A Conversation with Alex George; Author of a Good American

  1. What compelled you to write this book?

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.  I left England to live in America because my former wife is from here.  Like my characters Jette and Frederick, the impulse that fueled all our journeys was the same: love.

My experience of coming to America was the principal driving force behind the original idea of the novel, although 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.

  1. Given your background, why did you choose a family of German immigrants rather than English ones?

 All fiction, to a greater or lesser degree, is autobiographical, but I think there are limits that should be respected.  And sometimes it’s easier to write about personal things when there is a little distance between what happens on the page and one’s own experiences.  More prosaically, it made sense to have the characters leave from Germany, from a narrative and historical point-of-view.  There are lots of Germans in Missouri; the tension in German communities caused by the First World War and Frederick’s decision to fight against his homeland would have been lost; and also the barriers that foreign languages can create are important, and were more easily explored with Frederick and Jette not speaking English before they arrived.

 

  1. Since you cover the course of the entire twentieth century in this multi-generational story, we see America evolve as your characters do.  Which mileposts were most significant for you?

The twentieth century has often been described as “America’s century”, and with good reason.  There were so many pivotal events that it is difficult to pick out particular ones.  But one of the things that struck me as I wrote the book was how many wars America fought.  There was so much fighting – there still is, of course.  It made Jette’s pacifist parade around the Beatrice courthouse all the more poignant.

It was fun to weave my characters’ stories into the pre-existing tapestry of history, though.  I wasn’t able to do everything that I wanted – I had hoped to send one of the brothers off to Vietnam, but the dates didn’t work.

 

  1. Frederick, the patriarch of the immigrant family you created, is an uncritical lover of America, but his wife, Jette, is not.  What is it that Frederick most loves about America?  What is it that Jette has reservations about?  In what ways do you agree or disagree with each of them?

What Frederick loved most about America was the sense of promise, the idea that anything was possible – the quintessential American Dream, really.  He relished the freedom he felt in America, unshackled from the rigid social conventions of “old” Europe.

It took Jette much longer to understand what Frederick grasped intuitively from the start.  Her principal reservation about America was, simply put, that it was not Germany.  She was homesick.  One of the reasons for their different attitudes, which was never specifically articulated in the novel, is that of course Jette left her parents behind, whereas Frederick had nobody to miss.  It was easier for him to turn and embrace the future, whereas Jette could not help but keep looking back.

As for me, I have a foot in both camps.  While this country may not perhaps be quite as free as we would all like to think it is, there remains a sense of unbridled possibility and hope that is bewitching.  But I sympathize with Jette, too.  My family is all in England.  I’ve lived in America for almost nine years, and I’ll always be looking back.

  1. One of the central paradoxes of the immigrant experience that you dramatize is the desire to remain connected to the old country, and yet to become fully American.  Do you think this happens more quickly and fully in America than anywhere else?  Do you think it is happening as rapidly with today’s immigrants as it did generations ago?

 

I suspect that it happens more slowly now.  With the development of both technology and travel over the past century, it is much easier to stay connected with or revisit the place you left, and that can make integration slower, perhaps extending the process by as much as a generation. Although Jette wrote letters home, she wasn’t able to chat with her parents on Skype! In the end she had no choice but to embrace her new country, however reluctant she might have initially been to do so.

Of course, immigrant communities often stay closely connected, both geographically and culturally, which makes it possible to live in a bubble and exist as if one had never left one’s country of origin.  But I think that fades a little more with each passing generation.  And sometimes an event will happen that precipitates this process.  For example, in Beatrice (and similar communities in real life) many German traditions were still flourishing until America declared war on Germany in 1917.  The commencement of hostilities suddenly forced everyone to choose sides and many of the old ways were hastily abandoned.

  1. You are currently in the process of applying for American citizenship – why did you decide to take this step?  How do you feel about the process?  Do you feel like you will be giving something up as a British citizen?  Also, how do you identify with the word “immigrant”?

 My reason for applying for citizenship is a little sad.  I’m in the process of getting divorced.  As a permanent resident, my status here is secure, but not guaranteed.  I do not ever want to run the risk of being kept apart from my children; as a U.S. citizen I cannot ever be denied access to the United States.  Besides, I have been paying taxes for the last eight and a half years; I think it’s about time I had a vote, too.

I have mixed feelings about the process, I will admit.  I love living in America.  I have a deep and abiding respect for the principles upon which this country was founded.  But I am not American.  I am an Englishman.  I know how Jette felt when she stood in the courthouse during the swearing-in process.  I understand her tears.  Can paperwork and sworn oaths change things?  I believe they can.  Am I giving a little bit of myself up?  Yes, I think so.  But when it comes to my children, there are far bigger sacrifices I would be willing to make.  As this book nears publication it is interesting to find myself so precisely in the position of conflict that I have put my characters through.

