I know that I’m depressed, sensitive, and selfish. I’m just determined to do this thing, which is paint in solitude, and I will burn bridges to do it, including relationships.
Second Annual Brooklyn Book Festival
Award-winning authors A.M. Homes and Francine Prose discuss the overlap where memoirs, histories, and novels meet in this conversation presented by BOMB’s Editor-in-Chief Betsy Sussler.
The following is a transcript of the conversation.
Betsy Sussler Both A.M. Homes and Francine Prose have written novels, short stories, as well as non-fiction in the form of everything from memoirs to reviews of art. A.M. Homes’s most recent book, The Mistress’ Daughter, deciphers her birth parents’ initial contact and resulting dramas—the disturbed and intrusive mother, and the woman’s withholding, corrosive lover, A.M.’s birth father. It’s a brave, provocative, and evocative tale about inheritance, character, and that invasive place we all call home. Even factual books are imagined; A.M. searched family trees and memorabilia to construct her narrative about her biological family. Francine Prose, in her wonderful book on Caravaggio, really only had court records to go on and yet she created a fleshy, vital character and really a thriller. It’s a page-turner; you can’t put it down. Francine’s latest book, Reading Like A Writer, is a superb compendium of writers and the worlds they construct. It refers to Hemingway’s credo, “All you have to do is write one true sentence,” and Baldwin’s opening salvo, “It was not to be believed.” Reading Like a Writer is a seminal, pleasurable, and witty analysis of fiction and its craft. Apropos, then, this conversations hinges on the fine line between fiction and non-fiction.
BS Both of you in your non-fiction have had to imagine into character, actual people. Francine, besides Caravaggio, there’s The Lives of the Muses. How does that differ from creating a fictional character?
Francine Prose Well, it’s a lot easier, I mean it’s not quite as much fun, but it’s a lot easier because the life is the life and it’s already there. So you just have to take the facts such as they are and try to imagine the psychology that went with it. I mean, with Caravaggio it was quite a challenge because so little is known about Caravaggio, but the women I wrote about in Lives of the Muses … In some ways it was quite straightforward. I didn’t have to invent very much; I just had to tell the story. So in many ways it’s less fun because there are no surprises, the life has already been lived. I didn’t suddenly discover that my character had done something I couldn’t suspect and wouldn’t have known about. It’s much easier for me and I should say none of these works are particularly autobiographical which adds another layer of difficulty but if you’re writing about somebody else’s life … You know, I never woke up in the middle of the night in a state of horror because I thought I wasn’t going to be able finish the Caravaggio book, or I wasn’t going to be able to finish Lives of the Muses, whereas every novel I’ve ever written I’ve woken up pretty much every night in a state of horror thinking I’m not going to be able to finish.
A.M. Homes I think for me, interestingly, writing about real people, especially with real people who are still alive, is incredibly difficult, and I think I always felt that way even when writing sort of journalism that wasn’t about people that I knew. There’s very much an awareness of here are the facts, even if it’s just a few facts that I know, and here is the chronology, and trying to, whether it’s to write an article or to write a piece of memoir, constantly stay true to that information and aware of how, in fiction, it would happily just bend and go off. In non-fiction I have to keep pulling it back and keeping it accurate in a way, that, for me, I’d say is much harder, and secretly makes me really pissed off. The thing I love about writing fiction is the true departure into your imagination. You’re not accountable to anybody but your character. I find it much, much harder to write non-fiction, but a very different process, too, that I have to say has a very strong set of appeals, though they’re very different for me than fiction.
BS A.M., I’m going to ask you—in The Mistress’ Daughter, which is about your adopted family and your birthparents, I’m wondering how you as a narrator redefined your sense of self? You, as a narrator, were a character in the events.
AMH Yeah, I mean in a funny way I thought of it very much as a story about people I never knew and a life I never lived. So I didn’t think so much about what my role as narrator or character was—I think if I had, I honestly never would’ve been able to write it. I’m used to being like a 50-year-old guy, that’s who I mostly am narrating as. The idea of me, if anyone actually knew what I was like, narrating a book, I would scream hysterically and run out of the room. Not possible.
