A.M. Homes, 2002


A.M. Homes wrecks her characters.
She lives in New York. She spends time at Yaddo. This month she's releasing her new book of short stories, Things You Should Know.

LAURIE: Whether you're writing about a Chinese mother-in-law, an imprisoned pedophile or an apathetic suburban couple, your characters always feel accurate. Does your sense of people come from experience or from reading?
A.M.: I don't read very much.

LAURIE: Actually, I know that about you.
A.M.: When I'm here in New York, I just can't read. Since I work at home, I need to get out by the end of the day. Reading is the thing that suffers. But when I'm up at Yaddo, I always read about fifteen books. I'll go back to my room after dinner and lie in bed and read.

LAURIE: In terms of New York, I see you as a person who likes to keep up, particularly with artists. What is it that attracts you to them?
A.M.: I don't have anything to win or lose in that world. Being successful early on alienated me from other young writers. A lot of them were hostile to me. I don't really know how writers play. It's like, "Want to come over and throw some verbs around?" And artists are more active. They're constantly going to shows and to each other's studios.

LAURIE: I think it's a counterpoint to the isolation of making art. Writers seem even more isolated.
A.M.: Yeah, I don't think I'm cut out to be a writer at all. I can't tolerate being alone for more than about five minutes.

LAURIE: My favorite story in your new book is about the grown-up daughter who goes home to visit her parents because her marriage is falling apart. She wants them to give her some kind of solace. Instead, she finds that there's this odd yoga guy living in her brother's old bedroom. It's very strange and unsettling.
A.M.: There is something so scary about the idea that someone could appear in your parents' life and usurp your spot in the family. In the story, the parents are so oblivious. They're like, "What is it you're looking for? Did you leave something in your room?"

LAURIE: They completely tune her out.
A.M.: I've written about this theme before. A long time ago, I wrote a play called "The Coffin in the Living Room." It was about a guy who gets fired and goes back to the family house. When he gets there his father's laying on the sofa. He seems to be dead. His sister, who's completely dippy, and his brother, who's probably a pedophile, are both trying to figure out how they would know if he's really dead. Because he always lies like that on the sofa. Eventually, they put their mother on trial for killing the concept of family. Then they ask the mom to shoot herself.

LAURIE: Your first notoriety came at age nineteen for a play you wrote in college. Didn't J.D. Salinger sue you?
A.M.: His representatives threatened to sue me. The play was about a guy who runs into Holden Caulfield on a train and Holden says that J.D. Salinger stole everything from him.

LAURIE: Was that the end of your playwriting career?
A.M.: I wrote a few more plays in graduate school in Iowa. But there's something fundamentally shy about me. The aggressiveness and sociability required to pursue a career as a playwright is enormous. You have to deal with the producer, the actors, and the this and the that. At that point in my life, I couldn't do it.

LAURIE: Did working on the plays shape your writing?
A.M.: Last summer, there was a Harold Pinter retrospective at Lincoln Center. I had read all his plays as a kid. I went to everything from "Birthday Party" to "The Homecoming," and I realized how profoundly his stuff had influenced me. I could see it in the language. I could see it in the peculiarity of the exchanges. I think he is stunningly brilliant.

LAURIE: I took just two books with me when I went away for a week recently — Lolita and The End of Alice. Those books could pretty much wreck a vacation. Alice is very disturbing. There's so much perversion and raunchy sexual description. I've often wondered what kind of state you were in when you wrote it. You had to inhabit the minds of an incarcerated pedophile and a young woman obsessed with young boys.
A.M.: Yeah, and I loved it. I felt that my previous book, Country of Mothers, had not pushed the material far enough. So my commitment to myself for the next book was that, no matter what happened, I wasn't going to shy away. The End of Alice was the most artistically, intellectually, and psychologically challenging thing I'd ever done. In the use of language it was also probably the best thing I've done, although I'm pretty proud of the new stories, too.

LAURIE: Reading Alice this time around I found all these references to Lolita. The main character is a kind of Humbert Humbert. The young girl first appears holding a butterfly net. They travel around New England together in a car. The connection was profound for me.
A.M.: Alice is a literary tip of the hat to someone that I admire enormously.

LAURIE: But your point of view is entirely different.
A.M.: One of the things that prompted me to write Alice was overhearing two people at Dean and Deluca saying they were sure that Humbert hadn't actually slept with Lolita. I went back to the book — and it was like, "You've got to be kidding. It's absolutely clear." Humbert said that she'd go to an orphanage unless she slept with him. It was interesting that people could read this and choose to think that nothing happened. It's just denial. As a culture, we deal with child abuse incredibly badly. Alice was an attempt to present the subject as a discussion that we need to have. Not that I had the answers — but it happens, and we pretend it doesn't.

