Domestic Disturbance

Photo: Roger Deckker

Despite the title of her new novel, This Book Will Save Your Life, A. M. Homes has not crossed over to the self-help aisle. But something is definitely changed. The woman who brought us a crack-smoking yuppie couple who barbecue their house in Music for Torching, among the many literary Molotov cocktails she’s hurled, has now tossed out a life preserver.

So has something saved her life? When she walks into a café in the Village she looks the way she always has. Except for the fading blue nail polish, which turns out to be the handiwork of her 3-year-old daughter. “I guess it’s not the worst thing,” she says, smiling. “It’s not like she’s come home and she’s smoking.”

Meet A. M. Homes: mom. An enfant terrible of contemporary letters has an enfant, and seems less interested in burning down the house. At the elegiac cooldown of this assured—and somehow reassuring—book, there’s a passage that serves as a kind of voice-over to a reunited family’s takeout dinner: “… and though it might not be the fullness that one wants and though it might not be enough, it is something, it is more than nothing.” This counts as optimism in Homes’s oeuvre, and it is as deliberately unironic as her title. From her first novel, Jack, written at 19, through this, her fifth, and in many short stories, the prolific and provocative Homes grabbed attention with her voice, dead-on and subversively funny, as well as her tendency to excavate our darkest corners. What she dug up, however psychologically true, wasn’t always comfortable to read or uplifting. This time, though, “I wanted to write a book that left people feeling better about things,” she says. “If you have an option of making somebody feel better or making them feel worse, I think I’d rather make them feel better.”

Why now? The reason seems to be her little manicurist. Matters of parentage have bookended—and sometimes upended—the author’s life. Adopted at birth, Homes says she’s happy to be living with a biological relative for the first time. She was less grateful for the unsolicited reappearance of her birth mother in 1992. “Very, very disconcerting,” she says. “There was a sensation that I wasn’t who I thought I was, but I also had no idea who I was. It was like, So who am I? And where did I come from? And why are you back? When you’re adopted, to comfort yourself, you build a fantasy. In my fantasy, Jack Kerouac and Susan Sontag were my parents. Which was very different from what actually showed up.”

Homes has a memoir, The Mistress’s Daughter, due out next year, and in conversation she can be exceptionally frank—until it comes to basic biographical details. Age? “Well, I’m over 40, and I’m under 45.” She won’t give her daughter’s name, or talk about the father. If she is involved with someone, she’s not saying. Even her own name’s opaque: Disliking “Amy,” she started going by “A.M.” when she was 15. Names, parentage, identity—all are parts of a constructed story. So Homes, a person whose narrative has continually shifted beneath her, became what she calls “a person who basically makes up narratives all day long.”

Growing up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, she had an almost explosive need to express herself, she says. She relieved it in the usual sensitive-kid ways: writing plays and poetry, painting, playing in a rock band, shooting photographs. Her fourth-grade Halloween costume was a balding middle-aged man, and even today her stories tend to be told through male characters. She offers that this has to do with the specter of a brother she never knew. (Her adoption was in progress when her parents’ older son died at 9, six months before she was born.) “I’ve always been haunted by the ghost of an older brother, or this older guy.”

Her latest male character, Richard Novak of This Book Will Save Your Life, is a divorced fiftysomething New Yorker living in Los Angeles, a retired day trader whose existence is maintained by a small, insulating army: nutritionist, trainer, masseuse, cleaning lady, decorator. The noise-canceling headset he dons upon waking ensures that he hears nothing. But as the book opens, Richard is beset by a mystery pain that lands him in the emergency room and a fast-growing sinkhole near his very expensive house. Instead of destroying him, these threats end up leading him into a (relatively) warm reengagement with life, most crucially with his estranged son. As Homes’s friend John Waters says, “If Oprah went insane, this might be her favorite book.”

Homes says she “wanted to write about disconnection, transformation, somebody finding their way back to something.” She also knew she wanted to set it in L.A., a place that both amuses and horrifies her. Other than the Village apartment where she’s lived since 1985, Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont hotel is “one of just a few places in the world where I feel safe. For me, it’s exactly like Yaddo [the upstate artists’ colony she visits regularly]. As a writer, you want to be inside your head, but you want to make sure that there’s some responsible adult watching.”

Critics may call her work fearless, but she doesn’t see herself that way at all. “The problem with having an active imagination is that you end up living in fear,” she says. “Basically, I’m terrified all the time. When I was a child, I thought when you were 9, you died. I’m very aware of the fragility of things now, as I watch my parents get older and I have this little girl who I just adore.”

Although she concedes “there was nothing about my life that looked like what it should look like to decide you’re going to have a child,” she was determined to make it happen, through a difficult conception and two miscarriages. Then, two months from term, she fractured a disk in her back. She attended the premiere of the film made from her story collection The Safety of Objects in a wheelchair; that’s also how she got to her baby shower at the artist Laurie Simmons’s studio. (She lay on a sofa, tanked up on steroids, as the likes of Laurie Anderson and Sofia Coppola filed past, kneeling down to talk to her.) She says she has no memory of her daily conversations with Simmons, during which she spun the idea for a three-act puppet musical that Simmons is realizing as a 40-minute film starring Meryl Streep. (The Music of Regret makes its debut at the Museum of Modern Art on May 24.)

Homes’s work has rarely been comfortable or uplifting. This time, though, “I wanted to write a book that left people feeling better.”

Even now that she’s back on her feet, life with a child has been challenging, especially adjusting to a new level of intimacy. “I’m not somebody who’s good at being in relationships,” she admits. “It’s not something that comes naturally to me. I find relating to another person intensely exhausting—like, bone-marrow exhausting. I love having a child, but it’s hard.”

“Mommy, wake up!” her daughter will implore when she discovers Homes lost in thought. Motherhood has meant not only a recalibration of the amount of time the author can spend “in my own head” but also that she can’t go out every night anymore. Typically, she says, she falls asleep when her daughter does. “There goes the dinner, the opening. I wake up right around the after-party, check my e-mail, and go back under again. And I don’t really mind. The same party will be going on ten years from now.”

Domestic Disturbance