Thomas Christopher Greene's newest novel, If I Forget You, has been heralded as a "powerful, emotionally moving love story" that is a "candid tale of true love besieged by insurmountable hardship." A product of the Worcester, Massachusetts, public schools and Suffield Academy, he earned his B.A. from Hobart College and his M.F.A. from Vermont College. After working jobs as varied as oyster shucker to pizza delivery guy to Deputy Press Secretary for a Presidential Campaign to the Director of Public Affairs at two universities and as a Professor of writing and literature, he began his career as a novelist and his bestselling fiction has been translated into 12 languages. In 2008, however, after two years of strategic planning and fundraising, he was named the founding President of the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) that is dedicated to becoming a national center for education in the arts. VCFA is the first new college in Vermont in over 30 years.
It was Stay Thirsty Magazine's privilege to visit with Thomas Christopher Greene at VCFA for this Conversation.
STAY THIRSTY: In your fifth novel, If I Forget You, you explore many themes, including enduring love, loss, choices made in life and the possibility that love can come a second time around. How much of this story is based on your personal life and experiences? What drew you specifically to explore these themes at this time in your life?
THOMAS CHRISTOPHER GREENE: Parts of any novel, for me, are autobiographical, though the germ for this story came from an old friend of mine visiting me who, after dinner, asked if he could log onto my Facebook account so he could take a look at the woman he loved in his youth who I happened to be friends with. I remember the look on his face when he saw her picture and I thought, what would happen if they ran into each other again? So that was the departure point. Where this book follows more of my own experience is when it explores how Henry became a writer. His experience is very similar to my own, though he became a poet and I write fiction. I also worked once in a staple factory and at a winery on the shore of Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. So I borrowed those, too. As for themes, I am in my forties now and most of my friends are. Many of us are seeing dramatic life changes, especially on the relationship side. We are aware of growing older and the terrible tick of time. And yet we still yearn for that love, that kind of love you crave like a drug. So for that reason, I think a lot of people will relate to this novel.
STAY THIRSTY: Loss and grief, madness and despair, longings throughout one's life cycle, societal position and class seem to drive your fiction. Do you create stories from a structure of predetermined tensions or do the character evolve before your eyes and travel through these circumstances on their own?
THOMAS CHRISTOPHER GREENE: Someone once told me we all try to write the same story over and over again until we get it right, so I think I might be guilty of this. Before I ever begin to type a word of a novel, though, I spend a lot of time turning it over in my mind, getting to know the characters and the general arc of the plot. I don't outline and I usually don't know the full structure or where it is headed when I begin. But conflict is at the heart of all good fiction so a big part of the process is learning where people want to go, what drives them, and what obstacles are in their paths. Really, what we're trying to do is get people in trouble. Happy, uncomplicated people very seldom make for interesting reading.
STAY THIRSTY: Your work has been critically praised as "tightly woven," with "relentless pacing," a "meditation on longing" and "a moving testament to the vicissitudes of love and loss, regret and hope." Since we live in a very short attention span world, how do you balance the art of storytelling with the need to keep a reader engaged?
THOMAS CHRISTOPHER GREENE: I come from the contract school of writing, as I think Franzen put it, which is to say I am aware of readers when I write. I have often told people that I write books to tell stories to people who aren't in the same room as me, and I think of myself as primarily a storyteller. So the rules of a written story, in that sense, are no different than the rules of an oral story. You need to be economical, to relate important information, allow people to see what you see and how you see it, and most important, to make sure you're never boring. So I work hard at that. But at the same time, you are also, hopefully, trying to say something deeper and universal, and in this where you have to be careful not to be pedantic about it.
STAY THIRSTY: You come from a large family and you dedicated If I Forget You to your six siblings. How did growing up in New England in a large family color your attitudes toward interpersonal relationships and the emotions that drive them?
THOMAS CHRISTOPHER GREENE: I think first of all it made me a storyteller. Around me, swirling, were all these lives, and as one of the younger ones, I became an observer and also learned how to tell a story just as a way of getting attention. And, of course, growing up Irish Catholic in New England carries with it its own particular world view, one that you challenge as you grow older. I was fortunate in that I came from a happy, healthy family. But because it was so populated, I do remember watching a lot as a child, picking up the subtle nuances between people, and I think that, along with growing up in a house full of books, made me first a reader and than a writer.
