SARATOGA SPRINGS - A.M. Homes has been coming to Saratoga for nearly 30 years. During that time, she has published a dozen books - novels, memoirs and story collections among them - created a variety of original television pilots and saw the screen debut of a then pre-teenage Kristen Stewart in the film adaptation of her book “The Safety of Objects” – which also featured Glenn Close in a starring role.
Homes’ newest release, the short story collection “Days of Awe," was published earlier this month and the links to this region, she says, are substantial. “As much as this is a work of fiction - which took many years—in my heart it is set in Saratoga.”
The ties to local geography and events are sprinkled throughout the book’s 12 stories, albeit disguised at times beneath the cloak of fiction. There are visits to local ice cream shops, journeys to go apple-picking and trips to the mall; there are inferences – though neither is named - to the City Center during the staging of a gun show, and to Temple Sinai, which in “real life” stands directly across the street on Broadway. Segments of Homes’ work have also been scribed in Saratoga Springs, during her many residencies at the Yaddo arts colony.
The town has climbed out of a depression by branding itself, ‘America’s Hometown’. Flags fly from the lampposts. Signs announce the autumn harvest celebration, a film festival, and a chamber‑music series at the Presbyterian church. She parks behind the conference center and slips in through the employee entrance and down the long hall to a door marked THIS WAY TO LOBBY - “Days of Awe”
“I’ve built a relationship for myself with the town: going to the library, going to the Farmers’ Market, going to the YMCA. People and places have always meant a lot to me and have always been very inspirational,” Homes says. “In the new book, there’s a story about an ‘everyman’ who’s nominated to run for president that’s set in a big box store. In my mind that is somewhere over where Target and all those stores are.”
The story, “A Prize for Every Player,” depicts a man introduced to shoppers as candidate for President of the United States. The announcement is made over a microphone appropriated from a karaoke machine in the electronic section. As reporters descend upon the store, the local high school cheerleaders welcome the candidate by performing their rah-rahs outside, in the Keep Clear fire lane.
The strip mall location marks a literary return to the parcel of land Homes first discovered during a Yaddo residency early in her career.
“The Pyramid Mall floated in a sea of parking spaces…” – from “The Safety of Objects.”
“Some of the works that I got done during the early visits to Yaddo were in the book the ‘The Safety of Objects,’” Homes says. “I was fairly young (when I first came to Yaddo). It was before my first book was even published. I grew up as a writer hearing about Yaddo and being a huge fan of John Cheever and one of my teachers, Doris Grumbach, had been there before and knew all the people. It was thrilling and intimidating. There was a sense that being invited to come to Yaddo was a vote of confidence in you as a young person of exceptional promise. It’s a question of going to dinner at night with all the artists and we were terrified, hoping to sit next to somebody who didn’t reveal you to be a total fool, or a fraud.”
While in residence at Yaddo, Homes met Jay McInerney, who had a few years earlier achieved fame with his first published novel, “Bright Lights, Big City.” They decided to visit the Pyramid Mall.
“At one point I went over there with Jay McInerney. I guess we were going to the movies or something and they had one of those contests, you know, where you keep your hands on a car for as long as you possibly can. I found it just riveting. And that’s in one of the stories in “The Safety of Objects” - set in the old mall - the one they tore down - that used to have Jo Ann’s Nut House and a bible supply shop called Praises,” Homes says. The Pyramid Mall, which opened in 1973 with 50 stores, was demolished in September 1999 and later replaced by a strip of big-box retailers such as Target. The story, “The Bullet Catcher,” features a fact-meets-fictional world where characters go shopping at Sears, the Wire Wizard, and King Pin, and listen to the radio, which is tuned to Z-100.
“An even stranger thing happened 10 years later when that story was made into a film. I remember being in a shopping mall in the middle of the night in Toronto watching Glenn Close and a bunch of different people who were in the film re-enacting this scene.”
“I had a vanilla-and-chocolate twist with a dip into the chocolate that hardens. They called it a Brown Cow… the Farmer’s Daughter” – from “Days of Awe”
“I really do just love the history of places. Saratoga is obviously very important to me. And North Adams (Massachusetts) is where my grandmother’s family grew up, so it’s fun for me to play with all those things,” says Homes, whose work has been translated into 22 languages. “I’m a local in heart and spirit. When I’m there what I do is I drive from Saratoga (Springs) to Schuylerville, out to Greenwich and all over the place,” Homes says. “And I love a good thunderstorm in Saratoga, in the afternoon, when it gets so warm and there’s this intensity… these incredible cracks of lightning.”
With “Days of Awe,” characters embark on a fictionalized journey that local residents may recognize as markers along state Route 29, from the Spa City through Schuylerville and across the Hudson River to Greenwich. Characters go apple-picking - “the orchard is ripe with families and children and bumblebees buzzing… they buy a bushel basket and head into the fields,” writes Homes - cross a Revolutionary War battlefield with rolling hills, and pause to refresh at a shop reminiscent of The Ice Cream in Greenwich – “the ice cream stand is set back from the road in the middle of nowhere… scoops are like a child’s fantasy of what an ice cream cone might be” – as well as at The Farmer’s Daughter, which is mentioned by name.
