Interview with Amity Gaige (AG) and Robert Birnbaum (RB). March 28th, 2013 Location: Keltic Krust, West Newton Ma.Transcription:Jacob Powers, Recorder: Zoom H2N Digital, Camera: Lumix Digital, Contax G2 35 MM, Film: Ilford XP2
RB: I was going to ask why you are a professor of Baltic Studies, but you’ve already revealed to me that you have relatives in the Baltic.
AG: I’m not a professor of Baltic Studies—let me clarify. I’d love that. I did have a fellowship in the Baltic where they let me stay in a luxury hotel in Rega for a month. The hotel was beautiful. It had all of the amenities, and there was a really great chocolate shop around the corner that I visited pretty much every day.
RB: What did you learn during the residency?
AG: I learned that the book I was working on at the time was not the book I was meant to be writing, so I started to write Schroder.
RB: And what happened to the book you weren’t supposed to be writing?
AG: It’s in the drawer. I wasn’t going to throw it out when I could recycle it. Metaphorically and literally it was recycled because those pages found their way into Schroder, even though that other book was a completely different book. The themes are very similar. I was working on a book about the Soviet experience, about WWII, about my mother as an immigrant—she left Latvia when she was five and arrived in the United States when she was eleven. I wanted to write about all of these things, but I discovered I was writing about it too literally.
RB: So, you used the things you learned in Riga to write about an East German immigrant?
AG: Absolutely. I’ve actually never been to Berlin, so Riga is the Berlin in this book. It’s the source of Erik’s childhood memories. Frankly, I just had to do a lot of research to write those sections, but the feel of the homeland that’s lost to war, specifically to communism, is familiar to me. I felt like the emotions were authentic and sincere, but the scenario was based on research.
RB: My favorite fact was that of the 8,000 or so people who attempted to cross the Berlin Wall, only 300 actually made it.
AG: It was amazing to research that. There were so many, as the book says, creative attempts. Some of the details included in the book are totally true. There was a guy who designed a zip line from a building in East Berlin into West, and his family zipped down. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine living in a world in which you’re so close to freedom? You’re so close, but there’s a wall between you and your family, between you and the life you want to lead. You can see the other side, but you can’t get there. It’s a wonderful metaphor.
RB: Were you tempted at all, amongst the things that were factual, to make up any?
AG: Yeah, I think I did make things up. I freely mixed fact and fiction in those scenes, which I feel I have every right to do as a novelist. There’s one detail, amongst many true details about how people crossed the wall, where a little boy who flies across it in an aluminum airplane. I think there is some factual basis there, but I put the little boy inside of the plane. That’s what’s great about writing fiction. You can do that with impunity.
RB: But it is an issue. People challenge that idea nonetheless. Alan Furst gave me a reason for getting it right— he writes serious, historically accurate fiction based on wartime Europe. I asked, “You’re a novelist, why do you feel you’re obliged to make sure all of the details are exactly right.” He said, “Well, because so much blood was shed over them.” I don’t know if that’s right, but it’s certainly convincing. Do you feel like you are required to defend your right to make things up?
AG: No. I think what Allen Furst says makes a lot of sense. I don’t know his work, but there are certain contexts in which I would totally agree with that. However, with my protagonist, Erik, everything he says is somewhat suspect. He’s a historian through his own very unique, eccentric lens.
RB: Is there in fact a science of pausology?
AG:There is a field called “silence theory,” but I kind of made up the pausology stuff. I think it’s justified in this narrative because Erik is something of an unreliable narrator. He admits he’s not a very good scholar, he admits he doesn’t know everything, and he can’t remember so much, so it’s ok to distort details through him. If I were trying to create a piece of fiction that was meant to be reliable and objective, then I suppose I would agree. For example, if I was writing in third person, and I was trying to write the book I was originally trying to write about the Latvian occupation, or the falling of the Berlin Wall in 1989, or the independence of all of the Soviet countries, I would definitely feel the need to get those facts straight. I wouldn’t just sit there and invent stuff. Obviously, the whole thing is invented anyway, but I would base it more closely on fact.
