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A.M. Homes

 By William Cuthbertson  Short story A Real Doll | Review of The End of Alice | Interview in Spanish

Picture of Homes
photo: ©Marion Ettlinger

A.M. Homes is the author of the novels The End of Alice, In A Country of Mothers, Jack, the short story collection The Safety of Objects, and the artists' book Appendix A. Her work has been translated into eight languages and is much anthologized. A. M. Homes' fiction and non-fiction appear frequently in numerous magazines including: Art Forum, Bomb, Blind Spot, Elle, Harpers Bazaar, Mirabella, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine Story, Vanity Fair, and The Los Angeles Times.


 Always controversial, Ms Homes hit the media-fan most recently with the UK release of The End of Alice, where it was banned by the NSPCC and sent critics into a tizzy over the shocking subject matter which was, and this the stickler, so bloody "literarily competent." Here in Spain where critics and readers are generally a bit more relaxed Alice will be released by Anagrama sometime in 1998. It has already been published in Denmark by Lindhardt, in Norway by TidensNorsk, Sweden by Leander Malmstem, the Netherlands by Anthos, Italy by Bompiani, Portugal by Noticias, and will soon be released in France by Belfond. We were fortunate to catch Ms Homes druing her busy schedule for the following interview, conducted via e-mail.

BR: Though it may be unfair to do so, it's very easy to see your work as part of a larger group of writers who use the novel as a confessionary for issues of sexual violence--Beth Nugent, Mary Karr, and Kathryn Harrison, for example. Do you see this type of fiction as its own genre? Is there a movement of abuse fiction going on?

AMH: I don't see my work as belonging to or affiliated with any particular group. I also don't think there's any particular movement or genre of abuse fiction known as "abuse fiction." Perhaps this is a group you are constructing independently. I am not interested in assembling groups of books and calling that a theme or movement.

BR: You've said elsewhere that you're interested in examining American or even contemporary morality. Have you come to any conclusions, preliminary or concrete?

AMH: I am interested in morality, but wouldn't presume to come to any conclusions--let's call it an ongoing investigation.

BR: Do you have any thoughts on the Glen Ridge, New Jersey rape/murder trial, as it pertains to a collective morality?

AMH: Unfortunately, I didn't follow the case carefully enough to comment.You might want to look at a new book by Bernard Lefkowitz who teaches with me at Columbia.

: Do you see yourself being groomed for the role of spokesperson for so-called women's issues or issues of domestic or sexual violence? Is that a role you are willing to accept?

AMH: The End of Alice was my fourth book and while there's a lot of sex in the book, it is a novel about ideas, about culture, morality and sexuality. I am not interested in being a spokesperson for anything. I am interested in writing fiction which raises questions, which provokes discussion. I think it is the job of fiction--of art in general--to generate work which encourages people to look at themselves and the world we live in more closely, or perhaps from a different point of view.

: Does non-fiction--because of its ability to deal strictly with fact--offer the writer protection, or a narrative distance that fiction doesn't allow? Is it less of a risk publicly?

AMH: I'm not sure what you're getting at. Fiction and non-fiction are so incredibly different. A writer creating fiction is pulling characters out of the air, creating people where there were none--an entirely different experience from writing something based on fact, on things that actually happened.

: I ask primarily because of Appendix A : An Elaboration on the Novel the End of Alice. Isn't that work an attempt to breach these boundaries between fact and invention? In conjunction with The End of Alice, Appendix A seemed a direct attack on the conventions, the expectations of narrative. If the lines between fiction and non-fiction are so clear to you as a writer, why go to all the trouble of making these creations seem even more real--the painting, the physical evidence, the police reports? Why that much detail?

