It's a question lobbed constantly at authors whose novels bear a resemblance to their lives, but Matthew Thomas doesn't mind answering it.
So yes, in his debut work of fiction, the father gets Alzheimer's Disease, as Thomas' own father did. And Thomas has roots in Jackson Heights, the neighborhood in Queens where much of "We Our Not Ourselves," published to rave reviews last fall, is set.
But that's about it. Thomas and Connell, the boy who grows up through the course of the novel, are not the same.
"What I found was the more distance I got from the character the easier it became for me," Thomas said. "I started losing the fear that the reader would think he was me.
"That confidence was enormous ... letting him go in whatever way the character was going to go."
Thomas spent a decade working on his first novel, which Simon and Schuster bought for more than a million dollars in spring 2013. It tells the story of Eileen Tumulty, the daughter of Irish immigrant parents whose relentless drive to better herself nearly costs her her family.
Thomas will read from "We Are Not Ourselves" at the Wisconsin Book Festival on Saturday in the Central Library's Bubbler space.
The Cap Times talked with Thomas, who writes from his home in New Jersey, about the benefits of writing longhand before typing his drafts, the challenges of creating flawed, honest characters and the commitment to the writer's life.
First of all, thank you for writing such a moving and ambitious novel. It looks like it was a labor of love, especially since you first wrote it longhand. Do you still work that way?
I was writing, just before you called, on notebook paper. We all start writing by hand. I think it's imprinted in our unconscious as the way to write — the first way we make words is that way. It feels familiar.
Writing by hand was a useful thing to me from a purely practical point of view. I could get away from my computer and have the notebook and not have distractions. It gave me a lot of forward momentum.
Whenever I typed, I was inhabiting a dual consciousness, one of which was editorial and one was writing. The editorial consciousness would kick in midsentence. That's incredibly destructive in a way. The first draft is where the unconscious mind should have free reign.
I started this around 2001.
You write about these characters, especially Eileen's son Connell, in such an honest way, and telling part of the story from his perspective seems to help us like him better. He's pretty insensitive as a teenager.
Yeah, Connell (messes) up all the time. My hope and intention was to write these characters as honestly as I could with regard to psychology.
(Writing the novel) wasn't really an exercise in autobiography. Certain aspects of the original concept of these characters were rooted in autobiographical stuff, but when I understood them as fictional characters I had a lot more freedom. I could make Connell make all sorts of mistakes I hadn't made myself, and fail in ways that I didn't fail.
When I had the freedom to do that, the novel opened up for me. I overcame initial inhibitions I had about being identified by the reader.
One of the things that I loved about "We Are Not Ourselves" was how you made characters with distinctly unlikable characteristics — Eileen's striving, her mother's alcoholism, Connell's self-centered cruelty — feel so approachable and relateable. Can you talk about how, in the process of writing, you developed these characters and how they changed?
One of the ways an author makes change easier in a book is for there to be incidents and something to respond to — external conflicts that become internal, or internal conflicts that become external.
I don't think people actually change. One of the useful, beautiful fictions in fiction is the idea that people change. Somebody like Richard Ford or (Raymond) Carver is great at suggesting the tragedy in the perception of one's own potential for change.
People can grow. We can get better at being ourselves; we can become more sensitive to other people's needs. But character is somehow essential.
That sounds ... like there's a kind of predestined fate for us. I don't believe that, but I do believe there are ways we will be the same.
The flip side of that is, we have to be kind to each other in our limitations. Some people are given only a certain hand to play. One of the arguments I wanted to make quietly was, be kind to people about the time and place they emerged from.
It's very telling, though, that when Eileen runs into a group of Latino boys in her neighborhood and they're polite to her, she can't handle it. Later she recreates the scene as something more in line with what she'd already assumed.
Eileen is dealing with so much psychologically from an early age. There's such enormous instability in her early childhood that she spends her whole life seeking some calm, some peace. She identifies from an early age that that peace will come from a nice house or external appearances of ease. She places a lot of emphasis on the material world, to her detriment of course.
Most of her life is spent running from the chaos of her life. And she finds proof in the material world to tell herself things are OK. Someone without her limitations early might have been able to go and become a politician. Nancy Pelosi was born in the same year as Eileen, and look at her life.
