A.M. Homes is most recently the author of May We Be Forgiven. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #58 and The Bat Segundo Show #115.
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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Seeing if there’s anyone left to forgive him.
Author: A.M. Homes
Subjects Discussed: May We Be Forgiven as an update to White Noise, Nixon as a replacement for the Holocaust, Don DeLillo’s influence, Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon, David Greenberg’s Nixon’s Shadow, the evolution of televised presidential debates, growing up with Nixon as the first President on one’s consciousness, how personal commentary has replaced professional commentary, references to David Lynch in May We Be Forgiven, This Book Will Save Your Life, families as an inevitable narrative solution, how a series of calamities unexpectedly transformed into dimensional character, the picaresque qualities of The Adventures of Augie March, knowing when a protagonist has a path, turning uninteresting lumps into vivid people, Paul Slovak’s input as editor, being asked to add material to the manuscript, finding hope and battling literature, including vaguely surreal qualities that are real, the South African bar mitzvah as cultural triangulation, being taught by Grace Paley, taking Yaddo people of all ages to play Laser Tag, John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” Blake Bailey, Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That, the hunger for lost communication, media and narrative in relation to existence, fashioning a narrative based off quotidian minutiae, Instagram, how American fiction responds to the predicament of snapshot-based life, men who write big books, assumptions about women writing domestic novels, George’s homicidal impulses, unusual psychiatric institutions within May We Be Forgiven, when a novel adopts a hostile stance to therapy, Homes’s enrollment in a prison survival class, Erving Goffman’s Asylums, having a lifelong fear of ending up in jail, the burdens of being an outsider, how outsiders become insiders, Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, why even outsiders even needed to be rooted, balancing being an insider with being an outsider, the responsibilities of being a Girl Scout leader, when trying to be like other people doesn’t come naturally, operating within a system, growing up in an upper middle class suburb, having socialist parents, lunatics who believe in rational conversation, simple anti-Thanksgiving food contained within May We Be Forgiven, fish sticks, Nixon and China, the dangers of stereotypical Chinese characters, George Shima*, working the cultural and the psychological fiction angles rather than the socioeconomic ones, Chinese manufacturing, the women who are attracted to Harry Silver, whether empathy gives promiscuity a distinction, the inevitability of family history, Homes being judgmental to her characters, how viewpoints change with age, pretending that you don’t have a family, and when parents interfere within telephone calls at inopportune moments.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: You’ve got this guy named Harry Silver. He’s a Nixon Studies scholar. And this, together with a homeless version of Don DeLillo who crops up in the book, suggests a deep connection to, of course, White Noise. And I wanted to ask you about this. To what extent would you say this novel serves almost as an update to White Noise? And has Nixon replaced the Holocaust as the go-to reflective tragedy in American life?
Homes: That’s a very enormous and large and interesting question. Did you say a homeless DeLillo?
Correspondent: Well, he’s like a homeless DeLillo. He’s a ragged DeLillo in the book.
Homes: Well, he’s not homeless.
Homes: He’s a wandering DeLillo.
Correspondent: A wandering DeLillo. All right. A vagabondish DeLillo.
Homes: In fact, in my mind, I’m stressing that. Because I thinking that the novel takes place quite near where DeLillo lives in reality. So I’m sure that he’s well housed.
Correspondent: Is DeLillo apprised of your narrative tinkering here?
Homes: I’m not sure.
Correspondent: Along with David Remnick and all the others. Lynne Tillman even shows up.
Homes: I think they’re dimly aware and soon will be more aware.
Correspondent: They certainly will be very soon. But anyway, White Noise.
Homes: The bigger question.
Correspondent: Nixon. Holocaust.
Homes: Right. You know it’s funny. I hadn’t thought about it directly in relation to White Noise, which I think conceptually or philosophically in terms of how I think of as a writer. Clearly, DeLillo is a huge influence. And it’s funny. You know how — I think it is in White Noise — there’s the big airborne incident? Which if you go back to Music for Torching, there’s that thing where they close off the house with the hazmat and all that stuff. It definitely comes out of that. But I think for me, the thing about DeLillo that’s so interesting — especially increasingly — is his ability to blend fact and fiction, and to combine the exploration of fact through the use of fictional characters. Like in Libra and in White Noise and in the last novel and in Underworld. So that definitely is a touchstone for me. I think the thing’s that interesting about Nixon as the defining American tragedy in some ways…
Correspondent: The only one people can remember.
