If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
A.M. Homes has an “oddly revealing” conversation with painter and friend Jane Fine. Homes’s new book May We Be Forgiven is in stores now.
I have no friendship with a quirkier story than my friendship with A.M. Homes.
For the last three years A.M. and I have gone to synagogue together on Yom Kippur. It’s where we were headed after (in her words) this “oddly revealing interview” in her West Village apartment.
A.M. and I first met in 1998 at Yaddo, an artist’s retreat in upstate New York and such an idyllic setting that one regularly has the sensation that every new acquaintance is a future best friend. We spoke often about our desires, despite doubts, to raise a child.
We were together again at Yaddo in the summer of 2001. I had been trying to get pregnant for some time and—with absurd timing—my first night at Yaddo coincided with my first ever self-administered hormone injection. I pulled out the supplies, took a look, panicked, and ran to get my friend. Within minutes A.M. Homes, with astonishing confidence and calm, whacked me square in the thigh with a needle full of hormones. At that moment I realized that I had a lifelong friend with nerves of steel.
A few months later we were sharing a doctor and bumped into each other one morning at the doctor’s office. Knowing the story of A.M.’s adoption, I was sure that having a biological child meant a great deal to her. If only one of us became pregnant I sincerely hoped it was she. In the end that’s what happened and ultimately, she became one of my trusted advisors on raising an adopted child. I look forward to the day my son is old enough to read A.M.’s brilliant memoir on adoption, The Mistress’s Daughter, for its tremendous insight into what it means to be formed by more than one set of parents.
It has been an honor to call A.M. Homes my friend through years of conversation on everything from art and writing to adoption and family, all things Jewish, aging parents, and little kids’ birthday parties. I was thrilled to interview her on the occasion of her new novel May We Be Forgiven, which tackles each one of these topics with great humor and insight.
Jane Fine So, A.M, it’s not exactly a coincidence that we’re talking about your book on Yom Kippur. The night I started the book, I had a hunch that it would be perfect for us to do this interview before going to temple. So, tell me about what this ritual means to you, and how the notion of forgiveness came to be central to the book.
A.M. Homes The ritual means a lot to me. It means a lot to me to go with you. I don’t have other friends whom I share that part of my life with. What interests me particularly about Yom Kippur is that you’re asking forgiveness and it’s not just for any actual transgressions, but also thoughts of transgression. I think that plays out in the book. And not only are you asking for forgiveness, but you’re also forgiving people.
JF Okay, so this is why I wanted to talk about the book today. Very early in the story a terrible crime is committed. It’s never very clear how much our hero Harry is to blame, and so it is never clear who needs to be forgiven. I find the title very intriguing too. It’s not May He Be Forgiven or…
AMH Right, it’s not May Harry Be Forgiven or May George Be Forgiven. It’s May We Be Forgiven. Really, it’s may we be forgiven for all those things that make us human, that make us flawed, that make us failed, that make it hard for us to connect to other people.
JF Harry changes so much as a character—he changes from kind of a schlemiel to an interesting man.
AMH I keep calling it a mid-life coming of age book. What I like is how Harry (and the children) truly evolve right before our eyes. Until now Harry has been a man waiting for his life to happen, in a very passive way, and now in the aftermath of tragedy he’s asked to make life happen, to ensure that others—children in particular—carry on and thrive. The big question as I was writing it was: will Harry be able to rise to the challenge that’s been presented to him? And for several years it really wasn’t clear if he’d be able to.
JF So, we’re going to talk about adoption for a little while.
AMH I’m up for adoption again!
JF As am I! You, of course, have written this amazing book Mistress’s Daughter that I’ve been rereading in the last couple of days. One thing that interests me a lot is the beautiful way you talk about growing up feeling like an outsider. This interests me for two reasons: First, of course, because I am raising an adopted child who I hope does not feel like the uninvited guest—to use your metaphor—and second—and this is where the question lies—is that I grew up feeling like an outsider too. I would say that the vast majority of my artist friends grew up feeling like outsiders. I was wondering if maybe you could elaborate on this and dissect yourself a little. The adopted person who feels like an outsider as compared to the creative person who’s an outsider and observer.
AMH I think it’s obviously very layered, and that it also varies from person to person and family to family. I came into a family where a child had died and there was another biological child who was two years older. Honestly, in some ways, coming into a family that was grieving was probably one of the larger factors in feeling like an outsider, which had, in a way, nothing to do with being adopted.
