May 2006

Michael Schaub

features

An Interview with A.M. Homes

Thereís never been anyone like A. M. Homes in American literature before, and there almost certainly never will be. Born in Washington, D.C., she wrote her first novel, the sweet, hilarious Jack, as a teenager. First published in 1989, the book, about a teenage boy whose father comes out as gay, has remained in print and is still a fixture on high school reading lists in America and Europe. Homes followed the novel up with an unbelievably original collection of short stories, The Safety of Objects, in 1991. (It was adapted into a movie by Rose Troche ten years later.) Safety contains two of Homesí most famously shocking stories -- ďA Real Doll,Ē about a teenager who has a sexual relationship with his sisterís Barbie toy, and ďAdults Alone,Ē which dealt with a suburban couple trying crack cocaine for the first time. (She later expanded ďAdults AloneĒ into a novel, the 1998 book Music for Torching.) As bold as the collection was, it didnít quite prepare the reading public for her 1996 novel The End of Alice, about the correspondence between a convicted pedophile murderer and a female college student with a sexual attraction toward a young boy. Brilliant, unsparing, and unsettlingly graphic, the novel quickly became infamous in America and in the UK, where a children'sí charity, missing the point completely, attempted (unsuccessfully) to ban it. Also the author of the novel In a Country of Mothers, the short story collection Things You Should Know, and the nonfiction book Los Angeles: People, Places, and the Castle on the Hill, she currently lives in New York. Most recently, sheís written for the Showtime television show The L Word, and her latest novel, This Book Will Save Your Life, was just released by Viking. Itís an excellent novel, both dark and hopeful, about a Los Angeles businessman forced to confront the relationships and people heís neglected, after experiencing a sudden, violent attack of unidentifiable pain. The book has drawn great reviews from many American critics, and a harsh attack from increasingly irrelevant New York Times hitwoman Michiko Kakutani. (Itís also inspired some rock-stupid leads by book reviewers who should know better -- see The Washington Post. Or better yet, donít.) Next year, Homes will release a memoir, The Mistressís Daughter. A. M. Homes talked to Bookslut via telephone, on her way to a bookstore in Los Angeles.

Do you enjoy L.A.? Do you like living there?

Well, I donít live here. I enjoy visiting here. I find it a very... odd city, a city that has an incredible depth of culture thatís not obvious on the surface. There are incredibly diverse groups of people living here.

Is it the polar opposite of New York, or just different in some ways?

Well, technically, itís the opposite. But I think one of the things that interests me is that itís so odd-looking. I mean, thereís palm trees and greenery, and all year round, things are in bloom. People talk so much about how they love it because of the weather, and they have this apocalyptic, weird weather. Like today, itís cold and dark here. And they donít ever let on that the weather is strange. I find it very surrealistic, in a way, very American -- kind of whatís left of the American dream. But I donít think I could live here.

Youíre there on a book tour?

Yeah, I just got in today. Iíve been to -- I donít know how many bookstores today already.

Are the book tours pretty awkward for you?

Well, the funny thing is, Iíve been doing it for so long, I feel like I can sticker the books, I can do the whole thing. And inevitably, someone will come up to me and say, ďWhereís the new Tom Clancy book?Ē And Iíll say, ďItís right over there.Ē It happened to me this afternoon already. I was in Barnes & Noble, and a guy came up and asked me some question, and I answered the question, and said, ďYou know, I donít really work here.Ē Itís so funny -- people will say, ďYouíre a writer? And you got published?Ē Itís weird. Youíre an observer in your own life. Itís interesting to see what people say and do -- you donít want to blow your cover. Itís weird. Whenever Iím in foreign cities, people always ask me for directions. Wherever I am, people think Iím from there.

Are you doing any work on the show while youíre there?

Oh, The L Word? Iím not working on The L Word anymore. I had a very good time doing it; I liked it, actually, a lot. It was fun to work in TV, Iíd never done that. And honestly, I hadnít had a job since I was twenty-something years old. I was really nervous about it, because not only had I not had a job in a long time, but this was in a medium that I didnít know how to do. But it was enormous amounts of fun; the ratings doubled while I was working on the show. Itís something I would love to do again, but Iím not doing it this season. Itís so different than (writing) a novel; itís a much faster medium. And you donít have the investment of a novel, because itís not your heart. Youíre just making pretty girls talk, you know?

Was it kind of a ďwriting by committeeĒ thing?

It sort of is writing by committee, but what I was doing was generating a lot of character stuff and storylines for them. Itís sort of like sitting around, talking about what might happen to (the characters). Itís not like writing a novel where you sit by yourself for four years. With this, you sit in a room twelve hours a day for three weeks, and you just make up stuff out loud. I had them bring in a writer named Adam Rapp next year, a playwright who I admire a lot. And that was a lot of fun, working with him.

That guyís amazing.

Yeah. You know, my mandate was, itís a lesbian show -- letís make it straight. Bring in the straight guy.

[Laughs] Well, you know, heterosexuals are so unfairly underrepresented on TV these days.

