Over the past two decades, novelist, journalist, television writer and magazine writer, A.M. Homes has given a provocative critique on American society in the digital age.
Homes (“The End of Alice,” “Jack”) will be at the Hammer Museum today at 7:30 p.m. to discuss her new critically acclaimed novel “May We Be Forgiven.”Homes spoke with Daily Bruin’s Stanton Sharpe about her new book, her inspirations as a writer and her future writing projects.
Daily Bruin: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
A.M. Homes: I wrote my first novel when I was 19 years old. I wrote it as a homework assignment. So it wasn’t so much that I decided I wanted to be a writer as much as I just became one.
DB: How have some of your own personal experiences helped influence your writing? Does a lot of your writing pull from personal experiences? Or is it mostly created through your imagination?
AH: My writing is not at all pulled from my personal experience. I really am a fiction writer so I make stuff up all the time, which is both exhausting and liberating. It comes out of the much larger world, and I definitely write in response to what is happening in the world around us.
DB: You have worked in almost every field of writing, including magazines, newspapers, novels and television. Could you tell us some of the challenges you’ve faced in each field and which field, if any, you have enjoyed the most?
AH: I started writing when I was so young that writing fiction is a sort of an isolated thing. … When I’m between projects or even when I’m working on a novel and I get stuck, I’ll say yes to an article or I’ll agree to do something else for a little bit, to allow me to be wildly productive but at the same time also to really get to spend time working in different forms. … When you’re writing with television it’s a very specific kind of a format. And I like learning how that works. I (also) like learning how writing for a magazine works. It’s great because it’s all different, but it all taps into the same abilities in some way.
DB: Many of your works are considered to be very controversial and thought-provoking. When writing novels, is there usually a desired reaction that you are trying to provoke from your audience?
AH: I had this wonderful writing teacher named Grace Paley. Grace used to talk about writing what’s true according to your character. So I think for me, my focus is on telling the story. And I think what’s interesting has been if people find something shocking, I think that means it actually hits a nerve. I don’t think its a bad thing, but nor do I set out to be shocking. I honestly set out to do the best job I can telling the story. And my goal has always been not to shy away from, or be in any kind of denial about, what’s difficult to talk about and what’s difficult to write about. So I think that’s sort of where that comes from, but it’s definitely not like I set out to piss people off. I just do it naturally.
DB: “May We Be Forgiven” is an eye-opening critique on the American society in the digital age and particularly, people’s retreat from human interaction. What do you believe are the causes of our growingly disassociated society and what are some solutions to the problem?
AH: I think the cause of a growing disassociated society is that on the one hand it’s a very core thing. But people’s relationships (with) their families (have) shifted a lot. A lot of us are disillusioned with the families that we grow up in. And I think part of this novel is … about making families (a) choice, people you want to spend time with, people you feel understand or validate who you are. … I also think we live in a world now where we’re expected to produce and to know things almost instantaneously. That in a way our technology has almost outpaced our human development, and either we need to learn how to catch up to that or we have to slow down in some way and realize that we aren’t machines.
DB: In what genre of literature would you place “May We Be Forgiven”?
AH: I think it’s literary fiction. What’s interesting is a lot of people talk about it like it’s a great American novel. And I actually had to look up what that actually meant. It doesn’t mean that it’s wonderfully written, it means that it is a large book about America. Which I think is true. I think “May We Be Forgiven” is a large book about America, because it does talk about our relationship to family, our relationship to technology and our relationship to our history. … It’s a literary novel.
DB: How long did it take you to write “May We Be Forgiven”? Did you encounter any eye-opening experiences or face any problems while writing the novel?
AH: It took me around seven years. It’s my tenth book, so I’ve been doing it for a long time. … When I came out to California I went to the Nixon Library to do a lot of research for the book, and I learned a lot. I think the thing that you always learn when you’re writing a book is that by learning about the people you’re writing about, you learn a lot about yourself and you also learn a lot about the world we live in. I love spending time with characters very different from myself.
DB: Now that “May We Be Forgiven” is published, have you begun working on any new projects?
AH: I’m writing a book for the Swiss philosopher Alain de Botton. He sent six (authors) into different large-scale institutions. I went into New York Hospital and I’m writing a book about hospitals and how they function, and how the rest of us relate to them. I think they are interesting because you don’t go there when you’re having a good day, you go there when things are really obviously falling apart. And so the patient and family comes in with an enormous amount of anxiety. (But) for the people who work there, this is just their everyday life.
DB: What authors have had the strongest impact on your life and your writing style? And if you could pick one all-time favorite book or author, what or who would it be?
AH: John Cheever, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Harold Pinter and Edward Albee the playwright. I like a good dead Russian author. If I had to pick one favorite book or author of all time it would be a novel by Richard Yates called “Disturbing the Peace.” It’s a searingly accurate kind of devastating novel, and it’s amazing to me how language can provoke emotion in a reader.
DB: You are currently a creative writing professor at Princeton University. What kind of experiences have you had working with young, aspiring writers? What are the most common challenges that your students face when writing creative fiction?
AH: I love working with students, (and) I’ve taught for many years. I like trying to teach people to use their imaginations. I think often students have lost contact with their imagination and think that everything they write has to be true. So we do a lot of things to sort of make things up again. And I love teaching them how to write about their lives and just working with people to find their voice and to feel confident about what they want to write about.
Email Sharpe at [email protected]