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A.M. Homes: Short Stories Are 'Food For The Soul And For The Mind'

Jun 13, 2018
Originally published on June 13, 2018 7:04 pm

A chat room for bird lovers. A summit on genocide. A superstore where someone's abandoned a baby. These are the settings for just a few of the short stories in A.M.Homes' new collection, Days of Awe — her first in more than 15 years. "I think there's a compression to short stories, and a kind of sense that there's something already happening by the time you get there," she says. "I describe it as, the train has already left the station, and the reader comes in, say, in Chicago. And that's very different from a novel that has a long, sort of unfolding, pastoral approach to storytelling."


Interview Highlights

On her interest in the differences between the public and private faces people present

I'm definitely, if not obsessed by that, I think there's a big gap between who we are publicly and how we present ourselves, and who we are to ourselves and our families. And most interesting to me over the last ten years is also who we are in our online lives, that we can have these either avatars, or sort of other personas in our exchanges, or even the ways there's different tones to our emails. So I am deeply interested in that split between public and private self.

On the story "National Caged Bird Show" and writing naturalistic dialogue

I think my understanding of dialogue really comes from the theater. I grew up in Washington, D.C., going to plays at Arena Stage all the time. So it was really the work of Edward Albee and Harold Pinter and Arthur Miller that gave me a sense of dialogue. And in this case, the thing was, how do you represent these two main characters, plus what I almost think of as the chorus around them, which is the other people who are witness to their conversations, and in ways that are cryptic and condensed, and almost like a Morse code for communication.

I'm always listening, and I think there's that interesting difference between what you actually hear people say, and how we account for that on the page or on the stage, and those compressions that have to happen. I think Edward Albee was just so truly brilliant at that.

On Albee and writing about the breaks in tense relationships

I'm interested in those shifts or fractures in things, and it's interesting because he was a mentor to me, and he was somebody I knew throughout my life. And Edward, like me, was also adopted, and we talked a lot about that outsider experience and what that perspective was, but also shifts in emotional states, and that sense of ambivalence about relationships. It's very hard, I think, for someone who's grown up feeling that their existence was some how temporary, or that they could be given back at some point, to attach easily. So there's a lot about attachment in the stories, always.

On writing stories about people and relationships

I think throughout history, there have always been wonderful stories about couples and families — I mean, that is the stuff of life. And the nice thing is, they come in what I call doses. You know, you can read one story, you don't have to read a whole book of stories at a time. So you read one or two, and then they sit with you for a while. I think they're a medication. Literally, we're living in such complicated times that if you can sit down and read a story, or two stories, depending on what you need, it's food for thought but it's also for the soul and for the mind, to see life reflected back to you in a way that is both funny and moving and complex.

This story was edited for radio by Jolie Myers, produced by Justine Kenin, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A chat room for bird lovers, a summit on genocide, a superstore with an abandoned baby - these are the settings for just a few of the short stories in A.M. Homes' new collection, her first in more than 15 years. It's called "Days Of Awe." A.M. Homes, welcome to the program.

A M HOMES: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So you've written novels and a memoir as well. And your first big break was in 1990 with another short story collection called "The Safety Of Objects." So what's the appeal of this particular form?

HOMES: I think there's a compression to short stories and a kind of sense that there is something already happening by the time you get there. I describe it as the train has already left the station, and the reader comes in, say, in Chicago. And that's very different than a novel that has a long sort of unfolding, pastoral approach to storytelling.

CORNISH: Now, in one of your stories there's an author who mentions being - feeling like interviews are an interrogation, so I won't do that (laughter).

HOMES: Thank you (laughter).

CORNISH: But...

HOMES: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...There are a few themes we want to talk about.

HOMES: Sure.

CORNISH: One is infidelity, which appears in several stories in one form or another, right? And I know that you have talked about this in your own life in your memoir, which was called "The Mistress's Daughter."

HOMES: Right.

CORNISH: What did you still want to explore about this idea?

HOMES: I think for me it's less about infidelity in its actual sort of for lack of a word practice but the notions of attachment and ambivalence and the complexity in people's lives and the fact that things can change over periods of time.

CORNISH: It seems like it also goes with another thing you've always written about, which is the difference between people's public face and private life.

HOMES: Yeah, I'm definitely if not obsessed by that - I think there's a big gap between who we are publicly and how we present ourselves and then who we are to ourselves and our families. And then most interesting to me over the last 10 years is also who we are in our online lives that we can have these either avatars or sort of other personas in our exchanges, or even the ways in which there's different tones to our emails. So I am deeply interested in that split between public and private self.

CORNISH: Let's talk a little bit more about that with the story "National Caged Bird Show." And I think you have a copy of the book. And we were hoping...