I have no problem with the word “immigrant”.  It is what I am.  I grew up somewhere other than here.  There is a deep chasm down which entire lexicons of cultural references disappear.  (I still am not quite sure what Gilligan’s Island was about.)  I know that my experience of coming to America has been easier than many, because I speak English and have white skin.  It would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise.  But even I have experienced some jaw-dropping bigotry, if not outright racism, and from the most unexpected quarters.  I say this without rancor.  For some, the word “immigrant” is freighted with suspicion, and hatred – which seems ironic to me, because this is a country full of immigrants.  We all came from here from somewhere, and now we’re united by this large rock we live on.  Sometimes we could all benefit from remembering that.

 

  1. This book will prompt readers to think of their own family heritage.  Given that websites like Ancestry.com are extremely popular these days, why do you think Americans are so fascinated in discovering where their ancestors come from? 

 I have lost count of the number of times people, on hearing that I’m from England, will tell me about trips they have made to visit cemeteries in England to see the graves of their ancestors.  I understand this urge to discover one’s roots, and I think this enthusiasm for discovering one’s ancestry is especially strong in America, because it is such a young country, relatively speaking.  (I grew up in a house that was built more than two centuries before the Declaration of Independence was signed.)  Americans are proud to be American, but they are proud of their heritage, too.  People want to know how they got here, and where their families came from.  I hope that’s why this book will strike a chord with many readers.  As James says in the book, “We cannot exist without our histories; they are what define us.”

  1. Race relations are a key concern in this novel, particularly in the friendship between the black musician Lomax and the Meisenheimer family, and then in the tensions between Lomax and some of the townspeople.  Frederick can never quite understand American attitudes toward race.  Do you share his feeling?  From your home in the center of the country, do you feel that America has arrived at a “post-racial” era?

 One of the things that has struck me most since moving to America is how much race remains central to many facets of American society, and that is one of the reasons I wanted to write about it in the book.  There is no doubt that I was just as naïve as Frederick in these matters when I arrived here.  There is of course racial tension in the United Kingdom, too, but it feels very different.  Generally speaking, it feels less charged as an issue, both on a personal and political level.  That stands to reason, though, I think.  By and large, people from ethnic minorities chose to come to Britain from other parts of what used to be the British Empire or the Commonwealth for economic reasons.  As a country, we do not have the pernicious legacy of slavery to contend with.  Over here, I am still coming to terms with that, and what it means.

Have we arrived at a “post-racial” era?  I would say emphatically not.  The election of an African-American President, if anything, appears to have sharpened the issue.  I detect latent (and sometimes not so latent) racism more frequently these days.

  1. Music and singing are important themes in the book.  What role does barbershop singing play in this story?

Music is hugely important to me.  I am a little obsessive about it, if I am being honest.  It is difficult to write about, because of the inherent obstacle of describing one medium in a completely different one, but that is a challenge I relish.

Barbershop singing was not something I had ever paid much attention to before this book.  The idea came to me quite unexpectedly.  Several years ago, my then-wife’s great aunt died.  Halfway

through her memorial service, four men – I later discovered they were brothers – stood up at the front of the church and sang “Abide with Me” in close harmony.  And while I should have been

thinking about our recently departed family member, all that was going through my head was: this would be a great thing to put in a book.  So I did.

I liked the paradox of the brothers creating beautiful music while there were tensions – and disharmony – between them.  More than some other musical forms, quartet singing is a true group endeavor.  Every part is crucial (even if, to paraphrase George Orwell, some are more crucial than others.)  That was an important element for me too – as it is for James, the book’s narrator.  Furthermore, barbershop’s roots are uniquely American, and so it seemed a fitting choice for that reason too.

  1. Other forms of music, particularly opera and jazz, one a thoroughly European art form and the other completely American, also figure prominently in your novel.  Why are these particular types of music so meaningful for you?

 I have always been a huge jazz fanatic.  I play the saxophone, although 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 that I get from listening to great musicians play jazz, especially live – these are wonderful things about this music, gifts that I cherish.

I love opera, too, rather to my children’s chagrin.  I was introduced to it twenty years ago and fell in love with it immediately.  The music is sometimes jaw-droppingly beautiful.  And the drama!  The stories!  Given Frederick’s extrovert personality, it seemed inevitable to me that he would be an opera singer, rather than a performer of Lieder, for example.  And that he would give full rein to his dramatic instincts.

