An Interview with Thomas Christopher Greene

Conducted By: Charles Pandit, Natalia Mozzicato, and Julia Ogonowsky.

Thomas Christopher Greene is a highly esteemed novelist and is well versed in the arts. His work has achieved worldwide recognition and has been translated into eleven languages. He has been nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and his first novel, Mirror Lake, was labeled one of the thirty books to be rediscovered by Waterstones in the UK. Greene’s work has been respectfully described as both incandescent and poetic.

            Thomas Greene’s story humbly began in Worcester, Massachusetts, as the sixth of seven children born and raised by Richard and Dolores Greene. He attended public schools in Worcester before transferring to Suffield Academy in Suffield, CT. He furthered his education by earning a BA in English from Hobart College and an MFA in Writing from the former Vermont College. However, Greene has dabbled in a variety of fields. He has worked as an oyster shucker, on the line at a staple factory, delivering pizza, as a deputy press secretary for a presidential campaign, and as the director of public affairs for two universities. He also shared his passion and expertise for writing and literature as a professor.

            Greene has resided in central Vermont, the primary setting for his novels, since 1993. His first novel, Mirror Lake, was critically acclaimed and published in 2003. Since then, he has steadily released the novels: I’ll Never be Long Gone, Envious Moon, If I Forget You, and The Perfect Liar. His most famous book, The Headmaster’s Wife, was published in March of 2014. Amidst writing full time, Mr. Greene and Bill Kaplan impressively founded the Vermont College of Fine Arts. The Vermont College of Fine Arts is the first new college in Vermont in over thirty years. Furthermore, the college’s writing programs proudly sit at the top of the national ranks. Innovative programs have emerged in graphic design, music composition, film, writing and publishing, and an MA in art and design education. This past year on July 1st, Thomas Greene stepped down from his position as president but still resides locally.

Charles Pandit: Lancaster is based on Suffield Academy, just in Vermont rather than in Connecticut, right?

Thomas Greene: To answer your question, yeah, I did base it off Suffield Academy. I think something that a lot of writers do is that we will take real people or real places and put an imprint on them but use them as a basis that we leap forward from. Actually, the novel I just finished two days ago will probably come out in a year, returns to the Lancaster School in the 1980s; it’s the same setting and has some of the same people.

CP: Was this because of how Elizabeth described her relationship to Lancaster and how she never wanted to leave in The Headmaster’s Wife? Do you feel the same way and constantly feel drawn back to Suffield?

TG: You know it’s funny, I’ve only actually ever been back to Suffield once since I graduated. So to answer your question, no, not really. It was a pivotal point in my life to go to a boarding school. I grew up in a middle-class family and am one of seven kids, and no one had gone to a boarding school. In the case of Elizabeth, I am fascinated by the fact that some people who went back and are still at Suffield who have built a life around it. It was always something I was kind of jealous of because it seems like such a nice life. It’s a small world you live in, but it seems kind of nice having a house right there on campus, right next to the people who taught you. I am definitely interested in exploring that culture in my writing.

CP: When you were at Suffield, did you ever think that you would write a book about it? When you were at Suffield, did you know you wanted to be a writer or ever start a college?

TG: No to both; I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer. I was a bookworm and was reading books all the time. I always thought I wanted to be a lawyer or politician. Being a writer didn’t even occur to me as being an option, frankly. It wasn’t until later when I went to college for a year, and I left through mutual agreement with the college where I spent two years away from college. I worked in politics for one year, and then I was delivering pizza. I was thinking about what I could do with my life, and I tried to write a novel. I was probably 20 or 21 years old, and it was awful. I went back to school and started studying creative writing, and I fell in love with it and realized I had a gift for it. Even then, I didn’t think it was possible. I published my first novel when I was 30. It took about ten years to really learn how to do this thing to get good enough at it to do it for a living.

CP: When you were at Suffield, did you ever imagine or think that you would start a college?

