One of my most cherished memories is sitting at my great grandmother’s dining room table, listening to her tell her story about coming over from Sicily to America.
Growing up in and then near Chicago, I was raised around a lot of people from different places. When I moved to Texas in my teens, I was a bit surprised to find pockets of people from different places clustered together like I saw up north.
We’re a nation of people from other places — even those here before we arrived by the boatloads wandered and settled in new places. That’s a whole lot of stories like the one my great grandmother told me one Sunday afternoon at a table looking out over her garden.
Alex George’s A Good American
Today is the release day of Alex George’s A Good American (affiliate link). I’ll refrain from discussing too much about the book, but I will tell you why I’ve been interested in the story: it’s a different kind of American tale.
The Italian and Scandinavian sides of my family (Danish and Swedish) came in through Ellis Island. It wasn’t until moving to Texas that I found out people also arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana and Galveston, Texas. Many of these people moved on to Kansas City and St. Louis.
A Good American is about a family arriving in New Orleans and settling in Missouri. But it’s probably best to let Alex tell you what it’s all about.
Alex, what is A Good American is about?
A Good American tells the story of a young couple who leave northern Germany in 1904 and set sail for America, hoping for a new life there. The novel follows the pair, and the generations that follow them, across the arc of the twentieth century. It’s about America, and what we mean when we think of home. It’s also about family, and love, and music, and food, and the secrets that we keep from those we love.
So many stories about immigrants take place in New York or other large cities. What made you decide to set A Good American in Missouri?
Exactly for that reason – so many of those stories do begin on Ellis Island. I wanted to do something a little different. I set the story in Missouri partly because it’s where I live, but also because there feels something uniquely, unflashily American about this strange, largely empty place; it’s the quintessential “flyover” State.
Did you always plan to be a writer? How did it all come about?
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.
A Good American opens with the wonderful line, “Always, there was music.” What role does music play in the novel?
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.
Music fulfils a lot of different functions in the book, but perhaps its principal purpose is to act like human glue, to bind people together. It unites Frederick and Jette, as young lovers, in the opening pages; two generations later, it turns four squabbling brothers into a cohesive unit – a quartet. Music is such an extraordinary way to touch people – you can’t help but connect.
You’re a father, a lawyer, and active in your community. When do you find time to write?
Being a lawyer can be a very time-consuming profession. Being a father – especially a single father, as I now am – even more so. 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 originally 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, I get up at five. There are no clients calling, no family commitments. Just me and the stories in my head. More writing gets done, but also a lot more yawning. I have been known to fall asleep while reading to my daughter before bedtime.
What is your favorite thing about being a writer?
As Joan Didion said, “We tell each other stories in order to live.” Writing is, for me, all about forging a connection with the reader. People seem to have responded to my story and characters, and many have been good enough to take the time to tell me so. After so many years slaving away in solitary confinement, that is a fantastic buzz.
But the act of creation has its own profound joys, even in a vacuum. There are moments when you read something you’ve written, and the thought occurs to you that you just might have come up with something half decent. They are (for me anyway) few and far between, but my goodness, they’re repay every ounce of effort you invest a hundred-fold.
What is your least favorite thing about being a writer?
As you know, writing is extraordinarily hard work. Some people imagine that writers swan around the house, occasionally sitting down to knock off a paragraph or two of luminous prose. People see authors give interviews and readings, and it probably all looks rather glamorous, but that is such a tiny part of what we do. Reality is very far removed from that. Writing books is a slog – and a long and lonely one at that. There are some very low points, when you are mired in your story, with no apparent end in sight, when it feels all too easy to give up. People often ask me what characteristic is most important for a writer to have. It’s not a felicitous turn of phrase, or a magical way with metaphor. It’s stamina.
Any words of advice for writers just starting out?
Read. Read more. Write every day. Tell the truth. Don’t be afraid.
I’d suggest everyone who wants to write should read The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield. I also recommend The Getaway Car, an extended essay on writing by Ann Patchett – which I know you’ve read, Christopher. It is an honest and illuminating account of the writing life, and full of good advice, including: forgive yourself.
A Good American has been chosen as a Barnes and Noble Discover Pick, the #1 pick for February’s Indie Next List, and O Magazine’s #1 “Title to Pick Up Now.” Top that off with positive early reviews and a blurb from Water for Elephants author, Sara Gruen, and it has to be wonderful and a bit scary at the same time. How do you handle the expectations others have for something you’ve written that’s met with such great early praise?
Wonderful and scary is right! I published four previous novels in England as a quintessential “midlist author”, which meant that they largely passed under the radar. With the best will in the world, publishers simply don’t have the resources to promote all their titles as much as they would like. I think that that experience – which was difficult, to put it mildly – makes me appreciate the extraordinary good fortune I have now. But there has been no counting of chickens around these parts. There is a world of difference between hope and expectation. I can hope for wonderful things, but it would be foolish to expect them. All that anyone really knows in the publishing industry, as far as I can tell, is that nobody really knows anything. There are no guarantees. I’ll just keep my fingers crossed, and we shall see!
