By Richard Chachowski
Known for her strange, sometimes controversial work, author A.M. Homes has been praised for her originality and unconventional style when it comes to writing. Her work, which has been characterized as surreal, postmodern and darkly humorous, has been known for exploring the inner psyches of often troubled characters in dire situations, including confrontations with their own sexualities and the darker aspects of their personalities.
A professor of Creative Writing at Princeton University, Homes has been previously awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and has won the Women’s Prize for Fiction for her 2012 novel, “May We Be Forgiven,” among numerous other prizes.
The Signal spoke with Homes in a discussion about her writing and overall writing process.
When you first started, you wrote a book of poetry, a play and then a novel, “Jack,” by the time you were 19. Is there a part of you that wished you had waited a few more years to write “Jack” or were you 100% confident in your material and writing ability by that point?
HOMES: I was not confident. I had already written a play and some short stories and one of my teachers mistakenly suggested I write a novel. So, I wrote 70 pages of a novel set in South Dakota — a place I’d never been and knew nothing about. “Jack” was part of a homework assignment in college and I asked the professor if I might write a novel rather than paper — not because I was confident I could write a novel, but because I knew I couldn’t write a paper.
Were you ever anxious about how your writing would be received when you first began publishing? How did you learn to deal with that anxiety?
HOMES: I still suffer from profound anxiety and I think it likely comes from not feeling safe in the world, not feeling legitimate or that I have a right to exist which likely comes more from my childhood and family history and less from any fears of content or publishing.
How do you recommend aspiring writers should broach topics that may be considered taboo or that may be difficult to write about?
HOMES: I think taboo only means poorly explained, poorly explored, not well understood. Human experience, the wide variety of human experience, has pretty much stayed consistent, repeating itself time and time again — which leaves one to ask — what exactly is it or would it be about human experience that wouldn’t benefit from understanding it better? So what exactly is taboo?
You’ve kept some very interesting companions within your close circle of friends in the past, including Bret Easton Ellis, John Waters, David Bowie, and many other creative individuals. Do you believe surrounding yourself with such artistic friends has influenced your creative output at all?
HOMES: I remember when I was a teenager and had a therapist and talked with her about the people I would one day be friends with and she seemed to think I was delusional — but to me these people were my peers, yes influential in the sense that their work freed me to do my own work — but also their existence validated my own existence.
I was reading an interview where you identified playwrights like Albee, Miller, and Pinter as immediate influences on your dialogue, especially when it comes to your television writing. Aside from playwrights, do you see yourself as having been influenced by any poets or filmmakers when it comes to your work?
HOMES: Primary influences come from plays for me, and then fiction, Jack Keouac, John Cheever, Richard Yates, Angela Carter, Jeanette Winterson, Joyce Carol Oates, Jayne Anne Phillips, Henry Miller. Poetry: Allan Ginsberg, Sharon Olds, Audre Lorde, Langston Hughs, James Baldwin … and somewhat film, Alan Parker, Sydney Lumet, Robert Altman.
Was there ever a period where you considered moving more towards a career as a poet or playwright, or did you always have a desire to become a prose writer?
HOMES: I very much would have liked to be a playwright — but realized at the time that I was too shy to broker the many relationships one has to have to get a play put on. And at that time there were few women playwrights. About 10 years later that glass ceiling seemed to crack, and now there are many. But that said — I do enjoy the freedom of working in many mediums — each with its own set of tools and relevant info.
You’ve expressed an interest in art, having written more than a few essays on the subject and on specific artists. Do you see art as having influenced your writing at all, or do you view them as being two separate interests?
HOMES: The world of visual or cinematic thinking is a big influence, which is different from being influenced by art. I am fed/nourished/comforted by art. And by thinking in color, gesture, and movement.
You have served on several boards in the past and have been closely connected with the literary community, which you have stressed is a very important connection to maintain. Why is that?
HOMES: Public Service is Good Citizenship. The work of an artist, especially a writer, is very isolating. I am aware of that and keen to work to keep artists/writers of all kinds in contact with each other.
You’ve lived in New York’s West Village, which seems somewhat an ideal environment for you as a writer known for bridging the mundane with the surreal in your work. Do you believe New York has influenced your writing at all?
HOMES: In New York, I was never a radical. I was never weird. I was never out on a limb. There was always someone further out, more on the edge, whose existence was more precarious than my own. The very vivid illustration on a daily basis of the many varieties of life in NY and the range of existences and experiences. So I felt more ‘in the middle’ there than in other places. And in being lost in the crowd I was also free to be an observer, a witness, an undercover explorer.
Do you have a set routine that you follow closely every day? Do you have a specific time of day that you prefer to write, or is it more when you have the time?
HOMES: No formal routine — except to say that I like to work every day. I like to start work early and ideally have no one talk to me, or interrupt me and no trucks drive by, no dogs bark, no phones, ring…and any/all of that rarely happens, so I do the best I can. I am always juggling many things — different kinds of writing assignments, teaching, mentoring, service work — and a family … but I love to be in my imagination. I love to daydream.
Do you listen to music at all when you write, or do you prefer silence?
HOMES: Sometimes Miles Davis, Beethoven, Bach (Glenn Gould), Laurie Anderson, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Silence. Always Silence. Joni Mitchell. Silence and Joni Mitchell.
Have you ever struggled with certain issues like writer’s block? If so, how did you learn to overcome it?
HOMES: Keep your foot on the pedal.
How many drafts of your work do you typically go through? How do you know when it’s finally “right” after all that editing?
HOMES: Many, many edits — more than most would imagine — and many, many drafts—it is a process so not all revisions run all the way through a piece — but easily 18-20 drafts of something. At a certain point, it may not be right but it may be that if you were to continue working on it, the piece would materially change.
What’s one piece of advice you wish you had known when you first embarked on your literary career?
HOMES: I feel very lucky to have gotten good advice early on — use the strength of your ego to push yourself to take risks, to try new things, but do not allow your ego to prevent you from accepting criticism or editorial input. And most importantly don’t wait for someone to tell you to write — just get to work. You are the keeper of your destiny.