HOMES: I do.

CORNISH: ...You'd read a section. First, just tell us the basic plot point of this story.

HOMES: It's a story that's set in a parakeet chat room. And two people happen to find their way to the chat room - a young girl living in a very sort of sterile life on the Upper East Side in New York City and a soldier who's at war in what he calls one of the stands. He's not allowed to say which stand.

CORNISH: So the section I think we wanted to do is a little bit of dialogue, so to speak, where there's an introduction of sorts - right? - on Page 125.

HOMES: Sure. (Reading) Hey, wait; before you go, what's your name? Matthew Rose, i.e. ArMyRose. Is that your real name? Should I be using a fake name? I used NYCGirl2001. It seemed better than Grace. Grace is really nice. Thanks. Hey, one last question - what is it you like about birds? Their beauty and intelligence.

CORNISH: This is such a routine interaction in a way - right? - that we experience online. But it still requires an ear for dialogue, which you're also known for. Can you talk about trying to write this kind of dialogue?

HOMES: Well, this one is so specific because there's very different dialogue that one uses, for lack of a word, in chat rooms. I think my understanding of dialogue really comes from the theater. I grew up in Washington, D.C., going to plays at Arena Stage all the time. And so it was really the work of Edward Albee and Harold Pinter and Arthur Miller that gave me a sense of dialogue.

And in this case, the thing was, how do you represent these two main characters plus what I almost think of as the chorus around them, which is the other people who are witness to their conversations, and in ways that are kind of cryptic and condensed and almost like a Morse code for communication?

CORNISH: You talked about the theater being an influence, but are you also, you know, listening to the people around you, so to speak?

HOMES: I'm always listening. And I think there's that interesting difference between what we actually hear people say and how you account for that on the page or on the stage in those compressions that have to happen. I think Edward Albee was just so truly brilliant at that. And even the notion in this of the fear of what would you say or what would happen in the family I think comes in part from his influence on my own work.

CORNISH: And when you talk about Albee, this is also a writer who's dissected tensions in marriages.

HOMES: Absolutely.

CORNISH: And throughout, there a lot of relationships here which they're - it's almost like bottled explosions. There isn't always a separation, but there is a shift. And this seems like there's so many stories about the moment that that shift happens.

HOMES: Yeah, I'm interested in those shifts or fractures and things. And it's interesting 'cause he was a mentor to me. And he was somebody I knew, you know, throughout my life. And Edward, like me, was also adopted. And we talked a lot about that outsider experience and what that perspective was, but also about shifts in emotional states and that sense of ambivalence about relationships.

It's very hard, I think, for someone who has grown up feeling that their existence is somehow temporary or that they could be, you know, given back at some point to attach easily. So there's a lot about attachment in the stories always.

CORNISH: Or detachment.

HOMES: Well, actually, yes. Yes. Yeah.

CORNISH: Right? There's a lot of people who are kind of sleepwalking through their lives with their families.

HOMES: There are. But one of the stories called "Be Mine" is oddly a Valentine's story. And it's about a very sort of hostile exchange within a marriage. And yet it ends with them...

CORNISH: I was obsessed with this, by the way (laughter). I love this story.

HOMES: It's a pretty wild story. But it ends with the couple coming back together. And I love that about it, that you have these moments of tension and horrible exchange, and you really think one of them is leaving. I mean, even they think that.

CORNISH: Right, this line where he says, do you ever stop complaining, he asked. No, she says, horrified. It would be like I'd given up hope (laughter).

HOMES: Well, exactly, which is so twisted and funny.

CORNISH: I think a lot of people maybe have had that moment where you're like, no, I mean, the fact that we're having this battle means I want to be here.

HOMES: Exactly. But I think that that's the thing that is sometimes lost on people because the fact that you're willing to engage in that way and be annoyed - you're invested.

CORNISH: Do you think that people have more or less respect for this kind of storytelling? There was a time when there was a kind of dismissiveness about stories about couples and affairs and families.

HOMES: I think throughout history there have always been wonderful stories about couples and families. I mean, that is the stuff of life. And the nice thing is they come in what I call doses. You know, you can read one story. You don't have to read a whole book of stories at a time. So you read one or two, and then they sit with you for a while. I think they're a medication.

CORNISH: A medication - explain.

HOMES: You know, literally. We're living in such complicated times that if you can sit down and read a story or two stories, depending on what you need, it's food for thought, but it's also for the soul and for the mind to see life reflected back to you in a way that is both funny and moving and complex.

CORNISH: A.M. Homes - her new collection of short stories is called "Days Of Awe." Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

HOMES: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.