A.M. Homes on Nixon’s psyche, American dementia, and writing like a man.
Image by Marion Ettlinger
The election season was winding down. Ahmadinejad held court at the United Nations General Assembly, droning on with his insinuations that 9/11 had been an inside job. Hezbollah claimed responsibility for a drone captured in Israel while nearby in Pakistan a U.S. drone had killed 14 people. Video leaked of Romney captivating a conference room full of Republican donors with promises to ignore the lazy 47 percent of Americans who didn’t pay federal income taxes and “believed themselves victims.” Biden and Ryan traded smirks and barbs on national television during the Vice Presidential Debate and Obama grappled with (and fumbled through) the aftermath of a deadly attack on an American consulate in Libya.
It was in this bafflingly forbidding cultural moment in early October that A.M. Homes spoke with radio host Richard Wolinsky about the importance of historical memory and cultural optimism in the context of her latest work, May We Be Forgiven: A Novel, a digital-age satire that takes root in the relationship of two middle-class brothers, Harry and George. Though the story starts off wickedly grim, it ultimately traces Harry, a Nixon scholar, along his stumbling and bizarre path to redemption.
Homes is perhaps best known for suburban-set shockers that skewer the humdrum depravities of the fictive everyday. Here, she analyzes her talent for “writing like a man,” the murky process of simultaneously pulling a novel’s strings while allowing her characters the freedom to surprise, and the ways in which 9/11 altered her writerly perspective. Her new desire to write out of the bleak towards the optimistic is a feat Homes first accomplished in her previous novel, This Book Will Save Your Life, about which John Waters quipped: “If Oprah went insane, this would be her favorite book.”
–Interview published courtesy of Richard Wolinsky
Richard Wolinsky: You gave an interview in which you said that the origins of the novel [May We Be Forgiven] came about because you were approached by Zadie Smith to write a short story, and you began writing it and the story grew. At what point did you get the idea of the two siblings?
A. M. Homes: The notion of the two siblings going at it predates Zadie, slightly, in that in my last novel, This Book Will Save Your Life, there’s the beginnings of a thread of a relationship between two brothers. I really didn’t get to dive as deep into that as I wanted to. Then I wrote a short story called “Brother on Sunday” for the painter Eric Fischl for a book of his, and that also ran in The New Yorker. I’d always been interested in John Cheever’s relationship with his brother Fred, a relationship Cheever wrote about in a book called Falconer, where he actually writes about a man who commits fratricide, kills his brother and goes to jail. He also wrote a short story called “Goodbye, My Brother.” So the threads were percolating. When Zadie came to me she said, “I want you to write a piece that’s about characters.” I was thinking, “Well, what kind of characters could generate an intense story very quickly?” And I thought, “Well, the two brothers!” So I started that, thinking it would be part of my way of finding my way into something ultimately. Then I was just typing and typing and typing. The deadline for Zadie’s anthology came and went and I gave them something I had written long ago. Then I finished enough of this, and I thought that was going to be it. It was a short story and it ran in Granta’s hundredth issue. Salman Rushdie picked it for Best American Short Stories. I was still writing more, and I kept thinking, “What are you doing?” I had these conversations with myself, “Why are you still writing it? It’s finished. It’s published.” It clearly was only the very beginning of a much, much more complex story.
Richard Wolinsky: At what point in the story does the short story end?
A. M. Homes: I can’t give away the exact moment because it’s a key pivotal moment in the book—but it ends after the tragic intersection of George, Harry, and George’s wife Jane.
Richard Wolinsky: Harry’s voice, the brother, the first-person voice telling the story, has no filters in what he says or does. Did that voice—was that just suddenly there?
A. M. Homes: Kind of. I think of writing anything, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, as almost like writing a piece of music. You have to hit the pitch correctly. Part of the very beginning of something is finding what those first sounds will be. And that helps guide you through the rest of it, whatever it is. But it really is like a musical construction. So, yes, Harry’s voice was there. The interesting thing about Harry was that early on I felt somewhat frustrated by him. I kept thinking, “Why is this so frustrating to me to write?” I realized that part of it was I was writing about a person who didn’t know himself. It’s very hard as a writer to have a main character who doesn’t understand himself very well. It was only as Harry actually began to unfold and to come to know who he was that I as a writer got to go further into Harry. Then it got to be a lot of fun – an exciting ride.
