She knew by the time she was 15 that the name had to go. "I hated the name Amy," she says. "Amy is such a nice, sweet name. I would never want to read something by an Amy."
So Amy Homes, Kid from Chevy Chase, transformed herself into A.M. Homes, Author. She declined to write nice and sweet and submitted her stories with no gender-identifying name attached and no clues to her age. "I didn't want anyone to know anything about me at all. I just wanted them to read the stories."
Now, years later, she has a novel behind her and a collection of eerie short stories just out. But she still resists the labels and is struggling to figure out how to be a recently published author, a private person with a newly minted public self.
Struggle No. 1: She will not be specific about her age beyond saying she is "twenty-something."
Struggle No. 2: She still regrets the fact that her novel, "Jack," was initially published as a "young adult" book, a decision she believes kept it out of the hands of not-so-young adults.
Struggle No. 3: Because "Jack" was about a teenage boy who discovers his father is gay, she says she was marketed as a "gay writer," a label she feels is both inappropriate (given that most of the rest of her work was not about gay issues) and an intrusion into her private life. Gay or straight, she does not want to say. She does not think it should matter.
Publishers have long relied on descriptions to sell books and their authors: Someone is a "young writer," or a "gay writer," or a "women's writer." Homes knows that, but says such categories may draw some readers while excluding others.
All those struggles get exhausting, and after she does an interview A.M. Homes suffers hours of anxiety over what she has said and how she will appear.
"What do you say about yourself?" she asks on the phone after her New York-bound Metroliner has taken a detour into the Land of Second Thoughts. "How do you present yourself? What do you want to be presented as? That's all very hard, and it's all the questions I'm writing about. It's weird, and I think I haven't reconciled it for myself. I write about identity, and everyone's identity is such a fragile thing. It shouldn't be involved in selling a book."
But inevitably it is, and although A.M. Homes may be ambivalent she is no fool. Witness the fact that she showed up for an interview, a little edgy but nevertheless willing to talk about her new book, "The Safety of Objects."
In a raucous apple-green shirt and the requisite black shoes and black jeans of downtown Manhattan, she offers a running commentary on her own conversation with the quick jokes and wild exaggerations of a stand-up comic. All of it is giddy, funny stuff, in addition to having the advantage of a shtick -- the jokes a perfect screen to exclude peeping intruders.
Jokes are like those initials, which she knows give her "distance from myself. None of it is me, but at the same time of course it's me."
It's also a useful method for summing up experiences like her recent participation in a Whitney Museum program for scholars. "I took a class on critical theory," she says. "I was promptly kicked out because I refused to use the word 'simulacrum.' I thought it was baby formula."
Simulacrum: 1. From the Latin -- an image, likeness; 2. From the academic world -- a verbal signal of jargon mastery.
Obviously she knows both meanings, but the second one is funnier.
She has been writing, and doubtless joking, for years. In fact, she wrote most of "Jack" while ensconced temporarily as an undergraduate at American University. ("I did five schools in five years," she says of her college career, which ended at Sarah Lawrence in 1985. "I don't know if they offer that anymore. It was a special.")
While she was at AU she became briefly notorious after writing a play that won a local competition. The play featured a confrontation between "The Catcher in the Rye's" Holden Caulfield and his creator, J.D. Salinger, and before it could be performed Salinger had threatened to sue. "My hair started falling out. I didn't want to be sued -- I'm like 12 years old!" So she changed the names ("I think it was Harmon Christopher") and her brief encounter with Salinger ended. But now it looks almost prophetic, because the woman whom Salinger believed to be invading his artistic privacy, stealing his characters, has come to feel a parallel ambivalence toward her public.
"You know, I identified with him," she says of Salinger. "He said about the play that he wanted the characters in his books to remain flat on the paper. It's odd, because I saw both sides."
Like all too many teenage novels, "Jack" has been compared by admirers with Salinger's book. It is an overused compliment by now but has some relevance to Homes's story, which is (like "The Catcher in the Rye") written in the voice of a teenage boy and has (like "The Catcher in the Rye") been praised for depicting a boy who is both believable and likable.
"The fact is, when you turn sixteen, you're not fifteen anymore," she writes.
There's no escaping the fact that you're getting older, that you probably have all the hair under your arms you're ever gonna get, and so on. I went around obsessing about whether or not I seemed like sixteen, and came to the conclusion that in some ways I'm about sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen, but I'm also a lot like a twelve-year-old.
