A.M. Homes's previous novels include Music for Torching, The End of Alice, In a Country of Mothers, and Jack, and she is the author of two short-story collections, Things You Should Know and The Safety of Objects. She is a Contributing Editor to Vanity Fair, Bomb and Blind Spot and her work appears frequently in Art Forum, Harpers, Granta, McSweeney's, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Zoetrope. She has been the recipient of numerous awards including fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Born in Washington D.C., she now lives in New York City. We spoke both in person and by email following the publication of her most recent novel This Book Will Save Your Life.
What made you decide to set your new novel in Los Angeles?
It's the most American city in America right now—surrealistic, idealistic—the American Dream still thrives in LA, and it's a dense, culturally active place, very hard to know on the surface and fascinating if you can peel the carpet back and look under the floorboards. I love it—wrote about it first in a non-fiction book called Los Angeles: People, Places, and the Castle on the Hill
The new novel echoes several ideas from Music for Torching and some of your short stories, particularly this sense of being stuck, and of a peculiarly new-century panic and isolation. An earlier generation of writers—I'm thinking of Bellow, Updike, Cheever, Roth—also wrote of a kind of personal and intellectual crisis, the need to escape conformity and social pressure. Would you characterize the crisis that Richard, your protagonist, goes through as something unique to our time? How so?
Richard's crisis is unique to our time in that he lives in a time when some people, like Richard, can afford to be so isolated that they are not functioning anymore. The artist David Smith talked about how no artist can create outside his/her time, and I think this is true. My work is very reflective of the time we're living in... sometimes it seems to anticipate the time we're living in, as in, to see what's coming soon. Columbine happened three weeks after Music For Torching came out... things in This Book Will Save Your Life came true within weeks of my turning the book in. As a writer I think it's about reading the culture, anticipating where we're going and even though it takes four to five years to write a book, if you're really doing you're job, you can still get there first.
But what is it about "stuck" characters that most fascinates you?
I'm interested in all of our "stuckedness." We all have fantasies of who we want to be, how we want to be, how we want to cross, literally, the miles of this world, and what we want for ourselves. And when you're very young, when you're twenty, you can absolutely do anything. When you're thirty you can still do a lot of things. But at some point this thing called middle age creeps in, patterns solidify, ways of living, obligations we've taken on. People find it very hard to change even though they may want to. And that's the stuckedness I'm interested in. Do I want to sit at my desk writing novels for the rest of my life? I'd love to run a huge corporation. Is that going to happen? I don't know. That's the kind of stuckedness I mean. It's right on the nose of that difference between fantasy and reality, that dissonance in the American Dream, where I'm probably most obsessed and fascinated.
I recently heard you say that humor is essential to serious discussion, that the funnier something is the more serious its subject is bound to be. Discuss.
Humor cuts through the darkness, so I find people tolerate the depth—the seriousness—of something more if one deals with it in a funny way. Also, honestly, life is so painful that you'd better make it funny otherwise you're just overwhelmed with grief.
Some have pointed out how seemingly out of character the optimism of of the new book is, or perhaps that it lacks your usual dose of darkness. I'm not saying I agree with this, but how do you respond to that? Have your aims as a writer evolved or shifted in some way in the last few years?
It's all written by the same person. if you go back and look at my first novel Jack, written when I was nineteen—some of the same themes, ideas, about taking responsiblity for yourself and being "a good citizen" appear there. The new book is not a departure, it's an evolution and it's truly much harder to write something that has a happy ending, than to wallow in the muck.
I've heard you say you are almost more interested in the visual than the verbal, and you've talked about your on-going interest in film and visual art. Have visual artists affected the way you write prose?
I sure hope so... I think what's interesting is the way in which all artists, visual or verbal, develop a kind of vocabulary for themselves, whether a set of painting gestures, frequently used themes, words, or a kind of lighting. But yes, I feed on the visual. I think in pictures not words.
Have you seen the film that was made of Cheever's story "The Swimmer," with Burt Lancaster roaming around Westchester in a Speedo?
Yes, and I don't think it was a Speedo. That was directed by Frank Perry who also made the classic 1962 film David and Lisa, Diary of a Mad Housewife, Play It As It Lays (based on Didion's book) and also Mommie Dearest.
I noticed you were listed as one of the judges polled for that New York Times Best American Novel of the Last 25 Years bit. Will you tell us what you voted for and why?