David Homel was born in Chicago in 1952 and left in 1970 for Paris, living in Europe the next few years on odd jobs and odder couches. He has published eight novels, from Electrical Storms in 1988 to The Teardown, which won the Paragraph Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction in 2019. He has also written young adult fiction with Marie-Louise Gay, directed documentary films, worked in TV production, been a literary translator, journalist, and creative writing teacher. Lunging into the Underbrush (Linda Leith Publishing, 2021) is his first book of non-fiction. He lives in Montreal.
Miramichi Reader: Tell us a bit about your background, education, employment, etc.
David Homel: We revise our childhoods all through life, it’s a job that’s never over. Mine was a background of conflict, within my house and outside it. What do you expect, it was Chicago in the 60s. I was good in school when I wanted to be, and athletic, and had problems with authority. Money was always an issue, again, in the house and outside. I wanted a job without a boss – that was more important than having a paycheck.
MR: Tell us about some of the books or authors or other people (such as teachers) that may have influenced you to become a writer.
DH: An English teacher in high school had us read famous local authors starting with Hemingway, moving on to Nelson Algren, Willa Cather, Gwendolyn Brooks and more. I learned that someone from my neighbourhood could win the Nobel Prize with the stuff that was lying around on the street, waiting for someone to notice it. That was the biggest lesson from those years: there are good stories everywhere.
MR: You’ve had many books published over the years and have been awarded many times. Is there a particular highlight of your career that you are most proud of? Is peer recognition important for you as a writer, translator, educator, etc. to keep on doing what you’re doing?
DH: Peer recognition means friends, and that’s important. “Lunging” is, among other things, a book about those people who have helped me along the way. A book of gratitude. You ask about pride. I was proud of “Electrical Storms” in 1988 because I’d never written a novel before, and it was published by a major house. I was proud of my first kids’ novel in 2006, “Travels with my Family,” because I’d never written for children before. And proud of “Lunging” because I had never written a non-fiction book. You get the picture: keep doing things differently.
MR: Your recent memoir, “Lunging into the Underbrush: A Life Lived Backward” was a most interesting read. Was now the time to write it, since so much of it happened during your youth?
DH: The story of almost dying by walking off a cliff in 1971 has been with me for a while, but I never realized until recently what that event had to do with me, the person I am today. Strange, but true: I didn’t know how to talk about it. Then, when I understood that it was the ultimate preparation for aging while getting stronger, I knew I had to tell the tale. Of course, that tale branched out in many ways to show how I got to this point.
MR: I highlighted many gems of wisdom throughout your book, such as: “I counsel friends to be charitable to their younger selves, and love the confused young woman and man they were, but I can’t always bring myself to make that effort for the person I was.” If you had never “lunged into the underbrush” what would have been the outcome of your life? I’m sure you have speculated on that idea throughout the years.
DH: Yes, that’s why this book can’t be a how-to guide about aging, because you can’t write something that encourages people to have catastrophic accidents when they’re young. But the book is about using adversity to become stronger. That is not an original idea. But the particular adversities I write about, from opiate addiction to confronting the military-industrial complex that gave us the Vietnam War, those do make for some original adventures. I am very self-critical about my past actions – hence, the need for self-forgiveness. I didn’t see myself as heroic because I opposed the Vietnam misadventure. I didn’t see myself as avant-garde because I participated in personal liberation movements. There where I surprised myself was when I started writing about aging and sexuality, Melancholy and Eros. That brought me to interview a good number of women my age (everyone was promised anonymity, except for me), which let me see what a mess male sexuality is, in general, at all ages. Again, more self-forgiveness was needed.
MR: How many books are in your personal library? Are they organized in any way?
DH: Who knows? A lot, and I’ve read them. I’m a disorganized person. During this pandemic with the local gyms closed, I built one in my basement with the stuff I could find. The books are stored down there as well. All the Freud is together, and the Raymond Carver and J.M. Coetzee, but otherwise, it’s anyone’s guess where anything is. I found some buried treasures, like Marianne Wiggins’ “John Dollar.”
MR: If you could write a biography of any person, living or dead, who would that be and why?
DH: Back last century I was on a panel with Han Suyin, a Chinese writer, a proponent of Mao, many times married, and a doctor as well. She said, “All my patients are like my characters, and vice versa, they’re all liars.” I liked that. I don’t know if anyone’s written her biography. No doubt there are biographies of Pablo Neruda, the poet who was also so many other things, but I’d like to do him too before I run out of time.
MR: Tell us about your writing space. (Do you always write in the same area? Do you use a laptop or a desktop computer, etc.)
DH: I have a small apartment, 500 or 600 square feet. I go there just about every day. It’s the ideal – no one there but me. I don’t go for writing in cafés because I make too much noise when I write. It’s a little embarrassing. I wrote my first three novels on manual typewriters, but then this thing called the computer took over. I have a laptop and feel nothing toward it, whereas my manuals still inspire great tenderness in me.
MR: Covid question: how have you been coping with the pandemic? What changes (if any) has it made in your life?
DH: It hasn’t been as bad for me as for others. I was never confined because every day I went to my studio. Early on I read this sentence in a book by evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers: “Anxiety damages the immune system.” I have taken that sentence to heart. The other day, I saw a friend Dimitri Nasrallah and at the end we shook hands. Flesh to flesh. It was wonderful. I mean, contact renewed…
MR: What do you like to do when you are not writing (or reading)?
DH: I’m still an athletic guy, so there are endless ball games in the summer. I don’t know when basketball and ball hockey are going to open up again. One thing I don’t do enough is contemplate, since I’m too interested in things that demand physical exertion.
MR: Finally, tell us an interesting fact about yourself!
I won a prize for best poem written by a high school student in the Chicago public schools. The poem was about the el train. Urban romance was my thing! The prize was $100 worth of poetry books from Kroch’s & Brentano’s. A fortune…
Many thanks to David Homel for taking the time to participate in this interview. (Photo of Mr. Homel by Marina Vulicevic and is used with her permission)