by Chas Bowie
A.M. HOMES has been igniting and inciting the literary world since 1989, when her debut novel, Jack, appeared. In her ensuing novels and short story collections, she's brought a dark humor and disturbing realism to the lives of arsonists, crack smokers, child molesters, and other wayward humans. Her new novel, This Book Will Save Your Life, may be her most humane yet.
Los Angeles multimillionaire protagonist Richard is having one of the most visceral existential crises ever put on paper. (This one involves being hit by a car, a sinkhole, airlifted horses, and sphincter massages.) TBWSYL proceeds at a full gallop through Richard's uniquely Californian and post-postmodern struggle to reassemble his shattered life.
MERCURY: Reading this book, I really felt like I was getting pummeled; it's so fast and so intense. Did the writing process feel the same way?
A.M. HOMES: No, that really comes from editing and working on something over time. I think when you have a novel, you have a sense what the speed of it should be. And as you're revising it over and over, you're sort of trying to modulate whatever that speed is. Putting up stop signs... I guess they're called commas.
One set of stop signs notably absent from TBWSYL was chapter breaks.
Right—they didn't occur to me. I think chapters are very useful, and they let people take breaks to make a cup of tea or whatever. But I finished this book, and it was like, "Oh, there are no chapters." I thought about it, and when I went back to think about putting chapter breaks in, I couldn't find that many natural breaks to put some slightly larger spaces between. This one didn't seem to divide up into chapters, where other books really do break off in those ways.
How did the character of Richard develop?
At first, we just take him for a stereotypical LA millionaire, but then he goes in so many directions.
I was interested in writing about a guy who had a lot of money and who was successful. Someone who was, on one hand, freed of a lot of obligations that other people have. On the other hand, he's lost because of that freedom. Richard was a difficult character to get to know, to peel back those layers, because he really is so numb and disconnected that it's hard to know who he is. So that took a while, and it was a little scary. I kept thinking, "I hope he opens up at some point." I think that the flatness and lack of character at the beginning is a large piece of who he was at that moment—disconnected.
For a long time, critics labeled you the "sensational" writer. Has that designation mellowed out some?
No, it hasn't. I think some days they whack you on the left side of the face, and some days they whack you on the right side. If you write something that they think is sensational, they whack you twice on one side, and if they think it's no longer sensational, they whack you on the other side.
A.M. Homes will appear at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside, Tues May 2, 7:30 pm, free.
JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER
by Erik Henriksen
OH, HOW I WANTED to hate him. I was 22 and Jonathan Safran Foer was 25 when his first novel, Everything is Illuminated, came out to deafening acclaim and a slew of awards. But since I wanted to be the wunderkind writer taking the literary world by storm, my stupid jealousy kept me from reading it.
Then I read his short story in The New Yorker, "A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease"—which intertwined icons and symbols into standard text—and I was so floored that I had to give up the whole envy thing. Foer's latest—Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, about a nine-year-old boy whose father died in the Twin Towers on 9/11—is his best yet.
MERCURY:So when Illuminated came out you were hailed as the "boy genius." How did it feel when reactions to Extremely Loud weren't as adoring—and how does that affect your writing?
JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER: It doesn't affect my writing at all. I guess it didn't affect me much either. I don't know if that sounds hard to believe, but I mean, it's not like I believed it the first time, you know? I felt like I was really, really lucky. And I felt very grateful. But I didn't think I was a good writer because any particular person told me so. I think my first book was rejected by, I don't know, 10 agents before I found an agent and probably as many publishers. So I learned from the beginning that the same piece of writing will be met with dramatically different responses from different people. I always prefer someone to like my book than to not like it, but... you know, there's an old saying that if I have to choose between a punch and a kiss, I would choose a kiss. But if I had to choose between a punch and nothing, I would choose a punch.
The thing that struck me about "A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease" was how the iconography was almost equal with the text. And some of my favorite things about Extremely Loud are the visual things that you do in the book. When do you sit down and decide "Okay, I'm going to tell this part of the story in a fairly unconventional way"?
I never do that. I do it because... what I need is an analogy here. It's like if you were playing basketball... what kind of sport do you like?
Yeah, and somebody says, "When did you decide to pass?" or "When did you decide to shoot?" You know, I guess there kind of are answers, but they're cheesy. They miss the point. When it's working, you're really not thinking very much. A picture came when a picture came. Sometimes I would write, and I would realize as I was writing that I want this image here. I just knew it. Sometimes I would see an image and say, "I want to write around this image." You know, it's not the case that the images illustrate the text. The text illustrates the images just as much.
Do you feel like the use of visual media inside texts is going to continue to be important to you?
I honestly don't know. I wouldn't be surprised. I mean, I guess nothing would surprise me. I never set out wanting to be a writer. I set out wanting to make things that felt authentic to me, and if it one day takes the form of something purely visual, with no words, it wouldn't make me unhappy. I guess that would surprise me a little bit, just because I do feel pretty invested in writing and in language.
There's this saying about films never being finished—just abandoned. Like, "All right. It's good enough. Get it out there." When you finish a book is it like that, or do you feel satisfied?
I think it's like 51 percent relief, maybe. I don't even know if satisfaction is the right word. And 49 percent incredible disappointment. You know, that "Man, this wasn't good. Again." You know? That I started out thinking I was going to express 100 percent of everything I wanted to express and it turned out it was only 10. Then I said with the next book, maybe I can do 11, and it turned out you got two. It's like diminishing returns. It's like you care more and more about the returns.
Jonathan Safran Foer will appear at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside, Thurs April 27, 7:30 pm, free.