Author Chat with A.M. Homes
Transcript of Live Chat
July 28, 2008
Miriam Good evening, everyone. I’m Miriam Tuliao of The New York Public Library, and it is my pleasure to welcome you to a very special Summer Reading program. Joining us tonight for a live online discussion is A. M. Homes, the author of the memoir, The Mistress’s Daughter, and several well-received novels including Music for Torching (1999) and The End of Alice (1997), as well as, the short story collections The Safety of Objects (1990) and Things You Should Know (2002).
am_homes Much thanks for having me with you tonight--looking forward to answering questions and talking about the "writing life."
Miriam Please join me in welcoming our special guest, A. M. Homes and feel free to chime in with any questions or comments. Welcome, A. M. And welcome, audience.
Miriam A. M.’s critically acclaimed novel, This Book Will Save Your Life, is one of the nineteen celebrated works of fiction featured on this year’s Summer Reading booklist for adults, Metamorphosis @ Your Library. This Book Will Save Your Life has received much critical praise. Donna Seaman of Booklist wrote that the novel hits a high mark with “its aerodynamic prose, finely calibrated humor, and spiky characters, each a master of antic extemporizing and improbable spiritual evolution.”
CPA Where do you get the creativity for the small side stories. I especially likes the one where the donut shop owner (forgot his name) tells about his cousin with the fotomat booth
am_homes Well funny enough--the bit about the photo booth--was an evolution--originally Anhil was the guy with the photo booth--when I first thought up the book it was set outside of Palo Alto and was more about money and success. But basically the small ideas come from noticing the world around us, and the movement of the world--ie how there are no more photo booths.
CPA also, as a male, i am fascinated about how well you empathise and/or sypathise with the male psyche. you pretty much got it right too
am_homes thanks. I am truly a fiction writer, meaning that for me the work of fiction is inhabiting characters who are other than myself--and I very much enjoy the male psyche.
CPA had you ever personally experienced a multi-day silent meditation?
am_homes No--but I have experienced multi-day, week, visits to artist colonys which have Silent Hours from 9-4...
CPA About The Mistress' Daughter - there is an allusion to your suing your birth-father (5 pages of litigation questions). but you never state that you did. Did you? did ever join the Daughter of American Revolution?
am_homes I never sued him nor did I join the DAR.
lynne How do you prepare to get inside the head of the character?
am_homes I think about what is true for any given character, I think about their life experience their needs and desires and begin to get a feel for how they might see the world--concepts of compassion are very helpful...I don't judge my characters....
Miriam This Book Will Save Your Life tells the story of Richard Novak, a middle-aged man who experiences a sinking situation and tries to bring himself back to life. For those in the audience who have not had the opportunity to read the novel, A.M., may I ask you: What is Richard Novak’s view of the world?
am_homes That's a very good question and in an odd way not one I know how to answer--I think of my self as the author of the books but not the best interpreter of them. That said, I think it's a wake up call for Richard and all of us to think about how we live in relation to each other and to think about what we can do to help/support/care for each other--it's an ecosystem despite the every man for himself mentality.
CPA was there any further contact with your birth father at all. any reaction to your writing the book? did he get to see it before you published it?
am_homes The last conversation I had with my biological father is the one reported in the book several months after my biological mother passed away.
Anthony Hi A.M.Homes, it is an honor to chat with you live. What specific themes did you emphasize throughout the novel? and what do you think you are trying to get accross to the reader?
am_homes I don't think in terms of themes, I am usually hoping that readers will enjoy the books and that reading them will prompt readers to think about their own lives and the people around them.
michele Hello A.M.! Your book, JACK, is a beautiful, edgy book for teens. Now that you have written so many books that have an adult audience, do you think you will ever write another book especially for teens, now that so many other "adult" authors are doing so?
am_homes I was 19 when I wrote Jack and never thought of it as a book for teens vs adults, i just thought of it as a book for people--unaware of the break between adult and young adult books--that said I would hope that sometime (soon) i'd write some more books that can be read by children, teens, and adults. I like the idea of a family book--I think of John Steinbeck as that kind of writer--and also Toni Morrison--The Bluest Eye can be read by young people or older people--same with Grapes of Wrath and you take from it what you can.
CPA when you write dialogue - do you talk the conversation out loud by yourself? do you invite a friend to pretend to be one of the characters and actually talk back and forth?
am_homes No--for me it has to work on many levels--my influences for dialogue come from playwrights--Edward Albee, Harold Pinter.
CPA have you ever read your own book a long time after finishing it? what is that like?
am_homes No-i'm too busy trying to write the next book.