I’m reading Salmon Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton and there are these parts where he talks about going from living with his family to living in boarding school in England, and how deeply he felt like an outsider and that there was nothing he could do to change that. There is a profound kind of isolation and loneliness within that experience and yet when I look at him and I talk to him and I think of him as a friend, I have no sense of that—I think of him as so engaged, so confident, the consummate insider. It’s amazing to me how many of us share that sense of not belonging.
JF I have been thinking about a friend of mine who was adopted. I know she felt like an outsider in some ways because of her adoption but she actually had a very secure loving childhood. She told me that it was an eye-opener to get to know me, someone who grew up with her biological parents but always felt like a lonely outsider.
AMH Yeah, absolutely.
JF And that’s interesting in relation to the new book because the main character Harry is an outsider who becomes an insider.
AMH It’s about forming attachments and connections and building a world that you feel like an insider in. He goes from being fairly passive to realizing that he can be an agent of change not just for himself but for other people, which I think is a pretty cool thing.
JF I don’t know if you agree with this exactly, but there are points where I’m reading Harry and I see you in him. I mean, in the beginning I felt that there were parts of Harry that were like your worst version of yourself, like you put all your worst feelings into Harry.
AMH Yes… . (laughter)
JF “Yes,” she says, as she’s kneading her forehead and squirming. (laughter) But then, I also felt his joy in being with kids and the way he drops everything and just surrenders into this loving, into being a parent. That writing felt like it was really from the heart.
AMH Yeah, except that I could never do that. (laughter) One thing I would say is that from the very beginning, even going back to the novel Jack, which I wrote when I was 19, is that children have always played a key role and an equal role in what I write. Usually in literature—and in a lot of places—they’re kind of peripheral, like accessories. I validate their experience and say that whatever it is they’re thinking is equal to what an adult is thinking. When writing children, on the one hand, you are limited by their experience and their perspective, but on the other hand the telling of their story is enhanced by those limitations. Children do view things differently. What’s so cool about them is recognizing that they don’t see what we see or hear what we hear.
JF What’s interesting about the kids in this book is that in the first scene that we meet them, we judge them. They’re the lumps that we all know, obsessed with their iPhone, iPod, iTouch, or whatever. But in the end they become redeemed, they become really interesting characters. As the parent of a nine-year-old, I probably screamed out loud with laughter when they use their devices on the way to the funeral.
I want to talk about Yaddo, the artist’s retreat. It plays a huge part in your creative life. You wrote a lovely thing to the staff in the acknowledgements of the new book: “Without whom I would never write anything.” I wanted you to talk a little bit about what being in that quiet place does for you, since we’ve just been talking about overstimulation of every kind.
AMH I think it is increasingly difficult to get the time and space to make work. What happens to me at Yaddo is that I have a quality of concentration and focus that I cannot get in my daily life. This book took seven years to write and I was doing a bunch of other things at the same time, but it takes a long time to make something, and I think that Yaddo—and places like Yaddo that let you step out of your life—allow for that. I always think about it as numbers of sessions of work per day. At Yaddo I can get three, sometimes four sessions of work. I’ll get up and start working at seven in the morning before breakfast—I can’t go to breakfast unless I’ve worked.
JF Wow, you work before breakfast, that’s great. I’ve never done that.
AMH I feel like I have to earn my breakfast—and then I go back up and do some more work. There’s something about being in a community of people who are all working, all making things that helps me stay focused and on track, and sort of true to what I’m doing.
JF How old were you the first time you went there?
AMH I think it was like 1989. I was very young. I remember Jay McInerny was there, and a writer whom I became great friends with who has since died named Janet Hobhouse. It’s funny because I later wrote a short story about it that’s in The Safety of Objects. Janet, Jay, and I went to the mall and there was one of those “hands on a hard body” contests and the whole thing was fascinating. We went for days just to watch this contest, and people had those webbed lounge chairs that they’d pass out during the breaks. Actually I’ve written a lot of short stories that have come out of that upstate area. There’s a funny bit of May We Be Forgiven that comes from taking a group of artists to play—
JF Laser tag.
AMH Yes. Exactly. I took a group downtown to play laser tag—it was amazing (but not nudist laser tag which is how it appears in the book). Yaddo has had a huge impact on my life, and there was a period when I was younger almost all my friends were people that I had met at Yaddo. Every time you go, someone you know will be there, but you don’t know exactly who. You don’t know where you’re going to stay, or what it’s going to be like, but you know that it’s going to be interesting.