AMH: Appendix A was assembled as an elaboration on The End of Alice. It's like the liner notes to a record album, a chance to see the process; the bits and pieces that are part of creating a fiction: characters, setting etc. While writing The End of Alice, I collected old photographs, and other bits and pieces not realizing they would amount to an album. I simply found them along the way and thought: this could be the narrator as a kid, this could be the place where something happened. At the end of writing the book-- it occurred to me that they were like a fictional photo album. So, getting back to your question, Appendix A has nothing to do with the lines between fiction and non-fiction. It is entirely a fiction.

: Have you considered writing non-fiction yourself?

AMH: I do write non-fiction. Frequently.

: Is it criticism? I've read that you are also an art critic.

AMH: I write frequently on art and art-related subjects. I am especially interested in photography, but also a big painting and sculpture fan.

: Art played an especially important part in Appendix A. Do you see a connection between the physical/tangible arts and writing?

AMH: I wouldn't say that there's a connection between making art and writing. But I have found that there are times when one can't find words and the act of painting, the use of gesture, color, abstraction, can be quite liberating. The unfortunate thing is that I often don't allow myself the time to paint--its become a luxury. I've known many artists, writers, and musicians who also work or play in other forms. Creativity seems best served when it isn't limited to a single expression.

: Back to The End of Alice, how do you deal with unfavorable reviews? Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho was severely criticized forits fictionalized treatment of a serial killer, while Norman Mailer's Executioner's Song, a non-fiction treatment of the life of Gary Gilmore,was praised in reviews. Is there a general reluctance on the part of Americans to accept writers willing to personalize these almost fabled criminals?

AMH: I don't know.

: You've recently returned from a promotional tour in London where the release of The End of Alice has caused a flurry of controversy, having been banned by the NSPCC and denied retail outlet by W.H. Smith. Apart from the fantastic media attention this generated (including many letters in defense of the book), what are some feelings/comments about the UK reception and your personal experience amongst the English?

AMH: To clarify, the book wasn't banned by the NSPCC, they called for the withdrawal of the publication and then for a ban--but they have no authority to ban a book. The W.H. Smith ban is also kind of a unarticulated joke in that according to the publisher W.H. Smith mostly carries very commercial fiction and had never ordered the book--they announced the "ban," only after the NSPCC thing exploded. Also, just for clarity--I love clarity, I didn'treally go on a promotional tour of London, unless you call riding around in taxis a tour. I went for the publication of the book--not having a clue that the books release would erupt into a national "situation." The events that followed the NSPCC outcry were very interesting, on a historical level--it isn't every day a book is banned, and on a more personal level. I found it very interesting that in England the big concern seemed to be that The End of Alice would give pedophiles fantasies and that therefore the book was dangerous. I find this thinking flawed on several levels. 1. Pedophiles already have fantasies--I don't have to give them any. 2. The End Of Alice wouldn't really be very exciting for a pedophile to read given that thenarrator is in jail, and has been in jail, being punished for his crimes, for the last 23 years and isn't getting out any time soon. 3. Just how many pedophiles do they have in England anyway, the level of concern was so incredibly high, you'd think there was one on every corner--I am being ironic, but my point is I think people have a hard time with this book because it does make them think about things that are discomfiting--and while they might not like the book--I think that's okay. The point of serious literature, and I do think of this book as a serious book, not an entertainment, is to reflect the culture we live in. Given what's on the front pages of newspapers--most days when they're not trying to ban a book--I think The End of Alice does begin to reflect something very disturbing about the world we live in.

In the UK they asked me--if I had any friends and if I'd slept with my brother, in the US they simply asked, what did my mother think of the book--really strange questions either way. I think the kind of questions people ask, the assumption that the work is somehow true is curious in that it reflects that we are at a moment culturally where we've forgotten the imagination. Writing a novel is an act of the imagination--that's what I enjoy most about writing, the chance to explore worlds other than my own.

: What is the role of evidence, or fact, to your characters who have suffered abuse? Is it an attempt to quantify the damage done? Is it to have fact bear witness for the character? Is this, in turn, the real 'safety of objects?'

