- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2006

NEW YORK — A.M. Homes doesn’t court controversy. But it finds her nonetheless. She published her first work at age 19, a play called the “Call-in Hours,” and was promptly threatened with a lawsuit over it by the reclusive writer J.D. Salinger for including both Holden Caulfield and Mr. Salinger himself.

“He threatened to sue, to shut down the production of it,” she said. “It was sort of terrifying. He was one of my heroes.”

Mr. Salinger didn’t sue, but she eliminated Caulfield and the author’s name from the play, and the show went on for about six weeks near her home in Chevy Chase.

“That was the beginning, my welcome to the literary world,” she said. And she was off, quickly becoming known for her explosive, often disturbing stories.

“It’s all out there floating around,” Miss Homes said. “I just organize it. It’s not about liking the characters. I care for them, but it’s not my job to create people that are likable.”

Miss Homes, now in her mid-40s, is again causing a stir with her latest work, “This Book Will Save Your Life.” Such a title by any other writer would mean the reader was in for sweet inspiration. But with Miss Homes, chances seem slim. The title must be a trick. This is the same woman who showed readers the deranged mind of a pedophile in “The End of Alice.”

But, while the characters in “This Book” are flawed and often bizarre, there’s nary a trace of the perverse.

In fact, the book is downright uplifting.

Miss Homes said it comes from the same observations that fuel her other novels. She’s always been an observer, she noted, often on the sidelines because she was shy. Miss Homes used writing as a way to reach people. “On the other hand, you’re still sort of protected in your bubble,” she said of writing. “It just felt safer.”

One can imagine Miss Homes as the young girl Amy, with long dark hair, sitting up in her room at a desk, scribbling away for much of the afternoon. She was a published author at 15, a collection of poems which she now jokingly said she wishes she could have back.

And she had an impressive slew of pen pals, including Pete Townshend and John Sayles. “I used to write to strangers all the time. All kinds of people,” she said. But the letters weren’t your typical rantings from a boy-crazy teenage girl.

“I wasn’t like ‘Oh you were so wonderful,’ it was like ‘Today at school, Susie was mean to me,’” Miss Homes said.

Miss Homes has one brother and said she comes from a very creative bunch. “I come from a funny family from Washington. My parents were very left wing,” she said. “We couldn’t eat grapes not picked by union workers, that sort of thing.”

She attended the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop and later taught at Columbia while she wrote novels, but stopped to focus on writing full time.

Miss Homes said she starts with an idea: in this case, money and class and how it changes a person. “I’m interested in our responsibilities to each other. I really wanted to draw people’s attention to this character and his struggle, and that it’s not unique to him. It’s about how to be present in your own life.”

In “This Book,” Richard Novak, a middle-aged wealthy man in Los Angeles, doubles over one day in pain and can’t figure out why. From there, he’s slowly shaped into a hero, mending the broken relationship with his son and literally saving a few lives.

She says she’s a true fiction writer, but she does do loads of research. For this book, she spent time in Los Angeles, writing a nonfiction travel book about the area. As a result, what seems made-up in the book is often true. The characters may be purely fiction, but the feral Chihuahuas and huge sinkholes swallowing up homes are real.

“What is constant in her work is the way she sees the world, it’s captured in her storytelling, no matter her subject,” said her Viking editor, Paul Slovak.

Her first novel, “Jack,” published when she was 19, is the story of a teenage boy whose father admits to being a homosexual after his parents divorce. She created a crack-smoking yuppie couple who burn down their house in “Music for Torching,” and wrote a short story about a boy who rapes a Barbie doll in her collection “The Safety of Objects.”

Mr. Slovak says she’s always on the pulse of the moment. “Even in editing there were things happening in the world that were already written down in her novel,” he said. “I mean, Columbine happened three weeks after ‘Music for Torching’ came out.”

“The End of Alice” was banned in parts of England, and publication canceled in France and Switzerland (it’s now available.) So it may seem that her latest book with its positive message, is something of a departure.

Not so, she says. “People want to say that because it’s a way of categorizing or pegging something,” she said. “They’re all organic evolutions, one out of the next. I’m always thinking about social relevance, whether it’s morality and sexuality or a wealthy guy trying to live.”

The reviews have been mixed, at best. The New York Times daily review trashed the book, calling it “dreadful,” but the Sunday review called it “a splendidly perceptive joke about the freaky helixes of cultural evolution.” She’s been panned almost as much as she’s been praised.

Miss Homes is affected. “You would expect someone like me to be jaded or cynical about it all,” she said. “It surprises and horrifies me that I’m still so naive about it all.”

She won’t talk more about her private life, but her next book is intensely personal, a memoir about finding her birth mother, called “The Mistress’s Daughter.” A portion of the book appeared in an issue of the New Yorker.

Judging from that portion, she’s sure to incite the masses as usual.

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