A.M. Homes, the librettist of Chunky in Heat, is the author of six novels, three short-story collections, and three non-fiction books. Her work has been translated into twenty-two languages and appears frequently in Art Forum, Harpers, Granta, McSweeney’s, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Zoetrope. She is a Contributing Editor to Vanity Fair, Bomb and Blind Spot. She was a Co-Executive Producer and Writer on David E. Kelly and Stephen King’s, Mr. Mercedes, and was a writer/producer of the Showtime series The L Word.

EiO Artistic Director Jason Cady talked with her over the phone about Los Angeles, body dysmorphia, growing up with the Texaco Opera broadcasts and writing her first opera libretto.

Jason Cady: First, could you just tell us what Chunky in Heat is about?

A.M. Homes: Chunky in Heat is about a family carrying on after trauma. The loss of the younger brother isn’t discussed and isn’t really dealt with. So it’s a story about ghosts. And it’s about trying to break away and claim one’s space. And the question is, freedom at what cost? What does it mean to leave the family or break with the tribe? I don’t know if that answers it, but to me that is what it’s about. When people say, “tell us what something’s about,” I think, “I have no idea.” [laugh] Because when I’m writing I don’t think about it in that way of a logline. When I look at the group of stories that I drew upon to write the libretto, it’s a long coming-of-age story, in the sense that for me, it was written over a 30-year period of returning to these characters.

Jason Cady: I’m relieved you called it a coming-of-age story, because I said that earlier but I wasn’t sure if you thought of it like that.

A.M. Homes: It’s a phrase we hear all the time, but what’s interesting about coming-of-age is that it’s a process. We think of it as something that happens to adolescents, and then as you get older you realize you spend your whole life coming-of-age. One’s relationship to self and family and history evolves over time. You could think you understand yourself when you’re 13 and lying in the backyard and overheated. And then looking at yourself years later it’s different.

Jason Cady: Yeah, and the midlife crisis is another coming-of-age.

A.M. Homes: Exactly. If you haven’t completed coming-of-age by midlife, you will have a midlife crisis that forces you to deal with it.

Jason Cady: I don’t think Chunky in Heat is autobiographical in the ordinary sense. For example, I know you didn’t grow up in L.A., but did any of your life experiences make it into the story?

A.M. Homes: As a fiction writer and someone who has written non-fiction and memoir, I pride myself on my fiction being truly a work of fiction—something created not out of my life. But there are always pieces of one’s self, of one’s history or psychological elements that you’re exploring. For me the unspoken secret here is that I’m adopted, and I grew up with a family where six months before I was born, a 9-year-old had died of kidney failure. So a very different kind of experience than is represented in Chunky in Heat, but that question of living with grief that is not talked about was in my family. Questions of identity and the need to separate oneself are things that are real for me. It’s funny, I haven’t ever spoken about them, or overtly written about them, but they are threaded through the opera more than they are through the stories. I think they came into clearer contrast or fuller exposure in the libretto than in the stories.

Jason Cady: I had a slightly similar experience, which was that the oldest of my cousins died as a child. And after her death the family poured their grief into love for the next in line cousin, and my sister and I were born later and the family seemed less interested in us.

A.M. Homes: Did she die suddenly?

Jason Cady: Yeah, she was hit by a car. And the next oldest cousin was a total disaster, ran away from home, had serious drug problems and stuff, but the family thought she could do no wrong.

A.M. Homes: Families are weird. That is the theme here.

Jason Cady: And what inspired you to keep returning to these characters over 30 years.

A.M. Homes: When I started revisiting the characters—which was in the story “Raft in Water, Floating,” I had started thinking about shape-shifting and this family—only in retrospect did I realize it was the same family. That happens; I’ve had threads of stories or characters recur for me in pieces of fiction, sometimes accidentally, and then as I’ve gotten older, intentionally, because I like trying to pull the thread through. Over the years there have been three books of stories. “Chunky in Heat” was in The Safety of Objects. “Raft in Water, Floating” was in Things You Should Know. And the last two, “Hello Everybody” and “She Got Away” were in the book that came out last year, Days of Awe. By the time I visited them again in the last two stories, it was very much intentional. I was thinking about this character’s evolution from this chunky girl in the backyard thinking about weight and sex and being a teenager, to the disintegration of her family in a physical and palpable way, and the way the trauma took its toll on them. It’s the personal trauma of the loss of the brother, but also the larger social trauma of society and its expectations and projections about weight and our physical natures, and independence and success and consumerism, which for me is the L.A. piece of that. There’s so much pressure on beauty. Whatever that might mean. And pressure on what we perceive as success—being, a house high up in the hills that overlooks the city.

