Q&A with Alex George (A GOOD AMERICAN)

Last summer, writer friend Erika Marks (LITTLE GALE GUMBO) introduced me on Twitter to novelist Alex George—who was here in Maine researching the setting for his next novel.

Today I have the great pleasure to interview Alex in this post. We share a Maine connection, but the real reason I interviewed Alex was that less than two weeks ago his novel A GOOD AMERICAN was released to wonderful reviews—including being named #1 “Title to Pick Up Now” by O Magazine, February 2012!

I wanted to know more about A GOOD AMERICAN and the writer behind the book; specifically I wanted to ask Alex questions about his definition of home—a theme central to this blog and my heart. I also wanted to know a little bit more about what he thought of Maine as the setting for his next novel.

Finally, I am giving away one copy of A GOOD AMERICAN! All you need to do to be entered into the giveaway is leave a comment before Friday (February 24) at midnight EST!

Please join me in welcoming Alex George! 

Is A GOOD AMERICAN your debut novel? If not, is there a common thread or theme in what you write?

I’ve written four previous novels which were published in the UK and some European countries, but A GOOD AMERICAN is my first book published in the States – hence the “debut novel” tag.  However, this book is so different from my earlier efforts that it feels like a true debut in all respects, not just geographically.

There was no common theme in my earlier books, except perhaps for music – which also features heavily in A GOOD AMERICAN.  But this book is much bigger than the others, both literally and figuratively.  I remember, many years ago, reading THE MAGUS, by John Fowles, and being so completely consumed by the story that I failed to notice that the bus I was traveling in got stuck on the side of the highway in the pouring rain.  I never forgot that.  So more than anything, I just wanted to tell a really good story.  I hope I’ve managed to do that.

A GOOD AMERICAN is called “…a universal story about the families we create and the places we call home.” Because I grew up traveling around a lot, home is something I think a lot about and write a lot about. What does home mean to you and why is it something you wanted to write about?

Home, and what that means, is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, ever since I left England and moved to the States, nearly nine years ago. Of course, there’s the old saying, “Home is where the heart is,” but I suspect that may be a little too simplistic.  If it were that easy, then Missouri—where I live now—would be home, as it’s where my children are.  But it’s actually more complicated than that.  When I return to England, the past rushes up to me in ambush, and I am pole-axed by a longing to return there for good.  But I don’t know if that’s a function of simple nostalgia, unhappiness with where I am, or something else.  It’s very confusing.  What I do know is that you cannot deny the pull of your past.

It’s a topic I wanted to write about because it’s such a universal theme, one that applies to everyone.  We all have a home, even if we might be a little unsure where it is.  The characters in the novel have an ambivalent relationship with “home,” which I don’t think is unusual.  Many of them spend a significant time trying to escape it—but they all get pulled back in the end.  I don’t think that’s an unusual situation.

One of the things that drew me to your book was that your main character is described as “being an outsider.” Are there parts of being an outsider that you can relate to from your own life? If not, what drew you to writing about an outsider?

I’m an Englishman living in the middle of Missouri.  If you look up “outsider” in a dictionary, you won’t see a picture of me there, but perhaps you should!  Every time I open my mouth, I announce my otherness to the people around me, betrayed by my accent and my failure to grasp the rules of football.  But I think that your question touches upon a more universal issue.  I believe that, in some way, we all feel like outsiders.  Rightly or wrongly, we all feel isolated and remote at times.  And that felt like something worth exploring.  James Meisenheimer, the novel’s narrator, feels a little distant and remote from his family, although he loves them deeply.  I think that distance allows him to tell the story he has to tell.

I know you recently completed the U.S. Naturalization process and became an American citizen. I’m not sure how long you’ve been in the U.S., but how did you draw from your own experiences as a newcomer to the United States as you created your novel’s narrator, James?

My experience as an immigrant to the United States mostly informed the characters of Frederick and Jette, James’s grandparents, since they were the characters who made the journey from Europe to America, as I did.  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; Frederick and Jette personified those two contradictory sentiments. 

Every immigrant is afflicted by the same paradox: one wants to fit in with one’s new country, but one never wants to forget where one came from.  My mother was born and raised in New Zealand, but she has lived in England for more than fifty years.  She still calls New Zealand home.

On February 16, 2012, I became a citizen of the United States, less than ten days after the book was published.  There is a scene in the novel when Frederick and Jette take their oath and become citizens.  It is rather extraordinary that I should be undergoing the same process at the same time as the novel is being published.

What are your favorite and least favorite parts about becoming a U.S. citizen?