TG: Oh, God, no! *laughs* I was just trying to find a girlfriend, man. I was 18 years old, I was just trying to stay out of trouble… mostly. None of those things were on my mind. Starting a college was an accident of fate that happened later when I developed a skill set that I thought could make a difference and learned how to be a leader. I wasn’t a leader at Suffield. It’s funny because people develop differently, and I don’t think anybody at Suffield who taught me or knew me thought I would do much of anything, honestly. I think people knew I was smart and funny and sort of known for having this quick wit and being good with words. But I don’t know that anybody knew the things that I would do with my life. People develop at different rates, and for me, it wasn’t until later that it started to come together.

CP: How did you come up with the plot for The Headmaster’s Wife?

TG: I knew I wanted to write a story about a guy who had lost his mind, but I didn’t know exactly how I was going to structure the book until I was probably halfway through it. The twist kind of just came to me; it was like a gift. This idea I thought, “it’s so good, it’s so weird, it’s so unconventional!” because books aren’t really structured the way that one is, which is basically two different stories. Well, it’s the same story told two different ways by two different people. It just came to me that way, like when a marriage falls apart, or someone loses a child, which really is at the heart of that book. It tells the story of how people fall apart, and how they deal with it really says a lot. But I got lucky on the big plot twist. I had written most of that first section without realizing where it was fully going to go until it came to me. I didn’t expect it to quite work as well as it did, but it’s weird to have a huge plot twist halfway through a book that actually works. I stumbled upon it, and I’m grateful for it because it made that book an international bestseller basically because of the twist.

CP: Did you originally start writing Arthur’s story or Elizabeth’s story?

TG: Arthur’s story. I knew Arthur’s story wasn’t going to be true. I knew that was going to be the revelation. I was going through the process, and once it came, I decided, “Oh, I’m going to flip the page and tell Elizabeth’s story.”

Natalia Mozzicato: The characters in The Perfect Liar appear to be motivated by self-preservation, and are dedicated to concealing their past. How did you balance merging the character’s extensive backstories with their present circumstances?

TG: It was a challenge, honestly. That’s a good question because it’s always a hard thing in fiction to limit backstory, which you kind of want to do on some level. But in this case, the heart of the story was the fact that everybody in this book was kind of an imposter or had a criminal past in an interesting way; particularly, the main character was a conman, and his wife in some ways was too. The challenge was finding the structure that would work. The thing about novels is that they all hang on some kind of architecture. It’s sort of like building a building. As an architect, you don’t quite know what the building is going to look like until you start drawing it and seeing what works and seeing what will support it. The same is true in novels. In this case, I had to find a balance between telling the story thread that was happening in the current and then the story threads that had happened in the past and then how to weave them together; and eventually, they had merged, which is something that happens in a novel. So, in this case, most of the backstory is gone halfway through, and then it’s just a steady propulsion to the end.

NM: Both Susannah and Max are involved in the art-world. Where did the inspiration for their careers come from, and did you conduct research about artists?

TG: Well, so, as President of Vermont College of Fine Arts, I spend a lot of time in the New York art world. So, a lot of their experiences happen in the New York art world, including a big party scene at the beginning which is drawn from my own experience: people I’ve known, how the gallery system works. Some of it is kind of a funny critique of the art world where I’m making fun or poking fun a little bit at how seriously people take themselves, picking at the New York art world. But most of it is drawn from my own experiences. I spend a lot of time in New York, essentially raising money for a college that was focused on the arts and because of that, being able to move around at a kind of high-level, New York City art scene, which is what I spent years doing.

NM: You have spent many years living in Vermont, and you have an active role in the community as the founder and President of the Vermont College of Fine Arts. In your novel The Perfect Liar, you noticeably contrast the initial New York City setting with a small town in Vermont. How did your familiarity with Vermont influence the novel?”