I decided to make a concerted effort to write about this family. And ultimately, I found it very moving to spend time with them over this period of years and to realize I could have written a novel about them. But the condensed nature of short stories works well for them, and for the hyper-condensed nature of their lives in L.A. And that also goes into formal elements of storytelling—that by the end of the group of stories, how does Chunky achieve liberation? It’s really out of grief.

Jason Cady: At first, I assumed Chunky was just perceived as overweight by her body-dysmorphic family. And then when you read the story at our fundraiser, something about hearing it read out loud made me think, “Well, maybe this character is supposed to be big.”

A.M. Homes: One of the interesting things is at what point is it dysmorphia? At what point is a person heavy, or too heavy? Is it only when the medical establishment says, “according to your body mass index, you’re fat?” Or is it cultural? One of the cool things about when you write something and send it off into the world is the way it’s open to interpretation. Any interpretation would be adequate and accurate. You could have a person who in any part of the country would be seen to be normal and healthy, and in Los Angeles would be thought to be fat yet in the Midwest she would be skinny. I had a male friend who had anorexia, but they talk about how men, at least publicly, don’t seem to suffer from the same issues—and I’m not sure that’s really true. But it’s so interesting to see the ways in which women are constantly doing things to their bodies or trying to make sense of their bodies. Even young girls.

Jason Cady: You talked a little already about the L.A. setting, but it’s so important to the story I’m curious to hear more of your thoughts about it.

A.M. Homes: L.A. is fascinating because it is in some ways still the American outback. It reinvents itself constantly and allows for personal reinvention in a way the East Coast is more resistant to. People break out of category there. You could be a hairdresser and then run a movie studio. It’s also a place where the American Dream has continued to thrive, meaning that people come from all over the world. People think they will come and make a life there as a star, or being able to support their family. So it is a place of hopefulness, and delusions. The other funny thing is that people are like, “I love it for the weather.” And I think, “Which part?” “Do you mean the fires? The flash floods? Do you mean the fact that it’s unrelentingly sunny in a way that, as a modestly depressive person, I can’t bear?” People build houses on a hillside, and there will be a mudslide, and the house will completely slide down the hill. And they’ll just rebuild the house. And I can’t decide if that’s a peculiar kind of optimism and naiveté or just stupidity.

Jason Cady: Since you’ve written for television as well as novels and short stories, how was it writing an opera? Were there things you could or couldn’t do that were different from other mediums?

A.M. Homes: I don’t really know the answer yet, so I need to do it again, because it’s a lot of fun. I started off as a playwright, so one thing is, when somebody is representing your narrative on stage it means you can be more abstract, more otherworldly, because there is a physical person literally embodying that text. And when you add that it’s sung, that changes it enormously. And that’s one of the things I haven’t had a chance to play with enough. Also it’s going to be illustrated or expounded upon or expanded or contracted by the music and that adds so many dimensions and possibilities. People have different pulses and the way those pulses contrast or can be compassionate towards each other—all of that is fascinating to me.

Jason Cady: Did you have any reactions to the music you heard in the workshop performance of Chunky in Heat?

A.M. Homes: Honestly, hearing the music for the first time, I was so incredibly bowled over in a wonderful way, by the variety of the music, the complexity of the music, the relationship of the music to the libretto and how it did things I never would have thought of. It will be interesting to see how it continues to evolve. It’s why I like to have people take something I’ve done and make something else out of it. To me the fun is seeing what else can happen.

Jason Cady: One thing I love about Chunky in Heat is that it doesn’t try too hard to reference opera tropes—though, of course it has plenty of tragedy. Did you avoid opera cliches, or think about those issues?

A.M. Homes: Yeah, I do, and they’re layered and complicated. I approach the whole thing as experimental. I’m aware of how little I intimately understand the structures of opera. Which is different than saying “Oh yeah, I know what that is.” Having written a bunch of books, I have architectural knowledge about how a novel or a story can work, but my relationship to opera has been more casual. Growing up, my Saturdays were spent in my grandmother’s car with the Texaco opera broadcast. That was what my mother and grandmother did every weekend. They listened to that, and would get their hair done, which made no sense to me. So the mythology of personhood was that you’re watching people sitting under hair dryers listening to opera. My father was an artist and would go to museums and no one in the family would go with him except for me. I only went because he would take you to the gift store and you could get a book; he never bought you anything otherwise. So I got these accidental educations.