Homes: Well, exactly. The only one that people can remember. But you know, what caught me off guard was that this year, Ann Beattie published the book Mrs. Nixon, which is very much a literary response not only to Mrs. Nixon, but to her own kind of evolution as a writer and a thinker. And I think that that book was in many ways was underreviewed or inappropriately reviewed or taken too much along the lines by Nixon scholars as being about Nixon and not enough as a literary exploration. But then also Tom Mallon wrote this book called Watergate: A Novel. So I think it’s odd that all of a sudden, without having spoken to each other, three people are launching Nixon-related fiction in a given year, which I think says that, yes, there is something about Nixon that is in some ways unresolved and that is representative of a classic American tragedy.
Correspondent: Well, I have to ask. How much research into Nixon did you do? Because I thought immediately of David Greenberg’s book, Nixon’s Shadow.
Homes: I don’t think I know that one.
Correspondent: Oh! It’s a really wonderful book that’s all about Nixon’s image. And I had developed this theory in my own head that you had actually read that book and said, “Well, I’ll make the brother a television executive.” Of course, if you look at Nixon from a purely straight standpoint, it was television that he learned to understand and therefore learned to master and become who he was.
Homes: It was also television that initially also undid him in the public eye.
Correspondent: Exactly. Unless, of course, you closed your eyes and listened to it on radio.
Homes: Well, right. So I wrote the other day this piece for one of the newspapers in England that talks about how after the Nixon/Kennedy debate, the people who heard it on radio thought that Nixon had won and the people who’d seen it on TV thought Kennedy had won. And that was the first ever, for TV, debate. But curiously after that, Nixon refused to debate again. So there was no debate. Then LBJ, also intimidated by it, refused to debate. It wasn’t until Gerald Ford in ’76 that the debates came back. And I think what’s so interesting is, we see right now in looking at the televised convention, we all know in a way how much the media plays a role in it. But the other piece we don’t even get to evaluate is how much the guy in the media truck plays a role in it. Because it’s also a lot about how that producer’s shots of the audience or what he cuts to or how they literally frame and deliver it to us. We’re not thinking about the choices that are made for us and that guide us in lots of ways that we don’t realize. So I find that all very interesting. For me, Nixon, weirdly, is a childhood thing. I grew up just at the edge of Washington DC and Nixon was the first President of my consciousness. And we took these class field trips to see Nixon greet the leader of France and things, and we’d be playing on the White House lawn while Nixon’s up there speaking. Because what did we know? Nothing. We were little, little kids. And we always used to see the Nixon girls in the shoe department at Saks, which funnily enough, Ann Beattie writes about the shoe department at Woodward & Lothrop was the opposite store from Saks in that neighborhood called Friendship Heights, just at the edge of Washington. It’s also things like I was at summer camp when Nixon resigned. In the South. And I remember this one counselor saying something like “I bet my mom was having a heart attack.” And I remember thinking, “That’s so odd. Because in Georgetown, I’m sure they’re having a party.” So just beginning to realize that the President wasn’t just the mayor of a town, but this much larger figure. So Nixon really for me evolved as part of my growing up, but also, curiously, there’s still more and more information about Nixon and Nixon’s presidency being unveiled. Which we don’t have usually to that degree of a President.
Correspondent: But there’s also this intriguing idea that you present in your book that I actually thought of last night in relation to the Democratic National Convention and watching Obama speak — last night would be when we are recording this. This is the first series of political conventions where now you’re required to participate in the commentary. On Twitter. I was tweeting up a storm. So was everybody else. And it’s a rather fascinating idea that, instead of actually studying or trusting other people to comment upon the actions, we are the ones who actually filter it. And people now seem to be watching CSPAN. They don’t necessarily trust the news. I mention this because, in light of what your book has to say about narrative — I want to get into this too. So little time. I’ll do my best. So you have at least three references to David Lynch in this book. You have the tied cherry stems. You have “blue velvet curtains.” You have a missing girl who shows up later, which is very reminiscent of Laura Palmer. And I said to myself, “Hmmm. Well, isn’t this interesting?” And isn’t it also interesting that you even have a firm show up. Herzog, Henderson & March. Which of course has us going back to Bellow. And, of course, you mentioned DeLillo earlier. What is the degree that narrative now plays in our life if we’re constantly commentating? Does fiction even have a place for reflection anymore? Or do we now have to, as you have with this book quite wonderfully, stuff our novels with commentary on all sorts of things so that people can commentate further? What of this?
