What's in a Page: Thomas Grattan's The Recent East started in a subway car
Thomas Grattan's debut novel is an epic in every sense of the word — in narrative scope, of course, but also in the way it's breaking new ground for the genre. It follows the Haas family, who fled East Germany during the war and return shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall to reclaim their home in a seaside town. The book examines the complicated history of the region, as Germany transitions from a war zone to a haven for refugees to a sought-after destination, all while the Nazi (and neo-Nazi) movement waxes and wains; it examines the ways the relationships in the central family ebb and flow; and it follows teenage son Michael's exploration of his own sexuality as he comes into his queerness in his new country.
It's a lofty project for a debut writer, but Grattan pulls it off seamlessly. Below, find out how he got his start in writing, what snacks he relied on to finish The Recent East, and what was the hardest part of the narrative to craft.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?
THOMAS GRATTAN: When I was young, I was obsessed with horses. The first thing I remember writing is one of several horse-related stories I was really into creating back then. It might have been about a horse giving birth on Christmas Eve. I was maybe 8 when I wrote it.
What is the last book that made you cry?
I recently read Bryan Washington's novel Memorial. His writing about the dissolution of a relationship, also about the complicated dynamics between children and parents, were so well rendered. It made me tear up several times. I also just reread Edmund White's The Beautiful Room Is Empty. That book definitely made me cry, especially its ending, which is both joyful while also a reminder of the invisibility of queer people in the 1950s and 60s.
Which book is at the top of your current to-read list?
There are so many books on my list. Last summer I read Clare Beams' brilliant novel The Illness Lesson, so I think the what's at the top of my reading list now is her short story collection, We Show What We Have Learned.
Where do you write?
There is a little nook off of my bedroom (I think it's a former closet) where I do a lot of my writing, though I can really write almost anywhere. When I was writing The Recent East, I had a notebook in my bag wherever I went. Strangely, ideas for the book often came to me while I was on the subway, so I'd be crammed in a seat or leaning against a wall, jotting things down before I forgot them.
Which book made you a forever reader?
I was a big reader as a kid, but became a less consistent reader for a while after that. The book that brought me back to reading in high school and really cemented my love of books was Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. The language in that book is so beautiful, and I found Janie to be such a complicated and compelling protagonist. There are some really sexy moments in it, too. That book helped me realize that longing and desire are important parts of fiction.
What is a snack you couldn't write without?
Coffee and seltzer and chocolate and nuts. I do a lot of snacking when I write.
If you could change one thing about any of your books what would it be?
I'm someone who could endlessly edit, so I would probably go through it and tighten some of the language.
What is your favorite part of The Recent East?
The ending. While I struggled at times as to how to get there, I knew early on where and how I wanted it to end.
What was the hardest plot point or character to write?
Adela was initially the hardest character for me to write, in part because she is the person in the book with the clearest moral compass. Her being largely a good person made it harder for me to tap into her complexity at first.
Write a movie poster tag line for the book:
You can go home again, but you may not recognize it.