Before A.M. Homes writes a short story or a novel, she first has to see it in her head. The visual component, she says, is very important to her. So it’s no surprise that Homes, the author of 12 books, also writes for television—including, most recently, the mystery series Mr. Mercedes, based on the novel by Stephen King.
“I want to write a book about writing and drawing,” Homes says. “I think that when you take things out of one language and put them into another, you get a lot of information about what is happening.”
Homes’s method of visualizing was useful while she was writing the short stories that make up her most recent collection, The Days of Awe, out in June from Viking. The title comes from the 10-day period beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur, the Jewish High Holidays, but it also refers to the disjointed state of the world today. “It’s like the beauty and horror of the atomic bomb,” Homes says. “We are blinded by it and also awestruck and paralyzed.”
Homes writes about serious topics but always imbues them with her sense of humor. Of the author’s many strengths, one that stands out is her use of dialogue. She grew up reading plays by Edward Albee. He was one of her mentors and, she says, “a real person in my life.” She was an artist in residence at the Albee Foundation in Montauk, N.Y., and then she saw Albee sometimes on Long Island, where they both had houses.
“We talked a lot about being adopted,” Homes says. Both she and Albee are adopted; Homes wrote a memoir about being adopted, The Mistress’s Daughter (2007). “Multiple times he gave me the vote of confidence that I very much needed.”
Homes also read Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter, and avant-garde British playwright Carol Churchill, and from these greats she learned how to make her characters come alive through conversation. “How can you say what you want to say without naming it, while also saying something else simultaneously?” Homes asks. “How can you write a sentence that says what you want to say, but adds extra—but also that is not maximal, theatrical dialogue?” From Miller, she became interested in American realism and psychological undercurrents.
There are many recurring themes in Homes’s books, but one that connects several of the stories in Days of Awe is the significance of physical objects. In “Brother on Sunday,” the main character observes the wives of his friends and notices they “all wear the same watches, like tribal decorations, symbols of their status.” Homes is interested in what we as a society consume and are consumed by, but she’s also fixated on objects as visual reminders. In “Hello Everybody,” a girl remembers her dead brother by looking at his G.I. Joe toys.
In “Days of Awe,” a novelist and war correspondent have an affair at a summit on genocide. One of the guest speakers is a German man “whose guilt about civilian passivity during [World War II] led him to relentlessly collect and catalog the personal effects of those who disappeared.” He hid items such as candlesticks on his family’s farm for the Jews who never returned.
Objects are how we memorialize people, Homes says. One of her prized possessions is the inside of a relative’s watch. The case is gone because the family had to sell it during World War II, but the heart of it is still there. She keeps it in a drawer next to the sore throat surgery medal she received when she was two years old. These objects are strikingly different, but serve as reminders of the past.
“You can’t move through life carrying all of history with you,” Homes says. “If you leave history behind, like much of America is doing right now, and just go on without any history, then you have no capacity to make informed decisions. That’s interesting to me.”
But it’s not just inanimate objects that fascinate Homes. She’s fixated on the ways that people interact. In “The National Cage Bird Show,” strangers convene in a chat room and talk over each other, instead of with each other. One character is a young girl living a privileged life in an Upper East Side apartment, and another is a soldier at war. The others serve as a chorus, according to Homes: “They are reflective of all the disconnects. People just want to talk, and don’t necessarily want to engage.” It’s only when they begin responding to each other that a community forms.
Whether Homes is looking at the material world or what lies beneath, her writing gets at the core of being human. “From the very beginning of my career—or when I started writing, before I had a career—it’s always been about the space between a public and private self,” she says.
It took Homes a while to write all of the stories in this book (Days of Awe is her first collection since The Safety of Objects, which was published 28 years ago), and she approaches short stories differently than novels. “I always say a novel is like taking the train cross-country, because you have a lot of time to go from New York to Ohio to Pennsylvania, and you are going to go the northern route or southern route,” she says. “In a short story, basically, the train has left and you get on in Chicago. It’s like something has already happened. I say to my students [at Princeton, where Homes is a lecturer], ‘Why have we been called here? What is it you need us to pay attention to? Why are we supposed to stop everything else we were doing and come be in your story now?’ So there is a compression.”
Interestingly enough, Homes’s most recent novel, May We Be Forgiven, is written with the compression of a short story. “It started as a story, and it was supposed to stop after the wife was killed, that was sort of the end, and it just kept going,” she says. “I remember at various points thinking, ‘Why is this taking so long?’ And then when I gave it to my editor at Viking, Paul Slovak, he called me and was like, ‘Chapters?’ And I never thought about that. He said there are no space breaks in it. I said, ‘We can put breaks in if you need to go to the bathroom. But chapters are a whole different thing because chapters have a shape, too. There is a reason. You can’t just throw chapters into something.’ ”
Homes stays busy between writing books, writing for television, teaching, sitting on several boards (she says it’s important to her to be part of the literary community), and raising a teenage daughter. “The upside is I never don’t have something to do. And the downside is I never don’t have something to do. I have no social life that is not professional in some aspect.”
Homes’s main challenge is finding the time and space to work—which is ironic, since she cochairs the board of Yaddo, an organization that awards residencies to writers. Last summer, her daughter went to summer school at Oxford, and Homes stayed in a house on campus. Jeanette Winterson helped her out by bringing roast chicken and other food, and loaning her a rickety bicycle.
At Oxford Homes finally realized why some of the stories weren’t working. “I wasn’t taking enough risks,” she says. Once she figured that out, she says, she was able to finish writing the book.
Michele Filgate is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and a contributing editor at Literary Hub.