AMH: The role of evidence? Again, I don't know what you're getting at. But I get the feeling you're trying to interpret the work in a way that just doesn't fit. The title of my short story collection, The Safety of Objects came from the art world/critical theory/psychoanalytic concept of Object, and also from the way in which we use "things"--cars, houses, toys, people--to define and comfort ourselves.

: Of all the stories from The Safety of Objects, I continually think back to "Yours Truly," about the young woman attempting to reclaim a sense of self-worth, of identity. Do you see similarities between theprocess of recovery and that of writing? Do you feel that writers come to their work seeking personal understanding of their subjects?

AMH: I have no experience with "recovery." Again, you're applying your own notions about abuse, recovery, personal narrative, to the work. These are not areas I work from, they are not relevant.

: Do you approach each story or novel hoping to understand a particular issue or issues? Is each story a commentary of sorts, or do you write whatever comes to mind?

AMH: My ideas tend to come from "non-fiction" concepts, meaning that they occur in response to things going on in the culture. They are often explorations of specific ideas or themes that interest me--although the theme or idea is not necessarily overt in the story.

: Does Jody from "Yours Truly" share anything with the Jody from In A Country of Mothers?

AMH: I name a lot of characters "Jody."

: Stephen King has this trick of naming at least one character from each of his novels "Anne." Is your "Jody" a tribute to someone? Is there asignificance beyond a preference for the name?

AMH: Someone named Jody lived on my street when I was growing up. We're still friends.

: How much of an effect on you do these issues and characters you explore have? How do you break out of the mindset after a week of a monthof writing something like The End of Alice?

AMH: It wears off slowly.

: Do you have to separate yourself from the work at times? Do you have any kind of release from it, or is it something you suffer through to go where you need to go with the novel?

AMH: I don't feel the need to separate myself from the work, but often things happen that pull me away from it for a period of time--other teaching, writing commitments, etc. A work of fiction develops best when the writer is able to spend a lot of time with the characters, the ideas,uninterrupted. It is the creation of a world, of people that never existed before being pulled out of the ether--that's something that takes a lot of time.

: Are you working on any projects now?

AMH: Of course.

: Anything about it you want to share?

AMH: No.

: What are you reading now? What are some works that have affected you remarkably?

AMH: I am reading non-fiction on the subject of marriage. I am readingthe novels of Richard Yates, of John Cheever and others and studying up on the progress of suburban life. I am also very interested in Russian Literature and read a lot of non-fiction. I love biographies.

: What are your interests musically?

AMH: I listen to a lot of classical music when I am writing--Bach, Chopin,Glen Gould playing the piano.

: All right. Now it's my turn: What does your mother think of your work? Have you had the opportunity to discuss it with her? Have you sat down over coffee and chatted about Barbie and Ken from the final story of The Safety of Objects? I guess my real question is, again, how do you take this stuff--these stories--and assimilate them into your everyday life? I don't mean this to be spiteful, but I'm fascinated in what one might do to approach such topics and leave them relatively clear-headed.

AMH: It seems off the point to talk about what my mother thinks of my work--suffice to say that I once did a reading of the Barbie story in a bookstore with my whole family there, including my grandmother who is in her 90s. What's a Barbie? She asked me later and I showed her one. Why is it called The Safety of Objects, she asked, and I explained.

You seem to have a recurring question or concern about how I assimilate what goes on in my stories into everyday life. I am a fiction writer, I work from my imagination, in response to things going on in the culture. Your morning newspaper is filled with things far more frightening than my stories. What I find difficult, if anything, is that in order to write, one must spend a lot of time alone, one is somewhat separated from other people who get up in the morning and go to the office--I dream of going to an office.

: What is your one guilty pleasure in life? Or if you don't feel particularly guilty about it, what's the one thing you'd least like people to know you do or enjoy?

AMH: Oh please. I should be writing a novel right now . . .

_________________________© 1997 The Barcelona Review

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