JF In the old days, when we first met, when you went there it was like going to Mount Everest. The only way to make contact with someone outside was if they called a pay phone between 6 and 7. I didn’t realize until I got there this time that the iPhone has reception in the studio.
I love the way technology functions in the book. You make fun of the kids’ connection obsession with their devices and yet so many great things also happen because of them. The online connections. And I love the thing with the dog fence, it’s so ridiculous….
AMH I made a very clear decision to actually include technology in the book. That’s something that in the past people would say that you shouldn’t do—writing teachers used to talk years ago about never putting the frozen peas in your book. There was a moment in contemporary American fiction where people were using brandnames, so it would be the Birds-Eye frozen peas, and this and that. People felt like it was distracting from the thing itself, and that it also dated the work.
For example, there’s Harry’s whole Internet dating thing where some of my friends have said “Do you really think people are doing that?” And I thought, Yes, of course. This is not a mystery. People who aren’t single or who don’t cheat on their spouses aren’t thinking about it. But for the 9,700,000 other people, they are hooking up online in very odd ways.
It’s made in a time-period. That’s the whole thing. It has the time and date stamp of your time, your moment.
JF I like that. I also really appreciate the way you cross genres in this book. It’s sort of realistic, then it’s a murder mystery, then it goes kind of into theater of the absurd, and then it kind of circles around to being more real. There’s a character—the big Chinese-Jewish adopted baby—that is at that boundary between those two worlds. She just cracked me up.
AMH Just to clarify: she’s an adult because the family didn’t like the baby they offered, so they took an adult instead. (laughter)
JF If I didn’t know that you were both Jewish and adopted, and if I picked this up in a bookstore, I might think it was kind of offensive. I was reading it when I was putting my son Abe to bed, and since he’s kind of Jewish-ish and adopted, I read that paragraph to him. His response was, “That’s offensive to Chinese people, that’s offensive to Jewish people, it’s offensive to adopted people, and I think it’s hilarious.” (laughter)
One of the reasons I was rereading The Mistress’s Daughter is because you wrote so beautifully about your emotional experiences around adoption. Part of the subtext is that adoption leaves scar tissue. There is a lot of pain in that book. In this book, adoption becomes a very different thing. Like it’s actually kind of joyful and funny. How did you arrive at this celebratory tone? Not only are the adoptees not the metaphorical “uninvited guests,” they are the literal guests in the final Thanksgiving scene.
AMH Just because it’s painful doesn’t mean that the person is miserable all the time. Adoption has grief associated with it for the child who’s leaving their biological parents, and it’s biological grief, it’s grief that is cellular. There’s grief sometimes for the adoptive family who can’t have a child another way. There’s grief for the birth parents who feel that they have to give their child up, that that’s the best decision they can make. So it’s warped. When I was growing up the idea was, We chose you. It’s this weirdly elevated thing, that we saved this baby from a horrible life. That puts too much pressure on it. There are things about not knowing who you are or where you come from that are painful. But that doesn’t mean that your life is ruined, or that there’s not any joy in it, or that you can’t build connections with other people.
JF Let’s talk about that Thanksgiving dinner-party at the end. It was sort of ridiculous but it was also very real. I felt like I’ve been to that dinner. The way Harry’s family comes together feels like the way many of us in the creative world in New York have odd extended families.
There is a spectrum of adoption. Nate and Ashley are adopted by Harry, the more traditional form of being adopted by a relative. Then there’s two sets of adopted grandparents: the parents of Harry’s ex-lover as well as the folks from the local Chinese takeout place. Everybody is essentially adopted in this book by each other. The celebratory mood, especially at that final dinner, is what makes it feel like maybe you’ve changed in some way.
AMH I had this great conversation with Jeanette Winterson about all of this. She was saying that the reason she thinks her memoir, which has been so successful and not just among adopted people, is because adoption really is just a microcosm of people’s search for identity, and search for themselves. She said that because so many people who have grown up within their biological families are disenchanted with their family, or feel they don’t belong in their family, or feel the family is so non-functional, these people do better creating a family. They actually want to be in an extended family of friends and people they choose. So, I don’t think there’s any big shift in me.
JF Okay, I have a question for you. For quite a while after End of Alice, the phrase “controversial author A.M. Homes” was everywhere.
AMH Oh, it was like my middle name. It was actually before my name. It was actually more like my first name.
JF Reading the first 50 or 100 pages of this new book I thought, Okay, that may come back again to haunt her. What did you or do you think about that phrase?
