A.M. Homes, THE UNFOLDING: A Novel

A.M. Homes, THE UNFOLDING: A Novel

Guest host Julianna Goldman speaks to best-selling author A.M. Homes about The Unfolding, a hilarious and sharp political satire about a family’s unraveling in the wake of the 2008 presidential election. A.M. describes the inspiration behind this story, her interest in American society and culture, and the process of developing a cast of characters whose backgrounds and philosophies differ vastly from her own (like The Big Guy–a politically conservative and delusional white male). She also talks about her writing regimen and how she balances being an author with her roles of parent, partner, and teacher.


Julianna Goldman: A.M. Homes, author of The Unfolding, thank you so much for joining us today.

A.M. Homes: Thank you for having me.

Julianna: Just to start off, please tell us what The Unfolding is about.

A.M.: If only I could. It’s a good question. It’s about many things. It is a large-scale novel. It is a braided narrative that is, on the one hand, the story of a family that’s coming undone. As it comes undone, it comes to know itself better. There are multiple awakenings and comings to consciousness. It’s also the story about the American political system and what happens in seventy-seven days between Obama’s election and Obama’s inauguration when a group of men who are not happy that he won decide they would like to reclaim their version of America or democracy.

Julianna: Tell us, how did you come up with this concept? It’s out now, but it takes place, as you said, in 2008. Why didn’t it take place on election night, 2016? Why is it important to go back to 2008?

A.M.: It didn’t take place on election night, 2016, because I’d already started writing it before 2016.

Julianna: You had?

A.M.: Yeah, I started writing it before Trump was even a candidate. It took me a very long time. Really, the origin of it was the sense quite a while ago — I had begun developing these ideas in a short story in my last book called Days of Awe. The story’s “A Prize for Every Player.” It’s about a family that goes shopping in a big-box store. By the time they’re done with their shopping, the father’s been nominated as a presidential candidate. The campaign manager’s printing flyers in the home office section and so on. What I really was feeling quite a long time ago was that the American political establishment, both sides, so not one side in particular, had lost touch with the average American voter and that politicians were essentially running to represent themselves. They weren’t representing people or districts or any ideas anymore. That coincided with the influx of what we now call dark money, but I would call it private funding, into the political process. That exponentially grew. In 2008, if you gave a candidate $100,000, that bought you a lot of access. If you look at where we are now, the Federalist Society, Leonard Leo recently got $1.8 billion. Think how much that buys in terms of media, propaganda, information, all kinds of things that are very difficult to trace. I was thinking a lot about that and noticing that that was starting to happen. I said to my editors, “Something’s on my mind.” They were like, “But you don’t write science fiction.” I said, “I know, but there’s something out there.” Then in 2016, they’re like, “Where is it?” That was the origin.

Julianna: Did you have to go back and rewrite portions after?

A.M.: No, weirdly not. The interesting thing, too, was that I also felt that Obama’s election became, in some ways, a marker in time in terms of the ways in which many of us felt very hopeful. There was a new beginning, a sense of, obviously, a broader range of people being able to run for office, being able to win office, and feel represented. At the same time, it did seem to trip off a barely latent both racism and sexism that has kind of been blossoming ever since. I look at even the rollback of Roe and can sort of tie it to that and a very deep fear among some parts of our population of losing power and losing control over their version of America.

Julianna: Fear and feeling threatened.

A.M.: Absolutely.

Julianna: One of the central characters is the Big Guy. Can you tell us a bit about the Big Guy and why he is the Big Guy, never named, when everyone else is named?

A.M.: The Big Guy, I think his name secretly does come in somewhere once.

Julianna: You have to read to find out.

