4:25 pm Oct. 12, 2012
A.M. Homes takes hundreds and hundreds of pages of notes when she’s working on a book.
“I look up everything from, you know, explosive rage, to, you know, Westchester County demographics,” she told me when we met recently in a West Village restaurant to talk.
Homes pulled out notepads from her bag to show me. It was immediately evident from looking at her chicken-scratch handwriting that she could just as easily have been a doctor. It turns out she’s enthralled by the medical world.
“I really am fascinated by… the way people describe their problems and tell their stories,” she said.
The author of 11 books, A.M. Homes is an expert at psychological stories laced with dark humor. She isn’t afraid to examine the bleaker side of life. Homes has covered a lot of ground in her previous books, from pedophiles to the true story of her birth parents seeking her out three decades after she was given up for adoption. Her latest novel, May We Be Forgiven, just out from Viking, is the funniest serious book since Skippy Dies by Paul Murray (and both books showcase adults who are more childlike at first than the children).
In this all-encompassing novel, Homes traces the disintegration and rehabilitation of a highly dysfunctional family. She set out to write about “the evolution of a family”—and the beginnings of the novel came thanks to Zadie Smith. Around 2007 Smith asked if Homes could contribute something to The Book of Other People, a collection of character-driven stories. Homes was interested in angry brothers, and began, but couldn’t finish, something on that subject. She ended up submitting another piece for Smith’s book, but eventually continued to work on the first one. The story found its way, via guest editor William Boyd, into Granta’s hundredth issue, released in the winter of 2007–8, and in turn Salman Rushdie picked it for the 2008 Best American Short Stories collection. But Homes felt there was more to be done with it.
“The story kept going, and I had to admit the story was actually turning into something else,” she said. May We Be Forgiven turned into something quite big, actually—over the seven years it took to write it, it transformed into a huge manuscript.
“18 feet tall,” Homes called it, explaining that she literally spreads her manuscript out (and up), as she’s working on her books. “It’s architectural, so everything has to link together.”
Everything moves quite briskly in May We Be Forgiven, a novel that focuses on Harold Silver, a Nixon scholar, and his brother George, a TV executive whose life suddenly takes a turn for the worse after he goes off the deep end. Harold, a man who starts out not liking kids, ends up having to care for his niece and his nephew. Things actually move so fluidly that the reader hardly notices there isn’t a single chapter break in the novel. Homes said she simply forgot.
“I was just busy writing. I didn’t think about it. And then they called me and said ‘how about some chapters?’ Chapters?”
Homes said she thinks that as a writer she shouldn’t have to stop—she should be able to just keep driving.
“[It] changes the shape of something because it has a discrete beginning and a discrete ending,” she said. She prefers the larger arc to many smaller ones. And the weight of her dogged researches adds another layer of urgency to the work, the details propelling the narrative and vice versa.
“No matter what I do,” she said, “I’m condemned to research it. I used to like to read the encyclopedia for fun.” She’s into some strange reference materials, like the science-supply catalogs put out by the Carolina Biological Supply Company. But she’s also a fan of more mainstream stuff, specifically old Sears catalogs.
“I remember as a kid I’d look at electric guitars and drum sets, and then I’d look at pictures of the boys underwear and try to see what you could see. It was a perfect thing!”
The pleasures of the Sears Catalog have transformed to the age of the big box store.
“At Yaddo, that’s what we do. We go to like, Sam’s, where they have bags of marshmallows that are the size of a restaurant. And weird things like industrial-size cans of chocolate pudding. Do you know there’s more parasites involved in an industrial-size can, like one for commercial consumption, as opposed to one for private consumption?”
One of her favorite things to do is go to Walmart or Target with poetry critic Helen Vendler, in order to observe a very specific side of American consumption.
“[We see people] cruising for junk food with oxygen [tanks] on scooters with like, Cheetos in the basket up front. It’s really disturbing. But I love it.”
It’s a more intense kind of disturbing that defines May We Be Forgiven, but for a storyline that involves violence and murder, Homes finds unexpected hilarity in the occasional absurdity of human behavior, like a scene where naked adults play Laser tag.
“Life is so dark and difficult that if one can’t find the irony or the humor in it, it’s almost unbearable,” she said. “And I think that by being funny, it actually allows us to talk more seriously about things we would otherwise not be able to talk about.”
Homes said she turns to others who mix the comic, the absurd, and the horrific—like Louis CK, Edward Albee, and Harold Pinter—for inspiration.
“Louis could play me in the biopic,” she joked.
She also admires psychological writers—such as John Cheever and Iris Murdoch. Mostly, however, she reads nonfiction—finding inspiration and material in books on science, philosophy, and even astronomy.
“What’s funnier than a black hole? I think honestly, life is really painful. It just is. It’s very hard. If you’re being honest about it and noticing what’s going on around you, it’s very, very painful. I want to talk about it, but I also think if it’s not entertaining, then why should you stop being in pain? In some ways, in the history of literature, most often it’s easier to write and be depressing. It really is. It takes so much less time to just be miserable. That’s something I struggle with personally and in the work. How to write either optimistically at a time that’s not inherently optimistic or how to write and not be made completely miserable by it, and … by all the things that go on.”
So fiction, for Homes, is where one can view the pain of life without simply experiencing more of it, where that pain becomes something else; “illumination” was one word she used in describing what fiction can do.
“It’s not like an act of the imagination that’s not true. It is actually often a truer version. That’s the whole point of it. It has a kind of clarity that’s hard to come by.”
‘May We Be Forgiven’ is out now, and A.M. Homes is appearing at the Franklin Park Reading Series in Crown Heights on Oct. 15 at 8 p.m.