Warning: In A.M. Homes' most recent book, May We Be Forgiven, you will read of a tragic accident that wipes out a family, adultery, pride, hatred between brothers, sexual addiction, attempted murder, death and insanity -- and then you can go on to the second chapter.
However, from the novel's devastating beginning emerges a painful process of redemption. Amidst its darkly funny and compelling narrative, May We Be Forgiven offers the reader the opportunity to reflect on human nature and the possibility of the moral transformation of our lives: both as individuals and as a society.
May We Be Forgiven, which won the prestigious Women's Prize For Fiction for 2013 is the latest in a series of novels and short stories that display Homes' talent as one of the most consistently talented, funny and challenging storytellers of her generation. While most readers associate Ms. Homes with dark and gritty realism, in our interview covering sin, morality, prayer, 9/11 and what it means to 'write with a mission,' A.M. Homes reveals herself as a subtle spiritual thinker, an altruistic ethicist and a closet theologian.
May We Be Forgiven was released in paperback today.
Paul Brandeis Raushenbush: First of all, congratulations on your Women's Prize for Fiction Award.
A.M. Homes: Thank you! There is all this debate in England about that prize. They wonder if we need a prize for women writers or if it is somehow less than equal But if you look at international books by women writers you see the breadth of work that is being done -- women aren't just writing about folding clothing and it is important that we notice that.
A lot of the reviewers of May We Be Forgiven have talked about Cain and Abel and Job to describe your book. They also use the word "biblical.' What does that word mean to you?
I think of the notion of biblical as larger than life; more extreme than what we think of as the average guy and their behavior. But the stories of the Bible are about human nature, the moral lessons that throughout time have not changed at all. And that is what fascinates me.
You say moral lessons, what kind of moral lessons are we going to get out of your writing?
OK, here is the big scary one. In my book The End of Alice which is the novel about a jailed pedophile murderer who says at one point: 'If I am in jail, why is it still happening?' Which throws it back on us as a society to ask: who are we? What role do we have in stopping this from happening, in protecting children, and managing ourselves? That is always one of the big threads for me is our responsibility not just to ourselves but also to others.
What does that say about sin?
Sin is unavoidable. Going back to the earliest stories there is no person who has not sinned. We are not perfect creatures -- there is no such thing. There is no person who is without flaws and failings -- it is a process of knowing yourself and knowing your flaws and not making peace with it and saying it's ok that I do this; but coming to term with oneself -- we are all a work in progress. That is always what I am writing about.
In May We Be Forgiven, (the main character) Harry is a midlife coming of age story -- he has to become a person in this book. We spend a lot of time not knowing ourselves, or not knowing what we already know. It's like saying, I didn't know I was gay, but often it is more that you didn't want to know you were gay because it meant you would have to deal with the following things. We are protecting ourselves in certain ways, not acknowledging what is painful about our own lives.
Are you writing with a goal that people will think about these things?
Secretly yes. Everyone thinks of me as this dark, transgressive writer who is doing all these bad things in literature. But the funny thing is that through all the books these questions come up.
What is it about you that makes you do this?
I have always been, if not a religious person, a spiritual person. I pray every day -- which no one would think. It is a very private thing but I take time to think about other people and other things every day and have always been that way even as a little kid.
I grew up feeling entirely on the outside. It gave me a certain perspective. I have a compulsion towards truth even if it is hard to look at and hard to know; I need to look and need to know. In my family there was a child who died before I was adopted so I think as a child I had a strong awareness of the range and complexity of grief in life.
Do you think that there is something that is moving people towards a more clear sense of themselves, helping them? Is there a sense of God?
I don't really have the real answer to that but in the last novel, This Book Will Save Your Life, there is this heightened situation, an elevation where the main character is doing things on a different scale and the writing is kind of super saturated. It is there to make us look at things differently.
For instance, there is a girl who has been kidnapped who is in the trunk of a car and she is using break lights to send signals and the guy runs the car off the road and rescues the girl -- I mean, it doesn't happen that often right? There are all these things in the book that are beyond the ordinary to remind us that we are capable of much more than we do.
That was the first book that I wrote after 9/11, which was a big wake up call. The physical world around me no longer felt safe enough for me to go into my imagination because I thought, 'if I go into my imagination and come back, what is going to be happening here?' Also it made me consider how to write optimistically in a time that is inherently not optimistic and that was sort of a mandate for me.
It's funny, people will sometimes say 'she has gotten saccharine, she's gotten soft' about the last two books. But no, it's actually harder to get around that corner. It would be easier for Harry in May We Be Forgiven to have a horrible end, and he almost did. But I had to think at an organic level about what has to happen for him to turn that corner? What evolution? That interests me.
It sounds like you are writing with a mission.
I am hesitant to say so, but secretly yes.
You used the word 'optimistic.'
Well, it is about possibility.
Which may be the essence of spirituality, I mean there is no downer spirituality. There is realism, but it is always about somehow getting over.
Right, and the books are kind of hyper realistic and gritty, I mean, no tragedy goes unspoken, which is also why they are funny. Real life is very painful and very difficult and one has to acknowledge the realness of it but one also has to find the humor in it because that is why you tolerate the difficulty.
We also has to find the spiritual food in it, the sustenance -- it's very basic, even when you are having a horrible day and you look up at the sky or a tree -- something outside yourself and in the world and you think 'oh, right, there are beautiful things and there are things that are good.'
I think it is important that the books be entertaining; but also raise questions and offer openings. That to is what spirituality is in part, and what true religion is. In the Quaker idea, you are taking the time to find out that the openings are everywhere. It is taking that time, and letting go for a minute and be in this world. I don't think people read my books and say, 'oh, she is a really spiritual person, she thinks about all these ideas or thinks about God.' But I do.
Is there justice? If we think of God as a just God then do things get 'made right' in your work?
Unfortunately it is more complicated than that. That question throws us back on ourselves: until we are just there is no justice.
If you look at your life, as an A.M. Homes writing you -- are you becoming more self aware, more who you were meant to be?
I think it is a work in progress. Today I had, no joke, four meetings with people about helping other people. But then I went home and yelled at my 86 year old, recently widowed mother because she couldn't do something and I thought: 'great, good job.'
Trust me, I am deeply flawed, and painfully aware of it. But I am constantly working on it. And that kind of work, of helping others whether a teacher, or a foundation or a students, is increasingly more important to me than what I might write. Talking to people about who they want to be in the world and how they are going to get there -- it really interests me.
A.M. Homes, life coach... So, when are you going to become a Rabbi?
I would love to become a Rabbi! One of my favorite students at Columbia didn't become a writer he became a Rabbi and that was one of my greatest success -- I made a Rabbi! I think it is a great thing to facilitate the thought of others, but without a goal without a subject in mind, the subject is life. Which is a really hard subject.
I want to add that just because someone writes about very intense, dark ideas that are taboo and that we don't want talk about doesn't mean that we don't give a lot of thought to the moral and spiritual ideas around them. I'm thinking of someone like Graham Green...
... Or Flannery O'Connor,
Right, there is an incredible literary history of this, but in our in our time there is less..
And they were given a pass because they could say 'Oh, but I'm Catholic', so it all has a moral overlay automatically; that's the reason that Flannery wrote the introduction to Wise Blood making clear that she was a Catholic.
Right, and Everything Rises Must Converge is an idea that comes from Teilhard de Chardin...
And for me, your book This Book Will Save Your Life has echoes of The Life You Save May Be Your Own...
And May We Be Forgiven I mean... I feel like people are missing it. I think it's like the perfect book for Yom Kippur, At Yom Kippur you're asking not just forgiveness for what you have done, but also for what you might have done, and for what you didn't even know you did... It shouldn't be just once a year -- wake up, be aware, be mindful of how you move through the world.