American writer AM Homes pushed many literary buttons in her time, unafraid to raise the questions that haunt us, hurt us, and ultimately heal us.
His new book The course (Viking) is out this month, his first since winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2013 for his sixth novel may we be forgiven (his new book will be his 13th). At the time, the judges’ chair described his work as “a dazzling, quirky and viscerally funny black comedy – a subversion of the American Dream”.
She’s about to dazzle again with The course which couldn’t come out at a more prescient time, tackling issues of power, American identity, alternative truths, and seeking to reconsider what words like truth, freedom, and democracy really mean.
Located in 2008, The course revolves around The Big Guy, a lover of family, money and country who is undone by the results of the 2008 presidential election, when John McCain lost to Barack Obama. The Big Guy taps into a group of like-minded men to reclaim their version of the American dream. Sound familiar? Homes says she wrote the book before the events that unfolded on our Capitol in January 2021. The book also weaves a compelling narrative about family and the ties that bind — and sometimes blind.
A writer who lives in New York and East Hampton, Homes teaches at Princeton, sits on numerous literary boards, has worked on television projects for HBO, FX and CBS, and was a writer/producer for the Showtime series. The word I. His work appears frequently in The New York Times, the new yorker and Art forum and she is the editor at vanity lounge, among other publications. Several times a year she collaborates on book projects with artists such as Eric Fischl, Rachel Whiteread and Michael Chelbin.
She also enjoys a good bowl of egg white power at Main Beach in East Hampton while watching the sunrise and whale spray.
We caught up with AM Homes by phone to talk about her new book, what motivates her to write, her friendship with the late Edward Albee and what she loves about the East End.
People have described your writing as “fearless”, “haunting”, “bold” and “funny”. How do you see yourself?
I try not to look at myself in the mirror. (laughs) To be honest, I don’t see myself. It’s a good question, it’s also a complicated question. I feel like I’m kind of a person without an identity in some ways. I am adopted, I grew up in a family where a child had died, very complicated. So that’s the literal question.
As a writer, I’m very much a fiction writer, so for the most part – unless I’m deliberately writing non-fiction and memoirs – I’m not part of the story, if that makes sense .
It does. But then, in terms of getting your stories out there and what motivates you to write – where does that come from?
In every way I write in relation to the world we live in and the moment we live in and I always try to make sense of it and I would say a quick conversation about it. I never presume to have answers as to why our world is the way it is or why people have road rage or why people in the Hamptons drive so badly in the summer. (laughs) What’s up with that? They’re like seagulls in (Finding) Nemo where they’re like “Mine, mine, mine!”
I think I want to do work that sparks conversation and questions. On the one hand it’s pretty serious but I feel like to be serious I also need humor relief and I want humor relief.
With all the stuff you’ve written, you don’t shy away from the difficult “stuff.”
No I do not know. I think in a way I probably feel a bit compelled to talk about the things that we don’t talk about because I know it’s hard to talk about. But I also think we don’t make much progress if we avoid them.
This new book is in many ways about what happens when people fear losing power and how far they will go to maintain that power.
Like the Big Red Headed Guy in Florida…
Right. It’s pretty intense in that sense and I started it before Trump was really on the horizon as a presidential candidate. It took me a long time to write and as all of this unfolded I was like, “Well, I don’t want to write a reaction to this, so I had to figure out how to write along those lines without being reagent.
It’s interesting and thought provoking… I feel like the political establishment kind of lost touch with the average American and at the same time there was incredible amounts of black money or non money accounted for flowing into the political system and this had a significant effect. And I think that’s really part of what happened.
This (The course) is really a story about the family also kind of coming apart and in their ending there’s a bigger truth to it so that’s cool to me – that they’re getting to know each other and getting to know each other and there’s has more humanity to that and the possibility.
Have you always been a writer? How has this evolved?
I wanted to be in the Rolling Stones and they have a very low vacancy rate so that didn’t happen. (laughs) I’ve been writing since I was a teenager. I had an award-winning play that was produced when I was 19, I wrote my first novel, Jackwhich was one of the 100 most banned books in the country and was still on the most recent list of books they want to ban in Texas.
What do you think of all these recent book bans?
I think the idea of banning books is a very strange effort to control people’s access to knowledge, thought and information and to develop their own views. So I think that’s obviously dangerous and destructive and fundamentally not acceptable. Children will find their way to the information and stories they need to read to help them understand who they are – that’s part of why we read. We obviously read for entertainment but obviously to find ourselves or make our way in other worlds so that makes me super sad. And it is very peculiar, it seems, it is not useful.
What drew you to the East End?
I first arrived there in 1985 and have been going regularly ever since…part of it was the history and the art history. I’m a big De Kooning fan and a Pollock fan and the idea of being in this place and in this light really appealed to me.
And then Edward Albee who was there had – and it continues – a writer’s retreat in Montauk and I was there twice as a writer, as a very young writer, and Edward was hugely supportive of my work and also the taboos and the limits that my work pushed and that meant a lot to me, a lot, because it was a kind of vote of confidence in what I was doing very early on. This is the kind of thing that I would say is harder to find these days.
What prevents you from going east?
I will say it was the beach and nature and the trees and literally watching the seasons change that got me through COVID. I spent March 2020 on my couch looking out the window. I was really sick… But being there changed me physically and spiritually. And for me, it’s really about light and the cycle of nature.
I have bird feeders and I like having, as I said, the same customers every day for several years, which I had never noticed before. I never slowed down enough to realize that the same blue jay, the same woodpecker, was coming. And in that sense, it sounds cheesy, but it really lifts my heart. So there is this part.
A favorite East End spot you can share?
My favorite this summer is at Main Beach – the restaurant stays open later so there are nights it’s open until 8pm. The food is actually quite good and they also cook breakfast at 8am; they do an amazing egg white bowl…and they also do avocado toast which is surprisingly good. And in the evening they have wine now which is obviously a shocking new thing at the beach and you can sit there and watch the sunset and it’s so beautiful it’s a whole different crowd and they have Shabbat on the beach on Fridays and concerts on Tuesdays.
As much as there’s posh East Hampton and you know a lot of those people, whatever, I also like the mix of people who are really, really local – the cops who come for an egg sandwich for breakfast and the little old woman who can’t walk to the beach so she comes and sits under the awning. And it’s just the best.
AM Homes new book The course (Viking) premieres September 6, 2022. On Friday, October 28 at 6:30 p.m., she’ll be in conversation with writer Jill Bialosky at The Church in Sag Harbor. For more information, visit amhomes.com.