Amity Gaige Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Amity Gaige

Amity Gaige

An interview with Amity Gaige

Amity Gaige discusses her latest book, Schroder, which offers a profound meditation on history and fatherhood, and the many identities we take on in our lives - those we are born with and those we construct for ourselves.

What events in your own life led you to write this book?
My son was about three years old when I started this book. He wasn't old enough to be as articulate as Meadow, but he said and did a lot of wise things. For some reason, when I realized how much he could actually understand, I started to get nervous. I hoped I was saying or doing the right thing. But no one is entirely "normal," and occasionally I wondered if what I said and did as a mother wasn't a little eccentric–nothing as inappropriate as Eric, but you know, on the playground it seems like either you're doing something questionable as a parent or somebody else is. So I was very interested in exploring what makes a "good parent," how both parent and child get through the crucible of the early years. During this same time, my parents separated after forty-four years of marriage. This was a profound disorientation for me. Then, my father–who had been the first and most influential reader of my work, to whom this book is dedicated–fell terminally ill. I moved him up to a hospice home in my town and had to learn how to let him go. Meanwhile, I tried to be cheerful for my son–again, to project a sense of normalcy–but that was getting increasingly harder. Who was I kidding? Anyway, these things end up getting absorbed into the writing of Schroder. The writing heals. Or at least, the writing is a vessel to hold the experience.

What event in the news sparked the particular story you tell in Schroder?
Several years ago, while I was abroad, I read a short AP article about the Clark Rockefeller case, which had just broken. He was the German con man who posed as a Rockefeller. He was also was the father of a young girl, whom he attempted to kidnap. His particular case is quite interesting, but I never followed the case nor have I read anything about it since. There was only one thing from his case that really inspired me. This con man was by many accounts a loving father, and he called the days with his daughter "the best days" of his life. The story echoed what I was already wondering about parenthood: can a deeply flawed person be a good (or good enough) parent? What does it take? How would we define that?

In Schroder, the bond between a parent and child dictates a lot of the action. What is it about the nature of this bond that drives Erik? Is there a difference between the bond of a mother and a child versus that of a father and a child?
Yes, I think the parental bond is different between genders because men and woman are different. But I firmly believe that a bond between a father and child can be as strong as that between a mother and child. Maybe not in the infant years, but beyond. Personally, I think it's really the primary caregiver who knows the child best, whoever feeds and clothes the child and pries sharp objects out of his or her hand (what Eric calls "the relentless being-aware" of the child). For at least a year, Eric is a stay-at-home-dad. He's not a great one, but for the first time he actually pays attention. Anyone who pays attention to his or her child builds a bond. You can't help but respect their miniature successes and failures.

Does Erik Schroder truly love his daughter or simply the idea of her?
Woah. I don't know. I think that's a question you could ask of any parent. Eric does think that Meadow is "like him" in certain ways. Parenthood gets just a little bit thornier, I think, when your kid is "like you." Because at moments you might think he is you, which is distinctly unhelpful to him. There's a moment late in the novel when Eric suddenly realizes that maybe he wanted to test Meadow, to see if she could stand bad things, like he had to stand bad things when he was a kid. It's a disturbing and pivotal moment for Eric, when he realizes his narcissism is harming his own child.

What is it about the theme of identity—from our formative years through how we present ourselves as adults—that attracted you as a writer?
Someone once said to me, "All your books are about identity." I think so. Who knows why? I had an early and unsettling awareness of the self as a construct. Sadly, I haven't shaken that. I think we all do a lot of "deciding" who we are; we train ourselves to have certain qualities. But who knows, maybe even then, maybe, some other god-given self shines through, a self that's better or worse than the one we're projecting.
I guess the same thing gets played out in Schroder. Although Erik reinvents himself as Eric, the capable American, he can't totally transform, not convincingly. His injured German boyhood self slips through. Even Laura begins to see this. Before she ever discovers he's a fraud, she senses there is something fraudulent about him. So maybe that's my answer. Maybe there is a "real self" that cannot be renamed or repackaged.

America is a land of opportunity and reinvention. Could Schroder have taken place elsewhere? What is it about the nature of America that allows a boy named Erik Schroder to grow into Eric Kennedy?
Yes, this is an American story. America has accepted waves of immigrants throughout its history. Sometimes their names were changed by lazy immigration officials and sometimes the immigrants changed their own names. My mother was one of those people. She came to this country from Latvia when she was eleven, was one of the displaced people of World War II. Her childhood was very hard. She didn't want constant reminders of it, nor her ethnic background. Everyone made fun of her name. You see where this is going…
A lot of people come to the United States to reinvent themselves. It's understandable. Of course, Eric does not legalize his name change, and because he's not a citizen, he's actually committing fraud by accepting Pell Grants, etc. But for me, the only truly immoral thing he does is lie to Laura. A marriage can't be built upon a phony life history.

