It's a little bit crazy to try to reconcile your old life with your new life

Amity Gaige is the author of three novels, O My Darling (2005), The Folded World (2007), and Schroder, which was recently shortlisted for The Folio Prize.

Erik Schroder’s story is not so much the story of a double life with a double identity as the story of a repressed identity and repressed memories. As a writer, do you rather work with repressed memories or do you dig them up?

(Laughs) Nobody’s ever said that before… Which is saying a lot because I talk to a lot of people! It’s true—there are two identities, and he does create a whole new persona. However, it’s more about the one that he’s left behind and how much he doesn’t want to remember that. When I was looking at the book today, I noticed that there was one line about his mother who he is separated from, and he says: “Whenever I was Eric Kennedy, my mother didn’t exist. I didn’t know if she was alive or dead. When I was Eric Kennedy, it was irrelevant”. I think that’s the big thing—he is of course talking around, he can’t even say her name, he’s very repressed.
I think that Schroder’s really my first attempt to make it quite so literal. I would say that for most of my characters, there’s a comprehension about something that weighs heavily on the character. It sometimes dominates their psychological landscape, and it’s quite psychological to feel that way. I feel like it’s true, and maybe Europeans don’t think that way, but Americans do believe that you’re dominated somehow by your past. If you have unresolved issues in your past, it’s going to affect you in your daily life. As a novelist, this is a good plot device.

I found that Erik’s confession was appealing to the reader because he does not seem to provoke pity or to seek redemption, but he is not a loathsome individual either. How did you decide what kind of personality Erik would have?

When I first started writing, he really came to me as a voice. He had this strong voice, he uses very specific words, he fancies himself as a sort of an armchair scholar, funny and at times self-deprecating. He started speaking to me, and then I had this experience, that sometimes writers have, which is that you feel that the book is channeling.
What I started to feel with Schroder is that he was so real to me that I felt like I was just telling his story. Part of the reason I could do that is because I couldn’t stop thinking about it for a long time. Writers do a lot of preparation, dreaming and researching, and imagining, and once you do enough of that, you’re ready to write. At that point, Erik just started talking and I wrote the book very quickly, in maybe a year or less, and that was just in birth.

Did you draw from any confessional novel in particular to write Schroder?

I think there are two. One is a book called The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford. He lived in Paris at the same time as Hemingway and he only wrote one good book, called The Good Soldier. It was definitely a confession, not from prison, but about the end of a love affair. He is telling a whole story about how his marriage went totally wrong. That was an influence for Schroder.
There is also the book Pale Fire by Nabokov—not Lolita actually, I don’t really see the comparison there. That’s a story about a crazy guy who is enamored of a poet who lives next door. He confesses his friendship with the poet, but he is also really confessing his own insanity and his own loneliness. Nabokov was always writing about exile, too, and he was also writing about somebody who ends up in one country but misses the previous one.
When I was writing Schroder, I was working about the same kind of theme: when you’re removed from your culture, this is sort of a crazy making kind of thing, it’s a little crazy to try to reconcile your old life with your new life.

Erik’s narrative and his dialogs with his daughter Meadow are the main voices in the novel, and the mother is present only through Erik’s loving, nostalgic, sometimes bitter “You”. Did you hesitate a lot before choosing this type of narration?

Technically, he is writing a story. He is writing it over a period of several weeks, while he is waiting to find out his fate, and every day he feels a little bit differently. One day he’s feeling positive, the next day he’s feeling mad, and you see that it influences the story. That’s why he is an unreliable narrator, too, because he can be inconsistent. Sometimes you’re surprised as what he says. But again, that feels realistic to me—we’re not the same person every day, we change.

The novel is loosely linked to a similar event that happened a few years ago—a German man moved to the US under a false identity, calling himself Clark Rockefeller, and eventually abducted his daughter. Was this case a trigger for the writing of the novel?

Only in what you mentioned. When I read this news article about that man, I thought this was such a great story idea! I just thought he was a European who comes and pretends to be from a famous American family, and meanwhile he’s sort of dedicated to this life because he starts a family. Those are the only details I borrowed from it. I never researched or found out anything more about the guy! This guy is still in the news, but I don’t really want to be associated with him, because he is not a very nice person, he is a real criminal!

On the subject of his double identity, Erik says “I guess I needed a life I could revise”. Does this apply to novelists as well?

(Laughs) It reminds me of what a friend said to me once. He said: “The best thing about being a writer is that you don’t have to only live one life”. You live many lives! It’s true, isn’t it? Sometimes you’re like “Oh I only get one life”, it’s paltry! But when you write, you can convince yourself in a way that you’ve lived these various lives. Erik felt really real to me, I almost feel like it’s an experience I had! It’s like being a child and pretending you’re imagining things.

Erik and Meadow’s road trip starts in Albany and ends in Boston. In between they go to Lake George, drive up to Plattsburgh and settle temporarily in Grand Isle, Vermont. Is it meaningful for you to try to convey a certain sense of place in your novels?

Yes. It’s funny because this weekend I’m doing a fiction literary festival, the Folio Prize Fiction Festival, and they’re doing a weekend of events. My panel is “Place in fiction”—it’s something I think that is very important in my work. I was asked to pick something up to read from my novel, and every line had a sense of place. There was the importance of Germany as a metaphor for something lost, there is the sense of New England as a place, as an ideal American landscape—it’s quite beautiful really, and then there’s Albany, where they live together, which is important. There is also the car itself, which is not a landscape but a setting. As a writer, I feel like I’ll try to return to the physical location in which my characters are, and somehow the writing gets better.