A.M.: The Big Guy, to me, is the Big Guy because he is a person who is like many other people and many people that I know. He’s somebody who occupies a lot of space, feels super confident in his own control of his world, and believes that he knows best about how things should be done and doesn’t see the way that he affects others around him. Not to reduce people to stereotypes, but there is that kind of person who lives among us. It walks among us. For me, the interesting thing was to watch the Big Guy as those around him, his wife and child, begin to know more about themselves and how they feel in relation to the family, the political situation. Also, as he comes to know them better, and himself, he also realizes, what if I’m a jerk? What if I’m not the good person I think I am? That was also very interesting to me. What happens to somebody if they begin to realize that the way they occupy space maybe is a little bit toxic?

Julianna: I kept thinking whether or not the Big Guy and the Forever Men would have done what they did knowing that it would eventually lead to Donald Trump.

A.M.: That’s a very interesting question. I think the truly philosophical answer would be along the lines of, “Yes, and…,” as they say in stand-up comedy. On the one hand, I think many people could see Donald Trump as a step on the way toward something else. He’s not really the definitive moment in time that anyone is aiming for. The philosophy that drives the Big Guy’s group of friends, known as the Forever Men, about reclaiming these ideas, the first thing that people do when they want to reclaim a country is disturb and disrupt. Their idea is to create — in the way that you drop a pebble in the water, it makes rings, but you don’t want those rings to be traceable back to you. The fact and the ways in which the republican establishment did ultimately get behind Donald Trump and stays behind Donald Trump — I would say, is he their kind of person? No, he’s really not. They are, in many ways, much more old-school, graceful. I think they probably have a little bit more of a moral core. Although, I’m not entirely sure. What I see now happening tells me that the republican party right now is interested in power at any cost, which is really, in a way, what these guys are saying too. It’s scary.

Julianna: It is. You kind of wonder also, had John McCain been elected, had Barack Obama not, we wouldn’t have been set on this course. At the same time, remember, the vice-presidential candidate was Sarah Palin. Where would that have taken us? I’m just saying I love these kinds of what-if questions.

A.M.: It’s fascinating to think about. I don’t really know. It’s interesting. When we look at even McCain’s concession speech, he gave a very graceful, generous concession speech, and very decent, and talked about how people needed to get behind Obama, that they had many common goals, and so on and so forth. That was probably the last polite speech given. It is interesting. The other thing is, you could look at it — John McCain ultimately got ill, had a brain tumor. Is there a world in which Sarah Palin would’ve ended up as president? which, to me, is as scary as Donald Trump. It’s also the ways in which politics and the posturing and the performance aspect have been pushed out so far that they are officially cartoonish, which is interesting. Historically, if you look way back in history, the posturing and performance of early political stump speeches and so on was absolutely performative. Are we full cycle? Sort of, but the stakes feel higher because I think we’re also aware that we are more of a global economy and more of a global society, so it’s not just what happens here. What happens here goes everywhere.

Julianna: I also feel like the pressures on our democratic norms and institutions are very much strained, at a breaking point, at a tipping point, however you want to call it. How did you get inside the head of a conservative white male? How’d you do the research?

A.M.: I have special powers. Creating these characters whose backgrounds, upbringing, philosophy is very different than my own is always both the fun and beauty of writing. For me, part of it is, I write to understand things. I need to understand things that are not my experience. There’s so many teachers of writing. People say write what you know. I think, well, I’ve run out. I’ve written thirteen books. Joyce Carol Oates has written like eighty books. I need to write to explore things. I ask a lot of questions. I ask my characters lots of questions. I literally will ask, what’s up with you? Why are you here? Why do you think this way? How did your thinking evolve? Was this always where it was? What makes you so nervous about someone like Barack Obama? What makes you so nervous about power being more equally distributed? I will say there are often times that a character can be very resistant. They’re like, why should I tell you? Who are you? Then there’s other ways in which you flatter them to get information, which you know as a journalist. You’re like, that’s so interesting. What were you doing before? What does this mean to you? I really spend time trying to understand them from a psychological, an economic, a sociopolitical level. Then I think a lot about, who are they hanging around with? What is their idea of a good time? What is their idea of family? What do they value? It’s interesting. It’s definitely hard work. Then you have to always be asking, is this true for this character? It’s not an external application of what I think to a character. It has to come from within them. That is the best magic of fiction.

