The Omega Point or Happy Birthday Baby
by A.M. Homes
Issue #139 • August 10, 2010•Buy Now!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
It is the kind of day farmers, when there were still farmers, would have dreamed of. The sky is brilliant blue, the plants are newly green, the air fresh and clean as though it had been washed, tumbled dry and neatly folded the night before. It is the kind of day you never forget.
“Hasn’t been a day this pretty since the day you were born,” Mary Grace Mahon says to her granddaughter.
“You didn’t know me the day I was born,” Ruby says.
“Oh but I did,” Mary Grace says, tucking a bobby pin further into her hair which is white and silky and braided like a pretzel.
“Not possible,” the girl says, twirling her own black silky hair into a grandmother pretzel.
“In my heart of hearts I knew you’d be here soon,” Mary Grace says.
“I was born in China, Grandma. The people in China didn’t even know when I was born and when I was born mama didn’t even know she was going to adopt a baby.”
“I knew,” Mary Grace says, “I knew it all along, even before your mother was born, I knew that you’d be coming along.”
A.M. Homes is the author of the novels, This Book Will Save Your Life, Music For Torching, The End of Alice, In a Country of Mothers, and Jack, the short story collections, Things You Should Know and The Safety of Objects, the travel memoir, Los Angeles: People, Places and The Castle on the Hill, the artist’s book Appendix A:, and the memoir, The Mistress’s Daughter.
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 often collaborates with artists to produce books, museum and gallery catalogs featuring fiction written in relation to the artists’ work—recent collaborations have included True Life, Steven Harris Architects, Princeton Architectural Press; Eric Fischl, Beach Paintings, Rizzoli; Rob Wynne, Tears of Glass, JGM Gallery, Paris, France; Julie Speed, Julie Speed2, University of Texas; Bill Owens, Collected Works, Damiani Editore; Sarah Jones, Whose Story Is It And Why Is It Always On Her Mind? National Media Museum, Bradford, England; Amy Arbus, On The Street, Welcome Books; Cathie Opie, In and Around Home, Aldrich Contemporary Museum; Ghada Amer, Exhibition Catalog, Gagosian Gallery, New York/Los Angeles; Carroll Dunham, Carroll Dunham Paintings, The New Museum, New York; Rachel Whiteread, Transient Spaces, Guggenheim Museum, Berlin, 2001, New York; Todd Hido, House Hunting, Paul Morris Gallery, Nazaraeli Press; Cecily Brown, Exhibition Catalog, Gagosian Gallery, New York.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
AH: My grandmother and her 9 brothers and sisters grew up on a dairy farm in North Adams, Massachusetts, so stories about the town, the factories, and the people were part of my childhood mythology. So when Petah Coyne asked if I’d like to write a piece for her upcoming show at Mass Moca I was deeply excited as it gave me a chance to think about the town in a fictional way and re-visit some facts I always found interesting.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
AH: The delicate weave and piecing together fact and fiction, finding the odd actual links between the history of North Adams, Lue Gim Gong, the citrus wizard, the development of the atomic bomb, China now and then and trying to write a piece which reflected something about the artist, her work and intentions.
HT: “The Omega Point” was inspired by the art of Petah Coyne. Can you tell us more about Petah as an artist, and what drew you to her work?
AH: I think of her work as both beautiful and troubling at the same time, elegant, mysterious, complex. The mix of materials, a rubbery kind of plastic, religious iconography and taxidermy thrills and terrifies me at the same time—which I guess is also my definition of successful art—scary and seductive all at once.
HT: Petah Coyne’s new exhibit, “Everything That Rises Must Converge” is based on the work of Flannery O’Connor. Has O’Connor’s writing influenced your work as well?
AH: Writing the story gave me an excellent excuse to go back and re-read O’Connor, and yes she was a big influence when I was younger. O’Conner, Welty, McCullers—and then I graduated to Shirley Jackson who I feel is very much present in this story and who lived in nearby Bennington VT, for many years. I think of them as women unafraid of the dark.
HT: What kind of research did you do on the Peking Man for this story? And how does the Peking Man connect to the Omega Point?
AH: Well the strangest thing—which I didn’t know going into this—was that the title Everything That Rises Must Converge comes from the work of French Jesuit Pierre Tielhard de Chardin who was also an anthropologist and who developed the idea and phrase Point Omega to describe a level of complexity and consciousness towards which the universe appears to be evolving. It’s super strange because that’s kind of exactly what’s happening in the story, i.e. things coming to a peak of complexity and consciousness and the fact that he was philiosphically connected to O’Connor and was on the expedition that discovered the bones of Peking Man in the 1920s kind of proves the point. The fact that I didn’t know any of that going into writing this was just wild, a thrilling discovery. All I knew was that Petah had an interest in things from China and Japan and I remembered something about Chinese workers being brought to North Adams in the 1870s to bust a strike at the shoe factory. Coincidentally, two of my uncles who grew up in North Adams became very involved in organizing unions. It was that thread that lead me to Lue Gim Gong who was totally real and Peking Man.
HT: The image of all of the units pulling together is a beautiful one, the opposite, in many ways, to the gadget, which exploded them apart. Can you talk a bit about the inspiration and mystery behind these tiny boxes and their glowing red lights?
AH: One of the companies based in North Adams was Sprague Electric. In 1905 Sprague bought the old Arnold Print Works and textile mill. Sprague Electric was both a research and development center, with strong government ties, producing semi conductors and other parts—among them the trigger for the first atomic bomb. During the 1940s-1960s in the U.S. and around the world there was also a lot of build-it-yourself electronics activity, i.e. ham radios, etc. Due to the outsourcing of electronic production—i.e. it’s cheaper to make things in China (ironic given the story)—Sprague closed in 1985. Mass Moca is located in the former Arnold Printworks/Sprague complex on Marshal Street, all of this once again overlapping and coming together in a very Point Omega kind of way.
HT: You have done many collaborations with visual artists over the years. What draws you to this field as a writer, and have you ever picked up the paintbrush yourself?
AH: My father is a painter and the better part of my childhood was spent sitting on benches in museums around the world, waiting for him to be done looking—he was a very slow looker. I then studied painting at the Corcoran School of Art and then Art History at Sarah Lawrence and later was in the Independent Study Program of The Whitney Museum, always thinking that if all else failed I’d work in a museum. Whenever I am on book tour, the first thing I do in every city is go to the museum. I find it calming. And yes I have painted—less lately since time/space is very scarce in NYC, but I did make the paintings that are in Appendix A: which is the book that goes with The End of Alice.
Long story short, I love art, I love talking with people who “make things.” Could be artist, scientist, inventor—I am fascinated by the creative process, by what it means to the person and what they feed on. When I write one of these “custom” stories for someone I talk with them about their work, their interests and I go from there—I find it much more thrilling than my earlier-short lived work as an Art Critic.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
AH: I worked on it full-time for about six weeks.
HT: What are you working on now?
AH: I’m working on a new novel, a collection of short stories, and a television pilot.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
AH: Grace Paley taught me to pay attention to “truth according to the character,” which is very different from an author imposing herself on a story. And my cousin Scott Spencer taught me that a book is done when basically if you were to keep working on it you’d write something else.