Richard Wolinsky: In reading some of your interviews about the book and reading the book, I’m seeing a small contradiction which is that you talk in your interviews about the various themes of the book and why you decided to, for example, take scenes in South Africa. Yet at the same time you also say that it’s unfolding as if you’re watching it. So, how is it unfolding and at the same time you’re doing these things?
Harry, I really thought he could end up a homeless person on the street. I remember thinking a lot about what would it take for him and what is his evolution to not have that happen? That goes back to a larger idea for me which is – how do we write optimistically when we’re living in a time that is not inherently optimistic?
A. M. Homes: That’s the super-cool thing about writing fiction. I describe it sometimes like time travel. You create these characters that didn’t exist before. For me they become very real people. If you do what my teacher Grace Paley talked about, which is to think about the truth according to the character, as they begin to unfold and the story rolls out they do things and go places that are not necessarily where you would expect them to go, and that’s the great adventure.
Richard Wolinsky: When you say “expect,” what do you mean?
A. M. Homes: In many ways I thought that Harry would probably meet a bad end when I started. And then, as the story progressed, much to my very pleasant surprise a couple things happened. These two characters, two children, Ashley and Nate, evolved as wonderful kids and much more complicated than they started off as. I didn’t exactly see that coming, but I was very pleased by it. And Harry, I really thought he could end up a homeless person on the street. I remember thinking a lot about what would it take for him and what is his evolution to not have that happen? That goes back to a larger idea for me which is – how do we write optimistically when we’re living in a time that is not inherently optimistic?
Richard Wolinsky: What struck me in reading the book is that, for the first 150 pages, it’s a very, very black comedy, and people have said, “You don’t laugh out loud reading this book,” but I was laughing out loud at points. There’s a certain point where it changes from being a tragicomedy – a very dark one, but very funny one – into a novel of redemption. Was there a point where you began to see that more clearly, or did it just suddenly evolve that way?
A. M. Homes: The funny answer is both. It began to evolve that way, and the book begins in a very compressed and accelerated way. As you begin to get to know the characters a bit, it doesn’t exactly slow down, but it stretches out a bit. think it’s that part, as a writer and as a reader, that becomes the best part, where you sink into it. It’s like when you’re having a delicious dinner and you don’t really want it to end. You think, “I’d like more of that macaroni and more of that steak.” Somewhere in that part it began to shift to being more about family and more about how Harry was going to build a family that he’d never had. I keep telling people that I think in some ways this is a mid-life coming-of-age book. Whatever that is. I’ve never heard of it before and I’ve never seen one. Harry is a guy who’s just so stuck and so imploded and impacted that he doesn’t even know who he is. He’s functional, but in a very uninspired way. As he has to step up to the responsibility of raising these two children and really figuring out an enormous amount about his life, his family, those hopes and dreams we have that we abandon or early on–how he wants to raise the bar a little bit for himself. All I can say is that it gets good and it gets interesting.
Richard Wolinsky: It seemed to me reading those first pages that, granted he made one terrible, terrible decision, which is the decision to sleep with his brother’s wife, but that’s the only really terrible decision he made. After that he’s like Job. He’s hit on the head time and time and time again until finally at page 150-200, looking at another 300 pages to go, I’m going “What now? He can’t sink lower.” And when you reached that point, where were you? Were you just one day walking around going, “What the hell do I do now?”
A. M. Homes: No, it’s a slow process for me. I don’t write necessarily that quickly, There’s a moment where he goes into an A.A. meeting and he tries to participate, and they kick him out because he doesn’t drink. That’s not his problem, but he needs some confirmation or ability to tell his story. For me, fiction comes out of the world we live in, and it really comes from not just reading the media but reading the culture. There’s a whole bit where he goes on this internet bender dating spree that also ends badly, and as I was writing that friends were saying to me, “You don’t think people really do that, do you?” And I thought, “Yes, they do. I read about this all the time.” That split between who we are in our work lives and our family lives and who these avataristic internet chat personas are–people are having horrible meet-ups with others. I was really trying to get into and under American culture and explore it from the inside out.