RB: I was thinking about when a publication one contributes to, asks for a short bio. Over the years I’ve frequently enjoyed that opportunity. What if I attempted to write one short profile every day for a year? Each one would be different and true. You said something [in the novel]I thought was so true, but you never justified it. You said there is no such thing as forgetting. I think about that a lot. Sometimes I try to keep lists of everyone I’ve ever met in my life whose name I couldn’t remember. They come to me when there is no pressure. So I am wondering if one could come up with enough material about one’s life to fill up 365 days X 150 words. What do you think? Has anyone done that? What would it be like to write a year worth of short biographies? They would all be true.
AG: It would be almost like you were taking your mind’s temperature every day. I’m teaching this class at Amherst College about unreliable narrators, and I’m very interested in the subject. I have taught the course a couple of times, and what we arrive at is the idea that the self changes significantly day to day. In a sense, what you are saying in this moment is the only reliable thing, but that same thing doesn’t apply tomorrow. The context of your life changes and that changes the truth. The truth itself is not fixed, and it’s not something you can locate in time and place. Especially when it’s coming through the literary or written self, because the words you use to describe something change as well. It’s constantly shifting. I find it very thrilling when you think about writing both fiction and non-fiction. There’s a new word that was in vogue a couple of years ago, and I hope it’s not anymore, but it’s “truthiness.” It was adopted as an acknowledgement of the fact that the truth is just very hard to get at, and likewise, that something can be untrue, but have “truthiness.”
RB: Do you think we will be friends at the end of this conversation?
AG: I feel like we are already friends.
RB: Well, it’s a way of asking about your name, Amity. Where did that come from? It’s a rather unusual name and it has an unusual meaning. It means friendship, right?
AG: Yes. What a beautiful meaning. Some times I do wonder how fateful the name was. What if they had named me Cruelty? Or Greed? My sister is named Karina, which is a Latvian name, and also a Spanish and Italian name, but I got Amity. My parents just liked the meaning and the sound.
RB: Do you have children?
AG: I do. I have two. I have a son named Atis, which is also a Latvian name. I also just had a baby named, Freya. I got the name from a British travel writer from the 1930’s named, Freya Stark. She’s a beautiful writer who traveled all over the world by herself. She was a very strong woman, so I love the name.
RB: You studied writing. Why would you do that?
AG: You mean get my MFA? That’s what people do these days. I don’t think it’s that unique.
RB: What are you talking about? You went to a program with 20 spots for 1,200 applicants.
AG: I just feel like I got lucky there. I was there from 97’ to 99.’
RB: In Central America, the bonds that exist between the militaries in all of those countries is the graduating class. The people who you go to the military academy with are closer to you than your family. Do you have any kind of ongoing relationship with the people you went to Iowa with?
AG: I am very close with three or four of them. Others I’ve lost touch with, but mean a great deal to me. I did become very close to people there, and I like your metaphor. It was very a very formative experience. I loved Iowa. I loved being out there in the weird mid-west, this windy, treeless place. I remember having a window that rattled so much I thought it was going to shatter and kill me—nobody would find me for days. I loved the people I met there. It’s a hard place for some people because it is a sort of crucible. The tests you have to go through as a write there, the competitiveness, the way they rank you is all very stressful. Those things, however, are only some aspects of it. If you can ignore those things, which a lot of people can, the teachers are fabulous, the other students are fabulous, and also it was such a hotbed. Everyone came through to read [usually at Prairie Lights Bookstore]. You could just meet famous people as if they’d just grown on trees.
RB: Were you older than your classmates? I ask because one writer told me that being in her mid-thirties was a great help to her because she didn’t feel put-off by the workshop competition.
AG: I wasn’t really more than a year or two older than my peers. There were some people who came right from undergraduate programs, but I was only a couple of years older than them. The competition doesn’t really depend on age. You can be in your thirties and still be full of self-doubt. There was an older woman there when I was there who had a really hard time. She didn’t have a lot of people her age to talk to. Personally, I had a concept of myself as a writer rather early in life based on the fact that I started writing when I was very young, and I had a bunch of publications by the time I’d left high school. That was a strange experience, which came largely because my father was sending out all of my poetry and short stories for me. I would never have done it myself.
