by Jill Adams
A.M. Homes began her writing career at age 19 with the publication Jack, the novel of a young boy, son of divorced parents, who learns that his father is gay. Jack continues to appear on school and university reading lists where it remains as fresh and relevant as it was 18 years ago. Her next novel, In a Country of Mothers, is the disturbing story of an adopted girl and her therapist who begins to take an unnatural interest in the girl, suspecting she is her own daughter whom she gave up for adoption at birth. The mid-nineties brought the controversial The End of Alice, with its incarcerated pedophile protagonist Chappy. Alice hit a nerve on both sides of the Atlantic, but particularly in the UK where it was banned from W.H. Smith and sent tremors through some critics while being championed by A.L. Kennedy, Elizabeth Young and others. Music for Torching (1999) follows suburbanites Paul and Elaine who are so bored with their lives that they tip over a barbecue grill one evening and watch their house burn down. This work firmly established Homes’ trademark style of wry humor applied to the uncanny dissection of suburbia’s facade. The latest novel This Book Will Save Your Life (2006), set in the upper-class hills of a self-obsessed L.A., takes a more upbeat turn, throwing up the mirror on a broader scale while maintaining a keen eye for life’s utter weirdness and total unpredictability. Two short story collections, The Safety of Objects (1990) and Things You Should Know (2002), have earned Homes equal status to the best of that medium as well.
Not only is her work structurally sophisticated and the prose sharp and intelligent, but she’s got her finger smack on the pulse of America: if married heterosexuals begin “coming out” and making news, Homes will have written about it; if the topic of pedophilia is about to sweep the country (as with the many disclosures involving the Catholic Church), Homes will have touched on that ground. School killings . . . ground covered. She’s a quintessentially American writer who claims she doesn’t like to hear people say they “love reading [her] books.” Her goal is to unnerve, dig under the skin, maybe piss you off with her fearless honesty, think, and at the same time make you laugh. Quite a feat.
Her latest book is a memoir, The Mistress’s Daughter (April 2007). Here she writes of being “found” by her biological mother in 1992, which at times reads stranger than fiction.
Her work has been translated into twelve languages and appears frequently in Art Forum, Harpers, Granta, McSweeney's, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Zoetrope. She is a Contributing Editor to Vanity Fair, Bomb and Blind Spot.
Homes was also a writer/producer of the hit television show The L Word in 2004-2005 and wrote the adaptation of her first novel Jack for Showtime. The film aired in 2004 and won an Emmy Award for Stockard Channing. Director Rose Troche's film adaptation of The Safety of Objects was released in 2003, and Troche is currently developing In A Country of Mothers as well.
A.M. Homes has been the recipient of numerous awards including Fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In addition she has been active on the Boards of Directors of Yaddo, The Fine Arts Work Center In Provincetown, The Writers Room, and PEN—where she chairs both the membership committee and the Writers Fund.
Born in Washington D.C., she now lives in New York City.
TBR: You were selected as one of the “best reads” for this year's Richard & Judy's Book Club Best Read Award, the biggest marketing event in British book sales, which means you’ve now basically been handed a “virtual blank cheque,” so the Telegraph reported. What is your feeling on this phenomenon, when people like Oprah and R&J control such huge amounts of public opinion? Do you laugh your way to the bank or worry a little over the power these people have? A.M.H: I’m very happy about the selection—it brings my work to many people who would never otherwise know it—and if someone is only going to read 10 books a year, why shouldn’t one of them be mine. The blank check has yet to arrive.
TBR: Your latest novel, the R&J selection, This Book Will Save You Life, plays with the genre of self-help books. The protagonist, Richard Novak, is struggling to save his own life from the “sink hole” into which he has fallen; he takes solace and advice from a donut-shop owner, goes on a spiritual retreat, etc. The proliferation of self-help books and programs is primarily an American phenomenon, often scoffed at abroad. What makes Americans so ripe and ready for this kind of thing? And was it this obsession with self that formed the initial idea for the novel, or your fascination with Los Angeles, or . . .?
