A first time novelist raised in Jackson Heights has set the book publishing world on fire with the Aug. 19 release of “We Are Not Ourselves”, an epic chronicle of a multi-generational Irish family in Woodside.
Matthew Thomas’ book, 10 years in the making, was published by Simon and Schuster for a $1 million advance and immediately hit the bestsellers list with reviews and interviews from coast-to-coast, a national book tour, and comparisons to the literary likes of Jonathan Franzen and Chad Harbach.
The book has since been translated into 14 languages and last week the movie rights were sold to Hollywood producer Scott Rudin.
“I’m thrilled,” Thomas said in an interview. “You have to be surprised at the reviews. I wrote it in longhand on legal pads, throwing out hundreds of pages along the way. After a decade you just hope to finish a project like that.”
Thomas’ family settled in Woodside as Irish immigrants in the 1950s before moving to Jackson Heights to raise a family in what was considered to be “the bedroom community of the professional class,” he said. But Thomas was always drawn back across the BQE. “I went to Woodside for Irish step dancing classes, I was always uncomfortable wearing that powder blue outfit. My family often went to dinner at Donovan’s,” he said.
Woodside power brokers the likes of Martin Trainor would convene nightly in the restaurant’s bar area. In fact, the street outside, 58th and Roosevelt Avenue was co-named Martin M. Trainor Way in 2012 for the co-founder of the respected non-profit Woodside on the Move and a longtime member and chairman of Community Board 2.
Big Mike, a central figure in “We Are Not Ourselves” is that type of man. “Big Mike is a local fixer and a sage that helps integrate the neighborhood,” Thomas said. “People will recognize that character as a gravitational force that organizes a changing neighborhood that remains the center of people’s lives.”
The story of the Leary Family, named as a tip of the hat to Shakespeare’s King Lear, follows Ed, Eileen and their son Connell as they move from several Queens neighborhoods to Bronxville in pursuit of the American dream. Eileen is the daughter of Big Mike, the unofficial patriarch of Woodside, and falls in love with a scientist and professor, Ed Leary. The journey goes awry with Ed’s gradual deterioration due to Alzheimer’s.
“The title suggests the reality of these characters not being at their best, not being allowed to be themselves,” Thomas said. “It also suggests that we’re always learning and evolving, that we’re works in progress, that we can learn from our experiences. Another resonance for me is that we we need each other to exist, we are not only ourselves.”
The story unfolds in such a way that columnist John Podhoretz called it the first great novel of Queens. “That’s a huge compliment, but let’s face it, there haven’t been too many books that feature Queens,” Thomas said. “Novels are always about Manhattan and Brooklyn, but I see Queens as a well-kept secret, a great and organic backdrop for fiction.”
Thomas’ debut novel is also deeply personal in that he lost his father to Alzheimer’s.
“I tried to preserve some of the spirit of my father’s great humanity in the character of Ed,” he said. Thomas has since given up teaching at Manhattan’s Xavier High School so he can dedicate more time to his future projects. “I loved that job, but it takes takes 80 hours a week,” he said.
The 39-year old married father of twins is determined to produce more novels quickly because he is very aware that Alzheimer’s is hereditary.
“I’m certainly trying to be as productive as I can because there may be a time when I don’t see things as clearly,” Thomas said. “So now I get to spend more time with my family and work on my next book, It won’t take me a decade this time. I hope to be done with this next book within three years.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr