The product of a stormy upbringing in an Irish Catholic enclave of New York City, Eileen craves stability. Coming of age in the early Sixties, she meets and marries a young scientist named Edmund Leary. While Eileen wants more for her family, Ed won’t give up teaching for a better-paid job. Inadvertently Eileen starts to climb her own career ladder in nursing. She pushes Ed into finding a new home, but it becomes clear that his resistance is part of a deeply troubling psychological shift.
In this masterful debut, Matthew Thomas paints a sprawling, profoundly sympathetic portrait of a family coping with slow-burning tragedy. We Are Not Ourselves is a grand testament to our deepest hopes and most human frailties.
We Are Not Ourselves is an epic, not only in length but its time span. And yet it’s dangerously easy to read, the kind of book you look up from and wonder where the time went! You have a knack for illuminating a personality, or a relationship, or the passage of time by finding that one moment that defines the whole. How did you develop this style?
One of the keys to finding a moment that defines the whole is allowing small details or moments carry a scene in the first place. Doing so requires trusting the reader. It also requires trusting both the characters and the world you’ve constructed to be interesting enough not to require excessive description to make an impression. I sought an economy of effect, which meant I would rather have a single resonant object in a scene—a knife, a razor—than multiple ones. It also involved doing a good deal of extra writing and cutting it unsparingly. And it meant listening to the characters and the rhythm of a given scene and waiting to hear what the characters themselves would suggest as next. I tried to stay in my scenes with as much focus and attention as I possibly could. I tried never to introduce a prop into a scene just to give characters something interesting to hold in their hands. I also tried never to have characters do anything quirky or implausibly idiosyncratic just for the sake of keeping things interesting and strange. I tried to let their actions and the physical objects they worked into their routines emanate naturally from the ordinary rhythm of their lives. And something I learned from studying Mrs. Bridge, Evan S. Connell’s masterpiece, was that it was possible and even advantageous to move time forward briskly, by creating some negative space between scenes. Not every moment needs to be dramatized or narrated. In a novel arranged in a linear fashion, as this one is, there doesn’t need to be an unbroken chain of temporal moments. The mind enjoys filling in gaps with the known picture of the person so far. It’s the same way our peripheral vision works. Our mind is constructing a picture of what’s just outside the range of our sight by generating a composite of known visual stimuli. Writing effective negative space and moving a story forward without describing every individual moment can sometimes feel like creating a form of peripheral vision for the reader.
This quote, I think, perfectly illustrates Eileen’s mindset at the beginning of the novel:
‘When she was older she would live in a beautiful enough home that you wouldn’t even notice the clarinet … She would have to marry a man who would make it possible.’
While I’ve read many books that follow characters in pursuit of the American Dream, We Are Not Ourselves addresses that theme with great originality because of your use of a female protagonist. Why do you think tackling this theme from a woman’s perspective makes for such a different kind of narrative?
I think watching a woman pursue the Dream calls into question received ideas about the fixed nature of gender roles. It forces one to consider the reductive binaries in which we understand and categorize the behaviour of men and women. The events of the book grant Eileen more and more agency and send Ed increasingly to the periphery of the decision-making in his own life. Even before his health circumstances force him into literal dependency, though, Ed is inclined to cede some of the stewardship of their lives as a family to his wife—and not just in the domestic sphere, but also in the realm of what vision they would have for their future, what trajectory their lives together would follow. It is Eileen, in many ways, who sets the tone—or she tries to as much as she can. Ed may not have bargained for it, but he married a woman in a new generation who is not going to settle for living as women have agreed to live for as long as anyone can remember. And yet at the same time, Eileen is very comfortable playing certain so-called traditional roles in several areas of her life with her husband, and despite the fact that his wife is a force to be reckoned with professionally, Ed still possesses a masculinity that attracts Eileen to him irresistibly. Watching a woman pursue the Dream and attempt to keep her life at home from falling apart is basically watching one of the fundamental stories of a couple of decades in the seventies and eighties.
While making comparisons is reductive, I’m afraid I can’t help myself here: Eileen Leary reminded me, in certain lights, of Mad Men’s Joan [Holloway]. On the surface they’re both attractive women negotiating the changing social mores of Sixties New York. But for me, their most compelling parallel is that both see marriage as the key to female identity, yet as their expectations are disappointed, they become career women, and proud of their status as such – Eileen as Head Nurse of a hospital. They come to embody a feminist ideal, but neither is the kind of woman who would ever choose to be identified as a feminist. How did you develop such insight into the lives of women of that generation? Were you conscious of making a point about how the position of women in society has changed so radically over the last sixty years?
A big part of how I developed whatever insights I developed into the lives of women in that generation came from paying attention to my mother, her friends and colleagues, and the many women whose exploits as corporate professionals and elected officials I read about in the newspaper as a young boy. Even then, before I could put the pieces together with any real understanding, I knew that there was something remarkable about the way that generation’s women were remaking civilization. They were the first to hold positions of authority in the workplace in any real numbers. They seemed able to balance so much—pursuing high-powered careers, being mothers and wives—and they possessed apparently inexhaustible reserves of energy. This wasn’t yet the era of sensitive, duty-splitting fathers; the expression “Mr. Mom” was significant for the divergence from expectation it conveyed. Women carried out enervating domestic duties in the evenings and yet somehow could still marshal the fortitude necessary the next morning to win workplace battles in the fight for equality. Perhaps they were heeding the encouraging arguments feminist thinkers were making, or perhaps they were individually answering a more personal call that happened to become collective, a meme of sorts, that they simply weren’t going to stand any longer for the prevailing conditions.
