In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing
victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! It is early days in 2012 reading, but already Alex George’s A Good American stands out as a favorite for the year. Laughing and crying through a books tends to shift it to that category. Here is what Alex had to say about reading, writing, and more specifically, how reading mediocre books got him to where his today.
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
I am an Englishman, but I have lived in Missouri for almost nine years now. When I’m not writing or being a dad to my two wonderful children, I run my own law firm. I am quite busy!
I began writing almost by accident. I’ve always read a lot, and at some point during the mid-1990s I hit a particularly barren spell of mediocre books. I began to complain to anyone who would listen about how poorly written they were. These rants usually ended with the blithe assertion that “I could do better than that.” Eventually it was gently suggested to me that rather than go on endlessly about it, I should shut up and actually do it. So I did. And believe me, nobody is more surprised than I am to discover myself here now.
As for the kind of books I like to write, well. I started this book with one overarching aim: to tell a really good story. I hope I have done that. It would be nice to think that the characters might linger awhile with the reader, that their stories and adventures strike a chord. Good storytelling is about making connections, pulling readers into your world and taking them on a journey. I hope I have connected. I hope people enjoy the trip.
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?
Being a lawyer can be a very time-consuming profession. There are often late nights at the office and demanding clients to distract me. Consequently I realized early on that the only way I would find time to write every day was if I got up early to do so. (And I do need to write every day. I am a creature of habit.) So I began getting up at six o’clock every morning and wrote for an hour before going to work. It’s a slow way of writing books, but it works for me. These days, though, I get up at five. More writing gets done, but also a lot more yawning. I have been known to fall asleep while reading to my daughter before bedtime.
One ritual that I could not live without is my regular communion with my espresso machine during my morning writing stints – although at this point it’s really more of a medical procedure than a ritual. I am sure I suffer from a clinical addiction to caffeine.
I write incredibly, painfully slowly, correcting and rewriting as I go along. I expect this process runs counter to just about every how-to-write manual out there. No quick first drafts for me. I also, most unprofessionally, write very organically, in that I never know how a story will end when I begin it. Consequently my characters often go off and do unexpected things and I’m never quite sure where the story is going. It can make the process more entertaining, but also more nerve-wracking.
I very quickly discovered a deep and profound contentment in the process of writing, similar to the one that my narrator James discovers in the novel. I love to sit down each morning and immerse myself in the world I have concocted in my head. Characters take on lives of their own; unexpected things happen; I find myself moved and engrossed by the adventures unraveling in these worlds I have created. And, at the end of it all, there is the satisfaction of having made something new. There’s a wonderful Stephen Sondheim song, “Finishing the Hat,” which is in part about the act of creating something out of nothing. I love to finish hats.
Write the question you would most like to answer in an interview, and then answer it.
The most interesting question that I’ve been asked in relation to this book, and which I’ve been pondering ever since, is this: What is a Good American?
I suspect that the answer may lie in the founding documents of this country, which to my mind are two of the most inspiring documents ever written. Even if their spirit has not always been adhered to in practice over the past couple of centuries, the principles and beliefs that underlie the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution remain unimpeachable. Freedom, tolerance, diversity, equality – in my view, living in accordance with those concepts would be a good start to becoming a good American.
People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time? What impact did telling this story have on your life? Did you find that it had changed you?
Before starting A Good American, I had begun, and abandoned, a couple of other ill-fated novels, and was casting about for ideas, waiting for one to catch. Some of the most common advice given to writers is “Write what you know.” It’s a fine theory, but probably only if you know something worth writing about. As I was pondering this, it occurred to me that the experience of packing up my life and moving to a new country, with no expectation that I would ever return home again, might just qualify. So my experience of coming to America was the principal driving force behind the original idea of the novel, the reason why I had to tell it. Of course, as the book developed other themes emerged, particularly the question of how easy it is (or isn’t) to escape from your roots. Various characters in the novel are intent on leaving, but they all get pulled back in the end.
The story did shine a light on my own experiences, and those of my family. I come from a family of journey-makers. My mother was born and raised in New Zealand. In her early twenties she took a boat to England, met my father, and decided to stay. A few generations earlier, her great-grandparents had made the trip in the opposite direction, eloping from their English families who disapproved of their union, and hoping for freedom in the wilderness of the southern hemisphere. Writing Frederick and Jette’s story made me reconsider the journeys that my own family has made. In some ways, my experience of moving to America in 2003 could not have been much more different to my ancestors’ journey to New Zealand in 1864, or the Meisenheimers’ voyage to America in 1904. But certain essential elements had probably not changed much: the hope for a better life, the fear of the unknown, and the paradox of wanting to adapt to your new country without forgetting where you came from. (My mother has lived in England for more than fifty years now, but she still calls New Zealand home.) I have been thinking a lot recently about what “home” means. I’m still not sure what the answer is, but I feel as if I am more aware of both the country where I now live, and the one I left behind.
Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be? How involved were in choosing the name of the book?
I thought I knew! While I was writing the book, its working title was Paradise, which was the original name of the town. However, it transpired I underestimated Missourians’ optimism, or delusion (depending on your point of view): there actually is a town called Paradise, Missouri. I then looked at various musical terms for the town, but again no luck – there is, for example, a Harmony, Missouri. I finally settled on Beatrice as a good name for the town, but it didn’t work for the book itself. My editor, Amy Einhorn, and I spent months thinking of possible titles. The quality of my ideas was inversely proportional to my increasing desperation – Amy rightly rejected them all. I was beginning to lose hope when one day Amy suggested A Good American – one of the characters that Frederick and Jette first meet in the States encourages them to be “good Americans”. It was one of those brilliant moments of genius that Amy is renowned for. It’s a perfect title, I think – challenging, intriguing, perhaps a little provocative. And, I hope, quite memorable. The moment she said it, I knew it was the one.
I’m hard at work on my next novel, which is a story set in Maine in the 1970s. I don’t want to say too much about it at this juncture, for fear of jinxing it. The characters are slowly emerging on to the page from the confused miasma of vague ideas in my brain, and I am enjoying getting to know them better. It’s a fun time.
About: Alex George is a writer and a lawyer. He was born in England, but presently lives in Columbia, Missouri. Worldwide rights for his novel, A GOOD AMERICAN, have been purchased by Amy Einhorn Books, an imprint of Penguin/Putnam. Publication is scheduled for February 2012. He is now hard at work on his new novel, provisionally entitled A HISTORY OF FLIGHT. Alex has two children, Hallam and Catherine. His hobbies include listening to obscure jazz albums, playing his saxophone, and cooking (and eating) complicated meals. He is proud to be President of the board of the Voluntary Action Center, a leading nonprofit organization in mid-Missouri.