Because Schroder is written as a confession, Eric is a somewhat unreliable narrator. Are there parts of the story we are not privy to because of this?
Part of a novel's craft is the hiding and revealing of all the information that the novel touches upon. The order of Eric's confessions is significant. I might point to the very final chapter. He "hides" this information for a long time. In this scene, we see that Eric's father attempted to explain his past to him, but Eric refused this attempt. He's too scared. It's too buried. Eric becomes more reliable as the book goes on, or at least more honest. Let's say he's an unreliable narrator in recovery.

In many ways, Laura's perspective is absent from the novel. She is a character created out of "negative space." Why did you decide to keep her voice out of the main narrative? Was it hard to exclude her from the central action of the novel?
I identify with Laura. Of course, it's kind of like hamstringing yourself to leave a character you relate to out of a novel. But she's there. I hope the reader might glean what she thinks of Eric, why she left him, etc., through the tidbits Eric reveals in the service of other things. But the novel isn't really about why Laura loves or doesn't love Eric. The novel is a love letter–Eric's. It's a long love letter that goes unanswered. I got sad myself writing the end of the letter/novel, when I realized that a "real" Laura probably wouldn't even read it… Meadow will always remain connected to her dad, if only by blood, but Laura can wash her hands of the whole thing. Grown-ups can divorce each other. Kids can't divorce their parents.

Given his actions as a husband, father, and a man, how sympathetic did you want Eric to seem to the reader?
After the first draft of the novel was done, I did a fair amount of listening to trusted readers and even legal advisees, listening for places where I might have gone a little nuts with my own fictional play. I have a dear friend who's a lawyer, and we went through the draft scene by scene and she pointed out the things Eric does that would "mitigate" the kidnapping charges he's faced with, and which things would "aggravate" those charges. At times, the law matched the moral barometers of my other readers. These were the same places where the readers said, "that's unacceptable." However, I must say that I didn't want to write a book about which there would be consensus. I mean, I'm not trying to create a character about which easy judgments can be made, or upon which we can all agree. I don't want to read such books, either. I'm not saying everything's OK by me when it comes to human behavior. As a reader and a person in the world, I have my own limits for the acceptability or unacceptability of people's actions. But a good book takes me much further into a moral question than I could go by myself.

What it challenging for you to write in a male voice?
I don't think Eric is the "typical" male, but his voice came pretty easily to me. I hope he seems convincing as a man. The men in my life have mentioned that he does. I guess it's just years of listening to them talk. My husband–who is a very reliable, law-abiding citizen, by the way–is really honest about men and male psychology. I think he let me into some of the secrets of the brotherhood.

How did you bring six-year-old Meadow to life, particularly since the reader only sees her through the eyes of her father?
Meadow initially felt like a dream to me, very abstract. But she grew as the book went along. I started to feel her stoicism. She took shape. Also, here and there, I stole lines of dialogue from my son. For example, he once defined "the soul" as the thing that "keeps the body up." I could never have come up with that myself.

Why did you choose to use footnotes in your novel? Why not reveal these things in the body of the text?
Eric likes to digress, and occasionally show off his esoteric and maybe useless knowledge. For a while, I let him do this whenever he wanted. Then I realized that that's exactly what footnotes are, places where the scholarly self can qualify and digress. The footnotes show Eric's second, shadow consciousness as he's writing. At first, that second consciousness tries to be all academic and cool. He uses the footnotes ironically to discuss theories of silence. He's detached from his personal story, or at least he's trying to seem like he is. But gradually, the footnotes turn personal. He stops talking about silence theory in the abstract and begins to talk about himself. The footnotes start to be anti-footnotes.He tries to keep them down, tries to minimize them, but occasionally they are the most honest things he says. The footnotes are just another facet to show Eric's struggle, which is the struggle to tell the truth, the struggle to tell a true story.

The language in Schroder is often beautiful and poetic and sometimes at odds with the story you are telling. What is it about the use of particular language that aids in the telling of a story?
I was just debating with some students about whether the use of a "fancy prose style" makes a narrator seem more or less reliable. I think probably less. But I don't come at writing that way. Any poetic lurches are born out of my writing mind, the mind that's deep in concentration and imagination. John Updike once said that it is the responsibility of every writer to try and convey how the world "hits his or her nerves." I think the poetic language in this book and my previous books is my attempt to convey the same.

Why did you choose to end Schroder when you did? Do you know what is next for Erik and Meadow?
I don't know what's next! I feel sad for them both. When I started writing the book, I had this somewhat unrealistic notion that this confession would give the two of them a clean start. I even thought that Laura would forgive Eric, and maybe she would realize that Meadow needed Eric in her life. I do think Meadow needs Eric in her life. Because he's her dad, and you only get one of those. I think total estrangement is bad for the child. It's too confusing. I have spoken to people who were estranged from parents and said they would have preferred some limited contact over total absence. Or silence. I guess I would hope for their family that silence could be avoided. I think that's what Eric would want. That he wouldn't become the new "unspoken" or secret shameful thing for his daughter. He's come clean. And later, if he makes good, I hope they forgive him. I believe in forgiveness.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Sea Wife jacket Schroder jacket The Folded World jacket
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