A.M.H: I wanted to write about Los Angeles. It is to me the most American city in America right now—the American dream thrives there; it is a hopeful, surreal city, deep with culture that no one sees on the surface. And I wanted to write about how one comes out of dis-connection into making a connection and maintaining it.
In many ways This Book Will Save Your Life was my post 9-11 novel. I witnessed the World Trade Center being hit, watched the buildings fall down and for the first time saw in reality something I could not have dreamed in my imagination—it made me think a lot about what we need to do regarding being responsible, accountable to each other as people, and also got me thinking about hope—how does one maintain hope in a time that is often not very hopeful.
TBR: The character of Anhil, the immigrant donut-shop owner, who offers Richard a warm, freshly made donut to help balm the soul . . . is this little scenario a nod to Carver’s “A Small Good Thing” or is that just me making associations? He’s a great character, by the way. I love his line, “Americans try on the spiritual life of others like they don’t have any of their own.” How did he develop?
A.M.H: He’s not an overt reference to Carver—but that said, I very much admire Carver. Anhil developed over a long period of time. At one point early on, in the development of this novel, I thought I would set the book in Silicon Valley and Anhil was going to be someone –who does appear in This Book as I think a cousin of his—who owns a photo booth in a parking lot; but with the digital photo boom, there are no more of those photo booths—which are a little like toll booths in the middle of nowhere. And I was thinking a lot about how an immigrant in some ways can be more idealistic about America than someone who has grown up entirely as an American.
TBR: Richard’s seven-day stay at the silent meditation retreat is both funny and telling. Have you ever attended a spiritual retreat of any kind, as research or otherwise? Read any self-help books?
A.M.H: I haven’t read self-help books, but I do meditate (not often enough) and I do believe in the importance of just taking the time to notice both the outside world and the inner states.
TBR: In your last two novels the protagonists’ homes fall apart in one way or another and they must temporarily relocate. The shaky structural foundation serves as a good metaphor for the characters’ psychic derailment. I’m wondering if the “temporary home” —integral to the plot in both novels—was something thought out in advance or did it come with the writing? In general, how much plotting is planned in advance?
A.M.H: I don’t plot in advance, but clearly the crumbling of home is a big theme for me. Someone once went through the books and counted up all the things that were set on fire and all the Valium and diet coke consumed—the numbers were high. I think every writer has images/ideas/experiences that he returns to. Clearly home is one of mine—funny isn’t it that my last name is HOMES!
TBR: Richard, as with other characters of yours (I’m thinking of the young woman in the short story “Remedy,” for example, from the collection Things You Should Know), suffers from an attempt to reconnect with his parents, who have become absorbed by the Florida condo set and have metamorphosed into different individuals with a life all their own. This also seems a peculiarly American development, opposed to the tight, extended family structure in Europe. On the one hand, it is a fundamental inevitability, a child’s disassociation from the parent, but it seems a heightened, more threatening event in America, this breakdown of family. Which is ironic given all the talk about “family values” and the importance of “marriage”; i.e., hetero marriage. How did America come to reign as leader of the fragmented, dysfunctional family?
A.M.H: I think America became the leader in fragmented families because we’re so determined to be the world leader in everything and I’m only half kidding. The American Work Ethic favors the job/the career over the family, whereas I think the European model of work—with a much longer history behind it—allows for REST, for VACATION and time spent with family.
TBR: One of the characters in This Book Will Save Your Life says:
We live in a time when no one wants to remember. We pretend we are where it starts. Look at the way we live—we build houses on cliffs, on fault lines, in the path of things, and when something happens, we don't learn history we build it again, right on the same spot, bigger, better . . . . Fallout accumulates. What we've got now is a blend of fact and fiction that we're agreeing to call reality.