Homes: You know, it’s a good question. And in many ways, I don’t actually know the answer. I mean, I think the idea of “Does fiction have a place?” is an important one. And I think people really don’t know anymore what the difference between fiction and nonfiction is. And often they’ll say, “So you wrote a fictional novel?” And I’m thinking, “That’s right.” Or they’ll say, “Is it all true?” And you think, “Well, it’s a novel.” So it’s very difficult. And I’m not sure that there is a sense of what the role of the novel is. It’s kind of in culture at this point. And it would be curious to actually try to think about what the evolution of that is. We’ve kind of lost that. Is it a result of the memoir? The idea that everything has to be a real thing. Reality TV. The impact of all these things. Have we moved away from an imagination? And my sense is that in many ways — I mean, I see this when I teach — people have forgotten what the imagination is and how to use it. It’s as though there’s not any trust in the idea of being able to make something that wasn’t there before, as though that’s too magical an idea, or how to use fiction and story to weave something together that is a heightened version of an unreal thing that is incredibly reflective of real experience in some way.
Correspondent: Well, I’m going to quote from This Book Will Save Your Life. You have the voiceover of the disaster film. “What you are about to see is a work of fiction. It has not yet happened and yet each of the elements represented are real. It was written using everything I know about the state of the world we live in, which means it’s coming soon.” So here we have in May We Be Forgiven, this notion of “coming soon.” Each of the elements are represented as real. I’m curious if this was in fact a problem in writing the book. Because the first half of the book has Harry engaged in one calamity after another. It’s this heap of abuse and he carries through. But then something rather interesting happens halfway through. Families are formed. Families are formed in the strangest of places. And every amount of narrative that you can actually heap upon Harry, going back to this idea of “coming soon,” well, it’s simply not enough for him to live as a character, as a human. So I’m wondering how this dilemma afflicted you during the writing of this and how this was your response. The idea of family, the idea of finding other people and creating this interesting snowball effect. So by the end, we have all these people in the house and so forth.
Homes: Right. That’s a good question. I’m not sure exactly what the question is. But I think the thing that was interesting for me is that this, in many ways, started as a short story. Not in many ways. It did start as a short story. So I feel like if you cause a tragic injury in the beginning, you have to raise the stakes. Because where do you go from there? On Page 20, there’s this gigantic upsetting incident. So part of it was that. And also the interesting thing for me as a writer was, early on, my difficulty with Harry was that I was writing about somebody who didn’t know himself. And it’s very hard to be led by a person who doesn’t know where they’re going. So I think as Harry began to unfold as a person, to himself actually, he became more of a character. A more open character to me as a writer. If that makes any sense. Because only by coming to some understanding of who he is and what’s happening to him is he then able to make the connections. And the connections are family and to build this family. And that’s both what slows him down and what begins to kind of ground it. And then you’re not rolling from calamity to calamity. And I think it’s very true of our lives as well. That we often live in reaction to things and things happen to us. And it’s very hard sometimes to get enough — I don’t know what you call it — traction to slow it down, to make choices or to take action or to not just be responding.
The Bat Segundo Show #486: A.M. Homes III (Download MP3)
* — At the 36:29 mark, during an impromptu moment, Our Correspondent mistakenly referred to “Joe Shima” when he meant to refer to George Shima. George Shima was known as the Potato King of California and his story deserves more than the rushed reference offered by Our Correspondent. When the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — one of the most diabolically racist acts of legislation in our nation’s history — restricted Chinese laborers in the States, including those who had just come across the Pacific to work on the transcontinental railroad, several Japanese came across and took their place because of the domestic labor shortage. George Shima became a self-made millionaire. Our Correspondent suggested that Shima had fought the Chinese Exclusion Act, when he really fought against the California Alien Land Law years later (which restricted Asians from owning land), although he was quite vocal about many of the discriminatory laws during the line. Much of this is documented in Kevin Starr’s excellent volumes of California history. And if you would like to learn more about George Shima, there’s a good article here (PDF).