May We Be Forgiven
A. M. Homes
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May We Be Forgiven is a meditation on the meaning of family in the twentyfirst century. Harold Silver finds his life turned upside down when his volatile brother, George, commits an act of violence that changes their lives forever, leaving Harold as the guardian of George’s two children. Meanwhile, Harold’s marriage is disintegrating and his career as a Nixon scholar is in danger when the department chair informs him that history is becoming more “future forwardinstead of studying the past, the students will be exploring the futurea world of possibility.”
Grasping for something to hold his life together, Harold loses himself temporarily as he tumbles hilariously down the rabbit hole of Internet sex and George’s prescription medications. But when confronted by his own mortality, Harold begins to open up to the world around him, let go of the past, and begin taking some risks, including assembling a blended family out of those who need him most. As his relationships change to something deeper and more emotionally satisfying, Harold establishes a new closeness with his niece and nephew, who reveal themselves to be far more complex than anyone had ever noticed.
If there is such a thingas a midlife comingofage novel, this is it; the world of Harold Silver exists between the virtual and the physical, the excruciatingly public and the preciously private. As a Nixon scholar, Harold is all too wary of the dangerous trail technology can leave behind, particularly when trying to lead a life of discretion and, occasionally, deceit. As Harold tries to pull himself together and lead a respectable life, he grows increasingly more fascinated with the human side of Nixon and sets out to find a new understanding of the mercurial former president.
May We Be Forgiven is a dark comedy about the potential for personal transformation and emotional growth. A.M. Homes delivers some of her most complicated and fascinating characters yet, exploring themes of justice, family, history, and community, along with faith, ritual, and our social and emotional obligations and connections to one another. May We Be Forgiven is a road map for assembling a life out of the ashes. It is a novel that examines how we become who we are, and how much control we have over the process.
A.M. Homes is the author of the novels Jack, In a Country of Mothers, The End of Alice, Music for Torching, and This Book Will Save Your Life, plus two collections of stories, The Safety of Objects and Things You Should Know. She also writes nonfiction; her memoir, The Mistress’ Daughter, was published in 2007. Homes has received numerous awards, including a Guggenheim fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and a Cullman Center fellowship from the the New York Public Library. She has taught writing at Columbia University, New York University, and The New School and is currently on the faculty at Princeton University.
Q. What kind of historical research did you do on Richard Nixon and the era of his administration for the novel?
I did a lot of research, everything from reading books by and about Nixon, of which there are hundreds, to visiting the Nixon Librarywhich has a great Web site as welland enormous amounts of information/documents available. What’s really interesting is that more information, more documents keep being released. The White House Special Files Unit was created in 1972 to provide secure storage for politically and personally sensitive materialsthose files are still slowly being uncorked. Also, I grew up in Washington D.C. during Nixon’s time, so my childhood was very much influenced/affected by his presidency. Among what people forget about Nixon is that he opened our relationship with Chinaand it so happens that I was among those at the National Zoo the day Pat Nixon welcomed the first panda bears to this country.
Q. What are your thoughts on alternative criminal reform programs? How did you come up with The Woodsman program that George takes part in?
The classic model of putting people behind bars and throwing away the key seems pointless. People serving time in prison should be given an education, job training, and skills to enable them to succeed outside of prison. I think of crime as a social issue in many ways and wonder whether if we better prepared people to work and care for themselves we’d have less crime. I am in favor of prisons that have working farms where inmates learn to grow their own food and places where families can gather. The isolation of the prison experience isn’t helpful in the long run if you’re expecting inmates to return as functioning members of society.
Q. This novel is full of wonderful moments of physical comedy. Is it difficult to write physical comedy? Who are your comedic influences?
Would it be too ironic to say Harold Pinter?
Q. When you’re working on a project, do you think of the book or story you’re writing as a “foul thing” you need to expel (as Harold says of his own book on Nixon)? Or do you think of it in gentler terms, like a child you’re bringing into the world? Do you experience the writing process as an act of cathartic release?
I wish I experienced it as a cathartic release. It took me seven years to write this bookif it was cathartic, I think I’d be either ecstatic or dead at this point! I think of writing fiction as a wonderful kind of travel experienceI get to inhabit people who are very different from me and move through their lives and explore ideas that I find interestingbut often from very different points of view. The truth is I love being in the middle of a novel. It’s the beginning that’s difficult. In the case of this book, writing about Harry, a man who doesn’t know himself well, was hard until Harry literally began to open up, and then it all got a lot easier.
Q. Early on in the novel, Harold wishes he could talk to Don DeLillo about Nixon. Later Harold spots DeLillo around town on a couple of occasions, finally working up the courage to speak to him. How much of an influence has DeLillo been on your writing?
Don DeLillo appears in the novel for several reasonsthe first being because he’s an amazing writer, and I especially admire his ability to blend fact and fiction, something that I attempted to do in this novel on a larger scale than I ever have before. Also, because DeLillo in reality lives not far from where I imagine the novel to be set, it’s plausible within the frame of the book for DeLillo to literally pass through. And in some ways the irony of DeLillo as both a writer and a character appeals to me. DeLillo himself is quite shy, slightly cryptic in conversation and affect, and I just am in awe of himso it’s a tip of the hat to a master.
Q. I noticed the repeated use of the word “downloading” to refer to characters in conversation, such as on p. 467 when Harold is on the phone with Amanda: “She’s downloading information, letting each bit go . . .” Why this use of tech language to depict human interactions?
We have adapted tech talk as human talkwe go to dinner and download our friends on the state of our lives. When informing others of things, we say I’m going to upload you. . . . The real question is when and how we’ll find words for emoticons. . . .
