A.M. Homes wins 2013 Women's Prize for Fiction
bookoxygen has been a fan of A.M.Homes for many years and had the opportunity for a long conversation with her, in New York, a few years ago, on the publication of her novel This Book Will Change Your Life.
With Homes’s life changed – a bit – by winning the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction, here is an opportunity to read more about this intriguing and unusual writer whose ambition to write a novel that ‘changes the shape of reality’ may just have been achieved.
A Q&A with Homes on the subject of the prize-winning novel May We Be Forgiven is also available on this site, under Authors and Extracts.
In New York, A.M. Homes isn’t merely a novelist – that ‘perverse’, ‘dangerous’ writer who shocked the world with The End of Alice, written from the point-of-view of a paedophile, and Music for Torching, in which a middle-class couple with two children sets fire to their suburban home. She’s also a celeb. When, recently, she bought a summer home in the Hamptons, the news – and the price – made the New York Times property pages. New York magazine talks of the likes of Sofia Coppola and Laurie Anderson attending her baby shower. Her new novel, This Book Will Change Your Life, was reviewed not just by top literary critics like Michiko Kakutani in the Times, who deemed it ‘dreadful’, but also People magazine (circulation close to 4 million), which awarded it three stars out of a possible four.
AM, as she’s known, is out there, except that she’s not. She moves in interesting, visible, sometimes avant-garde circles, yet she is famously private. In some lights she can seem a high-profile enigma. Her new novel – in which Richard Novak, a divorced and intentionally isolated Los Angeles stock trader, emerges from his luxurious retreat to become a post-modern Good Samaritan – has shocked readers anew by being upbeat where the others were dark. Has the ‘daring’, ‘fearless’ bad-girl-about-town gone soft, turned nice ? ‘I think it’s just as daring and just as dangerous to write about somebody who’s trying to find a more positive experience in their life. To me, all my work is organic. The books – not that they are sequential, in a literal way, but they come out of each other, extensions of similar themes. This one isn’t a big departure. Although it’s a fun read and it’s got some light-heartedness to it, it’s asking people to pay attention to how they are in their lives and there’s nothing really funny or light about that.’
We were talking in a West Village coffee shop, on a showery May afternoon shortly after AM had returned from her publicity tour and West Coast launch party. The new book’s LA setting takes advantage of ‘that literal edge of America. I wanted to write about the way the landscape plays on the people. And I think that Los Angeles is a place where the American dream is thriving. Despite what’s going on in the rest of the country, it’s still a place where people go to “make it”. It really is a city which feeds on such transformation.’
Nevertheless the shadow of New York City falls over the book, which perhaps comes as close as AM will ever get to writing her 9/11 novel. ‘One of the moments of transformation for me was not so much about becoming a parent but watching something happen in New York City – something that in my mind’s eye I could never have conjured. All of a sudden, reality became so much more threatening and dark, went places that I would never go, and I think that that also made me think about how fragile things are. That, in some ways, is more of a factor in what people are calling the “niceness”, but I also think that whatever the “niceness” is truly is a more accurate representation of who I am, at core, than probably anything else so far.’
It comes as a jolt – of a different kind – to those who only know Homes by reputation or from reading her press to find that she is the antithesis of a high-living, shellacked modernist, instead an accessible moralist, with a driving urge towards the generous and the compassionate. This revelation, however, seems appropriately Homes-ian too: thought-provoking, unexpected, slyly comic, complex and moving all at the same time. ‘The biggest challenge for me was: how do you write a book that is dark and funny and real but also in the end uplifting ? I think most contemporary fiction is not uplifting and I really wanted to try it and see what it would feel like. And in some ways it’s hysterically funny and truly god-awful that I’m getting slammed for it. “We will not tolerate that,” ’she mocks, then laughs. But had she expected different ? ‘I really did. In a funny way it also speaks to how stupidly optimistic and naïve I must be. It proves that I am that sucker.’