STAY THIRSTY: In If I Forget You there are two epigraphs. One from Captain Kevin O'Connor of the Quincy, Massachusetts, Fire Department and one from Henry Gold whose is one of the protagonists of your book. Why did you chose to include these two epigraphs and what do they mean to you?
THOMAS CHRISTOPHER GREENE: Kevin O'Connor is a real guy and a firefighter in Quincy, Massachusetts. He's married to my (ex) wife's sister. He and his family were visiting us at my lake house in northern Vermont when I was beginning this book and he walked by me at one point and said, "Hey, buddy, write something everyone wants to read, will ya?" And I thought it was just perfect, for in some sense that is what we are all trying to do. And the fictional Henry Gold quote is an obvious play on the famous Frost poem, but instead of taking the road less traveled he says they take the one more traveled, and by that I mean that life is so inherently messy, despite our best intentions, and that is certainly true of Henry and Margot.
STAY THIRSTY: In 2008, you spearheaded the successful effort to found the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) as a national center for graduate arts education and you became its first President, a position that you continue to hold today. One of the degree programs at VCFA is in creative writing and on its website there is a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke about that subject: "The goal of all creative writing is to change our lives." Why do you believe Rilke is right?
THOMAS CHRISTOPHER GREENE: I think storytelling is our oldest art form, and its one of the only human endeavors that deliberately obfuscates to reach a deeper truth. It's no accident that in repressive countries they go after poets and writers first, not because they are afraid of poems and novels, but because they are afraid of people seeing the truth. So I think the act of engaging with a work of fiction, either as a writer or a reader, is a profoundly human act, one that can only make us better.
STAY THIRSTY: In the first few paragraphs of If I Forget You, your hero Henry Gold, who teaches poetry at NYU, is described as a man with "an ear for other's works that he doesn't have for his own. He is able to discern a musicality that certain students possess and is able to nudge them in the right direction, for he believes that is all a teacher of writing is really ever able to do." Given your career as a bestselling novelist and as the President of a college that fosters the excellence of established and emerging artists, is Henry Gold expressing your personal opinion as a writer or as an educator?
THOMAS CHRISTOPHER GREENE: Probably a little bit of both. Vonnegut once said that teaching writing is like being a golf pro: your best hope is to take a few strokes off someone's game. But I think people tend to seek out higher education as artists when they have gone as far as they can on their own, and need the support of more established artists to help them navigate this insane thing we are trying to do, what Mailer called "the spooky art." More of what I was after here is that often the best writers are not the best teachers, and the inverse is true. Some writers have a true gift for teaching, for really helping students achieve their potential. I studied with some of them and it made a huge difference for me.
STAY THIRSTY: What role does moral inquiry play in your artistic life?
THOMAS CHRISTOPHER GREENE: I don't know that it's possible to make good art without a moral center, so I would say it is in some ways everything. I think art is both a mirror and a window onto the world, and sometimes that idea might confuse people when you think of ideas like moral inquiry. Especially when you think of a mirror, because sometimes the mirror might reflect deep darkness and lack of morality, and that is important in fiction as well. Especially in the age we live in, where the dominant push in mainstream publishing is toward this notion of sympathetic characters. I think it would have been amazing had there been a goodreads when Nabokov published Lolita. I would love to have read those reviews.
STAY THIRSTY: What values, visions and commitments do you hold dear?
THOMAS CHRISTOPHER GREENE: I think of myself as rather tribal, with my tribe beginning first with family, then close friends, to the community I live and work in. I'm very protective of those in my tribe, so that is certainly a value I hold dear. Loyalty and honesty are extremely important to me. And I believe in being non-judgmental. This is a hard life we live. That said I have zero tolerance for racists, bigots and misogynists.
STAY THIRSTY: How important is a Masters of Fine Arts in the real world? Should students seek an M.F.A. as a propellant to a career in the creative arts or more as a way to finely hone their skills and talents to be able to think about self, the world and humanity?
THOMAS CHRISTOPHER GREENE: I think it depends on the student. Certainly, a Master of Fine Arts is considered a terminal degree, so if you want to teach at the college level, that is a good reason to get one. But the latter part of your question is the more important reason. There is no way this process does not improve one both as an artist but as a person who critically thinks, feels, and engages in the world. And I would add a third, community. Richard Russo once told me he thought of M.F.A. programs as ports in the storm. And I really like that. While it's true this a primarily a solo art we are practicing, it sure is nice to be around other weird people doing the same thing. They will not only understand your pain, but become your friends for life.