In early February, Amity Gaige’s third novel, Schroder — about a father named Erik Kennedy, who built his life on an elaborate lie and kidnaps his daughter, Meadow, following the bitter breakup of his marriage — was published by Twelve. In the weeks following the book’s release, Gaige — who was my professor at the University of Rhode Island in the early 2000s — and I corresponded via email about the writing life, assumptions made about female novelists, and how no one will ever be able to write like Nabokov.
The Millions: Schroder is receiving positive reviews and even being described as your breakout book. Does that have any meaning for you as a writer? Was the experience of writing and publishing Schroder any different for you than it was for O My Darling or The Folded World?
Amity Gaige: Breaking out sounds wonderful. If it means that lots of people read Schroder, then I will be happy to call it my breakout book. My other books were written with the same goal as Schroder — to write as well as possible about deeply felt themes. But maybe it’s significant that I wrote Schroder very quickly — it felt “channeled.” If you want to talk about the publishing side, that’s been a very different experience, too. I have an editor and publicist at Twelve who’ve been focused like assassins on each stage and challenge of bringing out a book. They responded to the book with gut responses, they hand-delivered it to people, they approached everything creatively and passionately. As for reviews, critical reaction is and always will be something I value highly as a writer — somebody serious and intelligent talking back to me after a long writerly confinement, if you will. But I also value hearing from readers, booksellers, librarians, total strangers. I’ve gotten some interesting emails asking for help with parenting or custody arrangements. I don’t mind. I get energy from the feedback.
TM: Along the same lines, how do you see your writing evolving over the course of your career? In what ways are you a different writer than you were in 2005 when O My Darling was published?
AG: Writing O My Darling felt like chiseling stone — hard and painstaking. It took me a long time to realize that I was simply learning how to write a book, an activity that isn’t inborn. I say while knocking on wood that each book has been easier to write than the next. My 30s have been a heady time personally. Having children, losing loved ones, coming to larger understandings about life; if these things change me, then I hope they change and broaden my writing.
TM: In your novels, a recurring theme is the strength of relationships and the ways they are tested. You recently described Schroder as “a pro-marriage book; a balled-up and then uncrumpled valentine.” Can you talk a little about the importance of this theme in your work and how your take on it in Schroder is different than in your other novels?
AG: A smart piece of recent criticism said that the book does not use the 19th-century marriage plot but the “twenty-first century divorce plot.” Schroder concerns what happens after love is over — or in this case, discredited. I’ve always been preoccupied by the transience or ephemerality of experience, good and bad. As a minor character in the book says, there is the temptation to try and “box up” experience and “keep it.” But happiness — and love — cannot be possessed, controlled, quarantined…In Eric’s case, he’s dealing with the unwieldy fact that he still loves his ex-wife even though she has completely washed her hands of him. She thinks that because he’s a liar, he lied about loving her. But I don’t think he lied about loving her, and I guess that’s the uncrumpled part of the valentine.
I didn’t really answer the question, though. I’m not sure why I keep writing about marriage. Marriage is just a metaphor for human relationships in general. It’s the relationship in which we live or die in terms of our own self-concept, in terms of our reputations with ourselves.
TM: Let’s talk about Erik Kennedy/Schroder. You’ve said you feel “a lot of ambivalence towards him” and certainly navigate between his good qualities and his terrible qualities when portraying him to readers. Was this a difficult balance to achieve? A lot of importance is often placed on the “likability” of characters. Was this something you thought about as you were writing Schroder?
AG: Well I find Eric likeable, but in the way you love a classic naïf. The narrator of Updike’s “A & P” or Dowell in The Good Soldier. You think, wow, what a limited person, but at least he cares about something. If I had to choose between the extremes of sentimentality and cynicism, I’d always choose the former.
But yes, I do feel ambivalence towards Eric. What he does in lying to his wife is unconscionable. And I think part of the poignancy of the father-daughter relationship here is that his daughter is fated to wise up, and to eventually be really furious at him. She loves him now because he’s all she knows. But how messed up would Meadow be as a grown-up? Schroder suggests, I think, pretty messed up.
TM: Was it difficult to write Erik’s young daughter, Meadow? What are the challenges you faced portraying a child?