AMH I think it’s not true. I mean, the controversy is not within me. Yesterday I did this interview with some newspaper in Sydney, Australia, one of those where it’s like you’re happy when the interview starts off, and then every question seems to almost have me backward, and assume so many things about me that are just…
JF “Well, you basically do online sex for the first half of the day, and then”—
AMH Or just things that are really not true, are not philosophically true and aren’t how I see the world. The woman starts saying, “I read your memoir, and, you know, you had such a terrible upbringing. Do you think everybody has a terrible upbringing?”
JF She did not read that book. (laughter)
AMH And I thought, No! You know, she said, “Terrible things happened.” And I thought, No they didn’t!
Sometimes I think people are much more puritanical than I am. I also think that people are much more divorced from reality. The thing that’s important about being tagged as “controversial” or “shocking” is that it means you touched a nerve. They may not like it, and it may be very uncomfortable, but it’s coming from somewhere.
People are very literal, and very like, Well, where did the characters come from? It must have come out of something in your life. And I think, This is the tenth book, it’s not possible to live that much.
JF It’s interesting, this idea of the untrained viewer. It’s the equivalent of someone looking at one of my paintings and saying, “I’ve never seen a lump like that. That doesn’t look realistic.” Maybe it’s easier for someone to understand that a painted form has an abstract relation to reality, than to realize that about a novel.
AMH I’m surprised by it all because this is a traditional American novel which is simultaneously, I think, male and female. In the classic sense it is both a domestic novel—which is the female novel—and it’s also a broader social issue novel—which is the male novel. It’s very traditionally structured. What’s the transgressive part?
JF Well, the sex. The specifics of the online hook-ups makes readers uncomfortable, and it makes them uncomfortable because it’s also sort of titillating to read, so they think, Oh my! This is really naughty. (laughter)
AMH I didn’t make any of that up. That’s all stuff that I really found out there. In the early 1970s there was a branch of contemporary American fiction that was about documenting everyday life that really was very much: I went here, I did this, I did that.
I always ask, Why should somebody stop living their life to read my book? There’s got to be something better, or heightened, or more inventive, or playful, or colorful happening there, and something more at risk than just sitting in one’s house watching TV. I can’t just make a document of everyday life. And yet, it absolutely is a reflection of contemporary life.
JF Okay, one more question. So, in your books, almost every character has—
AMH A drug habit? What?
JF No! Very traditional American names, like Claire, Jack, and Alice, and Harry, and George. So how come you’re not Amy?
AMH Well, nobody’s named Amy.
JF (laughter) Do your parents still call you Amy?
AMH No, nobody calls me that. It’s just not the right name for me. I always put A.M. on my homework, since forever.
JF Yeah. I could picture you as a fourth grade nerd doing it.
AMH Amy is just so sweet, and I was not. We’re talking about somebody who went to fourth-grade Halloween dressed as Willie Loman in a skin-head wig in my father’s suit, carrying a brief-case. It just sort of stuck.
There is a defining moment that I always tell people about. When I first moved to New York—I was pretty young—I sublet David Leavitt’s apartment at the Vermeer on seventh avenue and 14th st. The phone rang and there I was, young person that I am, I say, “Hello,” and this person in a very brusk voice says, “Is David there?” And I said, “No, I’m sorry, he’s not. Can I take a message?” And he says, “Who’s this?” I say, “It’s Amy.” And he’s like “Amy Hempel!” And I said “No.” And he says, “This is Anatole Broyard from the New York Times.” And I thought to myself, I am never doing that again. I just won’t. There are not that many Amy H’s.
But then the funny thing is when someone says “Who is it?” And I say “It’s A.M.” They’re like “Anne?” Once I was in couples therapy and all the therapist would ever call me was “Am.” “No I’m not ‘Am,’ that’s a particle of speech. My name is A-fucking period-M-fucking period.”
I just thought of Andy Warhol talking about how “Andy Warhol” was a brand name. I think A.M. Homes is a brand name. And the truth is that there is some space between whatever that A.M. Homes is, and who I am. And I need that space. Now everyone knows who A.M. Homes is, but still. And after this revealing interview!
JF Could there be any better end to an interview than that?
AMH No, I think that sums it up. What time is it?
JF It’s 5:40.
AMH We’re going to have horrible seats at Yom Kippur, Jane.
JF We are?
AMH What, you thought we had reserved seats? “You’re in that section over there …“
JF I know, the famous people section.
AMH (laughter) Yeah, right.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.