LAURIE: When you were writing Alice, were you exhausted or exhilarated?
A.M.: I alternated between the two. I was also terrified. This character took me places I never knew existed. I have a friend who I would call to read her what I was writing because it scared me so much. She'd say, "That's very strong stuff. You should keep going." Anyone else would have said, "Oh my god, you've lost your mind entirely. What are you thinking?"

LAURIE: The main character has a sexual relationship with a young man in jail. The details of prison life seem very accurate.
A.M.: Yeah. I remember when we were trying to sell that book, editors would ask me, "Is it true? How do you know this?" It was an enormous amount of research. I went to the Columbia University library and read everything I could find on pedophiles and prisons. My favorite thing about writing is that wonderful time when you're reading stuff. You don't know where it's going to land you — you're just taking it in.

LAURIE: There's almost no sex in your new book of stories.
A.M.: Most of them are about couples who are so alienated from one another that they're not having great sex. That worried me. I like writing about sex. I like its function and the way it operates within relationships. I think it's an important subject to write about in a cultural context.

LAURIE: The new stories revolve around older people and aging. Is that because you just turned forty?
A.M.: I've always been older than I am. In fourth grade I went to school on Halloween dressed as a forty-year-old man. I wore one of my father's suits and a wig with a bald spot in the middle. Even as a child, I was a forty-year-old man.

LAURIE: So, that's a special subject for you?
A.M.: No, I just think there's a big part of my personality that is a man who is older than I am. Go figure. I love men. All of my literary role models are men.

LAURIE: I think you write really well as a man and I've also observed that your writing is very visual.
A.M.: I can't write something unless I can conjure it in my mind's eye. With Alice it was actually very painful. While I was writing the stabbing scene, I went to the Barnes and Noble on Eighteenth Street. It carries a lot of forensics textbooks. Since they were too expensive to buy, I just stood there, reading about stab wounds and other horrific injuries. Tears were coming down my face because I was thinking, "I have to go and kill her." It was so excruciating to visualize what it would look and feel like.

LAURIE: Your first short story collection, Safety of Objects, was recently made into a movie with Glenn Close and Dermott Mulroney. What was it like seeing those stories committed to film?
A.M.: Really weird. You know those commercials, "This is your brain, this is your brain on drugs"? I went to Toronto to visit the set. It was like, "This is your imagination, and I don't know what this is." Something from inside my head had been put it into some other reality with movie stars.

LAURIE: The director Rose Troche wrote the screenplay, weaving your original stories together into one narrative. Didn't you want to write it?
A.M.: No. A book is a book, and a film is a film. They don't have to be the same thing. Rose had a distinct vision of what she wanted to do, and I told her to go and do it.

LAURIE: Do you ever feel like, "This is a great short story, but it should be a novel"?
A.M.: Music for Torching was supposed to be a short story but I couldn't figure out how to end it. The main characters, Paul and Elaine, would never leave each other, because they were too intertwined. I called my friend Randall, who is a writer, and he said, "Just have them burn down the house." "What are you talking about, burn down the house?" "Eh, they burn down the house." So, I went back to the computer and had them burn down the house.

LAURIE: That turned into the beginning of the novel?
A.M.: Yeah, I finished the story and, almost without noticing it, kept typing. After a couple of months I had sixty pages. It was not clear where it was going. I don't approve of short stories turning into novels. The criteria are very different. The way the language works is very different. I'm completely opposed to it. Then I went and did it.

LAURIE: Music for Torching has a lot of oddly funny moments. You have a real talent for capturing disaffected, bored people who've reached a dead end. How do you know about that?
A.M.: I don't know. There's a piece of me that profoundly understands what it is to be stuck. I often feel stuck in my life, and to some degree in my work. I'm constantly trying to break through. I want to be more expansive. I want to go further. In a way, I want to get back to the energy of Alice and go some place I've never gone before.

LAURIE: What's holding you back?
AM: I'm the most paralyzed, afraid-of-change person I've ever met. I've lived in the same apartment since I moved to New York in 1985. I eat the same food every day. As wild as I can be on paper, as far as I can go, as big as my imagination can get, I cannot bear that in everyday life. It would just drive me crazy. I see a paper bag on the street and it looks like a wild animal to me. I'm like, "Oh my god! There's a lion on Bleecker Street!" My brain just takes something and goes with it.


Copyright © 2008 index Magazine and index Worldwide. All rights reserved.
Site Design: Teddy Blanks. All photos by index photographers: Leeta Harding, Richard Kern, David Ortega, Ryan McGinley, Terry Richardson, and Juergen Teller