Richard Wolinsky: In doing that, you create two very absurdist relationships with two different women, and yet by the end of the book neither relationship is absurd at all.
A. M. Homes: Isn’t that contemporary life? Isn’t that where we are right now?
Richard Wolinsky: There is another element too, which I want to bring in, which is the element of Nixon and the wider culture. Before I do that, let me ask you another question. Some writers say, “I had themes in mind,” and other writers say, “The only way I know about a theme is when I go on tour.” What about you?
We’ve become a country that runs completely on campaign cycles. There are no long-term plans.
A. M. Homes: I don’t have specifically overt themes in mind. I am always trying to write things that are, in a large sense, about the world we’re living in. In this case I had gotten increasingly interested in the intersection of history and narrative and storytelling. That’s why Don Delillo walks through the book a little bit. That’s in part why Nixon is in there.
This isn’t the first time I’ve done it. I wrote a short story a couple years ago called “The Former First Lady and the Football Hero” that was all about Ron and Nancy Reagan and the sense I have that maybe America has Alzheimer’s. I guess I’m increasingly both philosophical and political. I want to write fiction that provokes us to think about that and to own up to who we are in some way.
Richard Wolinsky: Harry’s a professor of history, and he’s teaching Nixon but he’s let go because his boss in the university wants history to be forward-looking. In other words, don’t look back. Obviously I’m reminded of Gore Vidal’s great statement, “We live in the United States of Amnesia,” but you bring up the idea of America as having Alzheimer’s.
A. M. Homes: The chair of the department tells him that history is now more future-forward, and we’re not interested in the past. I think that there is something in our culture where we don’t take notice of what has come before, before we decide what comes next. That scares me. We see it in the past several presidencies, in our education system. I think we see it in a very global way in our planning for infrastructure.
When Obama said he was going to put stimulus money into infrastructure plans, it turned out there were no infrastructure plans because we’ve become a country that runs on a campaign cycle. There are no long-term plans.
Richard Wolinsky: Why choose Nixon?
A. M. Homes: [laughs] There are a couple of reasons. One is as simple as that I grew up in Washington, DC, and Nixon was the first president of my conscious life. I grew up in a very liberal family and we were perpetually marching on Washington, and my parents threatened that we would move to Canada if he was elected for a second time. But also, on a personal level, Nixon’s presidency, and the Watergate break-in, and all of what evolved from there, dovetailed with my own moral and social development. As I was becoming a teenager and watching the world around me shift and watching adults scramble to respond–being in Washington was a very particular kind of strangeness.
Beyond that, I think that everything from Nixon’s idea that if the president does it it’s not illegal has certainly resonated through every presidency, probably even before Nixon and certainly after, and that particular presidency is one that’s continuing to unfold materials that were seized when he left office–the White House Special Files—are still being released. It’s really, really quirky that this year Anne Beattie wrote a book called Mrs. Nixon, Tom Mallon wrote a book called Watergate, and there’s a new play opening in New York called Checkers about the Nixons’ dog. They keep restaging Nixon in China, Robert Wilson’s epic production. The other thread is that Nixon opened relations with China. That was a little more than forty years ago. China now owns more U.S. debt than any other country, every phone we have, every piece of clothing we make, every toy I buy my kid was made in China yet we don’t talk about that both in the culture and in our literature. I find that fascinating.
Richard Wolinsky: I see something else as well, which is that Nixon was the last of the non-telegenic presidents, the last president who was there because he was president not because he gave a good speech.
