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
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
music
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
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.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?