He is referring to Richard’s not remembering his childhood, but it’s easy to read as a declaration of current government policy, which would seem to mirror the personal failings of Richard and others. America, then, could be said to suffer from a collective neurosis, could it not? A.M.H: I wouldn’t call it a neurosis—I fear that America has Alzheimer’s and I’m not kidding. In my last book of stories there were several which dealt with profound memory loss and contemporary culture.
In “The Chinese Lesson” a Chinese woman—with memory loss—comes to live with her daughter and American son-in-law, and everything she talks about they dismiss as dementia—except that a lot of what she is saying is true—it is about the history of China building the Three Gorges Dam and so on. Another story, “The Former First Lady and The Football Hero” is about Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who I found fascinating not just as a President and First Lady, but a portrait of a marriage, and a very public life that essentially evaporated as the former president deteriorated.
I believe that European countries and their citizens are more cognizant of their history and therefore behave differently There is an arrogance in America, combined with this loss of memory/history and even a sense of American identity makes for a very dangerous way of living. If a country/society is aware of their own history and accepts it, they behave in relation to what they know about themselves. If a country denies its history it begins to shift its behavior, its social conscious to accommodate the denial, and I think that’s where the slippery slope starts to become an avalanche.
TBR: There is a positive side to all this. Richard does get better and become a better person. American optimism—or in Richard’s case, sheer fortitude—carries the day. We didn’t see this in your previous work. Are you more optimistic these days? Is America? Is the country healing in some ways?
A.M.H: I am not any more or less optimistic—I don’t think in those terms; that said, I felt it was important to try and write something with a hopeful view after the events of 9-11. To write something which goes up at the end, gives a lift, is to defy gravity which is just as much a force in literature as it is in the environment. The natural impulse and easiest thing is to allow a novel/story to go down at the end, to in effect sink. I left Richard floating—literally.
TBR: To focus a minute on Paul and Elaine from Music for Torching. . . during a family barbecue in the backyard, Paul begins to squirt charcoal starter everywhere and Elaine kicks over the grill, thereby, without forethought, deliberately burning down their house, then blithely going out to eat with their boys. “What is wrong with us? Why are we so unhappy?” they constantly ask. Then comes a real and great tragedy at the end of the novel. If we can indulge in a little play, can you give us a brief possible scenario of Paul and Elaine eight years down the line? Where are they in 2007? Are they still together? Are they still dazed and unhappy? Or have personal and world events sobered them?
A.M.H: I haven’t talked to them lately—but I believe the last line of the book sums, it up. It’s over. The marriage did not survive, the child, shot at school did not survive. What I think is so interesting about that story is that the book was published 3 weeks before the Columbine School shooting. And when that shooting happened, people kept asking—how does this happen, it comes from nowhere, there were no warnings. But just as one can see if you look back through Music For Torching, there are plenty of warnings, and we are all accountable for creating a world in which children are shot by other children while at school. I think a lot about morality—about how we are all responsible for the world around us, and how it could be a much better place to live if people would recognize that interdependence instead of living every man for himself—and then some—trying desperately to grab as much of whatever they can get.
TBR: At least we could identify with Paul and Elaine in Music for Torching. Then there are characters like the woman doctor with cancer in the short story “Do Not Disturb” (Things You Should Know); she becomes more of a bitch with cancer, but she has always been a bitch, and thwarts her husband’s every attempt to reach her. At one point, she says: “I have no interest in being human.” What is it with this character? She’s unsettling to the core.
A.M.H: Yes, she is unsettling—and that’s OK with me. Have you ever had cancer? It doesn’t always bring out the best in a person. Sometimes having cancer makes someone become a “better” person, sometimes it makes them an even more intense version of who they already are. The character’s very angry, very negative dormant self…clearly comes to life here.
TBR: But it’s that angry, negative person, before the cancer, that I couldn’t get my head round. Not that I mind being unsettled, mind you, otherwise I wouldn’t read A.M. Homes!