TG: Yeah, so, I think the place is often a character in books, and I would say this is true of  Manhattan in that novel too and also in If I Forget You. Those are both places I’ve spent a lot of time. I’ve divided a lot of my time between Vermont and Manhattan. You know, I think both those novels reflect my knowledge. There is the old saying, “you write what you know,” which I kind of hate. But there is, actually, a power in creating a fictional dream, which is what you’re doing when you’re writing a novel, because you want people to believe it, and you want your reader to not think, “Hey, is this real?” You want to forget you’re reading; you want to see pictures and images. One of the best ways to do that is to write about things that you’re very familiar with. So, being familiar with both Vermont and New York was really helpful in writing all these novels. I don’t write about, you know, Paris so much or places I don’t know super well, like San Francisco. I tend to write about Vermont, which is a constant setting in my books. And New York City often is too because I’ve spent a fair amount of time there.

Julia Ogonowsky: Do you prefer writing in lyrical prose, as seen in If I Forget You, or do you prefer other styles?

TG: Yeah, so, If I Forget You is actually one of my favorite books. I do love the writing in that book; I love the lyricism to it. It’s not quite the thriller that either The Headmaster’s Wife or The Perfect Liar are, which are really straight-up thrillers. For me, it is sort of a beautiful book where the kind of language of it I really like in that book. It’s incantatory and kind of bounces up and down. It has a sort of poetic sensibility, which is one of the subjects of the novel; it’s really a love story. So, yeah, I actually really enjoyed writing in that style quite a bit, but I also like writing in the sort of direct, more clear approach you see in The Perfect Liar, which is a very direct book, more so than even The Headmaster’s Wife.

JO: On page 2, Henry’s mom advises him, “Henry Gold, don’t ever let anyone tell you you can’t do something.” Has anyone ever told you that you can’t do something, especially with regards to writing and becoming a published author?

TG: I think rejection is such a part of being a writer; it’s a profound part of it. I mean when students used to ask me at the college where we were educating writers, “what does it take to be a writer?” I say thick skin is one of the most important things because you’re gonna experience a lot of rejection. And a lot of people are going to tell you, “you can’t do this” all the time. And I think that’s true of anything in life, I don’t think it’s true to just writers. I think if you really want something, you have to have the perseverance and vision to want to do it. And, you have to have the drive to want to ignore the haters, if you will. Who is going to tell you that you aren’t good enough? Not smart enough? There are always going to be people who are more talented than you, no matter what you do. There’s always going to be people who are better at it. It’s just a question of how hard are you willing to work, to cut through it. So, yeah, I think it’s very true and I relate deeply with Henry in that book. He’s probably the most autobiographical character that I’ve written.

JO: Is there a parallel between Chad’s dislike for work and lack of drive with Henry’s passionate motivation and determination to rise up from poverty?

TG: Yeah, I mean I think there is. Chad is sort of representative of somebody with such a significant trust fund that they never have to work in what actually motivates them. There are people who go in different directions that way, right, I mean there are people who come from extreme wealth and work their asses off and do interesting things, like an Anderson Cooper on CNN who’s at Vanderbilt. But he built his own career and his own life, and then there are others who kind of just fall back into it. And I think for Henry, there’s just a deep, burning ambition that comes out of his desire to escape and I think people who come out of poverty and achieve great success live in fear that it’s going to be taken away from them at any time. And, so, that’s a huge motivator and I think that’s very true of Henry in that novel.

JO: You and Henry share an evident love for writing. While he is a poet and you primarily write fiction, would you ever consider writing poetry? Do you like poetry and do you ever wish to pursue it?

TG: No, the only poem I’ve ever written is in that novel. And it’s a poem I wrote for Henry and it’s awful. I think poets would think it was terrible. My friend Matthew Dickman, who is an amazing poet and a famous poet, I was telling him about the book and he was like, “you should’ve just told me, I would’ve written the poem for you!” which would’ve been amazing, because Henry’s supposed to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. The fact is that most people who read fiction aren’t going to know the difference in an extreme way. But, no, I’ve never really had the poetry bug. I’m more of a storyteller and while stories can be told through poems, and they are, my style is one that is more about telling stories in a clearer, more fictional way. So, that’s where my passion is and I don’t see myself becoming a poet.

JO: Did you base Henry off of yourself and your journey to becoming a writer? Do you see yourself in him?