Yeah, exactly! You know, I have to say, I donít like anything thatís too particularly ď(you have to be) one way or the otherĒ anyway. I just donít think life is like that.

It kind of seems like thereís not much ambiguity on TV these days, with shows like The L Word being the exception.

Yeah. Everybody loves Raymond!

[Laughs] Oh, donít we, though.

Yeah, exactly.

Do you watch any television?

No. [Laughs] I donít have time to watch television. If thereís a disaster, I watch it. Or in the middle of the night, if Iím not feeling well. Iíll watch CNN or something. But I donít know any television schedules, I donít know whatís on. Iím just too busy, honestly.

Yeah, I could see that. And thatís probably a good thing.

Oh, itís fine. Thereís too many other things I want to do to just sit there and watch TV. I donít like watching movies at home, either. I like going to movies. I want to sit in a theater with other people and sort of have the experience.

Did you have any involvement with the adaptation of The Safety of Objects?

No, I didnít. Rose Troche told me she wanted to make a movie of the book, and I said ďGood luck.Ē It was just one of those things -- the reality of making a film out of a collection of stories, thereís just a small chance of that happening. I talked to her at various points along the way, but I felt that my role was just to be supportive and let her make the film she wanted to make. And she made a film that is different from the stories. (The project) had a very high degree of difficulty. Film is film, and a book is a book, and theyíre not the same, and thatís OK. It was a big step forward for her in her career.

Let me ask you about the new book. Somehow I got the impression -- I donít know why -- that it must have taken a really long time to write. Is that true?

Yeah! It is true. I started the research for it -- I donít even know how long ago. National Geographic said ďWeíll send you anywhere in the world you want to go, if you write a travel memoir about it.Ē I said, ďIíll go to Los Angeles, and Iíll live in the Chateau Marmont.Ē I wanted to write a novel about L.A., but I knew I wasnít going to be able to afford to get myself out here for very long. I thought it would really prompt me, by having to write a book about Los Angeles, to explore in a different kind of way, in a much more anthropological, journalistic way. That book [Los Angeles] came out in 2002, and Iíd started the research in 2000 or 2001. So yeah, it took me a while. It always does.

Do you find when youíre working on collections of short stories, it takes that long?

I write short stories kind of between things, not because in any way theyíre lesser than [novels]. You canít sit down and say, ďIím going to write a collection of short stories.Ē Theyíre very distilled. Like the story about the Reagans [ďThe Former First Lady and the Football Hero,Ē in Things You Should Know], I had the idea for a very long time. But it can take me about ten years to pull together a group of short stories that feels like a collection.

Does it ever happen that you find yourself writing a short story that becomes a novel?

Well, on the one hand, I say ďI donít approve of that,Ē but on the other hand, yeah. Music for Torching I wrote as a short story. They burned down their house, and that was sort of the end of the story. And I kept going, and I remember thinking to myself, ďWhat are you doing?Ē A story is a story, and a novel is a novel, and they really have different rules, in some ways. But it just kept going, and I thought, ďFine,Ē but what happens when you burn down someoneís house on page 30? Where do you go after that? And that, in some ways, was the biggest challenge. How do you keep it moving forward? Once I thought about that, it became kind of an ďeverything but the kitchen sinkĒ book, where youíre constantly adding something on top of it, which I think is reflective of what many peopleís lives are like. You have a lot on your plate, and more falls onto your plate.

That reminds me of the first scene in This Book Will Save Your Life, where [Richard Novak, the protagonist, is] going through this almost panic attack. That strikes me as being such a difficult thing to write about -- itís difficult to read, and difficult to go through, obviously. Was that more emotionally draining than writing the other scenes?

No. Itís all emotionally draining. [Laughs] When you start a book, there is both a great amount of ďI donít knowĒ about the characters and the whole thing, but thereís also an incredible amount of hope and optimism for what that book might be, even if itís a very dark book, you still have great hope for it. I think one of the things thatís very important, whether youíre starting either a novel or a short story, is the angle of attack, or the note that you start off on, which then kind of commands, almost like in a musical structure, how things go after that. I feel like that note has to be strong. I worked hard on that attack to make it something that the reader can feel, thatís not dismissible -- ďOh, heís having a panic attack, heís faking it.Ē It has to be something that causes tension in the reader as theyíre reading it. Somebody was saying to me the other night, at one of the readings, ďHave you ever been in that much pain?Ē People always want to know, did it happen to you? And Iím like, ďWell, no, I really work from imagination, but I have a very good imagination.Ē Itís that ability to sort of crawl inside something and push out the edges of it, to take it somewhere in a little bit more... like the Kodacolor version of it. I want it to be funny, and I want it to be serious, but I also want it to have an intensity to it. It doesnít just imitate everyday life, itís kind of beyond that.

People do seem to have trouble with the idea of fiction; itís like they think it has to have happened to the author.

