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Fri February 1, 2013
Author Interviews

'Schroder' Chronicles A Father's Desperate Mistakes

Originally published on Sun February 3, 2013 3:43 pm

A father embroiled in a bitter custody battle abducts his 6-year-old daughter and heads off with her through upstate New York and Vermont.

His name is Eric Kennedy and he's the desperate, complicated narrator of a new novel by Amity Gaige. Schroder is written as an explanation to his ex-wife of where he went and why he did it:

"To the first question: Did the accused premeditate the abduction? The answer is no, or, not really," Kennedy says. "Besides, the word 'abduction' is all wrong. It was more like an adventure we both embarked upon in varying levels of ignorance and denial."

Gaige joins NPR's Melissa Block to discuss the challenges of rendering a man — and a father — at once so loving and so misguided.


Interview Highlights

On the protagonist's false identity

"He leaves East Berlin when he's 5, under circumstances he does not understand himself, and comes to this country, lives ... in Boston, and lives with his father, who's somewhat a remote person. And the father doesn't attempt to tell him the circumstances of their leaving Germany until the very end of the book. ...

"Erik Schroder decides to become Eric Kennedy when he's about 14 and he's tired of being bullied, for various reasons. He's tired mostly of just being unhappy. And so he invents a persona for himself, and he uses this persona to get into a boys' camp in New Hampshire. He sees a brochure and it looks beautiful to him. So he wants to get away and become someone new, and he wants to be accepted. So the name Kennedy comes along, of course it's an iconic name and terribly over ambitious for him to pick that name, but it also comes along with just associations of happiness and status and he wants that better childhood than the one he had. ...

"It ends up being his undoing, of course. He says much later that he made up his life story when he was 14 so therefore it wasn't a very sophisticated one. But this is the one that he maintains up until when he meets his wife, Laura."

On drawing inspiration from the story of Clark Rockefeller

"I read about that case in 2008 when it broke. And [Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter] was a man who pretended to be a Rockefeller — he was a German immigrant — and also was wrapped up in this parental kidnapping of his daughter. But what I really took from that case was this quote of him saying that the [times] he had with his daughter, basically on the run, were some of the happiest days of his life. And I just started wondering, did he mean that? Is this very flawed and deceptive person capable of love? And was he maybe even a good parent, or, more broadly, can a deeply flawed person be a good parent? And that was the question that inspired the book for me."

On Kennedy's bad decisions and feeling both repelled by and empathetic toward him

"That's the way I feel towards him — I feel a lot of ambivalence towards him. And each chapter, chapter to chapter, like you say, one chapter he does something sort of sweet and there is real love between [him and his daughter] — he's fun. And the next chapter he does something so wrong. And I like that there's some debate about whether or not he's a good person. I would say he's what my 7-year-old son would call a 'bad choicer.' I don't think he's an irredeemable bad person. I think he's a bad, bad choicer. Part of what's wonderful about writing, and reading too, is you can see yourself on the same continuum, you know, to wonder, 'What would I do, if I were more desperate than I am? Or am I three or four mistakes away from doing something like this, something unimaginable to me right now?' But fiction is kind of a safe territory for exploring those things and our outermost limits."

On creating a deeply flawed character and how far you can take it before driving a reader away

"I would go back and forth and I would challenge myself to really explore this question of can you be a good parent and still be so damaged and so flawed yourself, and so unknown to yourself? In the end I would say, he really does love his daughter, but he is so unknown to himself, that you have to ask yourself, 'Well, who is loving his daughter?' "

On creating the voice of Kennedy's 6-year-old daughter, Meadow, who describes the soul as something that "keeps the body up"

"I didn't write it. My son said that. ... And he also says a line later when Meadow says to Eric, 'You're my home.' And, I don't know, is there a word for plagiarizing from your own child? That's what I did. But some of those lines only a child can say. I've lost touch with what it feels like to be a child and to be able to get into the frame of mind to say something like that. But they are lines that were said by a real child. And I do think in general children are so perceptive and they watch and they get so much and that's wonderful. And it's also difficult for them because they see so much but they don't understand. So it's something to remember in talking about trying to be a good parent; remembering that and the difficultly of being a child and not being too sentimental about childhood."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

A father in a bitter custody battle abducts his six-year-old daughter and heads off with her through upstate New York and Vermont. He's Eric Kennedy, the desperate, complicated narrator of a new novel by Amity Gaige. The book is written as his explanation to his ex-wife of where he went and why he did it.

AMITY GAIGE: (Reading) To the first question: Did the accused premeditate the abduction? The answer is no, or, not really. Besides, the word abduction is all wrong. It was more like an adventure we both embarked upon in varying levels of ignorance and denial.

BLOCK: That's Amity Gaige reading from her novel "Schroder." Amity Gaige, welcome to the program.

GAIGE: Thank you so much for having me.

BLOCK: And that title, the name in that title is key because we learn something, that Eric Kennedy's wife and his daughter and everyone else never knew that the narrator's not named Eric Kennedy at all.

GAIGE: Right. When I started writing the book, that was one thing I knew was that the title would be his real German name. He leaves East Berlin when he's five, under circumstances he does not understand himself, and comes to this country, lives outside Boston, lives in Boston, and lives with his father, who's somewhat a remote person. And the father doesn't attempt to tell him the circumstances of their leaving Germany until the very end of the book.