BS Interesting. Francine, I have a question—of all the people in the muse book, which woman were you most drawn to? What’s the one that you would’ve made into a character in a novel?
FP Oh Lee Miller for sure.
BS And why?
FP Why? For one thing, she was the most—well, that’s not quite true, she and Susan Farrow were the most gifted—but she had the most amazing, dramatic, glamorous, courageous, tragic life. I mean to start off as a fashion model and then come back from Paris … . Actually, she started off just as a beautiful young woman, went to Paris, came back, almost got hit by a car, got dragged to safety by a guy who turned out to be Condé Nast, who said, “Well, come up to the office.” Modeled for, you know, the greatest fashion photographers, decided it wasn’t enough, went to Paris, became Man Ray’s lover, learned everything there was to learn, left him after three years, married an Egyptian, got bored, became a Vogue photographer and covered World War II, and the liberation of the concentration camps for Vogue, which published those photos at the time when The New York Times was saying, “Uh, well I don’t know about those concentration camps, sounds a little weird.” Vogue said, “We’ll publish them.” And then Man Ray, a surrealist painter, who said in his memoir something like, “Well photography and gourmet cooking are passions of Lee’s,” and her life ended kind of miserably. And the only way we know about her photographs was that her daughter and son-in-law found cardboard boxes of her work in the attic and said “Mom, what’s this?” and she said “Oh, I used to take pictures.” And the rest is history. Although, you know, I mean, I have to say, here I have said all this, but the Lee Miller estate was so unpleasant to work with that I vowed that I would never say another good word about Lee Miller again.
BS A.M., you likened yourself to a spy or a detective in the first parts of your memoir.
AMH We grew up in Washington; we have a lot of those.
BS Yes. And, as a spy would, you withheld your name for some time from your birthmother. And then she tracked you down—I’m wondering how she found you? And if you could tell our audience a bit about this.
AMH Sure, well I didn’t withhold my name entirely I—
BS Your surname.
AMH You know, that whole episode of being found by one’s biological parents as opposed to going in search, literally somebody just appearing out of the blue.hat I said to her was, I actually asked for her to write me a letter telling me a little about herself. I got two letters. I opened a post office box because I felt that it was going to be a process where I wasn’t ready to just expose myself. I already had somewhat of a sort of public life and I didn’t really want to just throw myself out there, and throw myself to her. She had my first name, she knew my name was Amy, and she did some research. She thought I was a woman who wrote books about God, actually … Wasn’t true. And then, uh, she actually called Politics & Prose, the independent bookstore in Washington, and said, “Who is a writer named Amy from Washington?” And they said “Oh, you mean A.M. Homes. Here’s her phone number.” And Oscar Hijeulos told me it was the same story, that his first wife stalked him too one time as well. So, it’s a very active independent bookstore.
FP My first husband showed up at a reading in California and I didn’t recognize him. So I think a lot of that kind of semi-stalking thing—
AMH When you’re giving readings and things, people come; they want to come look at you and they have another agenda. It’s so weird and especially in this case when I’d read in and around Washington. I could tell there were people who had absolutely no interest in writing or fiction writing. You want to pull a Lenny Bruce and stop the whole thing—“Excuse me! Could the guy in the back identify himself?” And then you realize your career would be ruined.
BS But she did show up at a reading before—
AMH Yeah she did she showed up at a reading. She asked if she could—
AMH First, she said “What do I have to do, come to Columbia University and wait in line?” I said “Please don’t do that.” But for the whole experience, I was certain that it made me very small. (in a high voice) “No, not necessary.” Like I turned into Stuart Little or something. And she showed up at this reading I was giving in Washington. My fourth-grade teacher was there, my parents were there, my grandmother was there; I mean everybody in my life was there. And I, literally the night before—and this is all in the book—stuck the New York Times in my eye and blinded myself. The other eye also sort of sympathetically closed with the first one so I had a very narrow window. And after I gave the reading and I’m signing all the books, I see this woman nervous in the back within the penumbra, and she came right up to me and said, “What did you do to your eyes?” And then she said, “You look just like your father.” You couldn’t have a nightmare like this.