What are you currently working on?
Publication commitments for A Good American are taking up pretty much all of my time at the moment, but I’m well into my new book, which I am really excited about. It’s 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.
An Epilogue and a Giveaway
As if February isn’t a busy enough time for Alex with the release of A Good American, he’s also becoming an American citizen this month!
On February 16th, art imitates life as Alex — just like two of the characters in A Good American — travels to a courthouse in Kansas City to take his oath to become an American citizen. Talk about cool timing, eh?
In honor of the release of A Good American and Alex becoming a citizen, everybody leaving a comment below, sharing some kind of tale about fitting in (it could be an immigrant tale, an anecdote about fitting in at school or a new job — anything!), will be entered in a drawing for a copy of A Good American. Sometime during the evening of February 16, I’ll use random.org to select the lucky winner and notify them by email that they’ve won.
As for Alex becoming a citizen on the 16th, I’ll go ahead and speak for more than 310 million Americans (and those who came before us) when I say we’re glad to have you here!
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Paul Lamb says
It’s curious to me how Missouri was once called “the crossroads state.” Anyone going anywhere passed through Missouri. Now it is truly flyover country, but only for those people who don’t know what we have here. (They wouldn’t fit in.)
I’ve always been here, but I’ve never felt that I fit in. After 3rd grade, I was always the outsider, the loner, the picked-on kid. I think I learned how to live this way permanently. Maybe I prefer being an outsider now. When I became aware of such things, all of the houses my family lived in seemed like they belonged to the previous owners and that we were merely being allowed to live in them. I never felt “attached” to them in any lasting way.
I was born and raised in Missouri, but now I live in Kansas (suburban Kansas City), and even after 25 years here, it still feels only like a sojourn, not a destination. I’m not a Kansan. I have a bit of forest in the Missouri Ozarks that I’m only slowly beginning to feel is where I belong, though it’s taken me more than ten years of not-frequent-enough visits to reach this point, and I know that as is the way in small towns, I will always be seen as an outsider even if I move there. But I even feel like a stranger in my own head sometimes.
I think I’ve given up trying to achieve a feeling of belonging and now merely try to erect a fortress around my life so what little I have can’t be messed up by outsiders (who, in turn, don’t belong in my own world).
Christopher Gronlund says
Paul: Missouri holds a lot of fond memories for me, and is a state where I definitely did some fitting in. When I was around 7 or 8, my father moved to Olathe, Kansas — where I lived for a year and visited each summer. Many of his friends at work lived in Missouri and, like you, had little getaway spots deeper in the state. One friend bought an old motel in Humansville, and it served as a base for him and all his friends to other places in the state. From there, it was off the Silver Dollar City before it got really big, and an almost-annual float trip from the Missouri side of the White River into Arkansas. My father eventually moved to Independence, the town where he died when I was 22.
Last month, we buried my father in law in the veteran’s cemetery in Bloomfield, Missouri. My wife’s family lives in and around Cape Girardeau, so there have been quite a few trips to the other side of the state. Living in Texas, we get the feel of many different places; Missouri is another state with that feel. Kansas City and St. Louis: big, working class cities. The Ozarks, a place that was magic to me growing up. The cotton fields near Memphis; the quiet towns scattered throughout the state. Mark Twain country.
You said: “Now it is truly flyover country, but only for those people who don’t know what we have here.” True words, there. I consider myself fortunate to be one who knows what the state has to offer. I’ll got as far as saying I’m part of who I am because of the state.
Thanks for the great reply; I’m glad you have a place in the Ozarks to get away from KC and sit and think (and smoke the occasional H Upmann).
I’ve been working on a trilogy for a couple years, set in Missouri. Book one follows a group of outcasts who travel from San Francisco to Dexter, Missouri. Book two describes the consequences of the move- people and ideas out of time and place- and happens mostly in Dexter and Pyletown. And book three follows a character from Missouri to a group of reclusive outcasts in Cataloochee, North Carolina.
Missouri is a great state for a story setting! I’ve driven through a few times, but haven’t stopped yet. I keep wanting to go to Pyletown. The closest I’ve gotten to seeing it is in Google street view.
Thanks for posting this interview, Mr. George has great advice . . stamina and “nobody really knows anything.” So true.
Congratulations to Mr. George on his book, and on his forthcoming citizenship!
Christopher Gronlund says
CMS: I haven’t been to Dexter or Pyletown…just close to the two places. My father in law is buried just a town or two north of those places, and we always pass near the towns when visiting my wife’s family. It’s a strange part of the state. From the Interstate, it’s our most hated part of the drive from Texas to Cape Girardeau. But when you get on the back roads in the area, it’s quite a place. The drive from Cape Girardeau to Bloomfield is a pretty drive, even though parts of it are nothing but cotton fields.
What made you decide to set stories in Missouri?
Glad you liked the interview. Yes, stamina…I liked that, too. There are times my day job gets to me a bit, but when I sit down to do other writing, the stamina involved in technical writing, which can be very boring, transfers to the writing I’d rather be doing, making it rather easy to sit and write for hours.