“As she drives over the hills on a two‑lane country road, the sun is dropping low on the horizon. There are cows making their way home across fields and self‑serve farm stands with fresh eggs, tomatoes, and cut flowers, and free zucchini with every purchase. The sky is a glorious and deepening blue. It’s just past sunset when she pulls in to the tiny town. The raised wooden Star of David and the mezuzah are the only outward markers on the old narrow building... the synagogue is small and lost to time. There are about thirty people between her and the rabbi. ‘What is it to be a Jew?’ the rabbi is demanding of the group. ‘Has it changed over time?” – from “Days of Awe”
While staying at Yaddo, Homes has also spent time at Temple Sinai on Broadway in Saratoga Springs with Rabbi Linda Motzkin and Rabbi Jonathan Rubenstein, who have served as co-rabbis since 1986 - the first rabbinic couple to share the sole rabbinic position in a synagogue.
Homes attended services, baked bread with Rabbi Jonathan and brought Yaddo residents to meet with Rabbi Linda, who talked with the group about her work writing a Torah Scroll. In “Days of Awe,” the rabbinic couple are noted as “very good friends, whose hearts have supported me” in the book’s acknowledgements, alongside local history writer and independent scholar Amy Godine, musicians Laurie Anderson and Rosanne Cash, and grateful nods to Yaddo President Elaina Richardson, and Candace Wait, among others.
“I did move the synagogue out of Saratoga and to somewhere around Schuylerville,” explains Homes. “It’s what I do in my imagination. That’s what fiction writers do.”
The difference between writing short stories, such as what appear in the new collection “Days of Awe,” and the longer novel form – which comprises the majority of her literary canon – comes down to the sustainability of the story over the long term, Homes says.
“Some stories wouldn’t be sustainable in a novel, so that’s one of the ways you sort-of know. Whether it’s the tone, or the intonation of the story, whether you know what’s going to happen in it. I think they function differently. Stories have a specific compression to them in a sense that something’s already happened by the time the reader gets to the story. So, there’s a lot of history, filling-in in a story. In a novel, I think there’s a much more leisurely unfolding.”
Readers of Homes’ books will be interested to learn that one of her most memorable characters – a teenage girl named Chunky who first appeared in 1989, re-appears in “Days of Awe.”
“Chunky sort of appears in the second book of stories, in a story called ‘Raft in Water, Floating,’ and then she appears in the new book. There are two very big stories in the book called ‘Hello Everybody,’ and ‘She Got Away.’ What’s fascinating to me with Chunky, (who first appeared) 30 years ago, is that it’s really taken this long from being a 13-year-old or so in the backyard to now being a freshman or sophomore in college. And oddly those stories are part of an opera I’m writing now that will open in New York, maybe next June. I’ve never written a libretto before, so this will be the first and it’s based on those stories.”
Many of Homes’ fictional characters are male, which she scribes in convincing fashion. “I think as a fiction writer, it’s probably in many ways easier for me to write from a male point of view than just to write from some mom’s point of view, or some lady’s point of view,” she explains. “That’s just not as much fun for me. I live in that world, and I know what that is. But, to really, truly inhabit other characters: that’s the good stuff.
A.M. Homes, posing in front of the Yaddo mansion, shortly after the release of her novel “May We Be Forgiven,” in 2013. Photo by Thomas Dimopoulos.
Homes’ many visits to Yaddo have inspired what she calls “a very active literary part of my imagination, in part because it’s been part of me for so long.” For the past five years, Homes has served as co-chair of Yaddo’s Board of Directors and involved in projects to both historically preserve the 19th century mansion as well as help get new studios built, with an eye one the future.
“My relationship to Yaddo as an artists’ colony has changed, because when I go now I’m more aware of everything: Oh, the lightbulb has burned out; we’ve got to take care of the paint on the porch. It’s like it’s your house,” Homes says. “But, the nice thing is you get to see, since (first visiting in) 1989, is that the fundamentals of the place haven’t changed. There is this place where artists from all over the world come to do their work, and I’m always amazed at how good they are – inspired and brilliant - and that there’s this wonderfully nice mix of people who are at the very beginning of their careers, and other people like me, who have been doing it for a long time.”
Homes was born in Washington D.C. Some of her earliest writings took the form of letters penned to people she admired.
“I was absolutely a rock and roll kid growing up. Pete Townshend was my pen pal (while I was) in high school, which is kind of amazing,” she says. “I wrote to these people and it wasn’t like: ‘Oh, I think you’re so great,’ but more like: ‘today, at school, Isabell was mean to me’. And he’d write back: ‘I’m having a terrible time with my record label.’ So it was nice, people out in the world who would talk to me. And it’s interesting because I sometimes wrote to women writers, women musicians and they would write back very curt responses: ‘Thanks, now go away.’ I realize now, as an adult, that women are probably much more protective and feel that they could be stalked, or, whatever. And that men were, in that sense, in the world in a different kind of way. But, I feel very lucky because I’ve have a lot of non-visible mentors along the way who helped me grow up as gracefully as one can - which is not very graceful at all.”