“History Really Is a Human Story”: A Conversation with A. M. Homes
Yvonne Conza interviews A. M. Homes
A. M. HOMES’S wide-ranging talents and achievements have earned her celebrity status. At age nine, she began to write poetry. Soon after, she became pen pals with Pete Townshend of the Who and writer/filmmaker John Sayles, and by the age of 20 had completed her first novel, Jack (1989), for an undergraduate homework assignment. “I knew I couldn’t write a paper so I asked if I could write a novel instead,” she says. On top of numerous novels and story collections, she has written opera libretti and television shows, meanwhile raising a daughter while teaching full-time at Princeton University.
The Unfolding is her 13th book — and first novel in a decade, since 2012’s May We Be Forgiven, which won the Women’s/Orange Prize. Well in the works before Trump was elected, it embraces the past, present, and future of our American identity in linked, multiplex stories that explore three central, evolving questions: 1) What does it mean to be a guy — to be masculine, a provider, a caretaker? 2) What does it mean to be a girl — growing up sheltered, starting to see things, realizing you haven’t questioned anything? 3) What does democracy mean within, and outside, the dynamics of family, and why is its meaning so disputed today?
The Unfolding begins on the night of the 2008 presidential election. The story’s main protagonists are the “Big Guy,” his 18-year-old daughter Meghan, and his wife Charlotte. Shattering family secrets, in sync with backroom politics, begin to surface. Meghan feels herself waking up, with dissonance everywhere, as Big Guy and his circle of like-minded cronies seek to reclaim their version of America.
Via email exchanges and phone chats, Homes spoke with me about her new book.
YVONNE CONZA: In The Unfolding, Meghan, sheltered and indoctrinated by her father’s version of history, votes for the first time. She is coming of age as both her parents’ marriage and the country’s political structure are fracturing. Can you tell us what drew you to this theme?
A. M. HOMES: I wanted to write something illustrating how we got to where we are now in our country while exploring the evolution (or stall) in the progress of marriage and family — along with the splits between our public and private selves. The dissonance between public and private, between domestic interior world and social/cultural exterior world, are themes that cut through all my work. One of the prime threads in The Unfolding is a question about the nature of the threat to the great American Experiment — a.k.a. democracy — which I see as racism, sexism, fear of the other, whether that be LGBTQ people or immigrants, or anyone wearing the wrong T-shirt. We don’t seem to have a lot of tolerance for differing opinions. There’s a lot of history woven into the book as well — I love histories, political, cultural, art, etc. In The Unfolding, we see the Big Guy and his friends in panic mode worried they (and the Republican Party) are losing power. My British publisher calls this a State of the Nation novel. As much as I didn’t want to come out and talk about all of those things, I am very concerned about the state of the nation.
Witnessing the reaction of her father and his cohort to John McCain’s loss flicks a switch for Meghan. Earlier that day, she casts her vote for the first time, in a scene that I wanted to echo Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in the sense of the seemingly banal being very dangerous. Meghan is not just coming of age but coming to consciousness. The novel is structured in a way that toggles back and forth between the domestic world of Meghan/Charlotte/family and the kind of Dr. Strangelovey world of the men the Big Guy assembles to preserve and protect their version of democracy. It was complicated. I was thinking a lot about how, as I say, the two biggest threats to democracy are racism and sexism. We are in a very difficult moment where we can’t seem to reconcile.
That gets to the balance within these stories. The women’s storylines are shorter, but large in their impact on the story’s trajectory and our collective future. How did you parcel that out?
It came from a piece of advice that Jeanette Winterson (writer and friend) gave me when I was first talking to her about this book. I told her, “I really feel like something is happening politically and culturally in America but I’m not sure how to write about it. It’s not a nonfiction book and yet I’m trying to write about these ideas that are very nonfiction.” She said, “Stay with the characters.” That was helpful and accurate. It allowed the characters, and the story of this family, and the story of their lives, to carry not the weight but the trajectory. History really is a human story. That’s one of the things I was thinking about — the difference between fiction and nonfiction where they intersect and tip. So much nonfiction is written in a way that’s not entirely compelling because it fails to acknowledge the human element. A writer might be brilliantly reporting, or documenting action and facts, but what I am interested in is the emotional, the psychological. To me, cultural or human history is about behavior — people behave in character — but what is character?
Instead of chapter titles, The Unfolding incorporates a timeline format hitched to a ticking emotional time bomb — possibly a real bomb. Talk about this decision. How did it serve as story architecture?
That’s a super good question. I didn’t even think about the timeline. I didn’t think about chapters, and it’s not the first time that’s happened. When I turned in May We Be Forgiven, my editor called and said, “Chapters?” The whole book had no space breaks whatsoever. I said, “Nope.” It was a novel written with the compression of a short story. To me, chapters have a structure and a journey, a shape of their own. They are individual elements, and the way they relate to each other is important in terms of the effect it creates. We agreed to put in space breaks, which I thought of as “bathroom breaks” or pauses.