Which brings me to Chappy in The End of Alice. The reader doesn’t feel unsettled so much as slapped in the face, especially when Chappy addresses “Herr Reader,” saying, for example, how he wouldn’t have just described a certain lurid scene except that he knew the reader was waiting for it, wanting it. What a brilliant touch, the reader is calmly reading along and then wham, he’s caught out, involved! How did you conceive of that particular technique for this particular character?
A.M.H: Again, it goes back to accountability—and the unnamed character, the one you call “Chappy” in Alice, basically confronts the reader, saying if he (and by “he,” meaning not just himself, but others like him, pedophiles) are in jail then why do these things keep happening. Until WE as a society learn to better deal not only with those who DO abuse children, but also with what kind of history sets a person up to become an abuser, until WE do a better job, then I think we are guilty as well. Also, the character confronts the reader’s desire for “perversion,” and by this I mean the fact that in a fantasy life one can be perverse but in one’s real life—there are limits. Angela Carter wrote a wonderful book on the importance/need for pornography in The Sadeian Woman.
TBR: Ah, yes, Sade as the “moral pornographer.” She took as much flak in certain circles for that as you did for Alice.
In reference to technique, can you describe any technical problem that especially bothered you in one of your novels?
A.M.H: Each one brings its own challenges—which is what I love about writing fiction.
TBR: You’re new book, The Mistress’s Daughter [April 2007], is a memoir, which concerns your being adopted and meeting up with your biological mother (and later with your biological father). I suspect this was more difficult to write than fiction. How was the experience different?
A.M.H: It was much more difficult. I’m known for writing a certain kind of searing brutally honest fiction—which is really work from the imagination, but to turn that same sharp eye onto myself was painful. I was determined to do a good job—and not go soft on myself. Also specific to this story was finding language and articulation for what is such a primitive experience—that of a child being separated from its mother. Many of the experiences that were formative to how this story unfolded happened before I even had access to language. Beginning to articulate the emotions of being given up and then later found—was particularly difficult.
TBR: In reading The Mistress’s Daughter, I was struck by the similarities between you and the character Jody from In the Country of Mothers—both adopted (and in a backstreet sort of way), both entering homes where the adoptive parents had recently lost a child of their own, both having mothers—or in Jody’s case, a would-be mother—who stalked them. You finally learned the identity of your biological mother in 1992, although you had known the circumstances of your adoption; the novel came out in May 1993. You must have completed the novel by the time you learned of your mother, but did you do any tweaking of it thereafter? The autobiographical elements are easy to spot, but in what essential ways is Jody not you?
A.M.H: No, it’s all more strange and ironic than all that. In A Country of Mothers was the only novel I ever wrote that had even an autobiographical note—it was my attempt to try and understand what it meant to give up a child. From the start it was a struggle to write—the least satisfying of all of the novels for me as an author. From the start I didn’t think it was good enough, went deep enough, and The End of Alice which followed was almost in a re-affirmation of my commitment to not hide from the depths. Anyway, Mothers was in galleys when Ellen “found” me. The novel was on its way to press so no changes were made, and it is all the more ironic that, yes, some of the sentiments are my own that I re-express in the memoir. But JODY is SO not me—in both simple ways—I am not a film maker—and mostly in more complex ways, I felt the novel failed where the memoir doesn’t—the memoir is more accurate—and also was written as non-fiction and benefits from the more than 10 years of honing my craft between Mothers and Mistress’s Daughter.
TBR: Regarding The Mistress’s Daughter . . . your biological mother proved to be a strange and difficult woman—suggesting you two have your portrait painted; envisioning you, herself and your father (long married with a family of his own) going out to dinner, asking you to adopt her, etc. You’re not ready to meet her in person and then she shows up at a bookstore reading, of what must have been In a Country of Mothers, correct? And your adoptive mother is there, too. How weird is all that?! However did you cope? Did you ever want to laugh at the surrealism of it all? And did you ever regret making contact with her in the first place?
