretches when I wasn’t writing. I was a high school English teacher with over a hundred students, and the demands of paper grading made it difficult at times to find the hours I needed to work on the book. It’s not hard to lose your connection to what you’re writing if you get away from it for a couple of weeks. It can start to feel like someone else’s book. I beat myself up whenever I didn’t write. From time to time I saw that my psyche needed a break from the stress of trying to be hyper-efficient and productive with my time, and I told myself I was just going to read for a few weeks and just be a teacher and a person. But even if you tell yourself you’re leaving your book alone for a while, it doesn’t leave you alone. It doesn’t let you off the hook or give you a guilt-free day or a mental vacation.
In the end, I overcame my uncertainty by plodding forward and trying to enjoy the act of composition, rather than thinking about outcomes. The more I focused on writing the book and didn’t fret about whether I’d finish it or what the outcome would be once I had, the easier it became to write it and the better the work was. It’s the hoariest platitude in the world, but I got the book finished by taking it one day at a time and trying to burrow as deeply as I could into whatever individual moment I was attempting to capture on the page that day. It strikes me that one needs to wear horse blinders to get a novel done.