In my book I was very conscious of making a point about how the position of women in society has changed so radically over the years. Eileen herself, at the outset of her career, when she’s still in nursing school and paying her tuition as a model at Bonwit Teller, dreams that a man might come and save her from the career that awaits her. But then she experiences great success in that career. In that way, as you say, she’s similar to Joan Hollowell. Joan talks early in the show in terms of advancement through marriage, but by the end of the most recent season she has evolved into a tough-minded, pragmatic, independent equal partner.
Eileen might not beat the drum for the cause of feminism, but I think she would identify as a feminist; I don’t think she’d have any trouble with the label. She’s intimately aware of how much the power structures in America favour men. Throughout her career, she’s seen male colleagues take their place for granted atop the pyramid. And part of why she’s frustrated with Ed, I think, is that she sees how many more opportunities for advancement American society wants to offer him than her, opportunities he turns down. I can’t picture her marching for the cause of feminism, but I do think she thinks of herself as having stormed the barricades—even if at the outset she never intended to or thought it would make a difference—and I can see her taking pride in how far her generation has come.
What, for me, was so moving and so painfully accurate, was how you capture what losing a loved one to a degenerative illness means for the family, and particularly for children. I thought it was interesting that as a child Eileen cares for her alcoholic mother and really becomes a substitute mother-figure, while Connell, Eileen and Ed’s son, is desperate to escape his increasingly strained home life and is wracked with guilt because of these feelings. Why did you decide to tell this story? What do you think are the essential differences between these generations?
I think the salient difference between the generations is that the second generation in America take much more for granted than the children of immigrants do. They enjoy a better and easier life than their parents did, have more opportunities open to them, and consider more things in play. Their inhibitions are fewer; they assume they deserve a seat at the table—any table. They have the luxury of self-determination. But probably what is more interesting about the differences between the generations is the idea that the attitudes and philosophies the younger generation like to pride themselves on espousing are far more often received wisdom than they are attitudes won in the crucible of experience. The irony is that the older generation did the work in the trenches for the younger generation to safely hold their progressive views. I’m not trying to indict the young here; they’re sincere in their open-minded views, and they want the world to be a more loving, more inclusive place than it ever has been. What I’m trying to do is counter a kind of historical presentism with which people evaluate the actions and attitudes of earlier generations. For Connell, it’s nothing at all to eat Indian food, as he breezily demonstrates in his ill-advised conversation with his row-mate on the plane, while his father is dying at the home. For Eileen, managing to successfully eat Indian food at the end of the book, when she has brought so much prejudice and fear to bear on the thought of ever touching it, amounts to a triumph of her spirit and a demonstration of the decency that runs through her like a subterranean river. It is so much easier for a younger person to eat foods from a variety of nations and cultures than it is for an older person; it easier for a young person to be sensitive to the power language has to shape orthodoxies and perpetuate subjugation; it is easier for him or her to hold progressive views on gay marriage; it is easier for him or her to be revolted by racism or sexism; and it comes far more instinctively to them to see the natural order of the world as a mixture of cultures and religions. The young have an opportunity to look at experience free of some of the mental shackles their parents’ labored under, and instead of using their mental freedom to establish an empathetic connection to their parents’ generation, they prosecute them and accuse them of moral or spiritual failings. But this is the lot of humanity: it is only when we are older that we see how little we knew when we thought we knew what we knew.
Subtly woven throughout your book is the story of New York and its suburbs over the last half century. Eileen and Ed are second-generation immigrants of Irish extraction. They see New York in its heyday and witness its decline through the 70s and 80s. Eileen attributes that decline to the new influx of immigrants. Some of her fears are real; many are imaginary, based on prejudice. I thought this was a very honest portrayal of immigration and attitudes towards it; how rapidly people forget how they once were ‘other’ too. Do you see We Are Not Ourselves as extending the trope of the immigrant story?
I hope it occasions a discussion of how important immigration is. We have entered a time in American history when immigration is utterly necessary from a practical perspective and even more necessary from a spiritual one. America was built on immigration, and, though there have been nativist episodes in this country’s history that correspond to periods of economic unrest, America has always found room for hard-workers with fresh ideas and the energy born of a necessity for a change in circumstances. The story of immigration is an eternal recirculation of the same theme, and I see Eileen as being very similar in spirit to Connell’s Korean friend Elbert, who I imagine will be running a company someday, or even the young man she bumps into on the street when he is walking with his friends, who unsettles her with his gentility. Eileen can’t see that the story of these young men, Latino or Asian, is really her story. Her myopia might put us off, [and we wish she could understand those young men as equals, but the fact is that if pressed, she would be glad their parents had had the opportunity to immigrate in the first place. Immigrant groups have always battled adversity in pursuit of landed status, and the insensitivity of others, which is painful to face, and I tried not to shrink from the complexity of Eileen’s response. In the end, though, even people with prejudices can rise above them when it comes to matters of justice. They can support the right of others to be in the county they’ve come to call their own after their parents or grandparents made a similar immigrant journey. Over time, people intermarry and the distinctions between ethnic groups, which cause such strife, begin to disappear. We’re headed in that direction, thankfully. Natural science tells us that the mixing of races produces a stronger species. When Americans call for the shutting of their borders, they are calling for the weakening of the body politic. The more we forget that everyone was once an immigrant to America, and reserve citizenship as an exclusive club and deport people for the slightest infraction, the more we seal our fate. The influx of energy and enthusiasm immigrants bring to bear on their everyday lives is a beautiful thing, and it has very practical effects on an economy. Immigrants are proud to be Americans, or they would be if we would only let them. At a time when pride in their country is hard to come by for many Americans, and they are enervated in the extreme, the absorption into the bloodstream of new blood can only have a rejuvenating effect. The best medicine is humanity, more of it, as soon as possible.
We Are Not Ourselves is published on Thursday 28th of August
Questions by Sharmila Woollam