Q. How do you get inside the head of a character like Harold? How much does character development steer the plot in your work?
I always spend a lot of time thinking about a character’s history: their life up until the moment the book begins, what’s been won or lost over the years, their view of themselves and their own lives. Harry always seemed to me like someone waiting for his life to beginnot fully realizing that in fact he is responsible for his own success or failure. I don’t really think about plot, I think about my characters and their lives and the journey they’re onand off we go on an adventure. . . .
Q. How did you go about developing the voice and style for Nixon’s fiction?
I thought a lot about Nixon’s background, his Quaker history and his valuesincluding the fact that he came from a family where two of his brothers died when he was quite young. There is so much about Nixon’s success anddownfall that is specifically related to the time period in which he livedNixon’s life span is an interesting one in terms of the social/cultural/economic and technological development it encompasses, from the tape recorder to the television. Also, there are many stories about Nixon having a bit of a drinking problem and perhaps not being very nice to Pat. So I was able to thread some of the more difficult material into fiction rather that putting it in the body of the book and perhaps distracting the reader.
Q. Your novel offers both a state of the union on the Great American Novel and a commentary on the state of the American nuclear familywhere do you think we are and where are we going?
Ahh, the big questions. Curiously, I am often asked about the difference between fiction written by men and by womenthe assumption being that only men can write the Great American Novel. And while perhaps traditionally men have written the larger social and political novels while women have tended towards exploring the domestic and more interior experience, May We Be Forgiven does both: it asks big questions about social structure, health care, education, and the prison system, and also explores the domestic world of raising children and maintaining relationships. Grace Paley, my teacher and mentor, once said to me, “Women have done men the favor of reading their work and men have not returned that favor.” I think in many ways she was rightwomen read books by men and women and yet fewer men read books by women. Anyway, the point is, the American Novel is alive and well and being written by a broad range of talented writers.
The American nuclear family is also clearly a subject close to my heart. So many people feel disappointed by their own families and are increasingly building families of choiceconstructing social/ familial units made of friends and extended family that they choose to spend time with. One of the things that I like about this novel is how Harry manages to build a life that includes everyone, from children to older people to the couple that own the local Chinese restaurantit truly takes a village.
Q. Your work is often described as “dark” and “controversial.” Do you like to write within this sort of territory because that’s where you feel most comfortable, or is it that you’re most interested in writing about things that frighten and disturb you?
My work is also often described as both transgressive and deeply moralwhich I think is what’s both interesting and confusing for some people. I think work described as shocking or controversial means that it touches a nerve, and I can’t imagine wanting to write anything that didn’t touch a nerve. What would be the point of spending years writing a book only to have people say, Oh, that’s nice, and not be prompted to talk about the ideas in the book, to debate the subject matter? I have no interest in specifically frightening or disturbing anyone, but I do very much always want to write fiction that encourages people to look at themselves and the world around them differently.
More interestingly, I think, is to point out that all of my books have at their center a rather traditional moral core. In the end it always comes down to talking about what kind of a person are youwhat do you expect of yourself and others and what role do you play in your community? I’m a big fan of people being able to do for others what they might not be able to do for themselves.
- An overarching theme of this novel is the concept of the institution, be it a mental hospital, a marriage, a family, or academia. As the institutions in this novel are reevaluatedforced upon some, rejected or clung to by othersdoes your view of the institution change? Are these places/relationships safe havens? Prisons? How does each character experience each institution differently?
- Religion and ritual are interwoven as important aspects in the Silvers’ lives. Traditional religion seems to cause stress for Harold, and yet he takes great comfort in his daily rituals. What are some of these rituals? Are they healthy or signs of addiction?
- What is the difference between tradition and religion in this novel?
- There is a lot of physical comedy in this story, ranging from slapstick to the scatological. Harold takes the majority of the pratfalls, sometimes delivering selfinflicted blows. How do these moments symbolize Harold’s internal loss of control? Do they make him seem more cartoonish or more human?
- For which of the Silver brothers is President Nixon used as a foil?
- Illness is a consistent theme throughout the book, encompassing mental illness, a stroke, sex addiction, and more. Do any of the characters in this novel make a full recovery?
- After the tragic incidents at the start of the novel, Harold is left to assemble a life from what’s been left to him. He steps in as guardian for his brother’s children and later as primary caretaker for an elderly couple. Through this process of assembling (or reassembling) a family he can truly call his own, Harold finds something close to contentment. What kind of case doe this book make for or against the traditional nuclear family vs. the modern blended family?
- Harold exhibits a general mistrust of modern technology. He is frustrated by his students using their cell phones during class and downloading their final papers online. His foray into online dating goes terribly awry. And yet he learns to Skype with Nate, transfers money to a South African village with the click of a button, sends an iPad to his brother in prison, and manages multiple relationships via text message. Does Harold’s skepticism of technology stem from his immersion in Nixon’s era and the former president’s unfortunate turn with technology? Is it a generational thing? How does technology help and/or hinder Harold’s journey throughout the novel?
- There are a number of violent and disturbing crimes committed in this story: murder, sexual abuse, child abuse, arms dealing, theft. Is any justice brought to the perpetrators of these crimes? Does any criminal reform take place?
- Communities play a large role in this novel: online communities, Nate’s and Ashley’s boarding schools, the town Harold lives in, his mother’s nursing home, The Lodge where George is undergoing treatment. How is the idea of fitting into one’s community explored throughout the novel? In contrast, how is the concept of the foreigner examined?