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The Unfolding

AM Homes: ‘We want to believe that opportunity exists for women now; it does and it doesn’t’

By Anthony Cummins

The US author on trying to add a note of optimism to her work, getting advice from Jeanette Winterson, and her prescient new novel about a coup in Washington

AM Homes, 60, is the author of 12 books, including 1996’s The End of Alice, narrated by a jailed paedophile, Music for Torching (1999), about the build-up to a school shooting, and May We Be Forgiven, which won the 2013 Women’s prize for fiction, leaving the judges “laughing out loud [in] fear or horror as much as anything else”. Her new novel, The Unfolding, follows a Republican donor plotting a coup in the wake of Barack Obama’s election. Homes, raised in Washington DC, spoke from New York, where she teaches at Columbia University.

What led you to write The Unfolding?
I was trying to illustrate how we got to where we are now by looking at 2008, but I’d started it well before Donald Trump was even seeming to be a candidate. It’s not the first time I’ve been writing about something that then comes into being in some way: Music for Torching came out three weeks before the Columbine shooting. I started experimenting with the ideas in the story A Prize for Every Player [collected in Days of Awe, 2018], where a guy at a store is nominated to run for president by other shoppers because they feel no one in the political establishment understands them. That sense isn’t new, but what was on my mind was the way that the problem has been intensified by the influx of dark money, which incentivises American politicians to care for corporations rather than people.

The novel’s title refers to a family drama as well as a political one…
You can go down a rabbit hole with politics, because it’s the stuff of nonfiction. I was talking to Jeanette Winterson about how hard it was and she said: “Stay with the characters!” It made me pay more attention to the women in the book: the [protagonist’s] mother and daughter feel paralysed by the power of the men in their life and the secrets they’ve been asked to keep. Meghan is up against that horrible moment young women come to – these days especially – when they’re led to believe they can do anything and then see, as they become teenagers, that it’s somehow harder to claim space that’s not sort of sexualised or playing some sort of role. We want to believe that opportunity exists for women now; it does and it doesn’t.

Did you feel overtaken by events when you saw the Capitol riots?
This novel took a long time to write – 10 years – and I had wanted it to be out before the last election: I was so upset, like: “Oh man, the timing’s all messed up now.” But after 6 January my friend said: “It’s really good it didn’t come out; you’d be in big trouble.” When I was first talking to my editors about my idea, they listened carefully and literally said: “I dunno, it sounds kinda out there… you don’t write science fiction.” That diverted me to other things – I teach full-time, I write TV [Homes has written for The L Word, among other series] and have a family – but I couldn’t let it go, and the horrifying thing was it started not to be science fiction at all.

Was it hard to inhabit a political mindset you don’t share?
Telling things from the point of view of the least likely character [for me to write about] is something I’ve often done. There’s going to have to be some kind of reconciliation, or confrontation, with this incredible divide in the country. It’s terrifying that so many people would not recognise the delusion of Trump’s refusal to acknowledge he lost the election. We have this heavily armed society of people who don’t trust each other: talk about scary. At one point, my English editor called and said: “I don’t know if I’m not getting something, but these guys keep talking about wanting to preserve democracy – is that right?” I’m like: “Yes, because that word now means different things to different people; their democracy is one thing, our democracy is another.”

The NSPCC called The End of Alice “vile”. Would you write it now?
I got in a lot of trouble for that book. The End of Alice was very much about a subject that we as a society were not dealing with; 20 years on I’d say we’ve made some movement with conversations about child abuse and with avoiding people who’ve been abused becoming abusers. I wouldn’t write it now, no; not because of cancel culture, but because it was excruciating to try to find language for [the narrator], who’s crazy. I don’t think the fiction I’m doing now is that different, but from my first novel post-9/11, This Book Will Save Your Life [a Richard and Judy Book Club pick in 2007], I was thinking about how to write optimistically. It’s easy to write downhill; I want to leave you now feeling that a story can change [for the better], but it’s not like I’m circling fully upward with a rainbow at the end.

What have you been reading lately?
Let’s see... the Bible. No! I’ve been reading Richard Powers. I love The Overstory, but I love Bewilderment so much. We talk about the great American novelists, you know, Jonathan Franzen, la-la-la, and these older ones, DeLillo, whatever; to me, Richard Powers really is the great American novelist of this moment. James Kirchick’s Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington is really interesting: I was very aware growing up that [the city had] a lot of closeted gay men who really struggled during the 80s, when I was a kid there. And I’m a little bit jealous of how good Melissa Febos’s memoirs are.

Which authors first inspired you?
Plays were the thing for me: Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter. A little bit later I came to Caryl Churchill, whose work departs the known world in order to explore the psychological and the political. I’m working on a novel with a talking tree – Caryl Churchill allowed me to do that, just as Richard Yates allowed me to write about really upsetting families. I didn’t know Yates personally, but Disturbing the Peace is brilliant, and the book that seems most truly of his heart and soul. It should just be called Painful: A Novel.

The Unfolding is published on 8 September by Granta (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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