Miriam Would you consider Richard Novak (of This Book Will Save Your Life) a tragic hero with a tragic flaw? Or a comic hero with a comic flaw?
am_homes I really don't think in those terms--but that said--BOTH. I think when one is funny you can talk about some very serious/tragic things. That in fact tragedy without comedy is unbearable.
michele Can you speak about your interest in the visual arts. You write about artists whose works I find compelling!!
am_homes Sure--Art is food for thought for me. I grew up in a family that valued art making a lot--and it's always been part of my process--when I'm stuck writing a story, i draw my way out of it--literally. I look at art for inspiration and i very much enjoy the company of artists--they're excellent readers and very connected to what's happening in the world--and bottom line, I'm jealous, they can talk on the phone or listen to NPR while painting, and writers simply can not write and talk or listen at the same time.
Sheba In "This Book Will Save Your Life," there are constant references to the money that Richard is spending. I get that money is about what he was holding within himself before and now he's letting it all out and making connections with the world, etc. But it kind of drove me crazy...I felt like I should be keeping track of how his savings were being depleted. (Of course, by the end of the book, finances were pretty much a moot point.) But can you talk about why you stressed the money so much?
am_homes I very much wanted to write about how Money changes a person and how money affects our lives--what interests me in the study of literature is how we don't talk about the economics of fiction... that's something I'm going to be working on this fall--in a class I'm teaching at NYU looking at how money affects the story itself.
lynne has technology affected your writing process?
am_homes yes--when I used to type on a typewriter there was an automatic revision process that happened when i had to re-type something .... now, I still edit a lot, I print out--edit on hard copy, put in the changes and keep going. I once printed all the major drafts of a book--it was 11 feet tall.
Anthony What was unique about the setting of the book and how did it enhance or take away from the story?
am_homes if your talking about This Book Will Save Your Life--it's set in Los Angeles, and the city itself is very much a character, what with floods, fires, tar pits etc. I find the geography and the variability of Los Angeles fascinating.
lynne what type of books do you read? and what books are your guilty pleasure?
am_homes I love biographies and non-fiction. Am interested in science, technology, all kinds of "non-fiction"
michele Are there authors who have continue to serve as inspiration for your work?
am_homes I'm a huge fan of John Cheever and Richard Yates
Sheba That sounds like an interesting course! Do you mean how class and economic systems affect fictional characters? Sometimes, of course, a novel is naturalistic and very much set in a particular time and place. But other times -- as with "This Book," somewhat -- the setting is kind of surreal and outside of time. What books do you plan to use in your course, or can you name something that could stand next to "This Book" as another portrait of economics affecting a protagonist?
am_homes yes exactly--I'm just thinking about it now--and looking for examples--one is Richard Yates Revolutionary Road--the "first" novel of Suburbia, but no doubt there are many others...In some ways you could also look at a book like The Color Purple in an economic setting---if you have ideas I'd love to hear them.
lynne do you think that mfa programs have changed the publishing industry?
am_homes not really--MFA programs have been going for a long time--on the one hand they're like finishing schools for some writers--but on the other plenty of people publish who have never been in a writing program--and lots of people in writing programs never publish a book--you can teach craft--you can't teach talent.
lynne what advice would you offer aspiring writers?
am_homes write and write and write--and re-write. One of the biggest pieces of being a good writer is being someone who writes a lot. Think about what you want the reader to get from your work--what the desired emotion or effect is and work towards that. And don't give up--even though it's hard and filled with rejection.
lynne have you had mentors along the way?
am_homes Yes, Grace Paley was one of my teachers, Doris Grumbach was another, Allan Gurganus was an important figure for me--as was Edward Albee, and Pinter, he and Arthur Miller each once wrote me, as did Joseph Heller which meant an enormous amount.
lynne and have you been a mentor or coach to other writers?
am_homes yes-for many years I taught writing at Columbia, and also at The New School, now this fall I'll be at NYU and am looking forward to it.
lynne what does teaching offer you as a writer?
am_homes sometimes it prompts me to clarify my thoughts on the "state" of things--it also offers me a chance to give back something--to participate in a younger writer's development. i also do a lot of other things--I'm very active at PEN, Yaddo, and The Writers Room.
Sheba I'm thinking, too...I suppose historical fiction would be a good genre to mine, at least for the naturalistic ones. Kevin Baker's novels about NYC ("Paradise Alley," "Dreamland"), Elana Dykewomon's "Beyond the Pale" (about a striving Jewish immigrant on the early 20th century LES)..."Them" by Joyce Carol Oates, "Mystic River" by Dennis Lehane, "Little Children" by Tom Perrotta. Just thinking of random books I've read whose plots turn on poverty and/or class differences.
am_homes These are all good ideas. Thank you.
lynne sounds like a rich writing life being surrounded by creative people.
michele Will you ever write another book for especially for teen readers?
am_homes yes I hope to write multiple books that would be of interest to teens (as well as adults)
Miriam This concludes tonight’s online program. Thank you all for this rich discussion. And a special thank you, A. M. Homes, for joining us.
am_homes Much thanks to all of you--and if you have more questions or comments--I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Again, thanks.
Miriam If you enjoyed you tonight’s program, we hope that you will join us on Monday, August 11th at 6:30 PM for a live chat with Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain.