Hope and change
A.M. Homes on ‘May We Be Forgiven’
Wickedly funny yet refreshingly hopeful, A.M. Homes’ latest book is a picaresque rollercoaster of a story. May We Be Forgiven follows Harold Silver, a middle-aged suburban everyman who gets the chance to change his lackluster life for the better—if only he can figure out how to go about it. We caught up with Homes, who lives in New York City, to talk about her memorable characters, the absurdity of modern life and the very human need for forgiveness.
You’ve said before that a writer’s job is to “know the things about ourselves that we don’t want to know.” What unpleasant truths did you uncover in writing this particular story?
May We Be Forgiven is filled with characters having to confront themselves—both Harry and George come up against their emotional truths, their own dashed dreams, hopes of who they might be. On the upside, in some really lovely ways, Harry and the children, Nate and Ashley, actually become the people they hope to be.
You’ve also said that you may have “an old-man psyche.” Harold Silver isn’t particularly old, but he can be curmudgeonly and he’s definitely very male. What was it like inhabiting his voice? Did it come naturally to you?
Writing from a male point of view has always come naturally to me—my first book, Jack, which I wrote when I was 19, was from the point of view of a 13-year-old boy, and my last novel, This Book Will Save Your Life, was from the experience of a middle-aged man—I think a lot about what my teacher and mentor Grace Paley taught me about, “writing the truth according to the character.” It’s not about what I think—it’s about what’s accurate for the character, learning whose story you’re telling and what’s at risk for your characters, and also having a sense of their life before the book begins—i.e. what brought them to this moment—and why we’re calling the reader’s attention to this point in time.
The opening scenes in May We Be Forgiven were initially published as a short story. Was it always your intention to turn this haunting and oddly funny premise into a full-length book?
Oddly enough the novel was begun as a short story written for Zadie Smith’s anthology The Book of Other People, which was a benefit for one of Dave Eggers’ projects. I started writing it but didn’t finish in time and so it appeared instead in Granta’s 100th issue—and then even as that was being turned in—the story just kept going. I had this happen once before with Music for Torching—which also took me by surprise. One of the difficulties inherent in these short stories that take on a life of their own is that in both cases—about 20 pages in—there’s an event that would in a traditional tale end the story—i.e. a murder or the burning down of a house—so it raises the curious question of where do the writer and the characters go from there.
"The author’s job is reading the culture—if you are attentive to how things are unfolding, you’ll gather a lot of information ahead of the curve."
This book wonderfully and unpredictably toes the line between dark and comic, realistic and absurd, fatalistic and uplifting. To what extent was this intentional and was it difficult to balance such conflicting tones?
The shifting from realism to the absurd and fantastical was entirely intentional—and very much intended as a heightened version of what life is like these days, as so much of our experience is wildly absurd and hard to predict. It is the conflict between the more traditional, familiar world and this new entirely weird world that interests me—the impact of media, of technology, of shifting values on people who in many ways can barely keep up.
Long ago someone dubbed my work “emotional science fiction” and I think that was quite accurate—it takes reality and current conditions and pushes them just a little bit out there beyond our comfort zone. What I honestly find worrisome is how often they turn out to be accurate prognostications of the future—i.e. the story where the old woman has a GPS chip installed and so on, the fact that Music for Torching, which ends with a school shooting, came out just before Columbine—when that kind of thing was still quite rare. The author’s job is reading the culture—if you are attentive to how things are unfolding, you’ll gather a lot of information ahead of the curve. To me it’s all the more interesting given it takes me 5-7 years to write a book.
Harry is an extremely convincing Nixon scholar. Has Nixon always interested you? What type of historical research did you do to write this book?
I grew up in Washington, D.C., during the Nixon administration—my school class used to take trips to the White House—we’d be playing on the lawn as Nixon was welcoming the French President and so on. So he’s always loomed large in my mind—and importantly Watergate unfolded when I was an adolescent so it had a huge impact in my world. I did a lot of reading of books by and about Nixon and traveled to Yorba Linda where he was born and where there’s an excellent Nixon library. I’m fascinated by him as a figure and also by those who surrounded him. Also important is that details of his presidency are continuing to unfold—documents that were seized in 1972 when he resigned are still being released—history is continuing to unfold and the connections between Nixon and those who both preceded his term and those who have followed are significant.
To that end, what does Nixon represent about the fallibility of all men? Is he a stand-in for the narrator?
He’s not a stand-in—but I think he’s interesting as a flawed figure, a man who in many ways is his own worst enemy.
A lot of the book’s minor characters are Chinese. Aside from the Nixon link, what do they represent?
It’s curious isn’t it—Chinese characters have been appearing with increasing frequency in my fiction—the story that in many ways in my mind is the precursor to this novel is one called “The Chinese Lesson.” The main characters in that story are prototypes for Harry and his wife Claire. And then a couple of years ago I wrote a story called “Omega Point or Happy Birthday Baby” and there’s a very strong Chinese connection in that story—and a blending of fact and fiction—as relates to 75 Chinese men coming to work to bust a strike in a shoe factory in North Adams, Massachusetts (the town where my beloved Grandmother Jewel was born). A man named Lue Gim Gong, was among them—he was later known as The Citrus Wizard for developing a frost-resistant orange. All that to say I am very interested in the intersection of American and Chinese history and the impact of Nixon’s visit to China—without that opening of relations with China—where would we be now?
The act of eating—consumption and cleansing—also seems to be a persistent theme. Has this always interested you and what does it mean for Harry over the course of his journey?
It’s funny, people always notice themes/repetitions in my work—often there’s a lot of food and someone once counted the number of things set on fire and amount of Diet Coke and Valium consumed—which at the time was also quite a lot—curiously there’s been a sharp drop in both over the years. In terms of the meaning of it—I don’t think I would assign any particular meaning—but would leave that kind of thing to the reader’s interpretation.
Redemption is a concept that appears very early in the novel, but doesn’t become realized until the very end. From whom do you think Harry—or for that matter anybody—is seeking forgiveness? How do we know when we have, in fact, been forgiven?
That’s a very good question, and I’ll answer it by saying that in the Jewish religion every year at Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—we fast and ask for forgiveness. We begin by saying, “ For the sin we committed before you”—by being ignorant—or for the sin of envy or speaking poorly about others. We literally beat our breast and go over a litany of possible sins and whether or not we have committed them and we ask to be forgiven.
I find it deeply satisfying to confess, even for things I have not done—to repent for ideas, to repent for transgressions of the mind—to raise the bar for the coming year and hope to do better.
Importantly it is also at this time that we forgive others—as much as we ask for forgiveness for ourselves.
OK, so I’m getting a bit lofty here, but the idea is that we should accept responsibility for our transgressions and importantly go beyond that and make an effort to do better in the future.
As a reader, it was surprisingly and touchingly difficult to say goodbye to these characters. Was that true for you as well?
Yes. This book took many years longer than I thought it would—and it was a wonderful adventure to watch these characters grow and change in ways that often surprised me. Writing a book is like having a relationship—by the time I’m done—I am convinced these characters are real and walking among us and I fully expect to hear from them again soon—for example—what classes is Nate taking this fall?
RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of May We Be Forgiven.