Julianna: I love this, though. These conversations, are they with political figures or people steeped in politics, or is it just in your own head that you’re going back —

A.M.: — All of the above. I often spend time with lots of different kinds of people. I will ask real people in reality. Also, constantly reading everything, like John McCain’s books, Ronald Reagan’s books, books written by their speechwriters, books written by journalists, history of all kinds. Realizing also that we do live in a world where history tends to be reported by the majority, so looking at histories, how do we knit it all together? Then a lot just talking to the characters, literally asking them to reveal themselves to me, which, again, sounds woo-woo, but that is the magic of fiction. It is both the fun of it and, I would say, in some ways, the hard work of it because you also need the character — that sounds so funny to say — to trust you enough that you’re not going to sort of sell them out. You’re not going to turn on them. I always think, too, I’m not there to make judgements about these people. I’m there to provide an illustration and a juxtaposition of what’s happening in their world, in the larger world, and allow the reader to actively participate in creating their own sense of how they feel about these people. A lot of times — this comes up so much lately. It’s a very modern idea. People say, am I supposed to like these people? I’m like, you don’t read Crime and Punishment and think, I love that guy. No one reads Lolita and thinks, wow, he’s a catch. The books that affect us over time are not about characters being likeable. That is us seeking some other kind of comfort that literature can provide, but it is not the dominant piece of it. I don’t think, are they likable? I think, did I tell their story well? Did I represent them well? Would they disagree with how I’ve described them? They might.

Julianna: This is amazing. I just want to talk about this all day. For this book, did you develop the Big Man first? Did you develop Meghan, Charlotte? Do you develop them all together so that they are who they are based on the relationships they have with other characters?

A.M.: It’s all of that. There’s not one singular answer. I would say definitely, the Big Guy, Charlotte, and Meghan come first. In a way, Charlotte was an easier character because her pain or the difficulty of being a woman of a certain age who grew up being asked not, “What do you want to be?” but “What kind of man do you want to marry?” and her alcoholism was something I could relate to. It’s interesting. I have absolutely no experience with alcoholism or that, but I felt it was an interesting way of her dealing with her suffering. Then I also look at historical precedent, so Martha Mitchell, the wife of former Attorney General John Mitchell; Pat Nixon; Betty Ford herself. It is difficult to be a political wife. Although this woman is not a political wife in the sense of being related to the candidate, she lives a life where there’s a lot of pressure and, in a way, a certain kind of isolation. She came quickly. Meghan, to me, is interesting. Meghan is a young girl. At first, I would say Meghan is the kind of girl that you might meet when you go to a friend’s house and the daughter’s there. She’s a little vague and a little blurry. You think, I’m not sure there’s anyone in there. That’s a kind of young woman. Then the question is, when does she wake up? When does she begin to realize what’s happening in the world around her and that she needs to define herself not just in relation to her family and “Do I agree or disagree?” but in relation to the larger world? That’s always a moment, too, where as a writer, you’re going, god, I hope she wakes up. We all know people who are thirty and still are like, Daddy, what should I do?

Julianna: I love the scene in the beginning where it’s election night. Meghan’s mother is taking her around the buffet. First of all — I don’t want to give anything away. I will never eat communal nuts ever again.

A.M.: That has come up so much on book tour. I’m over the nuts.

Julianna: There’s so many, the not nuts, maybe we could say, the nutty nuts. I really loved how you painted that picture. I kept thinking — it’s called The Unfolding. You said this in the beginning. It also is the awakening and, with her eligible to vote, the world that she is now brought into.

A.M.: There’s so many weaves to this story. On the one hand, Meghan and her father, the Big Guy, share a love of history. That’s the thing that they kind of bond on. Obviously, the Big Guy loves the political process, and so it’s a big deal to him that Meghan is voting for the first time. That’s their thread. I also wanted to look at Charlotte and Meghan in terms of a multigenerational story about women’s lives and empowerment or lack thereof. That was also a piece of it that had to be woven through. It’s interesting because part of why a book like this took so long is there is a lot of going back in and digging deeper and making sure that those threads are pulled all the way through in terms of how they experience each other and how it moves over time. I’m smiling because they become very, very real and very dimensional.