BS That brings me to my next question, before we go back to Francine. As you discovered, she lived not far from where you grew up in Washington DC. You did write a novel about a character, a heroine who was adopted, and, rather than in all your worst nightmares, in a plot that you devised. Did you come up with anything close to what happened?
AMH The book you’re talking about is In a Country of Mothers. The strange thing about it is that book was actually in galleys about to come out as my biological mother found me. I don’t like the book; other people like it, apparently. It’s okay. I never felt when I was writing it, that I did a good job. I never did what I wanted to do with it. And it was the only time I ever wrote anything that had even an autobiographical thread. And the novel is a story of a woman who gives a child up for adoption, marries, has another family, makes another life for herself, becomes a therapist, gets this girl patient who’s adopted, and drives the girl crazy. She thinks it’s her daughter and she just drives the girl over the edge. And it was my attempt to sort of reconcile what I was thinking about adoption and I really felt like, honestly, I never went in far enough. I just couldn’t do it and I … Whatever. And that book was just about to come out when, out of the blue … . It’s like that power of conjuring something, and I wrote in Country of Mothers things about how the biological mother had never married. That all turned out to be totally true. It’s like things that you instinctively know about yourself and your life, all that kind of thing.
FP That’s one of the creepy, unpleasant things about writing fiction; it turns out you know things you couldn’t possibly know. You write a character and two weeks later you meet the character. After I wrote A Changed Man—it’s about a neo-Nazi who turns himself into a human-rights foundation and becomes involved with the development director who has two kids and so on. The first time I gave a reading from it, a poet I know came up to me and said, “My sister works for the Wiesenthal Foundation. A neo-Nazi came in and turned himself in, and she’s the development director, and she has two kids, and they became involved.” And the novel hadn’t come out yet—I was reading from a manuscript—and he basically told me the entire plot of my novel. Go figure.
AMH I think there’s always a lot of truth in that because with every book I’ve written there have been things that, when I wrote them, were not true and by the time the book came out … Like the end of Music for Torching, which actually ends with sort of a Columbine shooting. It came out three weeks before Columbine. Not that it had never happened before but that was the first large scale one. I think it’s about … As a writer, I think if I’m doing my job I’m reading the culture and I’m reading the world we live in, and that, if you’re sort of good at what you do, your pulling those threads out and trying to process them before they’re completely apparent or readable to anyone else. So even though it takes us four years to write a book, it still also takes a long time for it to build a kind of critical mass so we’re really aware of what’s going on.
BS And really aware of what you’ve written and how it applies.
FP But I think it’s even a little …
AMH Creepier than that?
FP Creepier than that. Because you know the fact that Kafka and Bruno Schultz were writing about people turning into cockroaches at the same time and they didn’t know each other. I mean, yeah, they were certainly in tune with what was about to happen, but it wasn’t exactly that that was going to happen.
AMH But I think we know more than we know that we know, you know? (laughter)
FP I kind of discovered that very early, and then there were things that I wouldn’t write because I was scared to write them. When I was writing Household Saints I was pregnant with my first son, and there’s this horrible miscarriage—it’s beyond a miscarriage—that happens in the novel and I stopped. I stopped writing the novel until he was born and seemed to be fine and then I continued because I was so superstitious and positive that he was going to … . One of my friends, a writer, and I talk all the time and we have this thing that we say which is, “It could be a coincidence.” You know, about just things like that because they happen so often.
AMH I’m thinking of writing this novel where this writer is just walking on the street and finds this bag and there’s like tens of millions of dollars, and the writer’s really friendly and shares it with other people, but it’s this bottomless bag of money … and they find it in Brooklyn. (laughter)
BS This next question is pretty much what you all have been talking about but I wouldn’t mind taking it to another level. Francine, you picked quite a number of excerpts from fiction in your latest book in which you discuss the truth of a word, a sentence, an observation, and yet you’re talking about fiction. How do you use this word “truth” in relation to fiction?