I’m looking forward to voting.  I’ve been paying taxes for the past nine years so I think it’s about time I had a say as to how they were spent.  As Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst system of government in the world, apart from all the others.  It’s an old cliché, but it’s a privilege to live in a country where power changes without a shot being fired.  Sometimes I think many people take such things for granted.  I will vote with pride in November’s Presidential elections.

I am devoted to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.  I think they are wonderful, inspiring documents, and I am committed to the principles that they enshrine.  Freedom, equality, diversity, tolerance: these are all magnificent things for a country and its people to aspire to.

I love America, but I won’t deny that a small part of me was sad when I took the oath.  A friend wrote to me on the day of the ceremony, and told me I had an English soul—and that this was something that due legal process could not ever change.  I think they may have been right.

The book has a lot of music in it. I’m curious, did you have a theme song in your mind as you wrote it? Or was there any particular music you listened to while you wrote?

I love to write about music.  It’s always a challenge, since it exists in a totally different medium.  But I am passionate about it, and I can’t quite imagine writing a book without music in it somewhere.  But no, I had no particular song in mind while I wrote.  There are an awful lot of different types of music in the novel – it starts with an opera aria, and ranges from New Orleans jazz, blue grass, ragtime, and barbershop singing.  Funnily enough, the book critic from USA Today said she thought the book would make a great Broadway musical!  Music plays a variety of roles in the course of the novel, but its principal function is to act as a type of glue—it’s a way of forging bonds and making connections between people.

Generally speaking I don’t listen to much music while I write—it’s too distracting.  On those rare occasions when I do have music playing as I write, it can’t have words, for the same reason.  I listened to lots of solo piano pieces – mainly Scriabin, Beethoven, and Shostakovich.  And the Bach cello suites.

We met over Twitter over a mutual interest in Maine, and you’ve said that your next novel takes place in Maine. What drew you to Maine as a setting? Have you found challenges in having a novel set in Maine?

I love Maine.  I have only been twice, but as you know, the place has me in its spell, and I cannot wait to return.  It’s so beautiful, so very different to the landlocked tedium of Missouri.  It is, without question, my favorite place that I have been in the United States.  I believe that you do yourself a favor if you write about things and places you feel passionate about (for better or worse)—that passion will come out in the words on the page.

Mainers have an independence of spirit that I appreciate.  It strikes me as being something that is a good thing to write about.

There are obviously challenges in setting a novel in a place that you don’t know especially well.  A lot of research is required.  To the extent that this involves burying my nose in a book, this isn’t such a great thing.  (And I have a lot of books about Maine.)  But if it means (and it does!) that I have to keep returning there, and that I am able to claim those trips as tax deductible expenses—well.  Definitely a good thing.

Follow on question: What are some of your favorite places you’ve been to in Maine? What are some places you’ve heard about but haven’t gotten to see or experience yet?

I enjoyed Portland, but really fell in love with Maine when I went further north.  I spent a week in a cottage just outside Ellsworth last August.  My friend and I spent most of our days in Acadia National Park, walking and climbing and drinking in the beauty of it all.  It was one of the happiest weeks of my life.  We drove up Route 1 from Portland and wanted to stop in every town we passed through.  I’d love to go back to that area and explore some more.

Please leave a comment to be entered into the drawing to receive a copy of Alex’s book A GOOD AMERICAN! (Deadline: Friday, February 24, midnight EST) The winner will be chosen at random, but I would love it if you would tell in comments a little bit about what home means to you! The contest is now closed: Congratulations Nina Badzin, you won a copy of Alex’s book!

Cheers,

Julia



* * * * * * * *

Alex George is an Englishman who lives, works, and writes in Missouri.  He studied law at Oxford University and worked for eight years as a corporate lawyer in London and Paris before moving to the United States in 2003. A GOOD AMERICAN has been named as the #1 Indiebound pick for February 2012, an amazon top ten book for February, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Pick for Spring 2012. You can connect with Alex on his website (alexgeorgebooks.com), on Twitter @alexgeorge, and on Facebook.

Comments

  1. Barb Riley says:

    Fantastic interview, Julia. I *definitely* want to read this! It has all the things I love in a novel:

    —Multi-generational story… check

    —Someone passionate about music… (big) check! (Btw, cool cover!)

    —Exploring what home really means… check

    —Not fitting in… check

    I’m so glad you had a chance to interview Alex; it’s great to learn about new authors through friends’ blogs! His way of describing things intrigues me—like the way he captures how hard it is to define home once you’ve moved:

    “When I return to England, the past rushes up to me in ambush, and I am pole-axed by a longing to return there for good. But I don’t know if that’s a function of simple nostalgia, unhappiness with where I am, or something else. It’s very confusing. What I do know is that you cannot deny the pull of your past.”

