May We Be Forgiven
The acclaimed novelist AM Homes talks about her latest dark satire of 21st-century America
By Richard Grant
I intersect her life at a weird nowhere time of floating limbo and anxiety. AM Homes – Amy to her friends and family – is waiting for her big new novel to be published and reviewed. It took seven years to write, and, given her stature as one of the most acclaimed American writers of her generation, the expectations are enormous.
She sits across the table in an over-decorated restaurant in East Hampton, 100 miles east of her apartment in Manhattan. She has a dark mane of hair, piercing blue eyes, rapid-fire New York speech patterns, and abundant charm and good humour. I have heard her described as cold and imperious, but nothing like that is detectable today.
'The problem is that it’s impossible for me to write at a time like this, and I’m not happy unless I’m writing,’ she says. 'I’ve been kidding with my friends – do you have any greeting cards that need finishing? Send them over… I just don’t know what to do with myself. I should just settle down and read. But I can’t.’
Soon she will embark on a 15-city publicity tour in six countries, and while she doesn’t mind public speaking and interviews – witty and confident in front of a crowd – part of her is convinced that she will die in a plane crash along the way. With her vivid, unflinching novelist’s imagination, she can visualise it all too clearly, and for many years she refused to fly at all.
Her publisher is funding the tour in hope of another worldwide AM Homes bestseller. The last one was The Mistress’s Daughter in 2007, a brutally honest and funny memoir about being adopted and then sought out as a grown woman by her ghastly birth parents. The one before that was a novel, The End of Alice in 1997, the story of a friendship in letters between a 19-year-old girl and an imprisoned paedophile, lasciviously told from the paedophile’s point of view. The NSPCC called for it to be banned in Britain for fear that it would inflame the imaginations of British child-molesters, WH Smith refused to stock it, the media weighed in noisily, and needless to say, all the controversy was a great help to sales.
The new novel, May We Be Forgiven, is a much kinder, gentler, more middle-aged book than the dark, taut, boundary-pushing novels and short stories that made her reputation. Set in the suburbs of New York City, it is about two brothers who hate each other. One is a history professor who lives in his shell and is writing an endless book about President Nixon. The other is an arrogant television executive who commits a monstrous act of violence in the first chapter. The book traces the ripples of this crime through the immediate and extended family, and it also takes the reader on a meandering, satirical tour of modern American life.
The history professor, Harry, becomes addicted to the sexual convenience of internet dating sites. The television executive, George, is subjected to wacky new theories about incarceration and mental health. We visit retirement homes where the elderly are encouraged to be dynamic adventurers, elite boarding schools where the American oligarchy trains its heirs, suburban swingers’ clubs, hospitals, synagogues and psychotherapists.
Modern America comes across as unhinged and unmoored, lonely, anxious, delusional and heavily medicated on prescription drugs. Families and communities have drifted apart to the point of non-existence, but there is still hope, decency and the possibility of change for the better, all embodied in Harry, who undergoes a voyage of personal transformation that benefits the people, and especially the children, who grow to rely on him.
Homes’s last novel, This Book Will Save Your Life (2006) set in a wickedly satirised Los Angeles, was concerned with the same big modern question: how can we live happy, sane, meaningful, fulfilling lives at a time when society is half-deranged and the future looks desperately uncertain? The best option, she suggests, is old-fashioned and straightforward: help other people as much as possible, and don’t lose hope.
'If you look at my career as a whole, these last two novels are quite different,’ she says. 'They were both written in the shadow of 9/11, which I witnessed quite literally. I looked out the window of my apartment and saw the second plane come in.
I sat there and saw the buildings come down. There were people covered in ash walking through the streets like ghosts. To see something I could have never imagined was very disorienting for me, and really scary. It made me think a lot about our responsibility towards others. How much are we here to do things for others? Because one person really can make a big difference in other people’s lives.’
The other big event that changed the course of her fiction was becoming a mother. Her daughter, Juliet, is now nine. 'Having a child and a family, I not only feel obligated to be hopeful, but I want to be hopeful,’ she says. 'I want to push back against the pessimism. I can’t bear to accept that everything is basically going to shit. And everything is: the economy, the family, the social structures, the class divide, the political process in this country, global warming, random violence from terrorism. Unless you want to live in denial, I feel that you have to train yourself to find hope. The logical response is to get incredibly depressed, but what’s the point of that? Especially if you’ve got children.’
Homes has written about the two years of trying, state-of-the-art medical procedures, thousands of dollars and two miscarriages that preceded the birth of her daughter, but I have been advised that she doesn’t answer questions about her daughter’s paternity, or the fact that she’s bringing her up with a lesbian partner. On this subject, Homes made a statement some years ago that she has had sex with men and women, and regards her private life as exactly that.