Julianna: When you’re writing and you are so in it, how do you take yourself out of it? How do you live the life of the writer and then the person outside of work?

A.M.: And the teacher and the parent and the partner and the board member and all of those things.

Julianna: All of it.

A.M.: I would say it’s pretty hard, as everyone knows who’s doing more than one thing. It’s always hard at the beginning of a book because that’s the part where you really need to be deep in it in your head. Then at a certain point, it does begin to gather a kind of momentum, so it’s easier to transition in and out. I always feel like it’s like — you know that sound on the highway where there’s a giant truck behind you and you hear it shifting gears to go up a hill? That’s what it feels like. Coming in and out of writing feels like, god, I hope the gear doesn’t slip. I hope I can do this. It’s really difficult. It is difficult to make those transitions. There’s no getting around it.

Julianna: Do you have to set a very rigid schedule for yourself where you’re like, okay, this is the period of the day where I’m going to be writing, and then I am going to try and turn off, start the process of extracting?

A.M.: Were it that easy, as we all know. Start early. That’s always a good start. The dogs have to go out. The kid has to go to school. The sink is broken. There’s all the things that happen in life. I do teach. I do sit on a lot of boards. I do also work in TV. It’s a lot. I try to write every day. I’ll say right now since the book came out and I’m on tour and teaching, I’m not writing. I totally feel it. I feel, oh, my god, I’m falling behind. I need to have another thing going. Having a practice — I say this to my students all the time — is very important. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you do with that time. The bad thing about being a writer is if your schedule has a blank on it and it’s like, look, Wednesday I have nothing, inevitably, instead of thinking, Wednesday I’m writing, you go, oh, I can go to the dentist. I can get my hair cut. I can do all the things I haven’t done for six months. Holding that space is difficult. I will say I think if a person can know what time of day they might be able to grab that time, trying as best you can to protect it is really important, and then going away if you can.

Julianna: That’s what I was going to ask. I imagine that a lot of this was written during the pandemic, right? You had been writing it for a while.

A.M.: I had been, but I certainly finished it during that. The pandemic was hard. The pandemic was difficult because on the one hand, it also meant the kid was out of school and home. I was still Zoom teaching and had COVID and all the things. The upside of the pandemic as a writer was everything else stopping, all of the social things stopping, the commuting to things stopping. That was really good and certainly allowed for an interior time. I will also say as that’s happening, our political situation was also getting weirder and weirder in this country. The demand to bear witness and to be watching TV all the time was very high. A friend came over one night and stayed. We were watching it. We watched the news all the time. The friend said, “Do you do this every day?” We’re like, “Yeah, yeah, we do this every day.” She’s like, “Oh, my god, I would kill myself.” I’m like, “We can change the channel. Not a problem.” That was also interesting, to realize that not everybody felt as fixated on things.

Julianna: It reminds me of when I was in it every day covering the White House. I would take vacation. I would go away for a week. I would purposefully go off Twitter, any social media. I would go on a news diet, completely, so that when I came back, I would see, what did I actually miss? I found that rarely did I miss anything of consequence.

A.M.: See, that’s also, to me, super interesting because I think one of the difficulties is the news cycle is so accelerated. It’s not even the news cycle. It is just the desire for constantly breaking information. Newspapers used to be published once a day. Now the stories, too, are published all during the day and updated all during the day. If we are thinking we’re doing our job, we are watching that all the time. You’re right. When you take a break from it, nothing happens, but it’s very difficult because there’s also times I felt obligated to attend to it.

Julianna: I love a quote on your website. You said, “People should pay more attention. Everyone wants attention, but no one wants to give attention.”

A.M.: I think that’s kind of true, right?

Julianna: Is that how you always think about writing and the subjects that you’re going to be tackling?