It feels devastating that, just as Eileen seems to reach her dreams, her family falls apart. Do you think that, were she growing up now, Eileen would be the CEO of a company? Is there more room for her kind of ambition in the world now?
Absolutely. For women, especially. The big story is the story of Eileen as a person who (evolves).
In a scene where she's trying on dresses for (wealthy clients like) Virginia Towers, I have Eileen wishing a man would come save her from her job and her life and make her never have to be a nurse again. I didn't want to paint an overly heroic portrait from the beginning of someone who was pulling herself up in an explicitly feminist or proto-feminist way.
She's someone who lives a feminist existence in sort of a historically accurate, psychologically real way. She was just like everyone else. A lot of people collectively decided the world was going to change and they were going to make it change ... the rank and file were ordinary women who collectively decided to not take it anymore.
Eileen is that bridge generation that made it possible for someone like (Facebook COO) Sheryl Sandberg. We see Eileen's attitude change. At the end, I have her thinking, this was her career, she's the hard-charging professional in her family.
You've said that in "We Are Not Ourselves," you were writing about the American dream and whether or not it's still viable. Did writing this novel help to clarify some of your thoughts about that? Do you have thoughts about what the American dream looks like in 2015, for your kids?
There are all these tributaries off the original river we used to call the American dream.
For people who have a certain amount of luxurious self-knowledge, the American dream then becomes the opportunity for philosophical or spiritual advancement, living in a high minded way.
A lot of people have found ways to live in more authentic modes. The do-it-yourself phenomenon and the artisanal trends that tend to get treated satirically are evidence that people are looking for something authentic.
There's a version of the American dream that now we have the opportunity to think about what the proper way of life is, and let's live that one.
The other version, which I find more palpable and alive and interesting ... is for people who are immigrants. This is a country that has incredible increasing wealth inequality and the gap every year gets worse.
And yet there is an opportunity for something like meritocratic advancement. You have to be in the right context, by luck or some other extraordinary labor find yourself in the right school or the right environment or get the right job ... but we don't live in an aristocratic society. That's extraordinary.
That's one part of America that has never really died.
One of the most poignant passages in the book, for me, is when Eileen and Ed are trying to have a child and can't conceive. How did you explore writing about fertility from a woman's perspective?
I just inhabited the character as much as I could.
If you can get out of your own way, if that's a talent you have, you can allow characters to exist. I don't want it to sound mystical.
(For Eileen), there was a natural order to her existence — she was living for her job, and doing extraordinarily well at it. There was a timeline for advancement and she was well aware of it.
And yet there was also a desire for her to have kids. There was something unfulfilled, a sense of futurity. Aside from emotional ways she could relate to a child that would be healing for her, there was always the notion that she wanted to see something through all the way. Having a child would be rounding that picture out.
One of the major themes in the book is Ed's early onset Alzheimer's disease, which you've said is partially based on your own experiences with your dad. Does talking about it, in the context of the book, feel like reliving it? Was it healing for you to write about it?
I had such a love for my father. When I allow myself to really stop and think about it I can become sad almost immediately, so I try not to.
The actual writing of the book was therapeutic in the sense that I was making art. It wasn't processing psychological raw material as much as, when you're engaged in a work like that and give your energy to it overwhelmingly and exist at the level of problem solving sentence after sentence, phrase after phrase, keeping the architecture of the whole thing in mind. ... When you're operating like that and your mind is alive, you can almost feel no pain.
There's something about making any sort of art that's therapeutic, irrespective of the material you're using. Work is often what gives purpose to life. I don't think there's anything more healing than being engaged in something that gives energy back to you.
How has your process changed since you've had this success? Are you working on another novel?
My process hasn't changed. It's very hard, writing is very hard. It's working your way through a tunnel with a little light in front of you, as (E.L.) Doctorow said. I sit down and work my way through it.
I'm writing this novel that's made up out of whole cloth, which is tremendously freeing. Halfway through my first novel I realized I could make every single bit of it up, and in fact 97 percent of the plot never happened at all. Even if the characters were originally rooted in my family, almost nothing in my book ("We Are Not Ourselves") ever happened.
The reason it was fun to write was that. This (new) book, from the beginning, is fun because it's just a free play of the imagination.