Q&A: A.M. Homes

Novelist will read at Chapel Restoration

“If you don’t write the book you have to write, everything breaks.” — A.M. Homes

A.M. Homes Photo by Marion Ettlinger

A.M. Homes (Photo by Marion Ettlinger)

A wearer of many writerly hats, A.M. Homes will read from her latest novel, The Unfolding, at 4 p.m. on April 30 at the Chapel Restoration in Cold Spring as part of its ongoing Sunset Readings series.

Her work is typically described in contrasts, such as extreme against hilarious, or grotesque versus upbeat. Homes doesn’t categorize it in any way. When asked if she liked being called a “provocateur,” she replied: “That’s a misnomer. It’s irrelevant. I’m always writing about the world we live in. If it’s disturbing, it’s because I’m disturbed by it and I’m wanting there to be a ‘how and why does this happen? How do I write something entertaining but serious?’ The only thing I want to provoke is conversation about ideas.”

We spoke with Homes recently to discuss her book and writing process.

The Unfolding combines galvanizing political and social events and a family waking up to what’s been going on around them. Is that a fair summary?
Yes, it’s about the dissonance or space between our public and private selves. I’m always exploring that. It focuses on how both sides of the American political establishment had lost track of the American people. Jan. 6 is where the book is heading. I’ve been asked, “Who is this book for? Why would Democrats read it?” But it’s about human behavior, not about a political party. That secretly bums me out — that you have to read according to your own affiliation. As a reader and as a writer, I don’t understand those ideas. They’re depressing, because it narrows our vision. We don’t see beyond our own point of view and that makes for a very divided society. You don’t solve problems by being reminded of what you believe. And the story is still unfolding.

The Unfolding coverWhen you write, do your characters lead the way, or do the characters develop from the situations they find themselves in, courtesy of you?
They’re often led by an idea I’m trying to explore along the way. That idea often begins with nonfiction but becomes, “Who can I do that with? What would be an interesting lens?” It’s usually the least likely character — someone I haven’t met. One of the big things for me is I am truly a fiction writer. I’m not writing my own life.

Do you always know how the narrative of the story will pan out?
I might have some ideas, but the journey and the process of discovery is ongoing. If I really knew, I wouldn’t bother, because it wouldn’t be compelling.

Do you start with a kernel or a more expansive idea?
Both. It goes back to starting with a nonfiction idea I want to look at in terms of both a large-scale political and social environment and on a small scale. They’re always about pretty large ideas but relying on the specificity of the characters, the truth of them, to bring them into focus. When I’m writing a short story, there are things that say to me: “This is a short story; it’s non-sustaining.” 

Two of my books started as short stories. I thought they were finished, but then I kept having funny, internal conversations, and eventually it became inescapable that there was more to it. In Music for Torching, a couple burns down their house on Page 30. That’s not usually how you begin a novel, because how do you raise the stakes? In May We Be Forgiven, a man murders his wife on Page 30. On a craft level, it’s interesting, but it was not intentional that those would become novels. 

You also write for television. Is it a shock to have a roomful of collaborators, or a welcome change from the solitary pursuit?
Both. It’s fun to be in a room with people asking: “What are we going to make and how are we going to make it?” — generating ideas as a group. It is not about one’s own personal work or ideas. I love anything where I get to play with others. But when I toggle back to fiction, it’s amazing. I have complete control. 

You teach creative writing at Princeton. Are young writers concerned with different ideas and protagonists?
The struggle to understand and explore one’s self is universal. But this particular group has had a hard time coping with not only COVID but women’s rights and political unrest. I suspect in some ways the time they are living in changes them. The disappointment is hard on their mental health. Teaching and writing is so intimate; you’re working across those lines all the time.

I’d like to read something you wrote: “In writing, in order to pull a story out you go so far into your mind that when you come out you feel you’ve traveled through time and that either you’ve been somewhere incredibly different or that the world has changed. And that’s a good day’s work, but it’s not necessarily a pleasant experience.” Should losing oneself in writing always be that cathartic?
One hundred percent, truly.

The Chapel Restoration is located at 45 Market St., adjacent to the Metro-North parking lot, where parking is free on weekends. The reading is free, although donations are welcome. 

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