A. M. Homes: Right. The Nixon-Kennedy debate, which some people may remember, was the first televised debate. People who saw it were sure Kennedy had won. Nixon sweated, looked horrible. People who heard it thought Nixon won. But also the debate was so traumatic to the candidates there was not another televised debate until Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. LBJ refused whatsoever, Nixon would never do it again, and I think that’s interesting. It speaks to exactly what you’re saying—that there was a fundamental shift in the telegenicness and also the charisma needed to be president.
Richard Wolinsky: Yet at the same time I get in reading May We Be Forgiven that Nixon on some level is still emblematic of America.
A. M. Homes: Absolutely, which is a little terrifying. Nixon was a very odd guy. He stayed up very late every night and he wrote on long legal pads for hours and hours and hours and that became the Nixon novels and short stories that appear in this book. Which people keep saying, “Are they real?” and I’m like, “No that’s not real I made them up.” They are based on Nixon’s life.
Richard Wolinsky: You did a lot of research, you went to the Nixon Library. What was that like?
A. M. Homes: It was wonderful. On my Facebook page there was this great photo of a snow globe of Richard Nixon’s birthplace and I realized there’s actually snow in it and I wondered when did it snow in Yorba Linda? Which speaks again to the whole thing of “Oh my God, America is demented!” But the Nixon Library was really interesting because you can actually request materials from the special files. I got a letter from William F. Buckley that says, “I had dinner with Reagan the other night. His nose is out of joint. He thinks you don’t call him often enough.” Then there’s a hand-scrawled note on it that says, “Make note to call Reagan this month. If I can’t do it, have Bob do it.” There are phone records that are in Rosemarie Woods’s handwriting and it’ll say, “8:25 Dr. Kissinger. 9:01 Haldeman. 9:03 Haldeman. 9:08 Haldeman.” I’m not kidding—there will be all these repeats. And then it will say, “The Reverend Billy Graham, Duly in New York,” who was his daughter in New York, “BB,” who was Bebe Rebozo, not even written out as a full name. I found the ephemera of the presidency just to be really, really interesting. Wonderful lines I came across like, George Meany had been the head of the AFL-CIO, and there was a note from Nixon: “When Mr. Meany calls, put him through.” And there was a note because there weren’t digital things and there weren’t exactly Post-Its and on White House stationary it said, “Mr. Meany is on the line.” I love that as a phrase, because it could mean anything.
Richard Wolinsky: I’m thinking about this one other element of Nixon—which may be why we’re drawn to him–which is that we’re looking for a Rosebud moment and for most of the other politicians, we’re not. But for Nixon, there’s still that search for the key that will unlock whatever this strange man was.
A. M. Homes: I don’t think we have any sense of it, honestly. There’s a book that I read as part of my research that’s by his psychiatrist. I think he not just complicated but a much darker psyche than most of us realize.
Richard Wolinsky: Yet he was also the last liberal president.
A. M. Homes: Well, isn’t that fascinating? He started the Environmental Protection Agency. He did all kinds of things that by comparison to what’s out there now you think, “That’s wonderful!”
Richard Wolinsky: We’ve got Nixon and his era and then we’ve got Reagan and his era, which is still reflected in the rantings of someone like Paul Ryan who grew up in that world. Then we’ve got 9/11. You were there in Manhattan. How do you think 9/11 influences your novels and how you look at America through the prism of your novels?
A. M. Homes: It is actually an incredible shift for me in terms of the work. I was home that day. A friend called from St. Vincent’s hospital and said, “Look out your window, a plane just hit the World Trade Center.” And at that point they thought it was a small plane. I looked out and from the view I had from where I lived at the time, I saw through my window the second plane come in. I saw it hit. I stood there watching the whole thing unfold. I actually photographed it because I didn’t know what else to do to make sense of it. But for somebody who lives in their imagination and who is known to be a transgressive dark writer with a dark imagination, what I saw in reality was something I never could have conjured.
