Amity Gaige: 'I'm living the American dream'

Her third novel has propelled her to the forefront of US letters. She tells James Kidd about reinvention and the immigrant experience

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 ...'

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

    Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

    Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
    General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

    All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

    The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
    How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

    How Etsy became a crafty little earner

    The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
    Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

    King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

    Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

    The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
    Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

    Don't fear the artichoke

    Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
    11 best men's socks

    11 best men's socks

    Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
    Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

    Paul Scholes column

    Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
    Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
    London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

    Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

    Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

    Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
    Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

    Khorasan is back in Syria

    America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
    General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

    On the campaign trail with Ukip

    Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
    Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

    Expect a rush on men's tights

    Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
    Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

    In the driving seat: Peter Kay

    Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road