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.
Gaige: You sent me a fan letter. I remember thinking, OK, things are going well here, because I just got a fan letter from an editor in New York City. But honestly? I thought nothing would come of it. I remember having lunch with you a couple times and thinking, sure, we like each other. We went to pretentious eating establishments and we both ordered burgers. And we'd read the same books. But I know that mainstream publishing has rather defined parameters, and I thought it wouldn't be your fault if you didn't grab my next book.
But you did. I remember the email that you sent to my agent after your first read Schroder. It's something like, "I cried ... twice." It meant a lot to me that you could respond emotionally to the novel. Because my character Eric is irresponsible and selfish and immature, but he also loves his daughter, who loves him back, blindly maybe. That is sad on a cosmic level before you get to legal or moral judgments.
Goldstein: I did cry twice —but for two different reasons. One was out of terror, at a moment of panic for Erik when his daughter is ... well, I won't spoil it; the other was in the delivery room, when Meadow was born, and Erik's love for his wife is so deep it's actually painful, but so beautifully rendered.
Gaige: Do you remember that the footnotes in the novel used to be endnotes, in my original submission? You were one of the few in-house readers who liked the endnotes. Everyone else was like, No way am I going to flip pages to read these things. But you helped me rethink them and reformat them, and suggest places where the footnotes could be blended into the primary text, and vice-versa, to the book's advantage.
Goldstein: The footnotes were interesting to sort out, because we wanted them to tell a kind of parallel story. There was a time when there were in effect two simultaneous endings to the book, one within the text and one in the notes. Your decision to replace what had been your original ending with the one in your notes was, I think, the most important change you made, because you really ended it with a punch to the gut, as one early reader put it.
Gaige: What do you remember of our first editorial meeting? I remember that we couldn't get very far. I remember that I talked a lot. I think I was glad to get my day in court, to explain my intentions behind everything. My own apologia!
Goldstein: Line editing wasn't an issue. You didn't exactly need any help on the level of the sentence. So I made my notes, and for the most part I'd be fine with you taking or leaving them. I just wanted to make sure I understood some of the choices you made, and I peppered you with a series of whys. I felt I could be most useful if I really had a handle on what your vision was. If you had a reasonable and fully formed idea about something, I was on board, and if you didn't, then it was probably something we needed to explore. I hope that was more valuable than it sounds! It sounds rather lazy, doesn't it?
You have readers, though, a small group of them, who had offered you feedback before I ever even saw the manuscript. How is that process different for you than working with an editor?
Gaige: The first person I give my finished manuscripts to is my husband, Tim. I have the response he scrawled on the first page of Schroder in manuscript hanging over my desk. I'm looking at it right now. My pal Nam Le line-edited the book before I ever sent it to you, when he was supposed to be working on his own book at Yaddo. So it's true, I got a lot of feedback on Schroder from fellow writers before I delivered the work to my agent. My agent Wendy Weil read it and gave me a call. I thought she'd come back with a lot of edits which I would dutifully mull over, but without segue she just started to talk about where she was going to send it. She didn't ask me to change anything.
And I miss her terribly. How a person can be both so relaxed and so effective is beyond me. Her voice—I miss her voice!—this slow, bemused, New York voice. Always reassuring. Always right. I did not realize until she passed away this past September how much I got to turn off my careerist anxieties and just trust her. At her memorial service in November, many of her illustrious clients spoke. I'll never forget how Tony Doerr described the way she made him feel that there was a tunnel under his desk that led straight to the heart of New York City, connecting him, despite the distance, to his dreams.
Just before she died, she sent my infant daughter a dollhouse. Why does this gift seem so perfect to me now? She was a woman in a man's business when she started in publishing in the '60s. But she built her own business, her own house.
Goldstein: The outpouring of grief and admiration for Wendy was very moving. I lost a great friend and mentor myself in 2012, and I know what kind of hole that can leave in your life. So the reception to Schroder must in some ways be bittersweet. She was a great advocate on your behalf, I know I don't need to assure you of that.
With so much on your plate—a new addition to your family this past September, a well-received novel and the obligations that come with it to promote, upcoming trips to support foreign publications—have you had any time to think about what's next?
Gaige: There is a lot of unconscious or semi-conscious work in the early stages for me. I'm grabbing dialogue from overheard conversations, searching for felicitous word combinations, I'm going to plays or movies and reading books and staring at strangers. (Just last night at dinner, an old couple walked past the restaurant window, and Tim said to me, "Uh-oh, you've got your writing face on.") I knew this summer that it would be quite some time before I could write intensively. Now that I am out in the world with Eric, I see it might be even longer than I thought. I've been talking about him an awful lot. It'll be awhile before the self-consciousness burns off. Even the great stuff, a lovely review, I'll have to let it all float away first.
Well you're about to have a baby, too. I'm sure people have chewed your ear off talking about how hard it will be. But I've gotten emails from you written at 4 in the morning, so I suspect you are used to erratic sleep patterns. How do you think becoming a father will change your literary life?
Goldstein: I don’t think I can really begin to comprehend what will actually change for me, but of course there's already a shift in priorities. Most of the conversations I’ve had about this sort of thing have been with the fathers I know. Some with newborns, others with teens, or even with sons and daughters my own age. And to a one, they all just sort of light up and say that whatever happens, whatever changes, it is the best thing that has ever happened to them.
Gaige: Before I had my kids, I thought they'd take up all my writing time and suck the lifeblood out of me. I was wrong. Well, OK, I was right, they do take my time and energy, but they open me up and they give me immediate access to feelings that no long meditation or solitary odyssey ever could. I think you'll benefit from those charged early years, the good, the bad, the transcendent.
Goldstein: There are parents all around me, mothers and fathers both, who have achieved extraordinary things while raising children, so my wife and I don’t worry too much about anything being lost. What we mostly do is just sort of wonder: Are they really going to let us do this? They being the cosmic authorities who we imagine dole out a limited number of merit-based permission slips for parenting.
In the New Yorker, there’s a great piece on Adam Phillips by Joan Acocella in which she cites Donald Winnicott’s idea of “the good-enough mother” and why “good-enough” may actually be best, because it’s truest: Sometimes we get what we want, and sometimes we don’t. If we expected to have everything all of the time we’d be ... pissy, to say the least. I can hear a hundred parents in my head saying: Dude, you have no idea. And obviously I don’t. But it’s a reassuring notion somehow.
Turning this back to the book: Is Eric “good enough”? Do you have enough distance from Eric to tell us?
Gaige: I’ve been trying to think with some critical distance these days, mostly in an effort to supply worthwhile answers, i.e. here—and I have been wondering if there was any social critique intended in Schroder. After all, the fictional autobiography or confession is uttered by one person, who is rarely reliable (because he’s justifying his own actions, something none of us can do objectively), and as readers we’re meant to try and interpret his slippery reasoning. Eric loves his daughter. He loves his wife, too. But in the very fact of his name he has lied to them both, and created a fissure in these relationships that the relationships cannot survive. If I’m arguing for anything, it may be for the preservation of love within a confusing and fracturing modern context. A child is born into a family and/or a marriage or partnership, and she thrives on love, whether or not is it directed her way. Honesty, attentiveness, an attempt at personal fulfillment, a capacity for joy—I think a “good enough” parent models these qualities. We can get caught in the panopticon of modern parenting, forgetting to be aware of ourselves, forgetting to ask for and to give love.
So is Eric a "good enough parent"? I don't know. I'm tempted to say that Schroder is my answer.
Schroder by Amity Gaige. Twelve.