BLOCK: And how is it that Erik Schroder decides to become Eric Kennedy?

GAIGE: Well, Erik Schroder decides to become Eric Kennedy when he's about 14 and he's tired of being bullied, for various reasons. He's tired mostly of just being unhappy. And so he invents a persona for himself, and he uses this persona to get into a boys' camp in New Hampshire. He sees a brochure and it looks beautiful to him. So he wants to get away and become someone new, and he wants to be accepted.

So the name Kennedy comes along, of course it's an iconic name and terribly over ambitious for him to pick that name, but it also comes along with just associations of happiness and status and he wants that better childhood than the one he had.

BLOCK: There's a section early on in the book where you have Erik talking about how he was able to pull this off. It's on page six. Can you read that for us?

GAIGE: (Reading) "Why did they believe me? God knows. All I can say is it was 1984. You could apply for a Social Security number through the mail. There were no databases. You had to be rich to get a credit card. You kept your will in a safety deposit box and your money in a big wad. There were no technologies for omnissions(ph). Nobody wanted them. You were whoever you said you were and I was Eric Kennedy.

BLOCK: Just as simple as that.

GAIGE: Well, it ends up being his undoing, of course. He says much later that he made up his life story when he was 14, so therefore it wasn't a very sophisticated one. But this is the one that he maintains up until when he meets his wife, Laura.

BLOCK: I gather that the inspiration for you in this was a story that might be familiar to our listeners, a real life story from a few years back. It's the case of Clark Rockefeller.

GAIGE: That's right. I read about that case in 2008 when it broke. And he was a man who pretended to be a Rockefeller. He was a German immigrant and also was wrapped up in this parental kidnapping of his daughter. But what I really took from that case was this quote of him saying that the time he had with his daughter, basically on the run, were some of the happiest days of his life.

And I just started wondering, did he mean that? Was this - is this very flawed and deceptive person capable of love? And was he maybe even a good parent or, more broadly, can a deeply flawed person be a good parent? And that was the question that inspired the book for me.

BLOCK: And it's so critical as a reader because Eric Kennedy, your narrator, it's clear he adores his daughter. They have wonderful times together, but he is a wreck and he makes terrible, terrible decisions. First, the abduction, but then what follows. And there's one moment when his daughter is sleeping. He puts her in the trunk of his car. He wants to drive her across the Canadian border and the only thing that stops him from doing that is that she wakes up. As a writer, do you want the reader to be sort of both repelled by Eric Kennedy and also empathetic at the same time?

GAIGE: Yes, I do because that's the way I feel towards him. I feel a lot of ambivalence towards him. And each chapter, chapter to chapter, like you say, one chapter he does something sort of sweet and there is real love between them. He's fun. And the next chapter he does something so wrong. And I like that there's some debate about whether or not he's a good person. I would say he's what my seven-year-old son would call a bad choicer.

BLOCK: A bad choicer.

GAIGE: A bad choicer. I don't think he's an irredeemable bad person. I think he's a bad, bad choicer. Part of what's wonderful about writing, and reading too, is you can see yourself on the same continuum, you know, to wonder, what would I do, if I were more desperate than I am? Or am I three or four mistakes away from doing something like this, something unimaginable to me right now? But fiction is kind of a safe territory for exploring those things and our outermost limits.

BLOCK: It's interesting that you call that safe territory. I was wondering whether it feels sort of like a dangerous place as the writer, to be working on creating a character who does these terribly risky things with a child and where you draw that line, what you think might just drive a reader away.

GAIGE: Well, for me, I would go back and forth and I would challenge myself to really explore this question of can you be a good parent and still be so damaged and so flawed yourself, and so unknown to yourself? In the end, I would say, he really does love his daughter, but he is so unknown to himself, that you have to ask yourself, well, who is loving his daughter?

BLOCK: Let's talk about the character of the daughter, Meadow. She's only six. She's very, very smart. There's a point when her father asks her, do you know what a soul is and she says, sure, the soul keeps the body up. What a great line.

GAIGE: Oh, thank you so much. I didn't write it. My son said that.

BLOCK: Did he?

GAIGE: He did. And he also says a line later when Meadow says to Eric, you're my home. And so I don't know, is there a word for plagiarizing from your own child? You know, that's what I did. But some of those lines only a child can say. I've lost touch with what it feels like to be a child and to be able to get into the frame of mind to say something like that.

But they are lines that were said by a real child. And I do think in general children are so perceptive and they watch and they get so much and that's wonderful. And it's also difficult for them because they see so much, but they don't understand. So it's something to remember in talking about trying to be a good parent; remembering that and the difficultly of being a child and not being too sentimental about childhood.

BLOCK: Have you talked to your son about this book and what it's about?

GAIGE: It's funny. I did. I was like, how can I explain what mommy wrote a book about, a man in a divorce, that steals his own daughter. So I said to him, I said, it's book about a liar. And he said, oh, OK, a liar.

BLOCK: A liar and a bad choicer.

GAIGE: A liar and a bad choicer. Exactly.

BLOCK: Amity Gaige, her novel is titled "Schroder." Amity, thanks so much.

GAIGE: Thank you so much, Melissa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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