Novelist A.M. Homes's newest book is not a novel, but a memoir about her experience as an adopted child who hadn’t heard from or about her birth-parents until, when she was 30, they got in touch and suddenly wanted to be a part of her life. Homes, who is on tour to promote the book, talked to PW about the the Mean Lady in Pasadena, being interrogated by readers and other perils of facing your fans as a memoir writer.
This is a very personal book, and your first memoir.What kinds of responses have you been getting from audiences at your readings?
I think the biggest difference between this book and all the novels before it is the confessional response, the people showing up who need to tell you their story.The person tells you “I’m 38 years old, I’m 42 years old, and here is my story.”And it happens both at the readings and coming in from the web site. People also expect you to speak on the subject not just as though it’s your own experience but as though you’re an expert on it.I think it’s a difficult balance to strike.
What kinds of issues are coming up?
Adoption is not something that’s been all that well written about and opened up, so I think in that sense too I have been getting people who are working with families to adoptive parents who want to know how to talk to their kids, to people who are still looking for their families who are in their 80s.Or they’ll say “my wife is 84, she couldn’t come tonight, but she needs to know where her family is.That’s very different for me.It’s both so much more intimate and a more intense level of contact.
Any uncomfortable experiences?
There was, as I put it, The Mean Lady in Pasadena, who said something like “I read a review of your book in the Los Angeles Times and you’re a very unthinking and uncaring person and you’re very judgemental and you have no empathy.”I said that’s your opinion,and that this book was incredibly difficult to write and very painful, and what you’re saying upsets me, but maybe you should read the book and then we can talk about it.My gut is that she was a birth-mother, and she just didn’t like, not even what she’d read because she hadn’t read it, but what she’d somehow drawn from it.When people do misinterpret the memoir, it somehow hits me a thousand times worse than when they misinterpret a novel.
The book is some much about what it’s like to geek-out on the genealogy—are you getting people asking about that?
Yeah, again, people say, “I’ve done that,” or they’ll ask you how to do it.All families have these stories, and the stories they tell themselves are not necessarily true, and at various points in our lives somebody uncovers the secret.There’s no family that has no secrets, there’s always something.
This kind of intimacy with readers is something of a new experience for you, then, even though you’ve lived a writer’s life for a while.
People seem to feel allowed to ask me any question, so literally, Friday night in Dallas somebody asked me “does your child have a father?”I’m like “Yes.”Then they asked, “Does your child know you the father is?”And I’m like, “Yes, and my social security number is…”There’s that sense that because you’ve written this thing that’s very personal and intimate that suddenly they are able to ask you anything, and I haven’t really figured out how best to handle that. It’s very different from writing a novel. This is enormously exhausting, and the wear and tear and just the intrusion is so much higher.I don’t mind the person who has the need to tell me their story; I understand that and I feel for them very strongly.But then there are the people .who feel that because I’m suddenly presenting myself in public that they can kind of interrogate me because I’m on a stage.
Are you noticing any other kinds of differences on this tour than on previous ones?
What’s also interesting honestly is how publishing changes from book to book, and even the stuff that’s happened in the last couple of weeks with book reviews folding.It really actually affects what happens to the writer on tour.The numbers on publishing are just shrinking and shrinking.How does a book find its way into the world through the briar patch of the few critics that remain and out to the people who it will touch the most?Every city you go to you ask “what happened to that book store that used to be there?”It closed.I guess Cody’s is closing.All these different things are closing and the pages are folding in. It does profoundly affect the lives of writers and the life of a book.