By Leslie Lindsay
I closed this book for the last time with my heart in my throat and a deep visceral sigh. If I had been alone and not in a car traveling at eighty miles an hour filled with the giddy sounds of 5th grade girls, I might have shed a tear. And then I looked over at my husband, who was driving, and thought, “This life.”
IF I FORGET YOU (released yesterday, June 14 2016 from St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books)began for the author as many books do for many authors. It began as a question, “What if?” Simple as that. We all wonder from time to time about that first love, about that person who made such a mark on our lives, it’s stamped on our psyche forever. And then the muse takes over. A story told from a series of fragmented memories, wonderings, a compelling force drawing the ‘what if’ to fruition. .
Told from such raw, simple honesty, IF I FORGET YOU is wrapped in an delicately-spun tale of secrets, love, and finding one another again.
Today, I am more than honored to sit down with Thomas Christopher Greene and chat about his story, the one encased in just glittery prose it might just make your eyes hurt to read it.
Leslie Lindsay: The story behind the story is almost as compelling as the story itself. This is often the case in many books. And they all vary widely. IF I FORGET YOU is based on a kernel of truth, as most every novel is. Can you tell us a bit about your inspiration?
Thomas Christopher Greene: One of my best friends, who I have known since college, came over my house for dinner one night. After a few glasses of wine, he asked me if he could take a look at my Facebook page and when I asked why, he told me it was because I was Facebook friends with the girl he had loved in college. He’s a happily married guy with children but I remember the relationship he had with his college girlfriend from back in those days and how I thought they would be together forever. I logged onto the computer for him and I saw something give in his face when he saw her all these years later, as if all that passion from youth came roaring back for him. I left him alone with her image. And later, I began to think, what if? What if they were to run into each other this many years later? That was the germ that started this novel.
L.L.: There are so many things in IF I FORGET YOU that are told from this well of raw, uncensored, personal anecdotes. But it’s not autobiographical; it’s fiction. Where does the truth in fiction lie for you? Can you explain?
Thomas Christopher Greene: All fiction, for me, is somewhat autobiographical. I mean, I draw on my own experiences and sometimes my characters are composites of me and of other people, but mostly I draw on places I know and things I feel. Fiction, at its core, is an artifice that allows us to find a deeper truth, an honesty we might not tap into fully without the device of the story. There are parts of Henry that are very true to me. I went to a real college in western New York that is strikingly similar to Bannister and there I became a writer. In some ways, Henry’s arc of discovering his desire to write mirrors my own. But finding that deeper truth is what it’s all about. It’s the reason I write.
L.L.: In the novel, Henry goes to this lovely Vermont cabin for summer work. But I understand it’s a favorite hideaway for you and your family. The cabin exists, not just in the minds of readers and characters, but in a real, tangible place. Can you describe how the cabin came to be in IF I FORGET YOU and the way it speaks to you in the sense of a muse?
Thomas Christopher Greene: I own this small, seasonal cabin on a lake in northern Vermont, about thirty miles north of my year round house. It’s my favorite place in the world and I represented it in the book pretty much exactly how it is. It was there on a hot summer night watching the fireflies skim above the lake that I first started writing about Henry and Margot. It’s a terrific place to write for me, sitting outside on the deck above the water, just the glow of my laptop and the stars out. I wrote probably half the book there and then the season ended and we closed up for the year. But I decided to give my cabin to Henry in the novel, both as an act of solidarity between us, but also because it’s such a romantic place in many ways, and I just wanted to have him take Margot there. I knew she would love it.
L.L.: I’m enamored by your lyrical, fluid prose. And instead of asking where you learned to write like that, I think I’ll ask how you continue to sharpen the saw when it comes to writing?
Thomas Christopher Greene: Well, thank you. To be honest, I don’t really know how I do the thing I do, though I’ve been doing it a long time. I can tell when I am writing well, though, because it doesn’t feel forced, or like writing, but more like music that you hear in your head and have to get it out onto the page. But all language, words and sentences, exist for one reason, to serve story, in my mind. But I would say the way I stay sharp is to read. The most important thing a writer can do is read. And then write.
L.L.: In the novel, Henry is a poet. And oh, how I adore reading about writers! I can almost always tell when reading if that author fancies him or herself a poet. It’s that glittery use of words that give it away. Do you write poetry? How has it shaped you into the novelist you are today?
Thomas Christopher Greene: The only poem I have ever written in my life is in this book, and it is Henry’s poem. I confess that I am mildly hoping none of my poet friends read it. The other night I had a drink with Matthew Dickman, a brilliant poet who is on my faculty, and was telling him about this and my horror when folks like him read this novel. He said if he had known he would have written the poem for me, for a note in the acknowledgments. Kicking myself I hadn’t thought of that.
L.L.: Mostly, IF I FORGET YOU is a love story. But love is a prickly, thorny thing. And there are stories of rekindling love, lost love, first love, etc. In what ways do you see this one as being ‘different?’
Thomas Christopher Greene: I think I have mostly been telling some variation of the same story over and over, which I think a lot of writers do. Some people believe there are really only four or five different stories—stranger comes to town, two people meet, etc. The differences are in the particularity of perspective you give your characters: how do their own experiences influence the way they see the world? I admit it’s hard to say new things about love, so in some ways I am not trying to do that. Instead I am more focused on saying things about love that hopefully speak to something we all have felt and can relate to.
L.L.: I’ve heard that this story poured out of you very quickly, that is was almost like a damn bursting and all of these little stories that make up IF I FORGET YOU just flowed. Can you talk about what kind of writer you are? A plotter? A pantser? And does it matter?
Thomas Christopher Greene: I don’t really plot. I spend a lot of time thinking about the characters and the story before I ever write. I try to understand who they are and how they would behave, and then I think about how to get them in trouble and see how they react. By the time I sit down to write, I generally have in my head the general architecture of the novel, the arc of the story. And then I write to plot points and I revise as I go.
L.L.: What ever trumps you in the writing life?
Thomas Christopher Greene: Time is always a challenge. I run a very busy college. But there is always a fear somewhere inside that you won’t be able to do this again, that the next time the blank page confronts you you’ll have nothing to give. But then you put that out of your mind and just work. Somehow it works out.
L.L.: What might be obsessing you now, and why?
Thomas Christopher Greene: The new book I’m working on. It’s a very suspenseful literary thriller about a young married couple who realize they don’t actually know each other as well as they thought they did.
L.L.: Is there anything I have forgotten to ask, but should have?
Thomas Christopher Greene: As usual, I think you really covered it. So, no.
L.L.: Tom, it was a pleasure chatting with you. And I so loved IF I FORGET YOU. It’s certainly a story I won’t.
Thomas Christopher Greene: You’re very kind, Leslie. The pleasure was mine.
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Author Bio: Thomas Christopher Greene is the author of four previous novels: The Headmaster’s Wife, Envious Moon, I’ll Never Be Long Gone, and Mirror Lake. His fiction has been translated into 13 languages. In 2008, Greene founded Vermont College of Fine Arts, a top graduate fine arts college, making him the youngest college president in the country at the time. He lives and works in Vermont. Visit him at www.thomaschristophergreene.com. [Special thanks to K. Bassel and K.Kamm at St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books. Author and cover image courtesy of SMP. Vermont cabin image retrieved from and bears no resemblance to the author’s actual cabin.]