Itís something thatís changed a lot over the years. There really almost is no sense anymore that there is such a thing as fiction. People will ask what youíre writing, and youíll say ďItís a novel.Ē [And they say] ďSo itís all true?Ē I saw -- I taught for a very long time -- people have lost access to their imaginations. It doesnít occur to people anymore that you can, in fact, make up people who never existed, make up situations, and that they feel plausible, they feel real.

I donít know if you saw this with your students, but do you feel that a lot of younger writers are only writing about things theyíve experienced, and only writing about people who are just like them?

Yeah. I think itís a problem. I think thereís something about the kind of academic system that just kind of blocks the creative impulse. But I also think, unfortunately, thereís this dull literalness to the culture. I think weíve become fact-obsessed; weíre kind of comforted by facts and information. And now between reality TV and the faux memoir, weíve lost track of what actual nonfictional reality actually is. Itís really a very blurry time.

When you published Jack, were there people asking you ďSo whatís it like to have a gay father?Ē

When I published Jack, my dad, who is not gay and is still married to my mom, was mortified. But no one really came out and said, ďSo, how is your gay father?Ē When The End of Alice came out, I went around and talked to a lot of publishers, who were very nervous about it. And I think part of what they wanted to do, in a funny way, was to make sure that it wasnít real. They were so worried that theyíd send me on the road, and Iíd crack. Itís a scary book, but people were kind of baffled by it. Itís one of the few times where, for the lack of a better word, you hear the voice of someone whoís a pedophile and a murderer. Itís a voice thatís not really represented anywhere. I wanted to try to capture it, in part to give people something to respond to. I think itís very terrifying and discomfiting, which is fine. Itís hard for people to believe that somebody can write that, and not be that. Itís like what Bret Ellis ran into with American Psycho. People assumed that that had to be Bret Ellis. In my case, they thought it was really weird, because itís a woman. ďHow is that even possible?Ē

Do you think Nabokov had the same thing happen to him when Lolita came out?

I donít know. I wonder about that, sort of. I donít know. I donít know. Someone once gave me The New York Times reviews of Lolita, and they were truly godawful. And I found that kind of heartwarming.

Well, The New York Times...yeah, I...uh...[Laughs]

[Laughs] Oh, The New York Times.

Yeah, thatís pretty much all you can say. It seems like they really have less and less of an idea of what theyíre talking about.

That seems to be the consensus, especially lately. My feeling is, thereís not that many people buying books, and you donít have to discourage them from buying books. If you donít like a book, you can [choose to] not review it. Itís frustrating to have to deal with the response and the fallout. At the same time, that being said, I think there are what I would call ďgood bad reviews,Ē really well-thought-out reviews of a book that are negative. Itís legitimate to have a bad review. But I think there are other things that are just kind of crazy. I think I must have somehow done something to Michiko Kakutani. Maybe I was in the grocery store one day, and I cut in line in front of her and didnít know it. Iíve never met her. I have no idea what her problem is. She definitely seems to think Iím godawful. [Laughs]

You and Philip Roth.

I know! Itís one of those funny things. What did I do? Whatever.

Iím not sure she really likes reading.

Iím not sure she does either. I feel bad for her. She must not be happy. Truthfully, it doesnít feel -- the reviews sheís written, not just of my book -- it doesnít feel like they come from a person whoís feeling good about things.

Do you think this is the type of book where some people just donít get it? Is there a type of person whoís maybe predisposed to really understand it?

I wouldnít have thought that until very recently. I thought it was a kind of book that had a very broad appeal. I thought it could work for a lot of people. But it does seem like some of the people have truly not gotten it. It seems to me sometimes -- younger women reviewers, maybe they just donít understand this guy, who he is. Itís funny to say; I almost think itís as though they hate men. Itís like theyíre so mad at this middle-aged guy whoís freaking out, that they canít bear it. Theyíre dismissing him, and I think they donít know him in some way. Iíve written other books where I kind of expected a very intensive negative reaction. And it sounds silly to say, but this book was written with incredibly good intentions, and wanting people to be uplifted a bit, and inspired, and think about how they can make a difference in their own lives, and other peopleís lives. And then people are like, ďI hate this book!Ē I donít know. Iím a little confused at the moment.

Youíve written, obviously, from the point of view of male characters before. Do people express surprise at that, like ďHow do you know what itís like?Ē

They ask me about that. And honestly, when we got this nod from Stephen King, one of the things I liked most about that was that heís a guy about the same age as the guy in the book. So the fact that it resonated with him really meant something to me, because it meant that it worked for a guy, that he didnít say that I was faking it, or I just didnít get it. Again, that goes back to the whole notion of really writing fiction, and trying to think about people who are not me. Iím not interested in writing about myself. Although next year I have this memoir coming out, but Iíd say even within that, my interest is so not -- I mean, Iím embarrassed to write about me.

Yeah. Again, I somehow went ahead and did it, thinking ďI hope this has some import for other people,Ē and that people would read it and feel differently about their own experiences, and that it carries some resonance for them. I think it was in some ways sort of useful for me to organize my thoughts about that experience, but it honestly was not in any way cathartic or anything. I donít want to do that again. [Laughs]