  1. Food is another major element in your novel, since the Meisenheimer family runs a restaurant through three generations.  How does the restaurant evolve, and how does it reflect the assimilation of the family and the evolution of the country?

 I consider the restaurant to be a character in the novel in its own right.  It does evolve over the years, and I hope that the evolution reflects the family’s own integration into their adopted country.

To begin with, Jette recreates dishes from her childhood – heavily-starched, Teutonic favorites, which remind her of home.  Then Lomax adds a little spice – literally.  With his help the restaurant starts to serve more American fare – although with the accent firmly on Louisiana cuisine that he learned when growing up in New Orleans.  It is Jette’s son, Joseph, who turns the restaurant into a truly archetypical American culinary institution – the diner.  It seemed appropriate, although sad, that at the end of the novel the restaurant went through one final metamorphosis, to an inauthentic Tex-Mex place.  That seemed an apt metaphor for so much, these days.

  1. One of the themes of your book is the contingent quality of life – the sense that chance or barely considered decisions can irrevocably change the course of our lives.  Do you think this awareness is particularly heightened for immigrants like your characters, or yourself?

 I don’t know whether immigrants are more aware of this than others.  It is a universal phenomenon, after all.  All our lives are precariously balanced, susceptible to being thrown off-course by unexpected events.

If I do have a heightened awareness of the idea, it’s not because I’m an immigrant, but because I’m a novelist.  Every time I sit down to write I’m acutely aware of how my decisions will affect the lives of my characters.  Perhaps that’s why it’s a theme that writers have always liked to explore – the extent to which our sense of control of our lives is really little more than an illusion.  We know this, because we are there, pulling the strings.

  1. What sort of research did you do for this book?

I am not a fan of research.  (I’m very lazy.  It’s easier to make stuff up.)  However, for this novel I really had no choice, since the story had to work in its correct historical context.  I read an awful lot of books – histories, biographies, and a lot about the history and musical theory of barbershop singing.  I spent a lot of time at the Missouri Historical Society (which is in Columbia, where I live), looking at old passenger manifests and photos of the ships that went up and down the Mississippi.  I bought books full of beautiful photographs of diners.  I still leaf through those sometimes, my stomach rumbling as I do so.

  1. What real historical characters have you woven into the story?

 Two US presidents make an appearance, although only one of them gets a speaking part.  Harry Truman was the only President to come from Missouri, and he happened to fight in World War I.  He was also a decent pianist, so I thought it would be fun to have him accompany Frederick in some songs – decades before he went to the White House, of course.  Jette and Rosa also go and see Franklin Roosevelt speak as he toured the country on his election campaign.

Various other real people crop up throughout the novel – Bobby Fischer and P.G. Wodehouse being two examples – but they don’t appear in person.  I read at least one biography of each of these characters before writing them into the book – and in the case of P.G. Wodehouse, a lot of his novels, too.  (If that constitutes research, then I’m a bigger fan than I may have indicated in the previous answer.)

  1. Although you’ve written a broadly American story, it’s one that is firmly set in the proud state of Missouri.  What elements of Missouri history and culture have you included?

 

The most obvious reason for setting the story in Missouri is that it’s where I live – and it’s where lots of Germans settled.  But there are other reasons.  In many ways, it is the quintessential “fly-over” state.  There’s something unflashily “American” about the place – which was something that I wanted to capture.  There was also an advantage in using a setting that might be unfamiliar to many people: I didn’t want readers coming to the story with too many preconceptions.

All that being said, I deliberately didn’t include too many specific elements of Missouri history or culture because I wanted to achieve a more universal feel.  It could, I hope, be about anywhere.

  1. Is your fictional town of Beatrice, Missouri, based on a real place?

Not one place, no.  When I wrote each scene I could clearly visualize where the action was taking place, but the town is an amalgam of various places in mid-Missouri.  The courthouse is from one town, the river from another, the bluffs from another.  I just put them all together.

It was difficult to name the town. While I was writing the book it was called Paradise, and that was the original working title of the novel, as well.  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, but again no luck – there is a Harmony, Missouri.  I then had the idea of naming the town Ethel, after the lady whose memorial service had given me the idea of barbershop singing.  But guess what – a town called Ethel existed. Actually, my favorite town name in Missouri is one called Bland – I have driven past the signpost to Bland several times, on my way to a town called Gerald.

  1. Did anything surprise you during the writing of this book?  Did you discover anything unexpected about your characters, or yourself, or America?