With The Unfolding, the date and time stamps were part of the editorial process. The book isn’t two different stories (Meghan’s coming of age and the Big Guy’s scheme to preserve and protect the American Dream), but the weave back and forth between them is meant to develop its own velocity. But I wanted to be sure that the reader knew who they were with and when and where they were at all times, so that required a timeline. Originally, I had all those shifts marked with songs like Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary,” but that seemed to make no sense to anyone but me — I just find that song so trippy and expansive and, well, Jimi Hendrix captures the essence of pretty much everything.
I wish I could have called the book The Wind Cries Mary because when you listen to that song, and especially the part when Hendrix sings, “And the wind cries, [pause] Mary,” that pause is everything — it’s a comment, a cry for help, a romance, etc. In songs, or in poems like Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting” and Marge Piercy’s “History Is a Weapon,” I find confirmation that I am not alone in looking at the world and saying — hey, did you see that?
Timelines were critical to the book. It reminded me of how the “big guys” are always cross-checking their date books. It also provided a time-ticking tension underneath everything.
Right. Time is one of the unnamed key elements. And it is a political-philosophical thing in our country as campaigns are run in relation to voting cycles. There is a two-year cycle (midterm/congressional) and a four-year cycle (presidential). Promises are made based on these timelines — which leaves us with only short-term plans. Other countries don’t do that. For years, the United States had no infrastructure plans, in part because of the time it takes. I’m very mindful of all that. And yes, there’s a notion of the ticking clock, or the time bomb, in there too. And the way the Big Guy and his pals are checking date books, consulting Rolodexes, and keeping receipts is old-school. They are very old-school — the last of a generation — and that is also at the core of their anxiety/fear about losing power and what comes next. They are literally on their way out.
Historical details at times blur fact and fiction. I was convinced that certain details couldn’t be true, and then I discovered: Oh wow, that is totally accurate. How do real-world facts, and fictional blurs, work in this book?
Two things I love — history and fact. I have long been fascinated by the notion of the American Dream and the shifts in culture from the end of World War II until now — a.k.a. the rise of the military-industrial complex as foretold by Eisenhower. I grew up in a family that every weekend went to one historical site or another, and as a child I would read and reread The Report of the Warren Commission — go figure. The Washington, DC, I grew up in was a small Southern town — people knew people and there was a lot of weird stuff that went on that was not discussed. So, all of these threads and fact-balls are woven into the novel.
Throughout the book, Tony Armstrong — who is gay, a godfather to Meghan, special assistant to the president, and an important confidant to the Big Guy — occupies the liminal space in the scheme to disturb and disrupt democracy, while still being his own person. Say more about who he is and his relevance.
Tony was a fascinating character, and trying to represent his experience was an interesting thread for me. Characters like Tony seemed to me absent from stories about Washington. There have always been closeted men who lived bifurcated lives in political service. They were able to work 24/7 because they didn’t have family lives. There were also periods such as the Lavender Scare of the 1940s and ’50s, which dovetailed with the growth of the bureaucratic state, where homosexual people working in government were deemed “unfit” and dismissed from service.
There is an entire world within Washington that has not been accounted for. John F. Kennedy’s best friend, Kirk LeMoyne “Lem” Billings, was gay. There was also Joseph Alsop, a syndicated columnist and Washington insider; Arthur H. Vandenberg Jr., who worked for Eisenhower; Walter Jenkins, who worked for Lyndon Johnson. I had a friend who was important to me as a teen — he died in DC of AIDS early on in that crisis. I was thinking about him and the long-term impact of the AIDS crisis and how much of this has already fallen out of fiction, fallen out of our stories.
Tony’s relationship to Meghan was important. On the one hand, he brings her out into the world and opens a window onto a much more expansive worldview. On the other hand, the guys around him don’t fully accept him — they question his loyalty, among other things.
At one point, President Obama asks Tony, “What do your people want?” And Tony thinks:
I thought he meant Republicans. I must have looked confused because he tapped his hand on his heart. And I knew that he knew I was gay and was asking me what gay people want from him. “My people are your people, sir,” I said, and he smiled. “It’s true,” I said. “We are all the same people.”
Yes. When Obama was campaigning, a friend attended a gathering with a bunch of prominent gay people. Obama said to one of them, “What do your people want?” The person answered, “My people are your people.” Which is curious because it took Obama a while to understand the importance of LGBTQ rights. It wasn’t part of where he started, but he did evolve.
On January 6, 2021, were you still writing and revising your book?
I was finished. My original hope was for the book to be published before the 2020 presidential election, but given the lead time publishers need, I wasn’t quite ready. When January 6 happened, I was both horrified and slightly relieved because I was thinking I couldn’t be blamed for that. [Laughs.]
Right. You do have good timing. [Laughs.]
Funny, and not funny, my novel Music for Torching (1999), which ends in a school shooting, was published three weeks before the Columbine massacre. I think of myself as reading the culture similarly to the way I imagine a seismologist reads the inner earth — looking for small rumblings, an indication of something big to come. This is my first historical book, and at the same time it’s not really historical in the truest sense but more a speculative history. As I was writing it, things were starting to evolve in very weird ways in real time. My thought was, “Well, I don’t want to write in reaction to what is happening, but I do need to try to illustrate how we got to that point.” In many ways, January 6 was not the culmination of what’s been brewing, but it was an expression of exactly the kind of discord that those guys (the Big Guy and his comrades) are stirring, and that’s very real. Many people didn’t realize both the power of that and how easy that is to do.