RB: Like a tennis dad?
AG: Yes, a tennis dad is the right metaphor because tennis dads and moms are particularly intense in terms of encouraging their children. I had published a lot, so by the time I got to Iowa, I’d been thinking of myself as a writer for a long time. Not that I thought that meant I was a successful writer, or a writer destined for success. I didn’t feel that way.
RB: So when you meet somebody for the first time at a social gathering, and they inevitably ask you what you do for a living, do you tell them with great gusto that you are a writer? Is that the way you would do it, by saying you are a writer?
AG: Back then, no. I didn’t really go to those kinds of parties in high school. But now, sometimes I don’t say anything about writing if I don’t feel like talking about it. Sometimes, I’ll say I’m a teacher. It depends. Sometimes you tell someone you’re a writer and the person launches in about how they want to write a book, this is every detail of my story, and so on.
RB: There is a section in the book where a phrase is repeated for several pages. Is it just a typographic convenience that it ends where it ends? How did you know you got it right?
AG: I’ll tell you. When I started writing that phrase—the phrase is “I let you down”—I started typing, “I let you down, I let you down, I let you down…” and I had the idea that Erik would chant this for a while. Then I realized I could cut and paste. I was like, “Oh! I can just cut and paste,” but then I was like, “No! Of course you can’t cut and paste, are you kidding me? You have to write every single one of those.” I had to be fully in Erik’s character. If he was genuinely sorry, he’s wouldn’t have cut and pasted. I found that once I was typing that phrase for a while, I entered into an incredible emotional state. It was really one of the most intense experiences of writing the book. I don’t know what was so cathartic about writing it, but maybe I was speaking to everyone I’d ever let down. By the time I was finished writing that section, I felt this amazing catharsis. Just last night a beloved past student of mine and I had a beer before the reading, and he told me that he had read every iteration of “I let you down,” that he didn’t skim it, which was actually what I was hoping for. He said the same thing, that once you read it for a while it has a trance effect.
RB: I can’t decide about reading reviews. I go back and forth on it. Currently, I am in a period where I look at reviews to see if there are any clues I can find about the person I am going to interview. I found one review of your book that I thought was worth reading. It appeared in New York Magazine. The article’s references to Nabokov troubled me. Should I feel that I haven’t really grasped your book without having ever read Nabokov?
AG: No, not at all. I loved that review, and I loved the scandalousness of it; in the cover art of the article they scratched out Lolita and wrote Schroder. I did not intend it to be a re-writing of Lolita. In some ways, I think it would be absolutely the same book if you weren’t aware of my admiration of Nabokov. There are so many influences on this book that you don’t need to know any of them. I could name so many, even outside of literary influence, my experiences as an immigrant, or my experience as a mom, for example. I love Lolita, but I almost get a little nervous by the comparison because Humbert Humbert is such a monster. The reviewer says that Erik is much more compassionate than Humbert, and that you feel much more emotional depth in Erik than you do Nabokov’s protagonist. But, no, you don’t need to know anything else to read this book. Most people read the novel without knowing anything about why I wrote it or what elements contributed to it. I think it’s better if you don’t know anything else.
RB: This is also a book about divorce and broken relationships. How do you write a novel like that in the context of being in a marriage?
AG: I think that the safety of my marriage is very important. To be able to go where I need to go in the realm of fiction is essential. If my life was a total mess, and I had multiple divorces and scandalous affairs, I don’t think I would be able to write about those things. My marriage really anchors me.
RB: Is there any point at which your husband, upon reading the book, starts to worry that some of your observations about marriage reflect unconscious ideas?
AG: I don’t think so. First of all, my husband is a great reader. He has read so much more than I have. He also knows that a writer in her imagination needs complete freedom, and I love that about him. Our relationship would be very limited if he weren’t such a great critic, reader, and understander of art. He has never once judged anything that I’ve written. I also think that Schroder is still a love story. I know that’s an odd reading, and perhaps I am the only one who thinks of the story in that way, but Erik still loves his ex-wife. There’s something kind of romantic about that, even though he completely screwed her over. He was happy with her. She wasn’t happy with him, and that happens sometimes. So, in terms of my husband reading this book, there is still a romantic quality in which Erik is still attached to their happy years. He wants very badly to have a happy family. He just ruined it.