FP That’s such a good question. I don’t know, I mean maybe a better word, which I didn’t think of using, but I probably should’ve, was authentic. Because you know there’s just some things you read and you think they’re just made up, they’re just phony, they’re just willed, somebody wanted to write a novel so they wrote this novel, and for whatever reason I don’t happen to believe a single word that I’m being told. And I don’t know what that is. I mean it’s a complicated process because it’s partly about comparing it to your own experience, which isn’t necessarily the best way, and it’s partly about just … You know the writer creates a certain world or a certain universe, and then that world has an integrity of its own, and the minute you start violating that integrity you’re in trouble. But it’s like art, you know it when you see it. I mean you know it’s inauthentic when you read it, but it’s hard to describe.
AMH I think that along those lines I remember Grace Paley talking a lot about the truth according to the character and that for me was always a good way of checking. You know I really have always penned the majority of people—with the exception of Country of Mothers —who are very different from myself and I think a lot about what is this person’s background? What is their experience? And it’s a whole crazy digression but I always think I want there to be a course on, literally, the economics of fiction: Why does this person live where they live? What is there financial and socioeconomic structure of fiction, and how has it changed over time? Because how a person earns their living, where their money comes from, the way they’re able to spend it, is part of how the story is told. So I think about everything from, Why is the guy from The End of Alice the way that he is? Where did he come from? What got him there? And what does this mean to him? For me thinking, it’s about not just inhabiting somebody other than myself and this is what I want the story to do, but really trying to figure out what would be accurate or organic to that character, and very often it’s something very different from my own thinking. To me that’s the true pleasure of fiction, when you go someplace with somebody that in many ways you could feel repulsed by or think this is just not for me, and you know it is accurate for that character or organic to that character’s experience.
BS Well, back to your description of your biological father, and in turn talking about character, when you asked him to tell you about himself one of the first things he exclaimed was that he was not circumcised. (laughter) What did that tell you about him as a character?
AMH I mean, again, as I actually did the research for this memoir, there were things that I discovered that filled in more about why that might be what a person would say. So, in a certain sense, until I found out more, I held him at a higher level of accountability. I think the main things he was saying was that he really was so rejecting of his Jewishness. He was Jewish and he was raised in a family that, when I interviewed different relatives, they didn’t know there had even been a Jew in their family. It was a big deal when a Catholic married a Christian or somebody who wasn’t Catholic. They had no idea. So I found out that people had sort of thought of him and really rejected him as the Jew, as like the little Jew in their family. So that explained part of why it was so important for him to make that statement, in some ways, and it was about that and I also really took it to mean … . You know, part of what he was telling me was so much about how I was a product of a sex life, not of marriage, not of a long-term relationship. Although it was a seven-year relationship. It was very peculiar information, very. (laughter)
BS He also treated you, in a way, as he treated his mistress.
AMH Yeah, he did. No, I think the whole thing … . I mean I think he would look at me and say things like, “You don’t know what it does to me to look at you,” and he didn’t mean like, Oh, you’re so successful; I’m so proud of you; God, I wish my other children were like you. It was really like … . It was creepy. The other weird thing on the level of, like, it could be a coincidence, the narrator in End of Alice who never is named … this jailed, pedophile, murderer, who’s only once referred to as Chappy, because he likes Chapstick. My biological great-grandfather is called Chappy. Who the hell would think? And my father would say things to me like, “Tell me about that book you’re writing.” He said things to me like, “Where’d you get Chappy from?” and I had no idea what he was talking about … like such a pervert that you’re fixated on Chappy? And I found out like ten years later that that’s the thing.
BS Geneology. Francine, in the latest book, you have some wonderful chapter headings that start with “Word” and go on to “Sentence” and go on to “Paragraph,” but I’m interested in the chapter on “Character,” as long as we’re talking on character, and in that you focus on examples from 19th-century literature. I’m wondering why you chose Von Kleist, Jane Austen, George Elliot, Gustave Flaubert.