It was terrifying because it meant that the world that I relied on to be a very stable place was suddenly no longer stable. Which also meant that it’s a very dangerous time to go into your imagination because what are you going to come out and find? There was a shift there. Part of that shift for me was thinking about our relationships to each other and how we relate to each other and our responsibilities not just to ourselves in the very American narcissistic way but to our communities. I think you begin to see that in my work in the last novel, This Book Will Save Your Life, which is in some ways similar to this one because it’s about a guy who’s worked so hard to earn a lot of money and be successful but he has no life anymore. It’s about him learning to come back to life. May We Be Forgiven is about learning to build families of choice, learning to pull people towards you, and how to interact in an extended community. So, all of that is a shift and even the desire to write optimistically, which is not a literary tradition. In fact, it seems to piss people off if you write at all optimistically. It’s harder to do. It’s harder to write something that has an uplift to it or a sense of redemption than to just be goddamn depressing all the time.
Richard Wolinsky: As the novel expanded in different directions, the idea of faith and religion did take a role. Did you have any idea early on that it would?
A. M. Homes: Not as overtly as it did. The notion of faith or the belief or need for some kind of spiritual or communal life has been on my mind for the last several years. In this book, there is a Jewish theme that I hadn’t ever risked exploring before. In some ways I was afraid to do it because I thought this will be my Jewish book and people will be upset by that. But the secret, or the truth, is that I’m incredibly happy about it. Because it’s also a little bit like that Coen Brothers movie A Serious Man. It’s this Jewish theme but it probably would be equally offensive to Jews because there’s a rabbinical student named Ryan, the adult Chinese adoptee, because the family didn’t like the baby they were offered so they took an adult instead who works at a synagogue. There’s some kind of rollicking great stuff about that in there.
I have a problem with certain religions. I actually had this happen in California: I was travelling one year for the Jewish holidays, and I am Jewish—even though I’m half-Catholic and half-Jewish, I believe myself to be Jewish or Bu-ish or Buddhist Jewish or whatever, anyway—I tried to go to temple for the Jewish holidays and they said to me, “You can’t come.” Basically: “You don’t have a ticket, you’re not a member.” I said, “Well, I’m a member of a temple in New York.” And they said, “Unless you can produce a letter showing us that, you can’t come.” I thought, “This is completely antithetical to everything I understand about the Jewish religion,” that its notion of inclusion—you leave the door open for like Elijah who’s basically invisible to come in, but the New Yorker—the travelling, wandering writer—is not allowed in. I find all those same sorts of things about our contemporary culture fascinating and horrifying.
Richard Wolinsky: As the book progresses we hit another progression, which is the progression of Harry from pure narcissism to a sense of community. If we want to look at a metaphor about the United States that would be the optimism, that we’re moving away from narcissism?
A. M. Homes: I wish we were moving away from narcissism. I want to say it’s the only hope we have. I think we’re still incredibly narcissistic, and the thing that’s interesting is that a lot of European countries while also increasingly narcissistic still have a very firm attachment to place, to their own nationalism, and to the family. European families don’t go far from home. In this country basically you run as fast as you can from wherever you live—across the country—then set up shop in a new place. So I hope the optimism isn’t entirely fictional, but I would say if I were evaluating the country I would put it in the category “needs improvement.”
Richard Wolinsky: Well, I did notice in the book that there are many low points in the life of Harry, and yet he never really has money problems, and you set that up. Why did you decide to ensure that he didn’t have those problems?
There is a way in which some children are more mature than their parents, more knowing and active in their lives. And I like that about them [the two children, siblings Nate and Ashley]. They remind me of the young adults in literature that know too much.
A. M. Homes: I keep thinking I would love to teach a course in the economics of fiction because, whether looking at books, usually from a review point of view or teaching young writers, we never talk about, “How is it this person is able to do these things or how would it be different if they didn’t have money?” Anything from Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City to the Brontes. In this particular book it was a clear choice that I made because I felt like there were so many other things on the table, and there are families in the book that contrast that. In fact there’s a woman who says to Harry at one point, “How could you have any problems?” Basically, “you’re white, you have money, your problems are really insignificant compared to the rest.” I would still say in some ways I think that’s not good enough. I would like to try to figure out how to write fiction which talks more concretely about the impact of economics on our ability to take care of our families, our ability actually to be happy, in some ways.
