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
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • 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.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?