From reading her memoir and other non-fiction, I know that she meditates regularly, prays daily to indeterminate gods, drinks alcohol only occasionally, retains lawyers and therapists, and loves expensive hotels, doughnuts, dogs and dessert. Judging from the range of characters in her fiction – predominantly male, they include teenage hoodlums, dysfunctional suburbanites, emotionally impacted financial gurus and an Indian-American doughnut maker – it seems fair to assume that she has a big, complicated personality.
When I ask her to describe it, she looks taken aback. 'My personality?’ she exclaims. 'But I have so many personalities. Which one do you want to know about? I’m a very well prepared person, maybe a little bit hyper-vigilant. If somebody needs a deck of cards or 18 batteries, I have them. I have everything anyone could possibly need. I’m shy, which people would never know, and I’m also hostile. I’m fascinated by human behaviour, but I find it very tiring to have to engage with people. I have a big imagination – no surprises there. Anxieties? Yeah, I have all of them. I’m trying to give them away. Actually, as I get older and tireder, I just don’t have the energy to be anxious in the same way. But when I was young and strong, oh boy, look out.’
If she ever writes another memoir, its title might be Worst Child Ever. She was a terrible trial for the nice liberal Jewish couple who adopted her in Washington, dc. 'I smoked cigarettes from the age of eight, and I smoked so much that I could barely breathe by the time I was 18,’ she says. 'Any way in which you could be wild, I was wild. Not just the obvious sex and drugs stuff. I lied, I stole, I played with matches. I was this crazy weird little con-artist. I would make up press passes and get into concerts pretending to be a photographer. I photographed Muddy Waters when I was just a kid.’
She was pen pals with Pete Townshend of the Who when she was 16, and also John Sayles, the film director. Quentin Crisp was a friend when she was in high school. 'I had seen his show and written him a letter, and he had called back and we became friends. I used to write letters to all kinds of well-known people,’ she says.
At 16 she dropped out of high school and stayed at home writing dark suicidal teenage poems, handing them to her poor mother to type up ('Here, I’ve finished another one…’). She assembled them into a collection called An Introduction to Death with Excerpts from Life and sent it out to various publishers who surprised her by rejecting it. Later that year she went to Europe by herself, catching a taxi from Heathrow to Eel Pie Studios to drop in on Pete Townshend, who was not there, or was possibly avoiding her, and then flying to Paris to the Rolling Stones’ recording studio, where she took photographs and pretended she was going to book a recording session. She felt so different from her high school classmates, so raw and peeled, so special and tormented.
'People would always say to me, “You’re just trying to be different.” And I remember thinking, “No, I’d desperately like to be just like all of you.” It would be so much easier. I was just tortured by anxiety and misery. The only time I was happy was when I wrote things, painted things, made things, or played the drums and guitar. The East German ambassador lived behind our house and he said one day, “Who’s that black man singing punk rock?” Someone said, “Oh, that’s Amy Homes.” To me it was the highest compliment. I’m the black man singing punk rock up the hill.’
What she yearned for then was essentially the life she lives now, surrounded by writers, artists, musicians, scientists and intellectuals. She grew up listening to Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground in her parents’ basement. Now Lou Reed and his wife, Laurie Anderson, are good friends of hers, and an important part of her daughter’s life.
'When she was a little younger, she said to me, “Does Lou have a job?” My kid has no clue who all these incredible people around her are. She thinks it’s normal that when you walk into the Museum of Modern Art you know the people that made that art. You know Cindy Sherman and this painter and that painter. That’s her world, and the truth is that I would have loved to live in that world and have that sense of creativity and play and full expression.’
At 19, in her first year at university, Homes wrote a play about JD Salinger in which Holden Caulfield accused his creator of stealing his life. The play was produced, Salinger sued, publicity erupted, and Homes was forced to change the name of the play from The Catcher in the Rye to Life in the Outfield. She has never looked back. In that same precocious year she wrote a novel, Jack, about a teenage boy whose father comes out as gay. It was published to nationwide acclaim and is still taught in American schools and universities.
After Jack, like so many top-flight American writers before her – Flannery O’Connor, TC Boyle, Raymond Carver, Jane Smiley, Denis Johnson, to name but a few – Homes went to the legendary Iowa Writers’ Workshop, whose students have their writing critiqued by famous authors, and its rich bounty of grants, fellowships, awards and teaching positions offers them a major leg-up into the American literary establishment. Homes’s classmates included Rick Moody, Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace, and while they all became friends, she found the young male writers overly competitive, felt little in common with the young female writers, and spent most of her time with artists instead.