When it was time to do this, I had moments of genuine panic and thought, “Oh my god, I don’t know how to do this” and like, “Hurry! study up!” Then I thought if I pay too much attention in that way, it will be paint-by-numbers. I’ll be like, “Oh my god, this has to happen here, and that has to happen there.” I read a bunch of librettos. I like to read poetry and I like music a lot, so I’m interested in the relationship of lyric and narrative. I thought, “I really have to just go with the experimental,” and also trust you and Aaron [Siegel] and these composers. But having no idea where it’s going to land is the joy of it. The real pleasure is the risk-taking.

Jason Cady: I’m curious about the balance between comedy and drama in Chunky in Heat because from a historical perspective, it’s not comedy. It doesn’t end in a marriage. It’s tragedy, but there’s lots of funny stuff in it, and the tone is comedy. And a lot of your other writings are also funny, although I don’t know if they really fall into the genre of humor.

A.M. Homes: When I was younger, it was important to me to write about things that made people uncomfortable. Making them feel uncomfortable wasn’t my goal. Talking about things that aren’t talked about was, and is still, my goal. And finding language for things that we find difficult. In my own life, the idea of finding humor or absurdity or irony or just moments that break the surface tension is important. I feel like if you can make a person laugh, then you can also talk more seriously. That’s really the key to all the things I’m writing and talking about. They’re dark, and they’re serious. They’re not dark because I’m a dark person. They’re dark because they are the parts of life that are hard to deal with. You could look at this story and be like, “Yeah, having a kid get bitten by a snake and die, and having a sister who can’t eat, and who’s afraid to leave the house are painful, dark things.” But I think when you can calm them in ways that have lightness, whether it’s the notion that she needed to be weighted down because she was afraid she would float away. Or the way she counted the calories per item—that’s also the absurdity of our contemporary life.

Humor has become increasingly important to me, but as I’ve gotten older—and I hadn’t articulated this before—I’m more willing to take that risk. As a younger writer, it felt too dangerous to write something that was both serious and funny. And even in the last few years people would say, “Well, are you trying to be funny, or are you trying to be serious?” And I thought, “They’re not mutually exclusive.” But it’s difficult for people to tolerate that, especially in this country, because they’re like, “Are you making fun of America, or celebrating it?” And I’m like, “both.” And in this case, there’s a lot of absurdity to Chunky in Heat. I can’t wait to see how Alison [Moritz] is going to stage it. My sense is there will be quite a bit of play among singers and stuff. That’s interesting because how do you talk about things that are so incredibly painful, and how do you illustrate them, without it being excruciating for the audience?

Jason Cady: Days of Awe is coming out in paperback in June. Do you have any other projects in the works right now?

A.M. Homes: I’m writing a novel about the downfall of the U.S. government. When I started it, everybody said, “You don’t write science fiction.” I said, “I think there’s something happening.”

Jason Cady: Wow!

A.M. Homes: Yeah, and that was before the election.

Jason Cady: And when is that coming out?

A.M. Homes: It’s supposed to come out in 2020, but I don’t know what’s going to happen.

Jason Cady: 2020 seems like the right time.

A.M. Homes: I know, right? That was the plan. And I want to write another opera.

Jason Cady: Oh, yes! That’s actually the correct answer to my question.

A.M. Homes: I really do. I have a giant idea I’ve been wanting to write for years. And I feel like I have to figure out how to do that. And the things you guys are doing are so cool. I’m a fan.

One of the things that’s so amazing is we’ve got six composers; we’ve got Alison, who’s this talented director; and multiple other elements. And the coolest thing is what happens when you bring in different people and ask them to do their thing. And the other thing that’s interesting is the speed that you guys work because things like writing a novel are a many-year process. You turn it in, and it comes out a year later. And as you’ve talked about, traditionally opera is a very long process. But to be able to do something that I worked on last summer that we’re going to see at the beginning of this summer is amazing. It means a person can talk about the world around them in a way that is, kind of, in real time.