A.M.H: Well, honestly I think The Mistress’s Daughter talks about all of these things. Regarding how I dealt with it all—the hard part was expanding my thinking about family and identity. I/we have 2 slots for parents, and suddenly I needed four, and if anything came out of the writing of this book it was the realization and acceptance of the fact that I am not of 2 parents but equally of 4 and of my parents’ parents and their parents’ parents. It truly is a global history that builds and influences each of is.
TBR: You began intensive genealogical research to uncover your biological ancestry, something you hadn’t felt compelled to do with your adoptive parents. You came to several dead ends in your search, but mention at one point that “With each discard comes the lingering sense that invariably we’re all interconnected.” Yet blood ties proved strongest. It’s a primal impulse then, do you think? And why then do you think you had never sought to discover your biological parents on your own?
A.M.H: Before Ellen came and found me, I didn’t feel compelled to go on a search. I felt I had constructed a life, built an identity and it was enough for me at that point. Later—after Ellen and Norman “found” me—I found myself with many unanswered questions and perhaps a different kind of curiosity about what information might expand the picture I had of them. Not every adopted person feels compelled to “find” their family—and there is no right/wrong way to deal with this. My family came to find me—and when they did the picture was incomplete so I went looking for more information about all of my families.
TBR: Was it coincidence that after learning of your biological parents and all the trauma that came with that, you veered away from novels involving the nuclear family and undertook something completely different in the mid-90s; i.e., The End of Alice?
A.M.H: I was already writing The End of Alice when Mothers was in galleys and when all these events were unfolding. So it’s not related in the ways you might think—
TBR: You once mentioned that the notions of what fiction and non-fiction are have gotten very murky. Why do you think that is, and is it going to get murkier?
A.M.H: I don’t think it could get any murkier—people assume novels are entirely true and memoirs are made up.
TBR: You once stated that John Cheever’s Falconer may be The Great American Novel of the last 30 years at least. Does that still hold? Can you name one or two possible contenders?
A.M.H: I also really like Bullet Park, and Richard Yates’ Disturbing The Peace is truly the best book, and then there’s the work of Don Delillo, I just love how he writes with and works with history.
TBR: The Great American Novel aside, who are some favorite contemporary writers?
A.M.H: I am amazed by the second half of Philip Roth’s career—right at the point when he didn’t have to do anything else he started doing his best work. I also adore Don Delillo and Joan Didion, and hmm Amy Hempel, and Rick Moody, and and and.
TBR: As for the act of writing . . . what props do you find helpful—coffee, tea, coke, fuzzy slippers, crack cocaine (sorry, that’s Paul and Elaine)?
A.M.H: Coke, chocolate, tea. In a regular rotation, punctuated with soup, crackers, peanut butter.
TBR: You have taught writing, edited reviews . . . what are some of the biggest, most common mistakes that emerging writers tend to make?
A.M.H: Both over and under write simultaneously. You need to select details carefully, think about the characters vision not your own, and limit what you tell the reader, allow the reader to paint his or her own picture.
TBR: I hear you’re currently working on a children’s book. Is this the next big project or one of several?
A.M.H: One of several. I would love to write a bunch of books—I don’t think of them as children’s books, but just a different kind of book—a different kind of story—more visual, more expansive when it comes to the imagination.
Often we call books that are fun—children’s books; I think I’m just going to call mine—books.
Off the cuff . . .
— living person you’d most like to meet
Mick Jagger—oh, was that meet or be?
— Amodóvar or Woody Allen?
— four or five favorite films
Shoot The Moon, the Graduate, All the Presidents Men
— New York vs Los Angeles
LA vs NY
— best way to handle writer’s block
— ideal weekend
Everything I didn't accomplish all week in a big canvas bag I carry with me (and maybe a sail boat ride, a nice dinner with friends, and an ice cream cone eaten by the sea)
— state of contemporary art
— some living icons
Joan Didion, Howard Hodgkin, Ellsworth Kelly, Keith Richard, Lucian Freud
— the 2008 presidential election
still a work in progress
—three things you want yet to do in life of the non-writing variety
play the piano (record an album)
speak French (write a book in French)
have enough book shelves