FP Yeah 19th and 18th … One of the thrills of reading literature is to find out that someone who lived 200 years ago actually shared something in common with people you know. When you read Anna Karenina and you go “Oh my God, how did Tolstoy know all of my friends?” Or, you know, in Reading Like a Writer, the story that comes out is I was teaching Heinrich Von Kleist to a class of almost entirely Mormon kids, non-literature majors, at the University of Utah—and they were the most squeaky clean, lovely, never-been-out-of-Utah innocents. And here was Kleist who was this demento German hypochondriac suicidal nutcase, writing this novella about a woman who kind of gets raped in her sleep but of course doesn’t really know it, but she gets pregnant and blah blah blah. And the kids, by the time they get done reading it, were talking about the Marquis of O’s family as if she were a relative of theirs. It was so thrilling and astonishing that poor dead miserable Kleist had bridged the gap of centuries, time, geography to speak to the lives of these children.
BS Could you talk a little bit about why you broke the book down the way you did into those chapters? What I found really interesting is, yes, you start with the “Word”—talking about the novel and fiction. Chekhov is constantly brought up and Chekhov was not only a fiction writer, a short story writer, but a playwright.
FP And a journalist.
BS And a journalist. And a doctor. And one of the last chapters is “Learning From Chekhov,” so I was just wondering how you came to organize that and what was in your mind.
FP Well, the “Learning from Chekhov” chapter was actually the first thing in the book that got written, it was about … When was it, when did actually happen? I’m trying to think, it was like 1986, I think. I was living in upstate New York and commuting to teach at Sarah Lawrence College which was the worst job I have ever had in my entire life and I never miss an opportunity to say so. (laughter) But it was a real, as they say, learning experience for me because I hadn’t been teaching writing that long, I guess about four or five years, and I would go into class and say the completely well-meaning, idiotic things that people say in their writing classes. You know, you have to show and not tell and you can’t have two characters with the same name, and you have to know who’s story it is—the clichés of the workshop because they’re so easy. And I was reading on the bus going back and forth. I was reading my way though the Garnett translations, The Complete Stories of Chekhov and it was, talk about strange coincidences, but I would get on the bus and read a story that had in it exactly the thing that I had just gotten through telling a student he or she couldn’t do. so it was week, after week, after week … It was really a lesson for me as a teacher. I would never again and have really never again said those moronic things that I said in that class. Although God knows my students have heard those things from enough other places. I don’t teach writing any more—I teach literature—but I constantly have to correct these things that they hear. But the book really started there.
BS Interesting. I’d like to talk a little bit about storytelling. A.M., when the articles in The New Yorker first came out, excerpts from The Mistresses Daughter, I was oddly enough reading them at my family’s house, and I went “Oh my God, I remember talking to A.M. about just this incident.” And really, to me, it felt like I had heard you telling the story and then I was reading the story and I’m just wondering for both for you what particular book has started out as something that you’ve told as a story that became so pressing that you had to make it into a novel or a work of writing?
AMH Honestly, no novel for me has begun as a story that I would tell somebody. I know that a lot of people believe that you can talk away a novel or a story, and I don’t fully believe that, but I believe it enough that there are people who, when I’m working on something or I’m interested in writing something, I will talk to them only definitely about the idea I’m interested in. Like, in Music For Torching, I remember talking to people about being very interested in writing about a marriage that was falling apart but the people couldn’t get out of it and things like that. But the only story that I ever told in that way was the story about my family. And I only ever told it because it was so weird that I couldn’t have made it up.
FP We can’t make this stuff up. (laughter)
AMH We can’t make it up, and it’s also why I had to write it as non-fiction. And I already tried the novel version, but even after that hadn’t happened, when it really happened, a bunch of editors said, “You should write it as a novel.” And I thought, Why bother? You know it’s not a novel, it’s worse than that.
FP No, that’s never happened to me either, although it does happen quite often. I’ve noticed that there are a lot of little interpolated stories in my novels that are stories, you know anecdotes, that have come up in conversation and that I give to my characters for one reason or another. But the whole thing—no. There’s not even a story I don’t think that I’ve told that’s wound up as a story. The stories I’ve written happen to me more closely based on things that have happened to me than novels but none of them have started that way.