AG: My son was probably about four when I started writing Schroder. I poured all the love, amusement, and self-doubt I felt on a daily level as a parent into the characterization of Meadow. Also, my son just said a lot of fabulous things, and I wrote them down word for word and gave them to Meadow. When people cite their favorite lines from the book — and these are often Meadow’s lines — I have to laugh and say, Let’s face it, the best lines in this book were written by a six year old.
TM: You’ve said the book was in some part inspired by the Clark Rockefeller case and what he said about some of the happiest moments of his life being spent with his daughter after he abducted her. How did the idea for Schroder come about and evolve as you wrote the novel?
AG: As you mention, Schroder began with the seed from that now-infamous ripped-from-the-headlines story, one I deliberately never followed. But that story was relevant only in that I was already preoccupied its themes: identity, parenthood, immigration, self-invention…Can you be a fraud and still love others sincerely? Can you be a troubled soul and also a loving parent? I am of the Chekhov school in regards to literature “posing questions correctly” as opposed to answering them. Wondering now if I have — even privately — answered these questions — I think no, not conclusively. Eric is still new to me, and as I travel around reading from the book, my attitude towards him alternates between compassion and bitterness.
TM: Schroder functions as an apology/confession from a man with an elaborate false identity. Both of those elements have a rich literary history. How does your novel fit into that literary landscape?
AG: I am sure there is a buried influence of Dostoevsky, even Poe, both of whom I read at a fairly young age, probably assuming these men were describing the inevitable lunacy of adulthood…I loved the hair-tearing confessions of deeply inconscient madmen-narrators, driven by guilt to confess. But Schroder is probably my agon-with-Nabokov book. Nobody writes like Nabokov; nobody ever will. What I would give to write one sentence like Vladimir! I adore Lolita, but I am more conscious of the influence of Pale Fire. Maybe it’s a minor point, but the fact that Eric’s document is “written” is so important to the novel, just as “written-ness” is central to Kinbote’s confessions in Pale Fire. This is where I saw the need, in Schroder, for footnotes, playlets, questionnaires…But of course all these examples I give were written by men. I think it’s true that I simultaneously “honor, update, and reject” some of these literary antecedents with Eric Kennedy/Schroder. (I’m referring to a statement here in Kathryn Shultz’s lively New York Magazine review.) I think I give Eric a softer side than most of these men-written-by-men. My gender seeps in between the lines, in the ways I judge him or his effect on the women in his life, in the sadness I feel about what remains an essential otherness…
TM: The writing of female authors — particularly those who write about relationships — is often marginalized into two categories: “chick lit” or “women’s fiction.” As a woman and author of literary fiction, is this something you ever think about when writing? Do you think the perception/reception of novels by women is changing at all?
AG: No, I never think about it in regards to my own work. But do I think the perception/reception of novels by women is changing at all? Not sure. The contemporary woman novelist still faces some troubling assumptions when she tries to publish. However, I was recently on two different panels with extraordinary women writers (Claire Messud and Victoria Redel, Karen Russell and Claire Vaye Watkins). All of these women are acclaimed writers, not to mention inspiring speakers. I like to think of their confidence — and success — as a bellwether.
TM: You once advised “stay[ing] true to your artistic vision, even if you fail in other ways” — also noting a quote from Mario Vargas Llosa: “That is what authenticity or sincerity is for the novelist: the acceptance of his own demons and the decision to serve them as well as possible.” Can you talk about how accepting your demons/decisions and staying true to your vision has served you over the course of your career?
AG: I think many writers write out of a longing to be understood — to be heard, legitimized, respectabilized. So if you’re not staying true to your artistic vision, what good is it for that vision to be legitimized? It’s not going to be gratifying. Of course, in some ways, you don’t have a choice about sticking to your artistic vision. Llosa says this, too — that writers don’t choose their themes, but rather that these themes are foisted upon them by personal history; Updike even said the same thing about style, that a writer’s style is inherent to him, simply the written equivalent to how the world “hits his or her nerves.” I don’t mean to say you should ignore criticism, especially when it’s made repeatedly, nor should you cling to some unbending, macho notion of integrity. For some people, compromise is radical. I say, surround yourself with trustworthy people, put your knife between your teeth, unplug, stop talking, and write.
TM: What are you working on now?
AG: Playing with my baby daughter. Wondering what her future will be like for her.