I grew up in DC, as did my parents. When my mom was young, there were no barricades in front of the White House. We have home movies of her and my uncle walking up to the front door waving. That’s all changed. When George Bush was president, I was in the local deli getting a sandwich when the Secret Service came in with machine guns — apparently Bush wanted a sandwich too. I was in DC right after January 6 and there were enormous black metal fences all around the Capitol — the National Guard had sealed it off. It was unnerving because it was truly like a military state. That was a version of DC I’d never seen before.
As a kid, I organized protests and rallies. I was always in charge of security — go figure. Even then I had my eyes peeled for disaster. And because of the oddity of how Washington operates, there were different police departments in charge of different buildings. So, we’d meet all together with the Capitol Police, the DC Police, and the Park Police. They gave us snow fencing, with tiny wooden pickets and wire in between (the kind they have on the beach to stop erosion), because you’re not allowed to disrupt the land on the Washington Mall. We had 300,000 people coming and about 50 rolls of snow fence. And they would say things like, “You can make a list of people who can access the bathroom in the Capitol, but you can only have 10 names on the list.” So, after Jerry Brown, Jane Fonda, Joni Mitchell, I’m like, “Can I use it?” It was a weird, fascinating, strange place to grow up. Even though The Unfolding is not primarily set in Washington, for me it is my Washington novel.
What are you looking toward in terms of July 4, 2026?
That’s the Semiquincentennial, the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence of the 13 Colonies in 1776. I don’t really know what will come next — it seems that we’re in the most complex political moment of my lifetime. And there is a lot happening globally that will also shape our future. It still surprises me that, after Obama’s election and the enormous financial crisis, people still don’t comprehend how truly global and entwined our economy has become. A lot of the success or failure of a nation depends on the economy — money makes the world go around — and that’s not something that’s discussed in fiction, not overtly in novels or in workshops. How or why would this story be different if the people in it had more or less money? It changes everything. Now with things happening in Russia and Ukraine, again we’re seeing how we are all deeply entwined. We have to be both very mindful and careful of what we do and how we do it. It always surprises me how late we catch on to big ideas like that.
What’s your wish for the generation of young readers able to vote in their first election? Is there a takeaway you’d like them to have?
The first thing I would like them to do is vote. That’s what I wanted to do with Meghan — encourage involvement. Involvement means investing in one’s community, one’s country, and one’s world. The on-the-ground feeling that the American political establishment has lost touch with or abandoned the American people is part of what brought Trump to the fore. People didn’t feel heard or represented. There are so many ways in which the dream of America could support its citizens better, and we fall short.
For better or worse, I am a very American writer, and I am still invested in the American Dream. What I would now call the American dissonance scares me a lot because I really feel like this is something more powerful than old-school propaganda or disinformation, something more like a science-fiction factory that spins out stories based on threads of fact and people buy into them. Our public education system is struggling — those in power are invested in not educating our citizens. Folks in power don’t want an informed public who can make choices on their own — they want a public that’s frightened of the unknown/the other and feels the need to protect whatever it can hold on to, and that’s a huge problem.
Your political commitments come across in the novel, but I never felt preached to. The Unfolding made me investigate and become more aware. Readers become Meghan.
That would be amazing if, like Meghan, readers would question and consider: “Is that true? Did that happen? What is going to happen?” As a writer, I don’t want to be directive or overt. I want to make something that is entertaining and raises questions. I don’t have answers to anything, I only have questions.
What’s a question you want to be asked about this book?
This is the first conversation I’ve had about my book with anyone who’s not an editor. I haven’t had a chance yet to hear people’s questions or to even know where it lands. It’s a good question. Grace Paley used to talk about there always being this expectation that women write domestic books and men write large-scale books — i.e., the Great American Novel. She would say that women have always done men the favor of reading their work, but men had not yet returned that favor. The Unfolding is really a weaving together of forms: it is both domestic and small-scale and large-scale and social/cultural.
Two terms I wrote down were “domestic disturbance,” both personal and political, and also “nuclear family.”
Yes, totally. That sums it up. I’m always in some way writing about domestic disturbance, but this is domestic disturbance, hopefully, in a way that is scary and real, horribly real. It definitely comes very much out of having grown up in this strange place of Washington, DC, as a witness to the surrealism of it all, and, at the same time, entirely normal because that’s what life was.
I’m sure you went into writing this very political book aware of the potential of a charged reaction. How did you balance your own public and private selves as you were writing this book?
This is the space I have lived and worked in for a very long time. People used to say that I was writing to shock people, and my answer has always been, I am not writing to shock, but if my writing touches a nerve, or better yet provokes a conversation, or a reconsideration of ideas, well then, job done.
Yvonne Conza’s writing has appeared in Longreads, The Believer, Electric Literature, LARB, BOMB Magazine, AGNI, The Rumpus, Joyland Magazine, Blue Mesa Review, Ex/Post, and elsewhere.