American writer A.M. Homes on family, awakenings and human behaviour. By Gretchen Shirm.

Up close and personal with A.M. Homes


A. M. Homes is sitting close to water. It is beside us and under us. It is silent water, the deep, still water of the harbour. Above us, the clouds are closing in. Homes’s voice sounds thick, as though it bleeds across more than one note. It has a gentle, insistent quality that makes it easy to listen to.

She is talking about Antarctica. “You get there and then you can’t get out, because the weather changes and you’re stuck,” she enthuses. “And in the summer it is light, apparently, 24 hours a day, and in winter the sun never comes up.” These extremes appeal to her. As we sit there, everything seems to interest her: the things around us, the people who pass by. 

Her eyes are deep-set, and the rings around her irises are definite and dark. They are two perfect black circles. As she speaks, her gaze drifts past me, giving the impression that someone might be approaching me from behind. 

We discuss acquiescence. “People can know something and decide not to respond. Or pretend they don’t know. They can choose to not know what they already know. That is the thing that is most terrifying to me.” This wilful blindness pervades the world, and her books, Homes tells me, are often about awakenings from that state. “What we don’t want to know about ourselves, what we don’t want to know about our families, because if you know, you have to either choose to take action, or to take no action.” It seems, given a choice, she would always prefer knowledge. Even the knowledge of terrible things. 

We’re sitting on the wharf outside her hotel. The ground beneath us is uneven. The concrete is disrupted by handprints made in wet cement, by people who have stayed at this hotel. Famous people. Not far from where we sit are the handprints left behind by Rolf Harris.

“I’m always interested in human behaviour and why people do what they do and what it means to them.” Homes’ most recent novel, May We Be Forgiven, is about families and the strange and destructive behaviour that is tolerated within families. In her book, a man comes home to find his brother in bed with his wife and kills his wife rather than his sibling. “I was thinking about how brothers can have these very kind of contentious, almost biblically opposed sensibilities, but I also think the interesting thing is that they are brothers, no matter what.” To Homes, this idea rang true, that the sibling relationship was stronger than the marital one. She has one sibling, a brother, who she says, carefully, is “not entirely well”.

She watches a dog as it walks past. It is quiet and obedient, walking close to its owner, and it doesn’t acknowledge us at all. It had been sitting behind us and I realise it must have been what Homes has been looking at while we’ve been talking. She’s a dog person. She has several dogs, taken in from an animal shelter. 

“There are always multiple families within a family. There are the children in relation to the parents. If you have a boy and a girl, there is the girl in relation to her mother and the boy in relation to his father.”

Homes speaks over a seagull, its squawk is tuneless and rhythmic, like a toy that’s been wound up. “Ark,” it says from the water. “Ark, ark, ark.” It gets louder and louder, until finally it’s screaming. 

“We only want to be known in our families, or in our worlds, the way we want to be known. Part of it is you don’t really want someone to know too much, you want them to know the amount you choose. The measured amount. There’s this veneer of politeness, which I think is everywhere. That people don’t say what they might really be thinking.” 

Across Sydney Harbour is Luna Park, its smile ferociously happy. 

Homes was adopted. She wrote a memoir about meeting her birth parents, and says the experience of writing it was like picking at a cut. Now she has her own daughter and being a parent has helped her to understand her own childhood. When you are adopted you are told who you are, she says, instead of living out the personality you were given when you were born. “I think there’s a kind of dissonance in that experience, where you really are an outsider, even in your own life. That takes a long time and a lot of figuring out.” Many writers speak of feeling like an outsider, but for Homes that feeling was real and acute.

Two women approach us, wanting to know where they can find a copy of the writers’ festival program. Homes checks her phone and gives the woman the information she needs.

“What’s your name?” the woman says, suspecting she is a writer.

“I’m A. M. Homes.”

“Oh, I know you! I’ve read all about you and your family.” Homes laughs and tells the woman that it’s a treat to meet her.

“I write these books that are mostly not autobiographical,” she says to me. “I am happiest when I’m inhabiting some other person’s experience, or trying to understand what it is to be someone else. It’s really trying to have some sense of the physicality or the emotional life of that person. I’m not interested in myself at all, actually. Or I feel that I know myself in all kinds of ways.” 

Homes looks across the water. From further down the harbour comes the horn of a boat, a mournful moan, as though it is alone at sea. It cuts through the din around us, long, deep and clear.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 26, 2014 as "The knowing".

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Gretchen Shirm is a Sydney author. Her latest novel Where The Light Falls will be published in July 2016.