AMH I think it would be really weird, like a picture, like that story “Georgica” from Things You Should Know. How do you tell a story like, Yeah, there was this condom on a beach and someone used it to inseminate themselves and they got pregnant. You couldn’t do it. It only works, in a funny way, as fiction. It only works embedded in a story where it really is the link between the reader and the writer’s imagination, which is honestly a much more private place and a deeper place and richer than what I would bring to a dinner table. At the dinner table it’s like, “Well, how was today?” “Fine”. “What’d you do?” “I wrote.” “So?” I always think that’s why writers are horrible conversationalists. Like painters—they’ve been busy painting, and writers …
BS No, I’m sorry, painters aren’t very good at conversation. (laughter)
FP The novel that I’m just finishing now is based on a story that happened in my neighborhood near me in the country, but it was a story that was so outrageously unlikely and improbable that no one would’ve believed me. If I had told the story people’s eyes would have just rolled back in their heads. So over the years—I mean it happened 15 years ago and was something I always thought of—in the various, successive versions of this story that worked their way into the novel, I wound up losing all the improbable, unlikely parts. So only the sort of base, the base that anyone would’ve believed, made its way into the story. But the insane stuff was what attracted me to the story.
BS What was it?
FP What was it? Well, it had to with a woman whose daughter died and who insisted that her daughter’s boyfriend marry the dead daughter over her gravesite. Of the scenes that will not appear in my next novel, that’s the one.
BS Before we open this up to questions from the audience, I would like to ask each of you if you have question for each other.
AMH I’m curious actually just to hear … It seems to me like lately you’ve written even more non-fiction, and I’m curious, you said a little about how non-fiction is easier for you, but about how that process sort of evolves for you, the decision to go forward, if not with a substantial piece of non-fiction—
FP Well, some of the non-fiction, unlike the fiction … . Again, no one ever calls you up and says I want you to do a novel about blah blah blah, it just doesn’t happen. But two of the non-fiction books, in fact the Caravaggio book and the Gluttony book, somebody called me up and said—Oxford University Press, in fact—called up and said, “Well, we’re doing the seven deadly sins, which sin do you want to do?” And for some reason I just went straight to gluttony; it just seemed the most fun. And Caravaggio, likewise, for years I’d been talking to Jim Atlas for what was then the Eminent Lives and finally I kind of talked them into it. A novel never starts that way. So I want to ask you about writing about art because we’ve both been doing that, and neither of us have any, as far as I know, art history …
AMH I actually studied a little art history.
FP You did?
AMH I actually like art history. It’s funny because I never knew anything about real history and I thought, well art history is great because you learn about history and you learn about the world through art history. But yeah, I’ve been to doing this weird thing with art writing, which is I’ve started doing these catalogues for artists or galleries or museums, but I used to write actual art criticism, in the way you would read in Artforum, and I went to the Whitney Program and I did their …
FP Oh, so you really know what you’re talking about?
AMH In theory. (laughter) No, but it also drove me crazy because I felt like there had been an art form created purely in response to conceptualism that was then a poetic form for writing about art that used a kind of language that I thought was entirely fake and drove me nuts, and I thought, I can’t do this at all. You don’t do that at all either.
FP No, because in my first art writing assignment I didn’t know what to do, and someone said, “Do you like pictures? Are you married to a painter?” So I went, “Yeah, sure.” The first book I got was Rosalind Krauss’s book about David Smith and I remember my husband was driving and I was sitting in the car crying because I couldn’t understand a single word. Until that moment I hadn’t thought of myself as a particularly stupid person, but it turned out I just couldn’t understand the vocabulary. And then I called up the editor who had asked me to do it and I said, “Obviously I can’t do the assignment,” and he said, “Actually I hired you because that’s not what you do.” And actually it’s so fun to write about art because, as you know, if you’re writing a catalogue essay or a museum essay and you write something that’s intelligible, oh my god, the gallerist or the directors are so grateful that they can actually understand …
BS People are so relieved to have a running narrative, and that’s one of the reasons BOMB started. I’d just like to point out that some of our best interviews with artists were done by A.M. Homes and Francine Prose. Francine interviewed Catherine Murphy and the other classic is A.M.’s interview with Eric Fischl.