TG: I do. I mean, Henry is Jewish and I was catholic. He’s poorer than I was; I was more middle-class. He’s from a poor family. He went to college to play baseball and I went to college to play basketball; that was a sort of fundamental difference between the two of us. We are both left-handed, though! He was a left-handed shortstop, and I was a left-handed basketball player. So, yeah, I drew a lot of my parallels off Henry. The college he’s at is very similar to Hobart College, where I went to school; almost like the way I used Lancaster School as Suffield. That is probably my most autobiographical novel, based on his backstory history than any of the others.

JO: If I Forget You explores numerous themes, such as enduring love, loss, marriage, and how the choices we make can change our lives forever. How much of this novel relates to your personal life and experiences, if at all?

TG: I think all novels I write, everything I write relates to my personal experiences. We can only know the world through our own eyes, and one thing we do with fiction, though, is pretending to be other people and do other things. But, at the same time, we are also exploring exactly what it is that we think and how we think. Yeah, this book, although it’s not my story, and it’s borrowed, in some cases, from other people’s stories, it has elemental truth to who I am within that book.

ALL: What do you think the best tactics are when it comes to creating suspense in your novels?

TG: I think having a sort of short chapter helps honestly with these books. You want to have a hook that keeps people reading. That’s one sort of particular technique. But you want to build suspense. People read to find out. This is why you read a novel, you want to know what happens. It’s why you listen to a story; if someone is like “the craziest thing happened to me and I’m about to tell it to you!” and you’re like “oh, what’s the craziest thing that happened to you?” So, the same techniques that are used for oral storytelling around telling somebody something are true in fiction too and it’s how you create suspense because you know something that the other person wants to find out. It’s how you kind of let out information over the course of the novel is how you make suspense work. And for me, it’s the books that I want to read. I want to read books that I’m like “I need to know what happens next,” like “I can’t stop reading it.” So I’m trying to write the kind of books that I want to read.

ALL: In If I Forget You, The Perfect Liar, and The Headmaster’s Wife, you narrate the story with multiple perspectives from different characters in the novels. What made you want to do this and how did you go about doing this?

TG: Yeah, I mean, it goes back to the question of structure and architecture in a book and how you actually decide how you’re going to make it happen. The benefit of multiple narrators or multiple points of view in a novel in some ways it’s easier to write, because you’re not relying on just one voice or one perspective throughout the whole thing. You know, there are big decisions you make when you start to write a novel, like is it going to be multiple points of view, single point of view, is it going to be first person or third person. They each have advantages; first person a lot depends on voice and what you say, but you’re also deeply limited in the first person because the only thing your narrator can know is what your narrator knows. And, so, using multiple points of view is a way to enrich a story by having multiple people weigh in on the same set of events because they see it from different points of view and they know different things. So, it’s easier. The novel I just wrote, by the way, is finished. It was all first-person, and I haven’t done that in a while and that’s a challenge. You’re limited in what that person can actually know. You can tell the full story, but they can’t know what the other person’s thinking. So doing multiple points of view allows you to have everybody know what everybody else is thinking, or at least the readers know what everybody else is thinking at the same time is important to the story.

CP: How has your role as president of the Vermont College of Fine Arts influenced you as a writer?

TG: I think I have had the chance to be around a lot of writers and a lot of other artists. I’ve drawn on that experience. In terms of The Headmaster’s Wife in particular, and although I’m certainly not Arthur, I can relate to Arthur’s experiences in running an institution and what it’s like to manage the board of trustees, the faculty, other people, and what it’s like to be a high profile person moving through your community. When your president of a college, every room you walk into people expect you to give a speech, and that’s a really weird way to live. I think when you’re the president of a college, there’s a lot of public expectations. So that actually makes for good fiction, because you learn that you actually have a public life and a private life. When you’re a public figure in any way, there are challenges, particularly in a small community, to being that that make interesting fiction. You have to be more careful than other people about what you do, or where you go, or what you drink, or how you live. All those things are challenges and I think it has definitely influenced my writing by giving me a different perspective on life that I normally wouldn’t have.