Imagine the worst disaster that could strike your family. Now multiply that by five, and you’re still barely in the ballpark of the chaos that Cheryl, the protagonist of A.M. Homes’s She Got Away, stumbles into when she returns home from college after an ominous phone call from her anorexic sister, Abigail.
The story is set in Los Angeles, a world that at first seems familiar—casually expensive, the heat “like a physical lozenge, a sedative”—but becomes, through Homes’s rendering, disarming, hilarious and very weird. The details are all dialed up—think realism after a couple of Adderall. There’s a kinetic energy generated by the relationship between tone (startlingly deadpan) and subject (grief, trauma, loss). Something has gone terribly wrong, and things are only going to get worse—and yet, from the dialogue to the details, what it really makes you want to do is laugh, the way horrible news can sometimes inspire hysterics. It’s a bit sinister how Homes implicates her readers with their own laughter. What does it mean to laugh at tragedy? Why is it sometimes a relief to laugh at the things that scare us the most? Homes’s writing—from her controversial novel The End of Alice, starring an imprisoned child molester, to her most recent novel, May We Be Forgiven, which opens with a man imagining his brother and sister-in-law having sex—regularly tackles the darker side of the human psyche. More boldly, she renders these situations with punchy, nerve-jangling humor. The effect is transgressive, exhilarating and, in a way, a relief. Everything sucks; people are capable of great cruelty and shocking selfishness. You might as well laugh.
Homes, the author of nearly a dozen books, writes fiction and nonfiction, essays and reportage. She has received several awards, including the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction, and fellowships from the Guggenheim, the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center. (Not to mention: She was a runner-up in playboy’s 1987 College Fiction Contest.) She has also taken her talents to the world of television as a writer-producer for the Showtime series The L Word and has developed pilots for several networks. We chatted via e-mail.
Where did your playboy story, She Got Away, come from? Are your stories motivated by a specific impulse?
The only impulse that motivates me is trying to capture my characters wherever they are in their lives—as organically and honestly as possible. The hard work is knowing what lens to look through, what aspect I’m interested in capturing and why. Grace Paley, my wonderful teacher, taught me to always aim to capture the truth according to the character, which was good advice. For the most part I don’t write autobiographically, so I am always focused on what is the experience of this situation, this moment for each of my characters.
This story and the characters in it are part of a series of stories I’ve written about the same family. The first was “Chunky in Heat,” which appeared in The Safety of Objects, and then “Raft in Water Floating,” which was in Things You Should Know, and then “Hello Everybody,” published by Electric Literature and which, along with She Got Away, will be in my new collection, out next summer.
Your writing is often concerned with, as you put it in a profile in The Guardian, the things people “don’t want to say out loud.” What are those things in She Got Away?
It’s been said that I write emotional science fiction—emotions pushed out to the next level. I think of it like a photograph that’s supersaturated with color. And in terms of what’s not said out loud, I’m interested in the space between our public and private selves, the subtle secrets we keep with regard to the dissonance between how we present ourselves and how we live. And often, I’m also writing about the dissonance within each of us, between who we are, who we aspire to be and how family history or our fears can keep us from achieving our goals.
I write emotional science fiction. I think of it like a photograph that’s supersaturated with color.
Some of the funniest moments in She Got Away come from the interaction between the bluntness of the tone and the magnificent tragedy of the events; Abigail’s eating disorder, for example, is a source of several jokes in the piece (the foam restaurant, that she’s literally two-dimensional). What drives you to write so irreverently about things that we generally find very serious? How conscious are you while writing of whether or not you’re being funny?
For me humor is very important. I find everyday life difficult, painful, and by finding the absurdity in it, the humor in it, I’m able to go a little further. Humor also allows us to talk about serious things. If you can make someone laugh, then you can also go down to the next level in terms of the psychological and the kinds of things that are difficult to talk about.
There’s a great Donald Barthelme story,“The School,” that reminded me a lot of She Got Away—both are organized around a kind of escalating pattern of deaths, each one more shocking and hilarious than the last. In plotting the story, did you see all these deaths coming? Did any of them surprise you?
In terms of the deaths, it did surprise me. I’ve written about this family several times, and if you’d asked me years ago if this would happen, I’d have said no. But I’m also aware of how a family tragedy, such as the one this family went through years ago, takes its toll on everyone, the parents, the siblings. And I think for the main character, the larger question was about the safety of leaving home. What is lost when one grows up and leaves the nest? For Cheryl the literal question was: Would the nest survive? And if somehow the family didn’t, would she?
I love how brazenly this piece challenges what the reader is willing to believe. Were you ever worried about pushing the reader too far?
The core of the story is deeply honest and human, and the bells and whistles of their life in L.A. are just a reflection of the strangeness of the times we’re living in—and their attempt to stay “real.” Again, perhaps it goes back to that notion of emotional science fiction—which is perhaps illustrating the outside edges—or, as you say, pushing the reader a little bit. But if it’s a push, it’s a push into the heart of the story and the characters.
Humor is very important. I find everyday life difficult, painful, and by finding the absurdity in it, I’m able to go a little further.
The story pokes fun at Los Angeles and some of its clichés: Abigail and her mother both have “all the filler and Botox”; one of Cheryl’s dad’s movie-star clients visits him in the hospital to make sure he’s not just avoiding him; there’s a pervasive gloss of money over the domestic details. What makes L.A. an interesting setting, and why did you choose to root the piece there?
I’ve written several stories and novels set in Los Angeles. I find it a fascinating place, where the “dream” in the classic American Dream way is very much still alive. People come to L.A. to make it—immigrants, aspiring actors, writers—and people reinvent themselves there. That’s just part of the social fabric. I also find the racial/economic divides very interesting, as much about L.A. is based on where you live—how far you’re literally willing to go for work, for dinner, etc. A while ago, when I was writing a nonfiction book, I described L.A. as the most American place in America, and I think that holds true. The obsession with celebrity, with pop culture, with the lives of the rich and famous is still a major draw—and yet real people live there and grow up there, which to me is what’s super strange.
The characters in She Got Away talk past each other, in jokes and code. They often seem to be engaged in entirely separate conversations that occasionally intersect in hilarious ways, yet your dialogue masterfully spurs on the plot. Is there a secret to writing good dialogue?
There is no secret. My training comes from having started first as a playwright. Edward Albee was one of my mentors, and there were other “invisible” mentors such as Harold Pinter and Sam Shepard.
What crime do you think you would most likely get away with? Or, if the answer to that is too revealing, have you ever stolen anything? If so, what?
I once stole blue eye shadow; my mother made me return it. You’ll notice I don’t wear makeup.
Julie Buntin is author of the novel Marlena and director of writing programs at Catapult. She teaches at Marymount Manhattan College, and her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Slate and Cosmopolitan, among many other publications.