I recently had the opportunity to talk to Alex George, author of A Good American, which was an Amazon Best Book of the Month for February. Alex is an Englishman living in Missouri, so naturally I led with a question about how he got there.
Chris Schluep: How does an Englishman wind up in Missouri?
Alex George: My ex-wife is from a small town in the middle of Missouri. We met in Paris, got married in New York, and lived in London for the first five years of our marriage. We moved to Missouri when my father-in-law was very sick. (Fortunately, he has made a full recovery.) The experience of moving 4,000 miles from my home, my family, and my friends, with no expectation that I would ever return, was the genesis of A Good American. It’s been clear from readers’ responses to the novel that the theme of immigration has struck a chord with many people. Almost every family in America has a story similar to this one somewhere in its past. As James, the narrator, says, “We all came here from somewhere.”
CS: This is a sweeping, multigenerational story, a big undertaking for a first novel. Did you always plan to write such an expansive book?
AG: Actually, I did. This is my first novel published in the States, but I have published four books in the UK. They were rather limited in range, and my publisher was reluctant to have me attempt more ambitious projects. So once my contract ended, I resolved to write the kind of book I had always wanted to write, free of editorial diktats—and no deadlines, either. That freedom was both enriching and terrifying, but I knew I had to make the most of it. I challenged myself to raise my ambitions, and aimed for an ambitious, big, complex tale, the kind of story a reader could disappear into. I hope I’ve managed that.
CS: Do you consider A Good American an exclusively American story?
AG: There are elements of the novel that relate specifically to America and events of the twentieth century, but other elements of the story are more universal. For example, there are various kinds of love in the novel—romantic love (requited and unrequited), love of family, love of country, and so on—and I hope that those themes transcend geographical boundaries. And of course, the immigrant experience is not exclusively American. The emotions that Frederick and Jette experience when they arrive on these shores will be familiar to anyone who has ever moved to a new country: the fear of the unknown, the hope for a better life, and the paradox of wanting to fit in to one’s new home without ever forgetting where one came from.
CS: Your characters are so well realized. I imagine that coming to live in this country as an adult has helped you to observe Americans and the American experience with a fresh eye. Do you agree?
AG: As a writer you always hope to create characters that are so real in the reader’s imagination that they almost acquire a life of their own. I wanted to create the truest characters I could. As such, their personas came from the shadowy recesses of my imagination, rather than from a keen anthropological observation of Americans as a species. Some of them may have characteristics that are particular to where they live, but they are human beings first, Americans second.
Perhaps arriving in America as an adult has given me a perspective on this wonderful country that I would not have had if I had grown up here. Certainly, my experience of moving here informed my depiction of Frederick and Jette when they begin to put down roots in their new country. Frederick is an unequivocal and passionate convert to the American way of life; Jette is more cautious and, indeed, often feels homesick. I think most immigrants experience a degree of ambivalence about leaving their home country and starting afresh elsewhere. I surely did. Frederick and Jette personify the two contradictory strains of sentiment that I felt.
CS: Do you have a favorite character in the novel? This is a little like being asked which of your children you love the most! I have tremendous affection for all of the characters in the book, even the less savory ones. I have, I confess, shed a tear for all of them at certain points. I adore Frederick. I find his boundless devotion to his new country heartening and inspiring. I love Jette, too—I admire her fortitude and determination to haul her family, through adversity, into better times. Rosa is something of an enigma, and one that haunts much of the novel; I admire her fortitude and sacrifice, and her independence and wit. But if I have to choose, I would probably pick Lomax. He’s a free spirit, a jazzman, an improviser extraordinaire, and more than simply in the musical sense. He gave the Meisenheimer family the keys to set themselves free, he loved them unconditionally—and he suffered the ultimate price for it. (And also he’s just so cool.)
CS: Music plays a lovely role throughout the book. Choose one: opera, jazz, bluegrass, the blues, barbershop, or something else? (Yes, you must choose only one.)
AG: Why? Oh, man. If I really have to choose just one, I will go with jazz. I’ve always loved it, ever since I listened to my father’s old Sidney Bechet LPs when I was growing up. I play the saxophone, very badly—these days I prefer to listen to others who play much better than I ever will. The spirit of improvisation, the excitement, the flat-out joy you get from listening to great musicians play jazz, especially live, when you know you’re listening to a unique, never-to-be-repeated performance—these are wonderful things about this music, gifts that I cherish.
CS: You’ve been in this country for nine years. How has your relationship with the United States changed and/or deepened over that period?
AG: One thing I have learned since arriving here in 2003 is that the only way one can ever really get to know a place is to live there for an extended period of time. Occasional vacations won’t ever reveal the true soul of a place. That’s not to say for one moment that I think I have this country’s number. Of course I don’t. The place resists easy generalizations, and this rich diversity is one of the things that make it great. But I am learning a lot, and continue to do so. For example, one thing that I was almost completely unaware of before I arrived here was the extent to which race remains central to many facets of American society. I was just as naive as Frederick in these matters. There is racial tension in the United Kingdom, too, of course—there are bigots everywhere, unfortunately—but the issue is less charged, on both a personal and a political level. That stands to reason, though: as a country, the United Kingdom does not have the pernicious legacy of slavery to contend with. I am still coming to terms with that, and what it means. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write about it in the book, and why Lomax’s story is so important.
There are many, many things about this country that I love, and there are things that drive me crazy. Such ambivalence is entirely natural. My relationship with the States will continue to evolve, no doubt. It has taken a fairly large step forward on the day I am writing these answers (February 16): I became a citizen of the United States this afternoon, and was very proud to take the oath of allegiance. I guess that tells you something.
CS: What can we expect next from Alex George?
AG: I’m hard at work on my next book, although it’s still in a very early stage of development—I’ve written less than three chapters. I am waiting for some of the characters to reveal themselves. (They can be a terrible tease sometimes.) The story is set in Maine in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s about friendship, and punk rock, and gravity, and the power of dreams—although whether that power is a positive or a destructive force remains to be seen. I don’t want to say much more in case I jinx it, but so far it seems to be going well.