    I experienced that for the entire three years when I lived in Miami after having spent my life in Chicago. I couldn’t bring myself to call Miami home, but felt like I should.

  2. Alex knows the rules of football very well, it’s AMERICAN football he has trouble with! In all seriousness, it was great to get a sense of the inspiration for the novel and Alex’s thoughts on it. My only gripe? His English audience have to wait a bit longer to be able to get a copy this side of the pond. Looking forward to it!

  3. Emma Pass says:

    Great interview, Julia and Alex! Thank you for sharing it.

  4. Great interview. I’ll definitely look for this book especially now that I’ve “met” the author. The theme of home is one that always draws me in. Thanks for the introduction.

  5. Looks like a great book, although I must confess to wanting to do the exact opposite of Alex, escape the midwest and move to England… :)

  6. Barbara says:

    Looking forward to reading this book and next one–I love Maine too!

  7. Lovely interview. This book has been on my TBR list since I first learned of it months ago. Can’t wait to read it. Thanks for hosting the give-away, Julia! Alex, I’ve lived in pretty much one place my whole life, so it’s interesting to get a different perspective from someone who has traveled such a great distance to establish new roots. I especially love what you said about voting as a U.S. citizen and about the principles of freedom, equality, diversity and tolerance. Those are central to the theme of my debut novel and they are also things that make me so proud of my country. This was the perfect interview to read on President’s Day!

  8. Great interview and questions! I’ve been hearing wonderful things about this book. Home is any place where I feel totally comfortable and safe. I’ve had a few jobs I felt were more of my home than where I happened to be living at the time…not that I was living in a horrible place, home is just a looser term to me. I think of home more as a feeling. And seriously, what is with Maine and debut novels? It’s the literary promised land.

  9. An Englishman in Missouri sounds like a story unto itself!

  10. What fun to learn more about Alex and his journey to the US. Thanks, Julia, for the insightful interview.

    How incredible, Alex, the parallels to your naturalization process (and the timing of it with your debut US book). I can’t wait to read A GOOD AMERICAN; the themes you discuss are, to me, what makes for great fiction – those universal struggles we all understand… that constant battle to fit in, feel fulfilled, feel a part of something bigger than ourselves – and that constant pull back to ‘home’.

    Can’t wait to get to Maine; never been there and am chomping at the bit!

  11. Sarah says:

    Home is where you are with your love. it can be anywhere.

    sparmeland(at)optonline(dot)net

  12. Erika Marks says:

    Julia and Alex–what a wonderful interview! (And you flatter me to credit me with the intro, Julia–your wonderful blog speaks for itself and Alex and you would have connected one way or another, I have no doubt!)

    I am halfway through A GOOD AMERICAN and utterly riveted by its beauty. I’ve already cried plenty(no spoilers here!)and cheered plenty and I can’t wait to continue my journey.

  13. Kirsty says:

    As an expat Canadian, who finally took on US citizenship last year, Alex’s comments really resonated for me! I understand the nostalgia too. Any my Mum–44 years in Canada–still yearns for the UK as home as well.

    Can’t wait to read this.

  14. CMSmith says:

    Thanks for the interview, Julia. I especially liked Alex’s insights into going home again and the way memories assault you. I feel this every time I drive back to the neighborhood where we raised our children, even though it is only about 35 minutes away.

  15. Marisa Birns says:

    A very good interview, and intrigued by subject matter of book.

    So, an Englishman who lived in Paris, London, and somewhere in Missouri? Fascinating.

  16. Wonderful interview, Julia. Alex is so right about the strong pull of our birthplace…those memories call to us. I can’t go to California without wanting to stay. The air, the light, everything about our original homes stirs memories and brings out that longing.
    Looking forward to reading this book!

  17. Great interview, Julia! I think I could have better answered the question about what home means to me when I was living outside of my hometown. But I will say that even when I lived in New York and Boston, I always had immense Baltimore pride. I lived in New York for six years, but Baltimore was still my home. So I really responded to that part of the interview where Alex says his mother still thinks of New Zealand as home, even after fifty years.

    On this same subject, you should check out this New York Times essay about a war correspondent and the food that reconnects her with her home. Very interesting and timely given your interview!

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/15/dining/in-a-war-zone-finding-solace-in-food.html?_r=1&ref=dining

  18. What an interesting interview, Julia. I have never heard of Alex’s book before now, but I will be sure to check it out the next time I am at the store. I fell in love with England this spring, and I cannot imagine the difficult transition of living in Missouri after beautiful London.

  19. Ann says:

    Julia – this was a great interview! You asked terrific questions and Alex, you provided very thoughtful answers!

