Thomas Christopher Greene is a busy man. Aside from launching his third novel, Envious Moon (due out from William Morrow on May 1st), he is also doing a bit of side work: founding and running a new fine arts college.
Born and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts, Tom grew up around campuses. His father was a professor (and eventually a college president), and his mother taught kindergarten. A self-proclaimed mediocre student, Tom didn't take to college at first. After dropping out, he was hired by a presidential campaign to write speeches, issue papers, and media releases. When he returned to Hobart College, he founded a magazine and thus began his writing career.
After graduation he moved to Vermont — where he resides to this day — and while working as the spokesperson for Norwich University (which is when I first met him) he went on to earn his MFA from Vermont College. Once his first novel Mirror Lake was published, he left to write full time. Three years later, he was lured back to Vermont College (now part of Union Institute & University) to run their MFA in Writing for Children Program. When the campus and academic programs came up for sale, Tom led the effort to buy them, becoming, in his own words, "a reluctant college president." He is also at work on his fourth novel.
Though it's hard to imagine that Tom has much time to breathe, let alone do interviews, I recently had the pleasure of talking to him about his life and work:
Envious Moon is the first of your novels not based in your current home state of Vermont. Why Rhode Island this time? How does setting influence the narrative?
My first two books were about my beloved adopted home state of Vermont. While I could never grow tired of writing about these hills and valleys and small mountain towns, I wanted to write about the ocean. I’ve always been drawn to it, and especially to the people who make their living from it. When I was a college student, I had this job shucking clams and oysters for tourists on Block Island. I would stand behind this bar on this long lawn stretching to the ocean and open pesky shellfish after pesky shellfish for wealthy people from New York and Boston.
To get to Block Island, you take a ferry from Galilee, Rhode Island. Galilee is one of those places you do not see on the New England coast very often anymore. It is a hardscrabble place, a working harbor that smells of brine and of diesel fuel, a place where everyday men and women, primarily of Portuguese descent, head out to sea not knowing that they will return to their families. Many of them work incredibly hard and still live in poverty. Galilee is full of homes like the one Anthony Lopes lives in: small shacks built on cinderblocks. I remember being struck by the contrast of the wealthy tourists on the island, and the fishermen I saw huddled in groups on the docks. I wondered what would happen if these two worlds collided. The result was Envious Moon.
The novel includes many details of commercial fishing, giving the sense that you know what you're talking about, all while not bogging us non-fisherpeople down with the minutia. Did you have to do a lot of research about the life of a fisherman?
I did. I read a number of books, and am indebted in particular to Linda Greenlaw’s fascinating account of life as a swordfish boat captain, Hungry Ocean. I also spent several days just walking around the wharves in Galilee, Rhode Island, taking pictures, watching the boats go in and out of the harbor, and especially watching the men work. I paid attention to what they wore, how they talked, the sights, sounds and smells that were around them. Finally, I knew a few people who knew some things about deep sea fishing. I had them read early drafts to make sure I got the language right.
It's obvious that Shakespeare's work is bedrock for you, particularly in this book. Who are other writers that have significantly influenced you?
I think it’s important for writers to read widely. I think Cormac McCarthy is the greatest writer in English today. What he is able to do with language and ideas humbles me. The Great Gatsby is a touchstone book for me, one I try to read every year. The late Andre Dubus is, for my money, the most underappreciated writer of the 20th century. He wrote mainly short fiction but his novellas have had an enormous influence on what I write about, and how I write. Donna Tartt has written only two books but I devoured both of them. I admire Scott Spencer quite a bit, and Envious Moon is reminiscent of his first novel, Endless Love. They are both tales about the driving obsession of teenage love. I also really believe in the importance of archetypal stories, stories that we all share in common. Shakespeare certainly fits that bill. The bible does as well. To some extent, I think most of are simply reinterpreting the same material over and over. I don’t necessarily think that’s a constricting reality. Rather, I think there is something enormously comforting in the idea of universal stories, that there just might be this great narrative thread that links us all.
How has being a new father and husband influenced your life as a writer and vice versa?
The dedication to my daughter, Sarah, in the novel reads: "At six months old, she cannot yet read my words. But her smile when she sees me would not only make the moon envious, it makes me want to write down every story I know, so that when she is old enough to read them, they will always be there."
I guess, for me, fiction is all about understanding human relationships and interactions. The most profound relationships we have are as partners and husbands and wives, and as fathers, mothers and sons and daughters. We become more human in strong relationships, and also, hopefully, more humane. Being a father has surprised me in many ways. It opens up another chamber in your heart. Even more than marriage, you are forced to think beyond yourself. Since this is true of writing fiction as well, I think it continues to help me mature as a writer and a thinker.
In addition to published author, you are adding another career to your resume this year: College President. Can you tell us about the new Vermont College of Fine Arts that you have formed?
About a year ago, a group of us were drunk enough on ambition to try to build a new college, the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Our goal was to buy the three renowned MFA programs and the historic Vermont College campus from Union Institute & University and create a new institution, a truly national center for the fine arts. We have an agreement in principle with Union Institute & University, have built a board of trustees, identified financing, and we’re busy raising money and working around issues of accreditation. I have agreed to be the founding president on the condition that the board will replace me within a year and I can return to writing full-time. The remarkable thing about this experience, for me, has been how much it resembles novel writing. I have never considered myself a particularly disciplined person. With three novels in five years, that might surprise some people. But building the college is like writing a novel in that it really is a matter of one foot in front of the other. A word becomes a sentence; a sentence becomes a paragraph; a paragraph becomes a chapter; and chapters become a novel. You don’t realize how much work you have done until you stop and look back. The joy of this project has been the public nature of the creativity: rather than working in solitude, I have built this with the help of many smart and creative colleagues. I am looking forward to watching it grow.
What's something you'd like your readership to know about you that isn't in the official bio?
That I was born to dance. No, I’m kidding. I’m tone deaf and have never felt the music. I suppose I’d like people to know that I am accessible and love to get feedback about my novels and to hear directly from readers. My e-mail is email@example.com. Write me anytime.