AMH And you know what I think that’s about, Betsy, which is also sort of the same thing. I’m fascinated by hearing why people make the work that they make. What does it mean to you? Whether it’s talking to Howard Hodgkin about his paintings and what are the gestures and what is the painter’s vocabulary, and how in their own work are they reworking certain themes and different things and, you know, where does it come from? So I love talking to people about the creative process and also choreographers and composers. Are you hearing it? Are you seeing it? And I remember once—I was doing a lot of interviews because it was also a great way to, as a thoroughly shy person, talk to people who’s work interested you. The only problem was then you have to write it up afterwards. Once someone said, “Will you have lunch with Vanessa Redgrave?” And I thought, Sure, and afterwards I was like, Oh my God, now I have to make an article out of that. But to hear why people do it, and I remember asking Wim Wenders—Wim Wenders makes watercolors to take notes. Helmut Newton wrote down notes, other people take photographs—every one took notes in a different medium than their primary work and that was so interesting, because to do it as their primary work meant they’d have to think about it differently, than in some other way that they could just express themselves.
FP And also, can I just say one of the reasons I love BOMB Magazine: there’s always something useful for me in reading interviews with people in completely different disciplines. I mean for example directors and actors. I still remember this conversation—I think Tim Roth and Steve Buscemi, is this right? And Tim Roth said he always remembered how he felt watching Jaws for the first time—sort of curled up in the fetal position in terror—and he drew on that when he had to play various characters. Or the guy who did Amores Perros had an amazing speech embedded in the interview about trying to put more humanity into his work. And it’s unbelievably useful because it’s not a way you had thought about art and it’s not a field you usually know about and it translates back which is what’s so great about it.
BS Thanks Francine, thanks A.M.. I would like to now, if it’s okay with you all … . There’s a mic here and if any one has any questions, feel free to come up.
Audience Member One This question is for Francine. I love reading books about writing; I just read a book called The Artful Edit. Have you read any other books recently about writing? There’s been a proliferation of books about the writing process lately. What’s your favorite book about the process of writing or do you have one?
FP I’m kind of an old-fashioned girl, I mean I like E.M. Forester, those were things that I read. Henry James. To be perfectly honest, I haven’t read most of the recently published books about writing and that was slightly intentional. I just was going to do what I was going to do and it would have bothered me to have found out that someone had already done it.
Audience Member 2 I live in Rome and there’s an enormous amount of Caravaggio literature. If you go into an average Roman book shop you’ll find tables and tables of Caravaggio, and I was wondering how you managed to wade through all of that to write a book. I don’t know what sort of books are available in English but …
FP How I managed to wade through all the Caravaggio literature? Well, the fact is … I mean there’s some wonderful books on Caravaggio. Thank God, because I wasn’t going to do … I kept saying, anyone who actually wants to read a biography of Caravaggio should read Helen Langdon’s, which is a great biography of Caravaggio. You’ll find tons of stuff that’s not in mine. I realized two things—and this occurred to me while writing Lives of the Muses, as well—up until twenty years ago you could just say anything you wanted and put it in a biography or work of non-fiction, and there were no footnotes; fact checking was like a joke. So I would find these five or six variant versions of what had happened. Fortunately my friend Ingrid Rowland was at the Academy at that point and I said, “What do I do?” She said, “Just use Helen Langdon as the authority.” Beyond that, what I noticed about the Caravaggio books was that I thought the one thing I can do that hadn’t been done was talk about the paintings in a different way. In fact very few of them really sit in front of the paintings and write about them particularly well. So, more than anything, that’s what my book is. The parts that I’m happiest with in the book are simply the descriptions of the paintings.
Audience Member Two It very often looks to us like they should just shut up because they’ve produced far too much that’s really unintelligible; to use Caravaggio … It’s almost like cultural wallpaper at this point, and I admire you for taking him on.
BS There’s a section in The Mistress’s Daughter where you indict your biological father much as a lawyer would in court, and your indicting him for denying you and for being a jerk, which he’s been. Could you have taken him to court to prove otherwise? What did your lawyer say about using his real name because, in fact, this book is an indictment of him.
