A.M. Homes on writing about characters that have different set of values from her
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The author A.M. Homes often writes about characters that have a very different set of values and attributes from her. In "The Unfolding," That main character is a rich Republican power broker. Here's how Homes describes the book.
A M HOMES: "The Unfolding" is what I would describe as both a state of the nation novel, but also a braided narrative that is as much about the sort of cultural, social, political evolution in this country as it is about a family coming to terms with the power of secrets and coming to consciousness about who they are and where they want to go from here.
SHAPIRO: "The Unfolding" takes place during a specific window of time starting on election night, November 2008, and ending on Inauguration Day in January of 2009, when Barack Obama was sworn in as president. I asked Homes, why that timeframe?
HOMES: It was fascinating because I was here in New York City when Obama won. I actually bought a new TV and invited friends over. It was my first new TV.
SHAPIRO: Was that the reason you bought the new TV?
HOMES: It is, absolutely. I thought, you know, I got to go bigger than 13 inches for this. It's going to be good. And, you know, there really was this incredible sense, certainly where I live, of exhilaration and hope and energy and possibility. But I think also what we sort of have seen over time was that in some ways, too, that hope had another side to it. And I think it in some ways sort of - if not uncorked, helped to sort of trigger the, I would say, release of incredible both racism and sexism in this country that has been sort of developing and growing ever since. And so that's - part of the idea for me was how to begin to look at that.
SHAPIRO: So as you thought back on that moment that for you represented hope and change, what made you decide, you know what, I'm going to put myself in the shoes of a Republican power player that night in Phoenix, Ariz., sitting at a hotel bar when the world around him, as he knew it, felt like it was crumbling?
HOMES: I believe in the idea of inhabiting, you know, shoes other than one's own. So this was a very different pair of shoes for me. It might have been more of a wingtip. It might have been a much larger size. I think there has been a interesting evolution of the Republican Party where, in some ways, old-school Republicans like the Big Guy in this book began to feel when McCain lost to Barack Obama that they were losing control of the party and losing power and very much threatened with the idea of no longer, you know, being older white men in power.
SHAPIRO: I could imagine somebody reading this book and thinking, oh, well, she saw the insurrection and decided to go back and retrace the roots. But you actually started writing this more than a decade ago, right?
HOMES: Yeah, I've been at it for a long time. You know, I said to my editor many, many years ago, like, I feel like something's happening out there. And I was sort of looking at the election cycles and the way I felt that politicians had lost touch with, you know, the average American and then this incredible rise of dark money into the political process. And for me, the dovetail of those two things really let us down the road to how we got to Trump. And I wanted the book to be done well before the last election. And, you know, publishing takes a year before the book comes out. And I was not quite done. And then January 6 happened. My friends all called me and said, thank God it didn't come out because you'd be in trouble.
SHAPIRO: Or what, you would have been blamed as having invoked it in your fiction?
HOMES: Yes, exactly.
SHAPIRO: I feel like when news organizations or authors tap into the countervailing narrative to Obama, the people who did not feel like it was an era of hope and change, they often look to the, quote-unquote, "downtrodden." It's sort of the "Hillbilly Elegy" approach. But your main character, the Big Guy, is the opposite of downtrodden. I mean, he is the 1%. He is a power broker. He is rich and influential. What do you think we see when we look at that aspect of it?
HOMES: Well, I think people haven't seen that aspect. I've always had this odd thing as a novelist where I pick the least likely characters to tell a story. So in a way, who is the least likely person to talk about, you know, older white men losing power? Well, a whole group of them. You know, I didn't want to write fully in reaction to what was happening in the world around us. But I wanted to kind of open that door a little bit and look at that. Yeah.
SHAPIRO: And as you spend time with those characters, do you find your empathy muscles straining or strengthening? What kind of an effect does it have?
HOMES: I think that's a good title for like a self-help book called the "The Empathy Muscle."
HOMES: People are always calling me going, am I supposed to like these people? And I think it's irrelevant because when you look at like books all through history, you don't think, oh. "Crime And Punishment," I love that guy. What a great murderer.
SHAPIRO: Madea, love her.
HOMES: Right. Totally. And so I do think, when I look at the Big Guy, do I feel empathy for him? Absolutely. Do I feel compassion for him? Absolutely. There is a large piece of the book that is about the political curve, as we might call it, of the last 10 years. But importantly, there's also a part where the Big Guy begins to realize, oh, what if I am a jerk? What if I'm not a good person? What does that mean? How do I live with myself? For me, that's where the empathy lies is in the movement within each character towards sort of their own truth, if you want to call it that.
SHAPIRO: Alongside the political upheaval, there is this family plot, and the two play out alongside each other. What interested you about juxtaposing these two different kinds of collapse, micro and macro?
HOMES: There's so many ways I could answer that, and I will say one of them is that historically in American literature, women write the sort of interior small domestic story and men write the large, sprawling sort of, you know, social, cultural novel, political novel. So I really wanted to kind of marry those two threads together of - and I don't even call things the great American novel, I call it the pretty good big book. So the ideas of the pretty good big book with also that more intimate domestic, and importantly, the idea of the various kinds of unraveling or the ways in which by kind of looking at ourselves more clearly, we come closer to kind of knowing ourselves so that even as things seem to be unfolding or unfurling, they also are getting closer to truth within themselves and within the culture to some degree.
SHAPIRO: You've written a dozen books, but this is your first novel in a decade. How does it feel to jump back into the pool?
HOMES: The truth is it's terrifying. And even as I'm sort of watching some of the reviews come out - and some of them are negative, which I always say there's such a thing as a good bad review. But what's important to me is to think about fiction that's not always about just being entertaining, although I hope parts of this book are entertaining, but mostly it's about sort of capturing a place in time and culture and then looking at the movement of, you know, society from that to where we are now, which I think is fascinating, you know.
SHAPIRO: A.M. Homes. Her new novel is "The Unfolding." Thank you for talking with us about it.
HOMES: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.