    I have to say -I am intrigued by the idea of MUSIC in your books…I can’t imagine writing about music – I can only imagine experiencing it.

    As for home – for me it is truly wherever Tom is. I once said that I could live in a box as long as I was with him. Well, we were stationed in a foreign country years ago and our house WAS a box. It was awful, but I was happy because I was with him….in this case it really is where the heart is.

  20. EPT says:

    Count me in. Although I’m fortunate to live on the coast of Maine (in one of those towns Alex doubtlessly wanted to visit more) I get “pole-axed by a longing to stay” whenever I’m back in my home turf, too.

  21. Earl Vaughn says:

    You do a great interview, Julia.

    As someone who returned to live in the place where he was born a few years back, even though the summers are almost unbearable, it was interesting to read Mr. George’s feelings about ‘Home’.

    I look forward to reading the book.

  22. Jamie says:

    Great interview. What an interesting fellow. I was very moved by is comments about what is truly home. Something moves very deep within us when we travel to where we were as children. Great job. Julia.

  23. Patrick Ross says:

    Thanks for introducing me to a new writer! I was moved by his commitment to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution; I’ve found with naturalized citizens I’ve known that they often have a greater appreciation for things we native-born sometimes take for granted. (They often know our history better than we do as well!)

  24. Tracy Seeley says:

    Ah, the question of home and the grip of the past,the rushing up of that old place whenever we return. I know the questions, too. Thanks for a lovely, thoughtful, and non-intrusive interview, Julia. And thanks, Alex.

  25. Susan Okaty says:

    Great interview. Really makes me want to get this book! His comments about the tug on us from our past resonated with me. I grew up in the Northeast but moved away when I was 29. Yet I still think of it as home because it was the place where my little nuclear family was whole and I developed my values. That always stays with you.

  26. Already the book on my TBR list, but after this post it’s inched up a few notches. 😉

  27. country wife says:

    Excellent interview! Ooo, I hope I do win. If not, there is always my Kindle! Thank you!

  28. I’m so excited to read this book, Julia! While traveling to Peru this weekend I actually saw A GOOD AMERICAN on the window display at the airport (I snapped a picture that I’ll share on Twitter later).

    This interview was so timely, and I could really relate to Alex’s sentiments about being a naturalized citizen. Even though I moved here when I was too young to remember Peru, I grew up surrounded by its culture. My parents made sure to teach us its history, cook us Peruvian food each night, and never let us forget our first language. Still, this weekend while I was in Lima, I had the strangest feeling of feeling foreign while still feeling like a part of me belonged there. I could recognize my roots, I appreciated them, and I felt a sense of home there…but I also understood that my sense of “Peruvian-ness” was entirely different from that of the people who’ve lived there all their lives. I can’t imagine life IN Peru, just as I can’t imagine life without its influences.

  29. I read this interview a few days ago but I knew I had to come back and leave a comment. I already have a copy so don’t enter me. Did I mention I went to his book signing last night? I might have mentioned it a time or two.:)

    Anyway, the theme for A GOOD AMERICAN is so relatable and I can’t wait to laugh and cry while reading it. Alex is as charming in person as he is online. Truly a great person deserving of some wonderful things to come his way.

    Love this interview, Julia and Alex! Go Maine!

  30. I’m so excited to read your interview with Alex. I’m sorry I’m only getting to this post now. The Good American is up next on my TBR list. But as you know, those of us embroiled in the editing process must forge ahead. :)
    Julia, you ask such great questions. I think you’re a natural interviewer!
    I think home is wherever you find your “tribe.” The place where you are most comfortable, where you can exhale. I think home for me would be the Tuscan countryside. 😉 Ahh.

  31. Booksnyc says:

    I think “home” is where you make it but it is also about where you come FROM – as the child of immigrants, I knew our home was in the US and my parents were very happy to be here but we also always had these “shadows” of their homes in the old country.

    Those shadows and the pride in heritage that they evolved into is as much a part of my home now as it was for my parents.

  32. Great post! I love author interviews. That’s how I’ve learned about such great new books, like Erika’s Little Gale Gumbo.

  33. Missy Olive says:

    DRATS! I was on vacay last week. So sorry to miss this give away.

    FYI Alex, if you are still reading, my God Daughter lives in Ellsworth. I know it well!

    Looking forward to reading this and hoping that I will need tissues as reported by others.

  34. Nina Badzin says:

    SO excited!!! Thank you so much, Julia!

  35. Truly a wonderful interview!

    Can’t tarry to leave a longer comment . . . I’m off to Amazon.com to check out Alex’s novel.