What I'm trying to say is that my idea of a good time is the same now as it was when I was a kid, only it's getting tougher to pull it off. And while I was thinking all this stuff, I had the overlapping thought that now more than ever, I'm stuck between things. I'm stuck between being a kid and being an adult. The things that kids do aren't really a whole lot of fun, but what adults do still seems too hard, and to be honest, boring as hell.
Into Jack's generic adolescent confusion comes his father's revelation, which forces the boy to confront the prejudices of his friends, his friends' parents and his teachers. When his father tells him he is gay, the boy is plunged into private confusion and the sort of public cruelty that is the special talent of teenagers. "Faggot," his classmates write on his locker and go on to perform other similarly humiliating acts. Jack's response ranges from insightful to goofy to adolescent-gross.
" 'Jack' is a story about prejudice and bias," Homes says. "A dad who was gay was just one way to look at that. Jack is this young, white male. He's never been exposed to any kind of prejudice. I think a lot of us liberals live like this. We don't know what it's like."
Homes credits her family with instilling an instinct to take on such subjects. Her mother is a school counselor, her father studied painting at Yale and continues to paint while he works in real estate, and the atmosphere in their Chevy Chase home ("not one of the big, big houses!" she says) was always one of social concern and political correctness. And in the reliable, self-consciously liberal tradition, upper-middle-class luxuries sometimes became moral burdens.
"I grew up in a family where we bought my mom electric curlers one year and she returned them because there were riots. We were supposed to do the right thing. It was a background of great sensitivity and trying to be on top of things. When there were marches on Washington, our house was filled with hippies."
Although Homes never intended her novel to be solely for teenagers, there is a certain clarity to the narrator and his story, an endearing simplicity, that leaves the book feeling a little less complex, less nuanced, than it might have been. Homes remembers being aware of holding herself back. "I think many books written about teenagers are written from the perspective of 10 or 15 years later, looking back. I wanted to write this in his voice, with all the misunderstandings he would have then. I could have written 'Jack' as a different book," she says, "much grittier, but I decided to write something that wouldn't put people off."
The stories that followed were grittier and less warmhearted. A boy falls in obsessive, sexual love with his sister's Barbie doll, a family comes to hate the son who is thrown into a coma in a car crash, a suburban husband flips out in the local mall, a man with AIDS blames his penis for the terrible thing that has happened and fantasizes the death of that one part of him.
"People keep saying, 'Nice, sweet "Jack" and then these horrible stories!' " Homes says, but to her they do not seem horrible. "These stories are about secrets, and people owning up to them." And so after she wrote of a little girl who surreptitiously gnaws the toes off her Barbie doll, any number of friends and acquaintances admitted mangling their plastic toys in similar fashion.
But the story about the man with AIDS, well, that was something else. "People said, 'Oh, Amy! How could you write about a guy who's mad at his penis? You don't even have one!' "
Another attempt to categorize, to limit! She always fought back. "That's the fun of writing. We all are a lot of different people, and you write to find them."
Which brings us back to the delicate topic of sexual orientation. The publicity packaging of "The Safety of Objects" includes an interview about "Jack" that Homes gave to Christopher Street, a New York gay magazine. It is just an enthusiastic interview in one small special-interest magazine, but to Homes it is clearly something more, some sort of signal that may be misread. What will people think, she asks, raising a question that might not otherwise be asked and giving the issue an emotional weight it would not otherwise have. It's so difficult, she says. She doesn't know what to do. Everything has gotten so confused.
Homes read and signed "Jack" at a number of gay bookstores, but when W.W. Norton publishers suggested she do the same for her collection of stories she rebelled. This wasn't a book on a gay theme, she told them. She respected the gay stores and the gay press, which had treated her very well, but this time she wanted to go mainstream.
The publishing world, she says, finds this rather difficult to fathom, and after all this talk an interviewer begins to struggle too. Obviously her romantic life is nobody's business, but since she keeps bringing up the subject, the question becomes awkwardly inevitable. Well, but ... is she gay?
"I think it's really pathetic that it comes around to me explaining my identity," she says. "I don't want to stand up and say I'm not gay. That's not the issue. It's another way to say we can only write about people who are like us. For anybody to be squashed into a corner upsets me. I think it's wrong to categorize anyone -- that's all 'Jack' is about. And I get in trouble because I won't say I'm this or I'm not this."
She is asking a lot, of course. Write the profile but do not be curious about the woman behind the stories. Do not ask for concrete facts.
If she wanted she could just disappear like Salinger did, vanish into the anonymity of her work. But Salinger was famous and rich when he did that. She is neither yet. So what to do?
Struggle. Be anxious. And joke.