Whatever AM Homes is, she’s no kind of sucker. For a high-profile New Yorker, she’s savvy and straight and strikingly free of solipsism. She admits to having had an atypical childhood, adopted by an arts-oriented household in Maryland: her father was a painter and there were other writers in the family. She refers to a lifetime of being haunted by the ghost of a dead older brother and the sense of a family ‘filled with grief’. Politics mattered to her from an early age and so did writing. Her first novel, Jack, about a child learning his father is gay, was completed at the age of nineteen, as an undergraduate homework assignment. The book is not only still in print but also appears on recommended reading lists for teachers. She has described herself ‘writing her way into the world’, starting at age nine, with poetry. And then there were the pen pals, the high-profile strangers – like Pete Townsend and film-maker John Sayles – whom Homes approached as a child, in her search for people with whom she felt a connection, and who became regular correspondents.
The young iconoclast with political concerns and an appetite for creativity and investigation, who felt ‘capable of doing enormous things’, has grown up faithful to that early recognition of the urgency of life, of making a contribution. Her books present challenges. She famously wants to make people think, which explains the genesis of The End of Alice. But she presents those challenges by synthesizing them into smooth, unembellished prose dotted with surreal comic flashes and narrated in disturbingly authentic voices. ‘For me, the work always starts with ideas, philosophical ideas, not voices. I’m interested in, for example, money, or what does it mean if you have everything and you have nothing, or the geography of a city, or the way the natural environment affects the lived environment. Then it becomes about finding characters to go on that adventure with, on that exploration with.’
Much of the fiction has been set in Westchester, in the bedroom communities and suburbs that hug New York City. This is Cheever country, Richard Yates country. Homes has cited the latter as an influence, also Grace Paley, who taught her for a while, as did Angela Carter. But in answer to a question about style and content, she cites John Steinbeck as a model: ‘I never want the fiction to be difficult to read, in and of itself. The ideas could be complicated but the object is to make something that anybody could read. I do my work within a very traditional-seeming structure. I really loved Steinbeck, I loved the fact that you could read those books in fourth grade or in college and every time you read them, at whatever point in your life you were, they changed. They are not difficult to read yet they are also very rich, and not judgmental. They present a picture but they don’t tell you what to think about it. I never want to say this is what you should think, I want to say: Here is a world, what do you think of it ?’
The tour has gone well – there have been some great reviews, as well as some carping ones – but she also mentions how a few members of her audience were puzzled and disappointed, apparently expecting Homes’s next book to be her memoir, a longer version of a widely-read piece published in The New Yorker in late 2004 which detailed her encounter with her birth parents. Far from a tale of cheering reunion, this was a cool but heartfelt description of the shock, and dismay, of recognition.
That book, The Mistress’s Daughter, will appear next year. Homes has just delivered it to her publishers, but the discomfort of exposure, of working with such personal material is with her still. ‘I don’t like to write autobiographically. It’s excruciating. It makes me incredibly anxious and shy, driven inward. The only reason I pushed myself to finish it is that I kept thinking, “God, I hope this helps someone else feel better.” ’
It’s another paradox to add to the list, that the carefully guarded Homes is going public, even stepping beyond her own comfort threshold. She was quizzed about pain on the tour too, the vise-like pain – physical, existential, psychic ? – that seizes Novak in the opening pages of This Book Will Save Your Life but effectively liberates him from his emotional prison. Had Homes known such pain herself, readers wondered ? To me she jokes about paper cuts and the use of the imagination, but then says, ‘Yes, I’ve been in that much pain. I’m constantly in that much pain. Life fills you with that much pain and if you feel it, it’s a question of what you do with it. I’ve worked to be compassionate, a participant in my world, to not close my eyes to things and to be present and accountable. At the same time, that leaves you incredibly vulnerable and open to excruciating pain. But I don’t know that there’s a better way.’
What about the next novel ? It might be about LA, with which she says she is not finished. It might be about shape-shifting: ‘I would like to figure out how to break the bounds of reality…’ Homes herself, for all her mercurial gifts, seems to be the direct antithesis of a shape-shifter. She is nothing if not consistent and there’s a lot more she needs to do. Novak, in his extremis, asks, terrified, ‘Is this IT ?’ Homes is in no doubt.