How I Wrote It: Amity Gaige, on Libraries, Tea, and Kerouac on Benzedrine
Amity Gaige's new novel, Schroder, is the story of a flawed but loving father, a man of secrets and lies who kidnaps his daughter to escape a custoody battle--and his own mysterious past. Selected as one of our Best Books of the Month for February, Schroder "limns the limits of self-made American identity, while paying tribute to the irrational exuberance of parental love," said our reviewer, Mari Malcolm.
This line came to me early on in the writing process. It was one of my first inklings of what would happen and why. The book is, literally, “written” by a man in prison--Eric Kennedy (aka Schroder). He is writing to his ex-wife to explain how and why he ran off with their daughter during a parental visit. Immediately after this line, he explains how the whole book/letter was written at the suggestion of his lawyer, to possibly help mitigate the charges against him. But Eric can’t really stick to the task of representing himself in a positive or flattering way. He confesses things he shouldn’t, and betrays his own lack of awareness and his messy emotions. But I hope the effect on the reader is one in which we wincingly sympathize with his need to confess and to reach out. He cares very much about his daughter and his ex-wife, and his separation from them fills him with real loss. This line comes back into the book much later, by the way, in one of the final scenes where his first lawyer suggests that any mother separated from her child would “want to know everything” about the days they were apart. Schroder is also Eric’s attempt to give his ex-wife back those stolen days.
Lately I’ve written out of the house, mostly in libraries, because I like the sort of carry-in carry-out aspect of it, that there’s nothing to identify me or distract me, and I leave no trace. But I have a beautiful desk at home, which I bought at a craft show after selling my first novel. It’s made out of a barn door. The things that are on my desk or near it are very significant. They are too many to name, but here’s a sampler: my late Latvian grandmother’s pincushion, an image the Hindu God Ganesh (the Creator and Remover of Obstacles), an image of an early 20th century boxer, photos of my husband and children, including the first ultrasound of my baby daughter. I have many things taped to the wall, mostly notes from loved ones, alive and gone. I have several quotes from writers, and I’ll just share this one, from Mario Vargas Llosa: “That is what authenticity or sincerity is for the novelist: the acceptance of his own demons and the decision to serve them as well as possible.”
Just my laptop. A Mac. When I write in libraries, I wander around sometimes and look at the books, and often this is where I get names of minor characters. Is there some kind of software I should be using? Maybe I should look into this.
Lots of tea--black tea or chai. I’m so sensitive to caffeine that when I drink coffee, I can write for eight to ten hours straight. So I drink coffee when I get the rare chance to have that stretch of time, for example at a writing colony or a weekend away by myself. And then I just write, write, write like Kerouac on benzedrine. Chocolate also helps. I find if I eat and drink these things, I completely lose my appetite, which is efficient, because cooking wastes too much time.
I read mostly poetry before I write. A book that is sheer brilliance, and that covers the same emotional terrain as Schroder, is The Book of Nightmares, by Galway Kinnell. The only other literature I can really read while writing without the dangers of influence or impatience is non-fiction--historical or personal narratives that teach me more about the place or times I’m writing about. For Schroder, I relied heavily on books about Berlin and the inner-German border, and am indebted to the authors of those books.
>See all of Amity Gaige's books.
>Listen to Amity Gaige interviewed on NPR's All Things Considered
>On Thursday, Feb. 21, she'll be a guest on the Diane Rehm Show.