Richard Wolinsky: You also have a very strange insane asylum for very wealthy people, and a prison that reminds me more of The Hunger Games than anything else [laughs].
A. M. Homes: This is true, the insane asylum actually closes to become an executive conference facility. In my mind it was modeled on a combination of Yaddo, which is this wonderful artist retreat in upstate New York, and then a stranger place called The Point, which is a hotel that was a Rockefeller family home on Lake Placid in very far upstate New York. Historically, there are those places—whether it’s Silver Hill, McLean’s, the elite mental hospital—and I secretly love that he goes into the woodsman program where you’re left out in the woods to eat government cheese from lockers.
Richard Wolinsky: The way you bring it in is—that’s where George the brother has to go when he’s committed crimes. It occurred to me that more than likely early on in the book you figured George would play a bigger role, and he never really does.
A. M. Homes: I don’t think that’s true, that I figured he would play a bigger role. I mean, I knew that what his actions were was going to mean that he was going to have to kind of exit in some form, stage left. His impact and his existence continues to be a factor, but I wanted to focus on Harry and I wanted to focus on the children. I could’ve brought George back in a bit earlier, near the end, he does kind of come back in a way, it’s a bit of choosing, I think.
It takes an enormous amount of energy to hold on to bitterness. I’m a Jubbhist, a Jewish Buddhist. So I’m constantly trying to feel like, how do we let go of things? How do we not let our future be completely tainted by the past, but also be cognizant of the past?
Richard Wolinsky: He’s also the only character who doesn’t change.
A. M. Homes: Right, he does not change. He’s horrible, let’s just be honest.
Richard Wolinsky: The two children, who are eleven and twelve, they’re awfully mature.
A. M. Homes: That’s a valid comment, and dash of criticism, which is valid. The thing that’s interesting to me about them is that there is a way in which some children are more mature than their parents, and more knowing and active and committed in their lives. I knew that about them and I liked them for that, in that they also remind me not literally of a Holden Caulfield, but of those young adults in literature that know too much.
Richard Wolinsky: The title May We Be Forgiven, honestly it put me off at first. Why did you choose the title, and also why did you choose to keep it?
A. M. Homes: I don’t have a straight answer for that. I was interested in what it means to forgive oneself, to not hold a grudge. I’m a Jubbhist, a Jewish Buddhist. So I’m constantly trying to feel like, How do we let go of things? How do we not let our future be completely tainted by the past, but also be cognizant of the past?
Richard Wolinsky: In interviews you’ve talked about this, that fiction written by men and women is very different. Men tend to go with big themes and women tend to deal more with domestic life. I’m sure you’ve gotten some criticism for that comment, but it did strike me in reading the book that it’s one of the few books written by a woman that I would’ve thought was written by a man, even though that sounds sexist.
A. M. Homes: I’ve had this problem my whole life. I write books that are guy books, if there is such a thing. I think it’s funny because I’m a woman, I’ve done a good job putting up with that fact, but there is a difference in the literature and in the way the literature moves in the marketplace even. I’ve always been loathe to talk about it because I feel like I don’t want to come across as, “Oh, she’s a feminist and she writes like a man, what is that all about?” Traditionally men have written the larger social things, women have written the domestic. Grace Paley used to say that women had always done men the favor of reading their work and men had not returned the favor. I have mostly male fans and I like that, but it’s interesting—women are actually usually mad at me, and again, what’s that about?
Richard Wolinsky: The book is written from a man’s perspective and it works, which is something that you don’t usually get.
A. M. Homes: To me, that’s always the highest compliment. In the last book we got a blurb from Steven King, and it wasn’t that it was Steven King, it was that it was a guy the same age as my narrator and he bought it. I think to me as a fiction writer, as someone who makes the stuff up, there’s nothing better than to feel like, “Wow, I can inhabit a body, a mind, an existence so different from mine and have it work.”
“Bookwaves with Richard Wolinsky” originates in the studios of KPFA-FM Pacifica Radio (www.kpfa.org) in Berkeley, California and can also be heard at other radio stations via Pacifica Audioport syndication.