AMH Well it’s an interesting question, and the chapter that Betsy’s talking about is entitled “Like an Episode of L.A. Law,” which is in a way the most unusual chapter in the book. It came about because as part of the whole process of writing about my biological family I had taken a DNA test with my biological father, at his request, to prove that he was my father. And he never showed me the results of the test. He said, “It’s 99.9 likely that I’m your father, what are my responsibilities?” “Don’t be a jerk.” So when I was doing the research for this book, I asked for a copy of the test and was told “No,” that his lawyer now had the test. Then my lawyer called his lawyer and his lawyer said he lost it, and the likelihood of a lawyer losing … It’s bad. It’s like why would they still be your lawyer? “There’s a file will you sign a declaration of paternity?” “No.” So, then my lawyers, who were based in Washington, and included a guy named Lanny Davis, who had been special council to Clinton during the Monica thing, so it was a very particular group of lawyers who knew my father, and I knew they would know who he was. And Lanny had said “Oh, no problem. I’ll get this from him in a minute.” And Lanny called me back and said, “Is there some reason why your father wouldn’t want to do this?” And I said “I don’t know, it’s all so strange.” So, they really wanted me to sue him, they said “Absolutely you should now sue him to prove paternity.” And, interestingly, adoption groups were sort of horrified with that, because there’s kind of like going along with things. It’s against the time where adoption theory or adoption is at the moment that you would sue your biological parent to prove that they were your parent. And I also thought, I don’t really want to sue this guy, the whole thing is ugly. But the interesting thing is, the first thing that would happen if I sued him would be a period of discovery, a chance for lawyers to ask questions. Among the questions they would ask were all those questions that were in that chapter. The chapter is only questions; there’re no answers. So, in response to, Is it a risk legally? No, because they were answers that I already knew and they were answers that I pretty much had facts to back up. And there’s no words put in his mouth, which is what’s so kind of interesting and kind of, in a way, awful about it, if you’re that guy, because the fact is, if I had sued him it would have been all the more revealing of what an awful person he was. So it’s a strange chapter, but really, in an interesting way, I think at that point in the book the reader knows enough about my family to essentially answer those questions themselves. I don’t think as a reader you notice, Oh, there are no answers, because you’re answering them as you’re reading.
Audience Member Three This is for A.M. as well, sort of related to the last question. Novelists say their people assume that every novel they write is autobiographical or semi-autobiographical, and readers think they know you. After reading The Mistress’ Daughter do people feel that they know you and do you feel that you should have done things in a different way, perhaps?
AMH It’s funny because every article that came out was like, ‘the notoriously private writer A.M. Homes’—and I don’t even know where that came from—has now revealed her true self. I revealed a piece of my life, that is, in a funny way, so not the whole of my life, but it is a very specific experience. And yet I probably would never do something like that again because I have to say, going on book tour for the memoir—and I literally had to first go to Europe, then to the U.S., and then back to like Germany. It was like Heidelberg (German accent), “Let’s talk to you about your memoir.” It was like the James Fry test, where in every country and every city they ask you the same question again and again, thinking that at some point you’ll crack and the truth will come out. I think, on the one hand, the confusing side or downside is people who have read my fiction over the years can read the memoir and in some way think they know me in ways that may not even be accurate. The positive thing about the memoir is that it seems to mean a lot to people who had been adopted, who had given children up, who had adopted children. And so it was a very different audience that would write to me and talk to me, and largely what they’re saying is not how well they know me, but what their own stories are. And people had warned me against that and said, “That’ll be horrible.” Actually, I’ll say that has been the more pleasant part of the whole thing. The only reason to finish the book—because it was excruciating to write—was the hope that it would have meaning for other people. Because by the time I was done with it, I was done with it—not that it doesn’t plague me in some ways and it’s not part of my life—but I had reconciled myself to who I was in what my experience had been. But you know I feel like in the weird world of adoption and stuff there’s always been a thing of, one person’s experience is right, and one person’s is wrong. It’s a very complicated thing for everybody—for a woman who gives a child up, for a family that adopts a child, and for the child that becomes an adult at some point, even though legally you don’t. I wanted to just put it out there to acknowledge that it is a mess.
I know that I’m depressed, sensitive, and selfish. I’m just determined to do this thing, which is paint in solitude, and I will burn bridges to do it, including relationships.