'I had studied art history, and I had painted for years, so I started writing art criticism, and I still do that for Vanity Fair and other magazines,’ Homes says. 'Once or twice a year I’ll do a book with an artist where I write a piece of fiction that is specifically for that artist or photographer’s work. At the end of the day, I don’t want to read. I want to look at stuff, whether it’s photographs or paintings or sculpture.’
Partly because she’s happiest when writing, and partly because she’s powered by a huge creative engine, her output is prodigious. In addition to the novels, short stories, essays, journalism, art criticism and those couple of art books a year, she also writes for television.
She contributed scripts and character development to The L Word, a successful series about young, fashionable lesbians in Los Angeles; Homes’s main contribution was a heterosexual male character. More recently she has been writing a pilot for a series about the Hamptons, set in the well-heeled part of Long Island where we’re having lunch.
She lives here for part of the year, in a small cottage that looks increasingly tiny as incoming moguls and celebrities build ever more lavish and enormous mansions.
'My daughter says to me, “Why do we have to live in a walnut?” I say, “It’s our walnut.” The place has soured for me, I guess. There are too many aggressive, entitled people here now, but I still love going out on the beach with my dog when no one else is around.’
How she finds the time is mysterious, but Homes also teaches a writing class at Princeton University, chairs the Writers’ Emergency Fund at Pen (an organisation that supports writers facing censorship and persecution), and serves on the boards of various writer’s retreats and a literary magazine. Perhaps most surprising of all, at least to herself, is the fact that she’s now a Girl Scouts leader. 'It’s especially fun when people think of you as this dark, transgressive novelist to tell them that your Girl Scouts troop has just delivered 400 boxes of cookies,’ she says. 'Seriously though, it’s absolutely the last thing I ever thought I’d do.’
Now 50, AM Homes was in her early 30s and already a celebrated novelist when her birth mother came looking for her and upended her sense of identity. Homes hoped her birth mother would enrich her life, but she turned out to be needy, demanding, wincingly tacky and a very hard woman to love. She had become pregnant at 22, while having an affair with an older, married man, whom Homes managed to track down and met, again with high expectations. He criticised her clothes, insisted on a DNA test and refused to tell her the result, and left her with nothing but frustration and disappointment. Famously a novelist of imagination, opposed to autobiographical mining, Homes decided to break her own rules and write a memoir about the whole odyssey.
These days there’s a tendency to assume that memoirs are false, or at least exaggerated, and novels are true, or at least based on real characters and events. 'It’s a fair assumption,’ she says. 'But my memoir was true and it was rigorously fact-checked by the New Yorker, which ran a long excerpt. And my fiction comes purely out of my imagination. My characters are not based on people I know. I can really dream up a lot of stuff.’
But her imagination doesn’t work in a vacuum. It is nourished, triggered and inspired by what she reads and observes in the real world. The other day she was out driving, and in the span of one minute, she saw three images she may use in a novel one day: 'There was a guy out for his run, but he’s running towards a giant dead deer in the road. Simultaneously there’s a girl riding her bicycle very badly, weaving around in the road, and coming up behind her is an ice-cream truck. I imagine the ice-cream truck running over the girl, and then I pass a graveyard in the beautiful afternoon light and a bunch of motorcycle riders are there visiting a grave. If I hadn’t been driving, I would have been taking snapshots. I do that a lot.’
George the television executive in May We Be Forgiven owes something to the particular type of bloated blowhard that she sees walking around East Hampton, 'very powerful men, and they go through these phases where they’re fat and they’re thin – big suits, small suits – and they’re very hard to live with. Their sense of entitlement to physical space and women and whatever else they want, I just find really interesting. Who are they? And who told them they’re allowed to have all those things?’
Once the characters start forming in her head, she writes in order to find out what happens to them. She doesn’t control or orchestrate the story in the way you might expect. In her head, the characters become real people with lives of their own, and her job is to hear their voices and thoughts, visualise their actions, and sense what they’re most likely to do next. It’s a process of discovery, and the excitement of it has never faded for her.
Harry was difficult to launch. He was emotionally shut down and didn’t really know himself, but he had presented himself as the narrator. She had to get him out of his shell fast, and then it was a long process of worrying about him. 'I thought he might not rise to the challenge of becoming a fully functioning person, and that was upsetting to me in a very profound way,’ she says. 'I write in order to make people think about their lives and the larger world, and I very much wanted to do it in a way that offered hope. But Harry got there in the end, and I didn’t have to force him.’
You mean, not consciously? I say.
'He did it by himself, and I’m proud of him, crazy as that sounds.’