Amity Gaige was something of a literary prodigy. Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, she wrote poetry from an early age, publishing her work when most of us were still learning to read. Her father was her manager, editor and biggest fan, but at 16, her juvenilia was collected into a book by a publisher specialising in children writing for other children. "It was kind of cool," she recalls. "I did a little tour, mostly to encourage other schoolkids to write. They were very bush-league events, but it helps your concept of yourself as a writer when people take you seriously. I also learned to explain my work in a way I didn't intend."
Fast-forward two decades and Gaige is still taken seriously as a writer – only now by eminent publishers and audiences. The reason is Schroder, her third novel in all but the first to be published in Britain. Its US release was greeted like the second coming. Jonathan Franzen and Adam Haslett offered rave blurbs. The New York Times bandied such words as "transporting", "beautiful" and "really special". A reading in Brooklyn was attended by Jennifer Egan who came armed with admiration and questions.
When we meet on the top floor of Faber and Faber's London offices, Gaige is overjoyed by the fuss, but seems pleasingly unaffected by it. When I ask whether she minds the personal attention that accompanies a critical smash, she laughs. "No! I think I have a very American desire and willingness to divulge everything. I would divulge more if I didn't know it wasn't smart. I think novels are profoundly autobiographical. If writers deny that, they are lying. Or if it's really true, then I think it's a mistake."
Gaige's new novel is narrated by her titular anti-hero Eric Schroder, who writes a letter-cum-confession from prison to his estranged wife Laura. His life-story is described in a series of impressionistic flashbacks. We learn that Eric has constructed a fake identity. Having fled East Berlin with his father, he struggled to adjust to life in the US. His response was to invent a version of himself more befitting the American dream.
Re-christening himself Eric Kennedy after the heavyweight political clan, he marries, starts a career and becomes a father to Meadow, only to see his façade disintegrate as the recession hits. His final, desperate act is to take off with Meadow on a road-trip. For Schroder, it is an act of love. For the world at large, it is a crime.
A nuanced, lyrical meditation on identity, marriage and parenthood, Schroder is a fiction about the fictions that underlie many of the truths we hold dear. "Schroder is a fraud," says Gaige, "and the book is about hidden identity. It makes sense that he is constructing it himself, as a written document. There is unreliability in the form. It is his self-defence."
On the surface, the novel feels anything but autobiographical. "I am not a German man," Gaige helpfully points out. In fact, the bones of Eric's story were inspired by the real-life Clark Rockefeller, a German national who pretended to be related to the super-wealthy American dynasty before "kidnapping" his seven-year-old daughter. "I never researched the case, but I grabbed those details – fraud plus genuine love. Honestly, that was all I took."
Fleshing Eric out is Gaige's own family history. "The novel is deeply connected to my childhood. I brought to Rockefeller's scenario everything I care deeply about. What it means to be an immigrant coming to the United States, and I think a sense of shame."
Gaige's mother left Latvia when she was five, moving to America six years later. Like Eric, she struggled to adapt. "She fit in superficially, but always felt different. She told me her accent was very embarrassing. Like many people arriving in the US, she swore: 'I am going to make good; I am going to show them. I am never going back'."
Gaige spent three years trying to turn her mother's experiences into fiction but eventually threw in the towel. "It was insufficient. Too literal. Too inevitable. It was …" Gaige reaches for the right word. "It was boring. You've read boring novels. I've read them. I didn't want to write one."
Schroder emerged from these ashes. Its composition coincided with a period of profound emotional turmoil. Within a few years, Gaige became a mother, watched her parents separate, and then learned that her father, who had fostered her literary talent, had been diagnosed with cancer. "He passed away in 2009." Her parents reconciled before the end – her mother was deeply involved in his care. For once, the ebullient Gaige is lost for words. "I can't talk about it because I get too emotional."
Gaige dedicated Schroder to her father. It is a fitting, if challenging memorial: the character of Meadow, an imaginative phrase-maker and a poetry lover, is inspired by memories of daughterly devotion, but partly by Gaige's own son. She has recently become a mother for the second time. I ask whether Schroder's deeply felt but ultimately destructive parental love was in any way inspired by personal experience. "Every parent has done something or said something they can't believe," Gaige says. Like what, I ask? "Well, the baby rolled off the bed the other day," she replies, giggling. "Fortunately it was on to a carpet and she was fine. But I hated myself for 24 hours."
As Schroder illustrates with poised eloquence, love and self-loathing are rarely far apart for most individuals. Gaige herself is simultaneously in love with her characters and mourning them. She admits that she knows what happens to Eric, Laura and Meadow after the book ends, but refuses to divulge. Is there any chance of a sequel? "I would love to. I just need some editor to say, 'Do it!' Because I'm kind of shy. I don't want to presume."
Schroder by Amity Gaige
Faber & Faber, £14.99
'I begin to write. What follows is a record of where Meadow and I have been since our disappearance. As it turns out, it's a long story. I don't know how it ends yet. But it begins with love ...'