Photograph of A. M. Homes by Marion Ettlinger. Photograph of Yiyun Li by Basso Cannarsa/Agence Opale.
A few times a year, the writers Yiyun Li and A. M. Homes sit down to lunch. As friends, they often find themselves talking about almost anything but writing. Often, though, as they ask each other questions, something interesting and unexpected happens: “The thin thread of a story might be unearthed,” Homes recently told us, “or the detail of a recent experience, or a gnawing question one finds unanswerable. Somewhere between the menu, the meal and the coffee, maybe the story begins to form.”
Last year, Li and Homes both published new novels. In Li’s The Book Of Goose, she tells the story of a complex friendship between Agnes and Fabienne, farm girls, who each have been in some way neglected by their families. Homes’s latest book, The Unfolding, is a political satire that explores the fault lines of American politics within a family.
At the end of the year, the two friends sat down for one of their lunches—and what follows is a bit of what they talked about.
Funnily enough, as colleagues and friends, one of the things that we never talk about is writing.
Once in a while I will tell you a story or say something has happened, and you’ll say, “Write that into a story.” That has happened three times. Particularly with the story “All Will Be Well,” as I explained in an interview with The New Yorker: “Sometimes it needs a nudge from another person. I was talking with my friend A. M. Homes one day, and I told her about this practice in California, where we were asked to send care packages to our children’s preschool with a letter, in case of a catastrophic earthquake. She said, ‘You have to write a story about that.’ It had not occurred to me until then, and it turned out that there was a place for the care package in a story.” I think you have a specific talent for saying, “Well, that’s an idea.” There’s an expansiveness to the way you look at the world. Do you look through a telescope or a microscope? Where does it come from?
I would say my way of looking comes from growing up as an outsider in my own family—a person adopted into a family. I felt other and different and experienced the world as an observer. There’s a space between me and other people that would otherwise perhaps not exist.
Do you still feel that way?
I do. It’s a strange position that has also given me enormous freedom to inhabit others and create characters. I don’t feel wedded to any particular identity because I don’t feel I have an identity.
I come from a different kind of family, where I often wished that I were adopted. When someone’s scrutinizing you all the time, your instinct can be not to look at them, not to think about them. Because I’m sheltering myself from all these things in my own life, I can create an alternative universe where my perspective is.
It’s like you’re on the outside, and a shade has gone down that says “Closed for the afternoon” and no one can see that you’re inside, looking off in a different direction.
Yes, and for you, it’s like you’re outside the house and the shade comes down, and you’re thinking, “What’s going on inside the house?”
Exactly. And wondering: do I even have a key to the house?
So, where are you looking at this moment?
For better or worse, I’m a very American writer, so I’m looking at the way we consume things. I’m increasingly interested in economics and how a person’s economic life affects their narrative and trajectory. Where and how a person lives, whether they have money or have access to health care, all these things change the course of their life profoundly. I always feel that, in fiction, and certainly when we discuss fiction, we don’t talk about those things enough, but I’m fascinated by their implications.
I always say that every character has to have a job. Many students create characters who don’t have jobs. They don’t work.
Certainly the reason I’m so curious about the concept of the quintessential American writer is because I am not one, although my coming of age as a writer happened in America. So I’m curious about how you define an American writer.
That’s a good question—how does one define an American writer? To be honest, I think that raises another question that until recently I’ve been loath to discuss. That questions is, How does one define an American female writer versus an American male writer? The gender gap with regard to material and expectation and even who reads the books feels larger to me in America than in other countries. In the U.S., men write the Great American Novels—the books about the scale and scope of the American social, political, economic experience—and women are supposed to write the smaller-scale, intimate, domestic stories. In other countries things are not so divided. There is not Women’s Literature, or Chick Lit, and then Men’s Literature. This bothers me a lot, and I would say that my most recent book, The Unfolding, is an attempt to do both—to write both the large-scale, state-of-the-nation novel and also unpack the small-scale, intimate life of a family. But almost as soon as the book came out, a bookseller asked me, “Who is this book for?” and I was caught off guard. I didn’t know what she meant. Was she asking is it for men or women? Was she asking is it for people who agree with my point of view? I don’t know—when I am writing I never think about who this book is for—beyond the hope that my fiction is both entertaining, funny, and provokes thought, robust conversation, and debate about the issues of our time. Does that make any sense or say anything about the American novel?
One thing I can relate to as an American writer is clarity. I was in a cab in Beijing recently, and the cab driver asked me what I did for a living. I said, “I’m a writer.” This cab driver, who had apparently read many books translated from English, and especially American writers, said, “American writers are very straightforward. In China, we consider writing as making circles. You do all these hide-and-seek games. You never say what you want to say.” He said, “American writers, they say what they want to say.”
That’s a super-interesting idea—depending on what country someone is from, one has more or less freedom to say directly what they want to say or to code their writing in some way so that someone can extrapolate another meaning from it.
I think there is accuracy to the idea that there is a bluntness to American writing. It aims for an immediate connection with the reader. And it’s almost as though sometimes there’s not a lot of room to build the relationship, because the attention span is so short that either you connect immediately or it’s over. It’s almost like, Swipe right. You escaped that in The Book of Goose, which I think of as originating from a more European model.
The world of my novel is entirely rural. It’s set in the French countryside. My characters are French girls. But they will never place their own lives in a historical setting. They will never say, We are two French girls living in the countryside in poverty post–World War II under American occupation. All these historical terms describing their existence do not matter to them. I felt liberated writing about them because I did not have to worry about all these things that critics would say about rural France, post–World War II, the American occupation. No, this is a world made up by two girls, entirely made up by two girls. I feel that I got a little, like, a shortcut because my characters live in their own world in a way. Would you say that you are the opposite?
