Cary Goldstein, publisher and editor-in-chief of Twelve, acquired Amity Gaige’s novel Schroder at auction from Gaige’s agent, Wendy Weil, in 2011. The novel is the intricate epistolary story of a German man who adopts a new identity in America and goes for an adventure with his 6-year-old daughter—an adventure that is not all it seems. Goldstein and Gaige talked about their editorial relationship, the impact the late Weil had on Gaige’s life and career, and the music of George and Martha yelling at each other.
Cary Goldstein: You had told me at some point about a novel you were writing that took place on one day in two nations, following—I may be misremembering this—two possible paths a Latvian woman's life could have taken. You even sent me a mix CD of the music fueling it. You can imagine my surprise when Schroder arrived on submission. What happened that made you drop one project to write an entirely new one?
Amity Gaige: Yes, my Great Latvian-American Novel. There was something too inevitable about it. I wanted—and still want—to tell my mother's story. She fled Stalin's army in 1944, leaving Latvia, which was to be occupied by the Soviets for the next 50 years, and arrived to the U.S. when she was 11. I wanted to create a what-if novel: What if she had stayed in Latvia? Who would she have been had she not been wrenched from her cultural context?
I got to spend time in Latvia—that was probably the best part of the whole escapade. I researched, I thought, I drank the local balsams, and what do you know, one morning I'm sitting in my Riga hotel and I read the "newspaper"—a fax of short news stories—they'd put by my breakfast plate, and there is this article about a man called Clark Rockefeller. The article was maybe 10 lines long, but in it I discovered this man was arrested after abducting his own daughter, whom he apparently adored, and in the course of things was revealed to be a fraud and a con-man—a German, no Rockefeller. I have to stress here that I never read a thing further about that real case. But the themes from my Great Latvian-American Novel – exile, identity, longing—leapt into a new context.
Truth is, I think I was also experiencing a minor crisis of faith about the novel form itself. I liked my Parallel-Stories-What-If-Great-Latvian-American-Novel-With-a-Soundtrack. But I saw how I would go about it too well. I would use an architectonic form (á la Anna Karenina), and if I could just muster all of the details, build the elaborate scenery, I could write it convincingly. But one doesn't sign up to be a writer with the dream of writing "convincingly."
At least I have the soundtrack. Did you like it?
Goldstein: You called it “Eddie Hearts Justine,” it's fantastic. Cocteau Twins, Dead Milkmen, the Sugarcubes ...
Gaige: The best bits of what I have on that novel—a hundred pages or so—happened to be these lively scenes between two American teenagers in 1989, loving one another across class lines, making out under a boom box on a window sill.
Goldstein: A hundred pages on two teens making out? I want to read that! It’s like Nicholson Baker by way of John Hughes. There is something in it that seems unmistakably you in its tight focus on two people—insular, intimate, with an almost claustrophobic intensity. It's what I so loved about your first novel, O My Darling. Only in Schroder, the bubble we're brought inside of isn't a lover's bubble, but a father and daughter's.
Gaige: I think marriage and family keeps being written about because that's where we keep our reputations with ourselves—I mean, we can't quite slip the truths we reveal about ourselves at home. I was and still am an Edward Albee devotee. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is, to my mind, a work of perfect genius. Not only does it sizzle—no, burn—with every line, but it also demonstrates that in some ways, love is a performance, identity is a performance.
Goldstein: I remember telling an old boss of mine how much I loved George and Martha's sparring, how musical I found it. She looked at me with horror. She couldn't bear the sound of people yelling. In my house I guess it was the yelling that connected us. We allowed each other to announce our wounds and somehow knew that meant we loved and were loved. That's a far cry from playing Get the Guests, though.
Gaige: I feel like you and I love the same books. I'm always hollering, Yeah, I love that book, too! when you're talking about something. Revolutionary Road. Stoner. The Sportswriter. (Actually, didn't I turn you on to that one?)
Goldstein: Stoner—what an incurably lonely book, so beautiful and inevitable. I wasn't at all prepared for that book. I think my favorite writers can articulate something I wished I'd said myself. Or wished I'd noticed at all. Access points. And you absolutely did turn me on to The Sportswriter, which I hadn’t read. It is just lousy with access points, they're everywhere in it.
What role does reading play for you while you're writing?
Gaige: Reading while I'm writing ideally inspires my competitive side. When I read great writers, I want to be a better writer. I want to put my knife between my teeth and get to work already. It's not an unpleasant feeling, even when I feel unworthy of that writer's company. A great sentence can really do it, too. A perfect sentence. Like this one from John Banville’s The Sea, which I think was an influence on Schroder: “The past beats inside me like a second heart.” Of course, it's a hazard of the profession to develop this scavenging nature to one's reading life. I become impatient with the deliberate, determined way many (even very good) novels set up their groundwork. I just want those lines, and those "access points," to borrow your phrase. Maybe because of this impatience, I favor reading poetry before I start to write. Poetry immediately puts me in the writing mind.
Goldstein: It was the poetry in your work that got me. I was turned on to O My Darling by a mutual friend of ours, and I vividly remember being stopped short by a scene in which the young wife and her husband's dead mother's dog square off in the corner of the bedroom, vying for territory. Gorgeous. So I sent you a fan letter.