 I write in a very organic way.  Most unprofessionally, I never know how a story will end when I begin it.  Consequently my characters often go off and do unexpected things – so in that sense the whole book was something of a surprise.

One of the themes of the novel is how various characters dream of escaping Beatrice and pursuing other lives elsewhere.  For most of the time I was writing the book, I imagined that James, the narrator, would, in the end, fulfill that ambition.  The last scene in my head had him driving out of town with his suitcases packed, without so much as a glance in the rearview mirror.  But when I got to that point in the story, I realized that, despite his dreams, James’s roots in the town are probably deeper than anyone’s.  So he stayed.  That wasn’t what I was expecting, but it felt true to me.

  1. You’re an Oxford-educated lawyer, born and bred in England, who suddenly found himself living in Missouri in 2003.  Do any of your experiences echo the Meisenheimers and was there a culture shock?

 I moved to Missouri after thirteen years living and working in London and Paris.  Was there culture shock?  Oh yes.

I live in Columbia, Missouri, which is a thriving, vibrant college town with a strong cultural life – we have a world-renowned film festival, a first-class jazz series, a blues and barbecue festival…I could go on.  However, when you get out to the smaller towns in more rural areas, it is a different story. There are good, salt-of-the-earth people living there, but I’m a city dweller at heart.  There are times, I will admit, when I get very homesick.  Sometimes I feel as if I have landed on another planet, rather than just another continent.  I’m sure people look at me and think the same thing – that I’m an alien in more ways than one.

I had one advantage over Frederick and Jette, in that I did at least speak the same language – sort of.  That old aphorism about England and America being two countries divided by a common language is completely true.  However I studied hard and am now almost fluent in American.  And although both my children sound like natives, my English accent has grown stronger with every passing year.

  1. Which of the differences between Britain and America do you find most interesting?

 I could write another book just answering this question.  There are so many – some huge, others more nuanced.  Perhaps the most fundamental difference is that I find Americans’ sense of being American much more pronounced.  My countrymen don’t think about being English that much.  For example, unless it’s the World Cup or there’s a Royal Wedding, you won’t see English or British flags anywhere.  In Missouri, there’s an American flag flying outside every other house.

But while people always ask me about what divides the two countries, I prefer to focus on the things that unite us.  When it comes to the big stuff, America and Britain stand side by side.  They are two of the freest and most democratic countries on earth.  (As Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst system of government in the world, apart from all the others.)

  1. You’ve had four previous books published in your native England and in Europe, but this is the first one published in America, and with an American subject.  How long did you live here before you felt ready to take on American material?

 I began A GOOD AMERICAN after I’d been living here for a couple of years.  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 have something worth knowing.  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.

  1. What writer or writers have had the greatest influence on you?

There are many, many wonderful writers whose work I admire and love.  It would be nice to think that their talents influenced me in some way, because my own writing could only improve as a result.  However, it’s probably a more accurate statement to say that they inspired me rather than influenced me.  It hardly seems fair to blame them for my shortcomings.

Of course, there are far too many writers to give anything approaching a comprehensive list.  So here’s a select few, in no particular order: Salman Rushdie, for the richness of his imagination and the strange glories of his language; Julian Barnes, for his faultless elegance when putting one word in front of another; Lorrie Moore, for her luminous prose; John Updike, just for being John Updike, but especially for Rabbit; John Fowles, who first showed me (in The Magus) the magical ability the best books have to transport you to another world; Richard Powers, whose books taught me to raise my ambitions when I sit down to write; and John Irving, who always told the best stories.

  1. Why did you become a writer?  Was it a lifelong goal?

Much as I would like to say that I walked around with a notebook in my pocket jotting down thoughts on the human condition from an early age, it’s not true.  I’ve always read a lot.  At some point during the mid-1990s I hit a particularly barren spell of mediocre books and 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 try.  So I did.  And I very quickly discovered a deep and profound contentment in the process – similar to the one that James Meisenheimer 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.

  1. Your narrator is an aspiring writer who dreams of living the glamorous literary life in New York.  Was that ever something that appealed to you?

 I’ve never lived in New York, although I have spent a fair amount of time there.  I think I’m probably too old for that now – I love to visit, but I’m not sure I have the stamina to survive there for extended periods of time.  James’s dream is in reaction to the inertia and boredom of small-town life, as he sees it; I lived in London and Paris before coming to the States, so I’ve already had my fill of big city living.

(Of course, if someone were to start sending me invitations to swish literary parties in Manhattan, that would be absolutely fine with me.)

  1. What do you hope readers take away from your novel?

I started the 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.