Yes and no. It’s beautiful the way you described the characters in The Book of Goose as living in the world of their imagination and their physical existence and their environment. It’s a world from inside out—and actually I always start from that point, too, the interior of the character—although in The Unfolding in particular there is a lot of social, cultural, and political framing and large amounts of history and fact. So it is absolutely both in the mind’s eye of the characters, but as they are participating in the known world in a very obvious sense.
Another thing we share: We both live in our imaginations and we pull in threads from our worlds and our experiences, but they are not the dominant theme. We are not writing about ourselves.
I don’t find myself that interesting.
I don’t find myself that interesting either. Like you, I have written about myself at times and about experiences that I’ve had, but fundamentally, it’s not the thing I enjoy most.
Do you think readers like to go beyond themselves?
I’m not sure anymore. When I was growing up, all I was looking for was a way out—a way into another world. So I read biographies. I thought, “Just show me how to be a person. Show me how to live a life.”
I think that, as things have become more fractured, people seem to read to confirm their ideas about themselves and their identities. They’re looking for a mirror. We also are in a moment when misunderstanding is not tolerated. But misunderstanding is fundamental to growth because you cannot assume everyone will understand everything, nor can you assume that they will agree. So you have to have a zone where you can navigate that. I’ve always found that reading and writing books helped me to do that.
Where is the zone now? Where is that space? How do we make that space? I did an event with Garth Greenwell, and he mentioned—and it’s true—that people always say my work is too bleak. I said, “The bleakest thing is when life is bleak and you pretend it’s very rosy.” I’m in the William Trevor camp of writers. John Banville described Trevor and said, “William Trevor arrives in a beautiful town, and he looks around and says, ‘How beautiful is this town? Let me write and find out what’s wrong with it.’” My belief is that there’s something innately unsettling and troubling underneath. I want to write to find that layer rather than cover that layer up.
I’m curious about your relationship to secrets. Are secrets helpful? Do you think of yourself as secretive?
I want to make a distinction between secretive and private. John McGahern famously said that Irish people don’t have privacy, only secrets. It’s a lie that you live your entire life inside the church, inside society.
Even with no secrets, you can always hold something in your heart. So I feel that at this moment I’m not secretive but I have my privacy. How about you? I think you are more outgoing, more out there.
I don’t have secrets anymore. I think it comes from the fact that I’m actually painfully shy. When I was younger, people sometimes misread that as my being formal or off-putting, and so I worked to show that I’m not scary. But now it’s like I’m naked, I have no covering, no shell, which is another problem. I definitely don’t have any secrets. I also don’t feel like I have a lot of privacy.
What about your characters? All characters have secrets, but they don’t seem to have privacy because of the way we look at them. How do you think about that?
I would say my characters in my most recent book have so many secrets that I don’t even begin to know how deep they go, and they are also pretty private. In the book before this one, I was writing this character, Harold Silver, who’s a Nixon scholar, and I found him very difficult. I kept asking myself, “Why is it so hard to write this?” Slowly, I came to understand that I didn’t know Harold Silver because Harold does not know himself. And only as Harold came to know himself did the book become easier to write.
I have a craft question for you. When I read your work, it feels to me so well-crafted and so fine-tuned, and each line is really perfect and beautiful. I wonder, do they come out that way? Or what is your revision process like?
No, of course nothing comes out perfect, right? With this new book, The Book of Goose, the first draft was one hundred fifty pages longer than the final. Secondly, there was an unnecessary frame, a bit like the one in Lolita. I was very attached to that frame, but everybody, all my early readers, indicated that it was not going to work.
But you needed it to write it.
I think that frame was for my psychological comfort. I argued, I defended the frame, and eventually my editor said, “I think you want the book to be a different one than the book is meant to be.” And when she said that, I thought, “Oh, that makes sense.” So I cut away the frame. I rewrote the second half. How many drafts did you do of your recent book?
What’s interesting is that each book defines its own terms. With The Unfolding, the complexity was in figuring out the weave of the stories. I didn’t want each person’s story to repeat itself or each character to have to expound upon the same experience. So it was a question of how to keep it moving forward without accounting for each character in every moment.
Grace Paley used to say to me that the bummer about being a writer is that you’re never promoted to senior vice president of writing. Every time you are thrown back to the beginning. You might acquire some skills for the management of problems, but each book is so different, and you have a different agenda because you’re not trying to just repeat yourself. So you have to discover what the terms are of that book and how it will operate and the ways in which it has weaknesses.
Totally. That’s an argument I constantly have with how books are read—they’re read as products. Books are not products. A book cannot be perfect. Nothing is proportional. Nothing is perfect. Some of Mavis Gallant’s books, for instance, are just so good and terrible at the same time, and all I can say is that she gave birth to a baby that looks different from all the babies in the world.
A. M. Homes is the author of thirteen books of fiction and nonfiction, including The Unfolding; May We Be Forgiven, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction; and the bestselling memoir The Mistress’s Daughter. She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and The Guggenheim Foundation, and is active on the boards of numerous arts organizations. She teaches in the creative writing program at Princeton University.
Yiyun Li is the author of eleven books of fiction and nonfiction, including the novels The Book of Goose and Where Reasons End. She is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a Windham-Campbell Prize, a PEN/Jean Stein Award, and a PEN/Malamud Award, among other honors. She teaches at Princeton University.
Last / Next Article