Q&A with Amity Gaige
Q. What events in your own life led you to write this book?
A. My son was about three years old when I started this book. He wasn't old enough to be as articulate as Meadow, but he said and did a lot of wise things. For some reason, when I realized how much he could actually understand, I started to get nervous. I hoped I was saying or doing the right thing. But no one is entirely "normal," and occasionally I wondered if what I said and did as a mother wasn't a little eccentric--nothing as inappropriate as Eric, but you know, on the playground it seems like either you're doing something questionable as a parent or somebody else is. So I was very interested in exploring what makes a "good parent," how both parent and child get through the crucible of the early years.
During this same time, my parents separated after forty-four years of marriage. This was a profound disorientation for me. Then, my father--who had been the first and most influential reader of my work, to whom this book is dedicated--fell terminally ill. I moved him up to a hospice home in my town and had to learn how to let him go. Meanwhile, I tried to be cheerful for my son--again, to project a sense of normalcy--but that was getting increasingly harder. Who was I kidding? Anyway, these things end up getting absorbed into the writing of Schroder. The writing heals. Or at least, the writing is a vessel to hold the experience.
Q. In Schroder, the bond between a parent and child dictates a lot of the action. What is it about the nature of this bond that drives Erik? Is there a difference between the bond of a mother and a child versus that of a father and a child?
A. Yes, I think the parental bond is different between genders because men and women are different. But I firmly believe that a bond between a father and child can be as strong as that between a mother and child. Maybe not in the infant years, but beyond. Personally, I think it's really the primary caregiver who knows the child best, whoever feeds and clothes the child and pries sharp objects out of his or her hand (what Eric calls "the relentless being-aware" of the child). For at least a year, Eric is a stay-at-home-dad. He's not a great one, but for the first time he actually pays attention. Anyone who pays attention to his or her child builds a bond. You can't help but respect their miniature successes and failures. Q. What is it about the theme of identity--from our formative years through how we present ourselves as adults--that attracted you as a writer?
A. Someone once said to me, "All your books are about identity." I think so. Who knows why? I had an early and unsettling awareness of the self as a construct. Sadly, I haven't shaken that. I think we all do a lot of "deciding" who we are; we train ourselves to have certain qualities. But who knows, maybe even then, maybe, some other god-given self shines through, a self that's better or worse than the one we're projecting.
I guess the same thing gets played out in Schroder. Although Erik reinvents himself as Eric, the capable American, he can't totally transform, not convincingly. His injured German boyhood self slips through. Even Laura begins to see this. Before she ever discovers he's a fraud, she senses there is something fraudulent about him. So maybe that's my answer. Maybe there is a "real self" that cannot be renamed or repackaged.
Q. America is a land of opportunity and reinvention. Could Schroder have taken place elsewhere? What is it about the nature of America that allows a boy named Erik Schroder to grow into Eric Kennedy?
A. Yes, this is an American story. America has accepted waves of immigrants throughout its history. Sometimes their names were changed by lazy immigration officials and sometimes the immigrants changed their own names. My mother was one of those people. She came to this country from Latvia when she was eleven, was one of the displaced people of World War II. Her childhood was very hard. She didn't want constant reminders of it, nor her ethnic background. Everyone made fun of her name. You see where this is going...
A lot of people come to the United States to reinvent themselves. It's understandable. Of course, Eric does not legalize his name change, and because he's not a citizen, he's actually committing fraud by accepting Pell Grants, etc. But for me, the only truly immoral thing he does is lie to Laura. A marriage can't be built upon a phony life history.
Q. In many ways, Laura's perspective is absent from the novel. She is a character created out of "negative space." Why did you decide to keep her voice out of the main narrative? Was it hard to exclude her from the central action of the novel?
A. I identify with Laura. Of course, it's kind of like hamstringing yourself to leave a character you relate to out of a novel. But she's there. I hope the reader might glean what she thinks of Eric, why she left him, etc., through the tidbits Eric reveals in the service of other things. But the novel isn't really about why Laura loves or doesn't love Eric. The novel is a love letter--Eric's. It's a long love letter that goes unanswered. I got sad myself writing the end of the letter/novel, when I realized that a "real" Laura probably wouldn't even read it...Meadow will always remain connected to her dad, if only by blood, but Laura can wash her hands of the whole thing. Grown-ups can divorce each other. Kids can't divorce their parents.