Thomas’s personal story is rather epic as well. The 39-year-old author honed his craft in two writing programs, and later worked as a school teacher while he finished his first novel—which he wrote by hand, toiling in obscurity for 10 years.
“I started writing this book by hand, and then I would type it out,” he says. “But I found that I was editing so much as I typed that I was taking one step forward and three steps back. So I went back to handwriting. I would fill up a 70-page notebook, and then I’d have the stress of carrying these things around! But my desire was to get to the end of a draft. And handwriting afforded me some locomotive energy, and tremendous fluidity.”
Thomas’s hard work was rewarded last fall with a seven-figure deal from Simon & Schuster—a sum virtually unheard of for literary fiction, much less literary fiction debuts. Days before his August 19 publication date, we caught up with Thomas and talked with him about his craft, his M.F.A. experience, and his journey from obscurity to the verge of literary fame.
Tell us about the moment you learned you’d landed a million dollar deal for your first book?
It was extraordinary. I was teaching, and I was in between classes when I got the call from my agent [Bill Clegg]. How much it sold for didn’t really sink in at first, because I had to go back to work. But as it sunk in, I was overwhelmed—and grateful—because it changed my life. More than anything, though, I was happy that I was going to get to publish this book. And I was still feeling especially happy just to have finished it.
You spent 10 years writing the book. During that time did you think about how you would publish it?
No, I really didn’t think about the publishing process, because I always felt I had so much work to do on the book. Reaching out to an agent always seemed so premature. Besides, I wasn’t writing short stories or anything else, so there wasn’t anything that might have made an agent interested me in the first place. I suppose could’ve given somebody the first half of the book and tried to generate interest, but that idea entered my mind only to the degree that sometimes I felt like a man in the wilderness—nobody was reading this, not even my wife. It helped that I had a full-time job as a teacher. Had I been in a freelance situation, I might have been more desperate. But, as shackling and time-consuming as a full-time teaching job can be, the psychic safety-valve of a paycheck allowed me to work on the book without having to answer to anyone. And that was tremendously freeing, as counterintuitive as that sounds.
Tell us about your M.F.A. experience.
I did an M.A. first at Johns Hopkins, back when it was a one-year program. Now, it is an M.F.A.. I studied under Alice McDermott, Stephen Dixon, Jean McGarry, Judith Grossman, Tristan Davies, and the great poet Greg Williamson, among others. It was just astounding. From there I was able to spring into an M.F.A. program at Irvine, and I began to write this novel for my final submission there. I had been writing short stories, and some of those yielded a little bit of fruit, pieces of which found their way into the book—really small portions and heavily edited, at that. But at Irvine I was working through material that was sort of circling the drain of what would become this book, which I was working up the courage to write.
What were the most valuable parts of the M.F.A. experience for you?
It was the time to write. The stipend. And it was the community of peers, which is often referred to as the biggest benefit of M.F.A. programs. I think that is probably true. You learn as much from your peers as your do from your instructors, because they are all working writers, although at different levels of craft. But everybody is involved, and in a serious way. And, you actually learn how to read in an M.F.A. program, which is as important as learning how to write. By that I mean learning how to articulate your response to what you read in the language of writing rather than the language of criticism. Most people come into the M.F.A. knowing the language of undergraduate English lit. criticism, which doesn’t allow for a nuanced understanding of what makes a sentence work, or how sentences work in concert with other sentences. In a creative writing program, you learn to think like a writer at work.
Do you think you would have written We Are Not Ourselves without your M.F.A. training?
I don’t think I would have written it as well, or as fast. Now, it took me 10 years to finish, so I suppose you can say there was nothing was fast about this. But I learned more in the first half-hour of listening to Alice McDermott than I ever would have figured out on my own in terms of nuts and bolts, craft minutiae. And Geoffrey Wolff would just toss off these bon mots about writing that were gold, and I just soaked them up.
Did your programs address how to approach the publishing side of things?
No, and there was something beautiful about that. The most we got about that at Hopkins was when Stephen Dixon gave us a list of literary magazines. It was a mimeographed list with his handwritten notes in on it. Steve types everything, so imagine a typewriter list with pen edits made over time, then copied, and then given to us. And the conversation about the list was maybe half a class. At Irvine, too, they were very careful not to talk about the business, maybe because Hollywood is so nearby and there is a potentially pernicious influence on the making of the art. They were scrupulous about not talking about the business side of writing at Irvine, and I appreciated that. I don’t think you need to have that conversation with your writing teacher.
Speaking of Hollywood, did you ever think of writing in any other form than a novel?
No, no, never. First of all, I am in love with the form of the novel. And if I had given up the form of the novel, I would have lost the chief virtue the novel provides the artist, a virtue that no other form offers, which is access to interiority. There is nothing like the interiority with characters that you get in a novel. Yes, there is a lot of competition for a reader’s time, but I think writers compete best with other media by writing the best novels they can write, the best short stories, or the best poems. These forms will always have their defenders.
What was it like working with Mary Sue Rucci, your editor at S&S?
Mary Sue is a tremendous editor—she is a tremendous reader first of all and is gifted at articulating her objections efficiently and, how should I say this, humanely. She sees what’s wrong, and is also enthusiastic about sharing what she loves—and that is great to get from an editor. There was a whole section that I wrote at her advice. And she did some wonderful, careful pruning, and a great line edit. You do hear a little about how editors at the major houses don’t edit. But that was not my experience.
Now that the book is out in world how do you feel? Any pressure from getting such a big advance?
In terms of pressure, I felt much more while I was writing. I was in my 30s, with no publishing history, a job that I loved but that I didn’t want to do for 30 years. The pressure I felt was ever-present, and enormous. There wasn’t really a day when I was free from it. So, whatever pressure I might feel about the advance, it is nothing compared to the terrifying feeling I felt while writing this—that I might slip through the cracks.
What are you most looking forward to now?
Writing the next book, which I am working on now. And I am excited to hear from readers. In the beginning I did sort of mourn the loss of the world that I had created and could inhabit. But I wrote for so long in vacuum that the very idea of having readers is such a miracle to me. It will be fun to interact with readers and have a conversation about the book. I’m excited.
In his blockbuster debut, We Are Not Ourselves, Thomas tells the epic story of Eileen Tumulty, a daughter of Irish immigrants in Queens, N.Y., as she chases the American Dream. Early reviews have been strong; the book received a starred review in PW, which dubbed the effort a “definitive portrait of American social dynamics in the 20th century.”