Author AM Homes: “We still live in a world where the work of male writers dominates”


Written June 2013

Sitting in a chaotic green room at the London South Bank centre, the American author AM Homes is surrounded by a buzz of journalists and PR representatives, eager to get her attention. Moments earlier, she was announced as the winner of the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction with her sixth novel, May We Be Forgiven. The book is a hilarious black comedy in which a family is torn apart by one man’s rapid descent into murderous insanity.

For an author who excels in writing about the shocking (within the first 30 pages of May We be Forgiven, a fatal road accident, an affair, a divorce, and horrific domestic violence have all occurred), it’s now very much Homes’s turn to be shocked – by her first major literary prize.

“I didn’t think I could win,” she tells me, looking genuinely surprised. “I thought Hilary Mantel could win, I thought Barbara Kingsolver could win, I thought Zadie Smith could win, I thought Kate Atkinson could win, I thought Maria Semple could win – but not me!

“It feels fantastic. At the moment it’s still not real, but otherwise fantastic.”

Homes, 51, whose first name is Amy, is in favour of the all-female shortlist of the award, something that has provoked controversy in the past from some who have branded the prize as sexist.

Powerful ideas run throughout her work. She does not hold back from addressing issues such as broken families, difficult relationships, old age and mental health.

“It’s all of a progression. You can go back and look at my first novel Jack, written when I was 19 years old, about a boy whose parents are divorced because his father is gay, and you can see the very same sensibility and interest in family and identity in that story as you see in May We Be Forgiven, which is a much more complex book written by a 50-year-old. But they’re literally thirty years apart.”

In between Jack and May We Be Forgiven, came her 1997 novel The End of Alice, a novel written as a series of letters between a 19-year-old girl and an imprisoned paedophile. It provoked outcry from the NSPCC in this country, who called for the novel to be banned. WH Smith refused to stock it.

I ask Homes whether she considers herself to be a controversial writer. “The truth is, I don’t think in those terms. I write because I want to write about ideas that I want people to talk about. I want people to look in the mirror and see themselves differently, whether that means seeing ourselves more clearly or to see a different side of ourselves.

“What’s interesting to me about The End of Alice is that it came out fifteen years ago and provoked enormous debate and discussion. The ideas in that book, about a guy who is a jailed paedophile murderer, are still on the front page of every newspaper around the world. When I was last here in the fall, the Jimmy Savile story was just breaking, and there was stuff just this week – paedophilia is still a huge issue.

“I think until we as a society take responsibility for how we deal with paedophilia, then it will continue, because it happens in secret and off-stage and often it seems that many people who abuse children were themselves abused. So it’s a cycle, and I think people in society need to be conscious of the issue and participate rather than just running from it. It’s abhorrent to all of us, but you have to kind of step up. It’s interesting that that book is still as terrifying, and it is terrifying. If people come up to me and say I loved the end of The End of Alice, that’s a frightening thought to me, because it’s not a book that’s meant to be loved, it’s not like How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

“I think literature plays different roles, and different books are important for different reasons.”

May We Be Forgiven is certainly important, and very relevant as an insight into modern day life, particularly our obsession with technology. The main protagonist, Harry Silver, turns to the internet in order to escape his nightmarish reality and begins to indulge in a series of online internet hook-ups.

“I spend a lot of time looking at contemporary life. I spend a lot of time thinking about the impact of technology on people. I tend not to want to write things that are just technological and of the moment but we really are living differently as a result of the internet: the way people are dating, meeting and interacting online, the way in which we buy and sells things, and also, more importantly and more psychologically, the way we develop an alter-ego or a different identity of who we are online and how we chat to people and pretend to be someone else. That fascinates me.”

Homes has also described how May We Be Forgiven was written in the shadow of 9/11, an event she actually witnessed. She looked out of the window of her apartment and saw the second plane hit the South Tower.

“After 9/11 I was very aware that the world around me, which had previously felt safe and was a place where I felt free to depart into my imagination, literally didn’t feel stable anymore. I felt that daily life was under threat. And I really feel like that is the very definition of terrorism; when what you would normally do is suddenly suspicious, or you feel you would not want to do that because it would put you at risk.

“It changed a lot about my thinking in terms of how we need to be not just responsible for ourselves but the world around us, for our communities, for an extended circle, and I also felt like I wanted to think about how to write optimistically at a time in our world which is not inherently optimistic.”

“My literary heroes are authors like John Cheever, and Don DeLilo, who appears in the novel, and I think a lot about a post-World War Two culture where there was this sense of great possibility and growth in America, which very quickly turned dark. Everything suddenly became a lot more about consumerism and every man for himself. It went from being this time of optimism and possibility, to a time of the Kennedy era – this great society which very quickly turned into this society where we had the assassination, the Vietnam War, the Nixon administration. I love history and I think secretly that’s what I’m writing about in some ways.

I ask Homes what she intends to do with her £30,000 winnings. The answer is not quite as exciting as I had imagined: “I took out a home loan while writing the novel because it took so long to write. So I’m going to pay that back. I’ve also been wearing the same pair of shoes for the last ten years, and as you can see, they’re wearing out, so I think I may actually get a new pair of fancy shoes. That’s the fancy life of a literary writer!”

And what’s next for the author? “A glass of champagne!” comes the jubilant response. Not a glass of Baileys, I ask her innocently? (It was announced earlier this week that the Prize from next year on will be sponsored by the creamy liqueur brand, Baileys, provoking a mixed reaction on Twitter.)

“I kind of like it,” she says, not too convincingly. “It’s a very sort of special, you know, thing.”