RB: Considering Erik’s ability to fabricate things, it seems to me that Erik is capable of making that happiness appear where it didn’t exist. Given that Laura didn’t like him, or that she wasn’t happy with him, you have to posit such a connection.
AG: Right. If I had to imagine what she is like, I think she was also happy. I think they had a couple of happy years, as so many newlyweds do, especially before children. One thing that is true in the book, and I am sure my husband would agree with this, is when children come along marriages become very challenged. That was the case with us. Everything changes. It really puts the marriage through a test, and theirs doesn’t make it. It turns out they have very different ways they want to parent. Erik’s eccentricity is getting in the way, and he isn’t particularly present either. He doesn’t take it seriously in some ways until he spends that year at home with his daughter.
RB: This is your third novel. In the constellation of your work, where does this story rest? How do you talk about it? Would you consider Schroder the best novel you’ve written? Is it your favorite?
AG: I think this is the best novel I’ve written. It was also the most fun to write.
RB: Is writing fun for you?
AG: Sometimes. I think fun is an odd word, and when it’s not fun, it’s excruciating. I’ve had the same problem with the word fun that I’ve had with the word happiness. I’m not sure what either of them really means. Fun might be like dancing, or blowing bubbles in the air, playing with your kid, but writing isn’t fun in that sense. It’s absorbing. When writing is going well, you are so absorbed that you’re transported, almost like you don’t have a body, like you don’t have a life, like you’re just some kind of consciousness. It’s not so much a trance, but you feel that you are a consciousness that can actually slip into other bodies, other places and times. It’s awesome. It’s like flying.
RB: I always wonder more generally about how people who love stories and people who create the stories reengage with the real world after leaving the world of the story. Some actors go totally into character for the length of their performance. Writers don’t do that, so they have to go write something about Dorchester, for example, and then you go out and you feed their kids.
AG: They have these writers’ colonies, which I’ve been lucky to go to, and it’s the best perk of the job. When I am at a writers’ colony, I can barely go to meals because when I am writing so much by myself for such long stretches of time it’s difficult to come out and interact with people. When I was at MacDowell, I would never go to breakfast, for example. I wanted to move straight from sleeping into writing without talking to anybody. No earthly reminders at all. It’s rare that one can do that. When I come out of that experience, I feel so thin-skinned, like I’ve been traveling. Once I re-enter my body and my daily life, I feel very delicate. So, I have to refrain from certain conversations. I start back very quietly.
RB: In going through your interviews, I noticed in the past few years it has been really big to acknowledge your publicist. On your itinerary you had a public conversation with Cary Goldstein(who has since left Twelve Books). This is your first book with Twelve. What’s next for the future of your relationship with Twelve?
AG: I am fairly sure that it’s standard to have a clause that’s called right of first refusal, which means you have to go to that publisher first. My editor, Cary, was incredibly helpful. He was more than just an editor. He is my age and we are going through the same experiences in life. He’s about to have a baby. He’s also just a great reader. He’s read a ton, he’s a poet himself, and we just share a sensibility.
RB: That leads me to today’s final question. What’s next?
AG: This is probably my least favorite question. It makes me long to write. When you’re out on the trail publicizing the book, which is something I actually enjoy, you’re so far away from your writing. I know some people write through it all, but I teach full time, I have a new baby, and another child, so it’s a challenge. I’m very far away from being able to write. It makes me sad. I have some ideas, but I am not in a position to share them now. I think you have to write what you’re feeling, what you have some flow for. I know that is kind of a cheesy word, but flow is something I really believe in. If you’ve got flow, if you are feeling a project, you’ve got to follow it. Whether or not it’s what you planned to write. You can have all of the plans in the world, and then one morning you start something and it’s not what you planned at all. That’s what Schroder was. I was working on this other novel, and then all of a sudden I got this other idea and I just ran with it. I’m humbled enough by the process to know that plans are just that. They are written in sand.
Currently reading Sparta by Roxanne Robinson (FSG)