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Interview: A.M. Homes

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A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven began as a short story, published in Granta 100 in 2007. Six years later, it has become her biggest and most ambitious novel: a surreal, darkly comic epic that follows Harry Silver, Nixon scholar, through a transformative year in his life. From one Thanksgiving to the next, Harry’s journey takes him and various members of his family through hospitals, psychiatric wards, a Survivor-style experimental correctional facility, a swingers’ party in a Laser Tag joint, historic Williamsburg and a village in South Africa. Homes spoke to Granta’s Yuka Igarashi about the novel, her fascination with medicine and US-China relations.

YI: I wanted first to ask you about the word satire as it applies to this novel and your work. Reviewers have used this word but it doesn’t seem quite right. Would you use it to describe the book?

AH: No, I wouldn’t use the word. We live in a moment when reality itself is somewhat surreal. The oddity or the absurdity of everyday experience is part of what I’m capturing. My sense is that life itself can be so incredibly painful and disturbing that if one is to survive it, one has to find the humour in it.

I suppose the word satire is an attempt to describe the way in which I combine what is both serious and comic and am in fact commenting It needs to be a condensed version of life. The other day I likened it to the difference between grape juice and wine . . . or illuminating contemporary life. Writers like Joseph Heller, and his novels like Catch-22 and Something Happened, are the literary mentors of this book – and also very much the work of Harold Pinter and Edward Albee. There was a time you could write something that was reflective of the society and also funny, woven together in that way that didn’t have to be one or the other – but I think we’ve lost sight of that.

I’ve read that you think in terms of setting things ‘at a higher pitch’.

Part of that is a musical reference. Also, if I’m going to ask people to stop living their lives and pay attention to my work or my book, it needs to be a condensed version of life. The other day I likened it to the difference between grape juice and wine. If I spend seven years writing something I really hope it’s not grape juice. I want it to have both the distillation and the intensity and the specificity of wine.

This novel and your other writing insist that suffering is not meaningful. Even as the narrator, Harry, has a stroke or sees his life and family fall apart, he tells it in the most matter-of-fact way and it’s never pretty – it’s messy and awkward and often doesn’t make any sense. Do you think you’re rewriting the classic suffering-redemption narrative?

No, I don’t think in terms of that classic narrative. One thing that does interest me is the ways in which people often think of illness as punishment due, and seem baffled by it – as in, Why did God give me this sickness? I am a good person. I don’t think people bring illness upon themselves – although clearly there are behaviours, like drinking too much, eating too much – that we engage in which do bring certain diseases.

I don’t want to make suffering a positive (or negative); I very much want to acknowledge it without judgment. It’s neither a positive nor a negative. It’s there and it’s just real.

There’s a Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, who has a book called Start Where You Are. Her idea is that you don’t have to wait for the moment to start living your life differently or to move through your pain differently. You know how we all say, oh, I’ll start doing that after Christmas, or I’ll start doing that after I solve my problems? But you don’t have to be in a specific frame of mind or a right place to begin to address those things.

In the case of your book, it seems like there are events that precipitate Harry’s transformation, his suffering does lead him to something – but somehow it doesn’t seem fated or noble.

I would venture to say that it’s a very Christian or even Catholic concept to say that you bring suffering upon yourself. I tried to avoid that.

Granta just published a Medicine issue, so we’ve also been thinking a lot about illness narratives, the stories people tell about themselves when they’re sick.

I’m actually working on a book about hospitals. Alain de Botton commissioned six writers to go into large-scale institutions. I chose New York Hospital in part because I wanted to see the wide variety of patients and staff – the anxiety of the patients who are ill, the banality of the people work there all the time.

It sounds like an amazing project.

I’ve had an incredible time. I’ve been following around the chief of neurosurgery, I’ve been in the operating room while they’re doing brain surgery. I can’t tell you how much I love it.

Among the questions that I asked everybody when I talk to them is: ‘Is there a health care crisis?’ And for everyone, from the head of the hospital to the patient sitting on a stretcher in the emergency room, the answer is yes.

I was curious about the recurrence of Chinese characters in the novel. Claire, Harry’s wife, is Chinese-American. Harry encounters an adopted Chinese Jew working in a synagogue, befriends the owner of Chinese restaurant and later the Chinese owners of a deli, the daughter of whom he employs to transcribe some Nixon tapes. He also eats an insane amount of Chinese takeout. What’s the reason behind all this?

It’s funny because nobody is asking me about it. Nobody is seeing it, and it’s important to me. There are several reasons. It goes back to a story in Things You Should Know, called ‘The Chinese Lesson’, which I think in some ways is the character precursor of Harry and Claire’s marriage. I find that often I begin to work out ideas in short stories before they come into a novel.

Then I actually published another story called ‘The Omega Point’ in One Story. That one weaves a lot of facts about the importation of Chinese workers to a mill in North Adams, Massachusetts, to break a strike at a shoe factory a long time ago.

Then there’s Nixon, who opened US relations with China. If you Google the background of that it was fascinating how delicately that had to be set up.

Moving forward, it’s forty years this year since Nixon resigned. China owns more US debt than any other country. All of our electronics, a lot of our clothing, are manufactured there. Our interdependence, or actually dependence, on China amazes me. It’s both the economic and also the social relationship between the US and China.

It’s really funny to see this kind of Pynchon-esque Chinese conspiracy hidden in the novel.

The Chinese woman working in a synagogue is a good example of what we were talking about earlier. To me, it’s hysterically funny, but is it satire? I wouldn’t call it that.

There are lots of writers in this book. Don DeLillo makes a few cameos, and then Richard Nixon turns out to be a secret writer of short stories. Do writers make good characters?

A lot of people pass through this book. Hiram P. Moody, who is the family’s money manager – that’s Rick Moody’s real name. And one of the law firms in the book is Herzog, Henderson and March.

DeLillo walks through because I adore his work. It’s a tip of the hat to him. Libra is about Lee Harvey Oswald, which is obviously tied to Nixon, because Jack Ruby, who shot Lee Harvey Oswald, at one point worked for Nixon. And DeLillo really does live in a New York city suburb that is exactly like the one I’m talking about. So when I have DeLillo in the hardware store, the real DeLillo knows where that hardware store is.

That’s the play of being a writer. I felt like I wanted to have a good time with this book.

I love the title of the book that Harry is working on: While We Were Sleeping: The American Dream Turned Nightmare ­ Richard Nixon, Vietnam, and Watergate: The Psychogenic Melting Point.

I love it too, and I keep thinking, why isn’t that a book? I love that it’s so long that it’s demented. It’s definitely the sort of title that someone would give a book that they’ve been working on for twenty years.

And how do you write a book, over so many years, which is so densely threaded and complex – and maintain such intense forward momentum?

You have a lot of caffeine and chocolate. It’s also a lot of editing and rewriting and compressing. For me, the compression comes from writing short stories. As you know, this started as a short story that just kept going. As much as it unfolds and slows down in some parts, if you start at the pace and that pitch, you’ve got to be able to keep it up.

The trick is layering things in there without people necessarily noticing. You don’t have to notice the Chinese people, you don’t have to notice that there are a lot of literary references, but if you do it adds fun and meaning.

To me it’s almost as if the book has the compression and intensity of a short story, but happens to be five hundred pages.

That goes back to the difference between grape juice and wine. If you let it sit for the right amount of time and add the right things and rotate the bottles in the right direction, hopefully it turns out not just drinkable but quite fine. ■

May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes is published Granta Books.

Photo by Juergen Frank.

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