A.M.: It’s interesting. This book kind of clarified it. On the one hand, this book is the most overtly political and also the most overtly historical. That was a lot of fun and a lot of research. My subject matter has always been America, World War II to the present, like a course. I definitely, in this book, look at the ways in which the end of World War II and the Eisenhower administration and that speech about the rise of the military industrial complex has absolutely affected us socially, politically, economically from then until now. The fact is, I’m reading American society and culture. That is what I do. I feel like I use the tools of fiction to witness it, to chart it, to talk about it in ways that hopefully prompt a conversation. I never would say, oh, I know what to think about this. I definitely think, I want people to be talking about these things. It’s a little bit uncanny. Obviously, this book sort of predicts events along the lines of what happened on January 6th. I had hoped for the book to come out before the last election. Publishing takes a year to get a book through the cycle. Another book, Music for Torching, which ends horribly in a school shooting, came out the day of Columbine, which was our first large-scale thing like that. It’s a lot about reading what’s happening and trying to put the pieces together in a way that let us see things, if not differently, then to see them refracted in some ways that gives us a little bit more insight, hopefully.

Julianna: What is your crystal ball telling us now?

A.M.: My crystal ball is so anxious right now.

Julianna: Oh, no. Maybe we need to end it right here.

A.M.: I am anxious. One of the things that you said early on, too, is that so much has changed in the sense that things that were norms, behaviors that our elected officials would do, the ways they would give documents back, the way they would leave office, all of these different things have now been shown to be not things that one could assume. There is no assumption of the best intentions. There is no assumption of shared desires. The deeper parts that are darker is there is no sense of what truth is. When Kellyanne Conway started talking about alternate facts, the game changed. That is really scary. The ways in which, because of the speed of media, the social aspect of it, and the narrowing of where people get information and the way it’s even delivered to them puts us in a really complicated spot where anything could happen. Really, anything could happen.

Julianna: Is there anything that you’re reading that is giving you an optimistic view of the future?

A.M.: That’s why Meghan is there. If I just look at the older people — I feel like we’re also at a generation divide. The young people kind of need to hurry up and get here. My sense is that they can do more. The generational divide is such that I’m worried because the ways in which the republican party doesn’t seem to care anymore, it really is power at any cost. That is very dangerous. That worries me. I feel like Meghan is there as an idea that there could be another kind of new beginning, but I feel like we’re in for some hard times before we might get to that.

Julianna: Perhaps a sequel with Meghan.

A.M.: I have a lot more material about Meghan. I think it is interesting to think about, what happens when the old guy and that generation fully fades? That is a generation that is truly — if this was 2008 and he was sixty-something, probably, he’s old now, the Big Guy, if he’s still alive. That is a possibility. I was in the UK when Margaret Atwood did the launch of The Testaments and did a big event there. She’s an icon to me. It’s interesting to think about. Meghan, if I was to write about her, it wouldn’t be 2024. It might not even be 2026. That’s the part I’m really nervous about. I’m nervous about 2024. I’m nervous about next month.

Julianna: I would love to see Meghan in 2030 and what that world looks like. I think I would.

A.M.: We don’t know. The other thing is, we don’t know what will happen between now and then. I know. It’s interesting. It is interesting to think about.

Julianna: For all those who want to be thinking about it and thinking about the what-ifs and a way of looking to the future while also laughing and chuckling their way through it with a smile, The Unfolding.

A.M.: Let’s just also make sure we . The humor part is essential. We didn’t even talk about that. It is filled with humor and filled with history. The important piece about humor is it allows us to cut more deeply and to talk about things that would otherwise be difficult to talk about. I’m sorry I stepped on you.

Julianna: No, no, no. Humor and finding the humor in life is so important, even in the darkest of times. Thank you for giving that to us. A.M. Homes, author of The Unfolding, thank you.

A.M.: Thanks so much.

A.M. Homes, THE UNFOLDING: A Novel

THE UNFOLDING: A Novel by A.M. Homes

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