The Books Interview, A M Homes: Malice in wonderland

Taboos come tumbling down if you share a tent in Edinburgh with outrageous A M Homes.
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A M Homes, a biography

A M Homes was born 37 years ago in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Her adoptive parents were a real-estate broker and a school counsellor. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, New Jersey in 1989. Her first novel, Jack, won awards from the American Library Association and the New York Times. She has taught at New York University, Columbia University and the New School for Social Research. Her journalism has appeared in Elle, Art Forum and The New Yorker, and she is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and Mirabella. Other books include The End of Alice (which the NSPCC called to be withdrawn in 1997), In a Country of Mothers and her short stories The Safety of Objects. She lives in New York, teaching writing at the New School and Columbia University.

Literary festivals create some curious bed-fellows, platform-sharers or - in the case of the Edinburgh International Book Festival - tent-sharers, since the events take place under canvas in a series of tents in Charlotte Square Gardens.

Thus there are people, like me, who might wonder quite what they were doing on a panel organised by LM magazine (the L stands for Living, the M stands for Marxism) to discuss "Taste and Taboo". The other panellists were James Herbert: no, not that James Herbert, this one is an American film maker, director of Speedy Boys, which I haven't seen. Apparently it's a coming of age movie in which all but one the actors appear entirely naked throughout. There too was Gordon Burn, chronicler of the Yorkshire Ripper and Fred and Rosemary West, and a man you'd fear to tangle with, be it on stage or in a dark alley.

But I suppose the star of the show, or at least the person who has recently taken the most flak for offending tastes and breaking taboos, was A M Homes (the A stands for Amy). She is the author of the notorious, paedophile- narrated The End of Alice and now of a rather better book called Music for Torching (Doubleday, pounds 15.99). I, presumably, was there as the author of Footsucker: a novel about fetishism that in some circles is thought of as perilously risque although, in this company, I felt like the conservative backlash.

Of course, in most of the important ways, all of us on the panel shared the same views. We agreed that censorship, whether from the left or the right, whether official or self-imposed or brought on by some self-interested pressure group, was a very bad thing. We would all defend the artist's right to deal with any subject, however offensive we might personally find it. We all agreed that political correctness was just about the worst thing going.

A M Homes said, as you felt she must have said many times before, that reading her novel wasn't going to make anyone go out and become a paedophile. James Herbert was even prepared to say that art doesn't make anyone go out and do anything at all. Incidentally, the publisher John Calder, in a different tent, would later give evidence to the contrary. When Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn was prosecuted for obscenity, one of its opponents was the Rev David Sheppard, once an English test cricketer, later Bishop of Liverpool. He thought Last Exit... should be banned because "I would not like to say I could read a book like this and suffer no damage from it."

The nearest we came to a disagreement was over American Psycho, written by A M's pal "Bret Ellis". She was only prepared to admit that it was "flawed", while Gordon Burn reckoned it was "shit".

Afterwards, a mite punch drunk from mouthing off about taste and taboo for an hour and a half, I made a stab at interviewing A M Homes. I knew from her cuttings that she can give fairly feisty interview. When some hapless journalist asked her whether she lived alone or with somebody she said "Both" and when asked was she gay, she replied "Not terribly".

In the event I found her a rather jolly soul. Maybe being on the panel had softened her up a bit, but she was warm, likeable, and had the curious but winning capacity to look romantically windswept even when sitting. In a completely still room.

She was obviously accustomed to an abrasive class of interviewer and began with a pre-emptive strike. "People come with a set of expectations. I thought you'd be taller. I thought you'd be weirder. I thought you'd be more complicated." Her advice to them is "Read the books and take what you take from them but don't think you have some understanding of me by reading this material."

Maybe this defensiveness is only to be expected, given the reception Britain gave to The End of Alice. The new book is unlikely to cause any such knee-jerk responses. It's a deadpan but occasionally hilarious depiction of a desperately unhappy suburban couple, Paul and Elaine, who are looking for something, anything, to make their lives bearable. Arson and crack are just two of the things they try.

Homes said the new book wasn't a reaction to the furore caused by the previous one, not a conscious stepping back from controversy, but it's clearly an attempt to do something different, to extend her range. "I wanted to write something that was funny," she said. "I wanted to write a rollicking black comedy. It's got everything but the kitchen sink, one more absurd thing, then one more... It's funny and it's not."

It's certainly got a lot of beautifully described bad sex in it. The heroine is seduced by a female neighbour wearing a strap-on dildo, her son finds a red condom used by her and a rampant cop and mistakes it for a balloon, her husband goes for a lunchtime assignation and finds himself coerced into getting a sprig of ivy tattooed across his belly. None of this makes any of the characters very happy. "Sex for them is an attempt to escape oneself," Homes said. "They're completely sexually frustrated but that's just an indication of how frustrated they are with the rest of their lives.

"They think that sex will somehow get them out of that but it doesn't. They look for something that will break them out of their mould but it's just the same mould, only worse. Life is spinning out of control and then something from the outside, even more out of control happens."

I don't think it's giving too much away to say that the comedy all but evaporates in the book's closing pages, when the couple's son is taken hostage at school by another pupil. Since the book was published in America before the events at Columbine High, accusations of exploitation are mercifully beside the point. "What are they going to accuse me of? Writing about the times I live in? Getting it right?... Very often when I write a book something happens around publication that makes it absolutely clear to me, yeah, I got that one right."

Yes, she does get things right. I think the best thing she said to me was. "You know, novelists are big fat liars. And the better you lie, the better job you do."

She says she's frequently asked at readings whether she has any tattoos. She says not, but why would she feel an obligation to tell the truth about a thing like that? My own last question to her, a crashingly obvious one in retrospect, was. "By the way, what does the M stand for in A M Homes?"

With perfect, practised timing she replied "Middle". It was such a good line that I wanted to believe her.

Geoff Nicholson's latest novel is `Female Ruins' (Indigo)