My 2 main characters from book 2 are very uncentered. So I thought a very centered state- geographically, at least- would be a nice juxtaposition. Plus “Missouri” sounds like “misery,” an emotion that’s prominent in the books. Specifically, I chose Pyletown because it’s in the bootheel of Missouri (according to MissouriEconomy.org). The boot heel of misery. Strange part of the state indeed! And Pyletown is within walking distance, more or less, of Dexter, so that my 2 characters can meet early on.
Christopher Gronlund says
CMS: I love stuff like this, hearing why people choose to do things in stories. Sometimes it’s just, “Eh, I had to set it somewhere,” but the subtle reasons for where you’re setting things is very cool to read about.
Fascinating interview. I lived something of a nomadic lifestyle in my childhood (oh, who am I kidding, I still do), and I ended up feeling like “the outsider” so often that it kind of became a part of who I am… and one of the things I learned to like most about myself.
It’s very cool to see another take on the immigrant story besides “came through Ellis Island and raised a family in New York City.” That story has been told so many times already, and I’m excited to read this one. 😉
Christopher Gronlund says
Shawn: I think that bit of feeling like an outsider is why we clicked when you came to the group at work. So many of my friends when I was younger were friends out of necessity at first. Being geeks, nerds, and outright freaks, we all had to cluster together for some semblance of safety. In some cases, I stood up for people I normally wouldn’t have associated with, simply because it’s what we did. But I also found some very cool people, many of whom are friends even decades later.
We wear that geekiness/nerdiness through our lives, I think. So when one of us stumbles upon another, there’s that familiarity that doesn’t make us think twice about chatting, even though others may see us as outcasts. It didn’t take much more than chatting about books, music, and a few other things to know I was lucky to finally have another nerd in the group at the ol’ day job 🙂
I’m only a little ways into A Good American, but it hits on the same universal things that bring others together. Outcasts in a new country, the main characters are overlooked by those who fit in; it’s those who are still on the edges, or those who acclimated to the new country, but remember what it was like when they arrived, who are there to help and welcome them to their new home. For me, I love that it’s not an Ellis Island tale. I grew up with those tales, hearing about them directly from one great grand parent, and through relatives about others. I have many ties to Missouri and even southern Illinois (even though I was raised in northern Illinois), so seeing mention of Cairo, Il and a quick stop in Cape Girardeau, Mo — where most of my wife’s family lives — hits home. It’s impossible to not think of Mark Twain, even though Twain and George are entirely different kinds of writers. (Although there have been a couple parts in A Good American that really cracked me up!)
I’m sure I’ll have a full review online by next week, but it’s some mighty fine writing, so far, that I respect on many different levels.
Cynthia Griffith says
Some of my family live near Cape now, but Cairo is where many of them were born or lived for a while when they moved west — I’d be interested in hearing what you’ve read about it 🙂
Christopher Gronlund says
Cynthia: It’s all a passing thing, but still…neat to see these places mentioned in novels other than those written by Twain. I’m not at all kidding when I say this book is captivating. All day while working, I just want to lie on the couch or curl up in bed and read it.
There’s a cadence to the story that is so damn eloquent; much more than saying, “So damn eloquent,” which isn’t very eloquent 😉
The only thing that’s captivated me when it comes to reading so far this year is Craig Thompson’s HABIBI graphic novel, and that all came rushing in at the end. With A Good American, it’s quite a thing from early on, and I look forward to reading more over the weekend, but unless it changes…I dread it ending.
Great interview, Christo. Your questions bring out interesting dialogue and make me want to read this book. Much as I love stories of Ellis Island for obvious reasons, having shared that same grandmother with you only not as a “great”, this puts an interesting twist on the immigration stories. I, too, thought everyone came in through Ellis Island until moving to Texas. Thanks for a nice interview.
Christopher Gronlund says
Mary/Mom: I hope to have the book finished sometime over the weekend if I don’t spend too much time writing. It’s a good enough book that I think about it when I’m doing other things, just wanting to curl up and read. It has a nice rhythm to it, and moments that just hit you. Not in a manipulative way, just moving along and things happen, just like any life.
And yes, with it being an immigrant story not taking place in a large city, it has a different feel. As you know, I’ve spent a lot of time in Missouri, so that aspect of it appeals to me, but with it taking place in a little German town, it could just as well take place in Wisconsin or Texas. And that’s what I love about the book: it hits on those universal things we’re all experienced or grew up hearing about.
Larry Tubbs says
This was a great interview. Thanks for posting it.
Ask 10 people the question “What makes someone a good American” and you will get 10 different answers. Yet, they all believe their answer is the only 1 true way to be a “good American.”
I like that America is called a melting pot. To me the act of melting and merging would be painful.
Christopher Gronlund says
Larry: Glad you liked the interview. And yes, plenty of differing opinions. I like the melting pot, too.
I like that I know your family and get to exchange fig cookies in December. I like that no matter what state I’ve been in, there’s been diversity. Growing up in and around Chicago, obviously, there are so many people, but even time spent in Kansas and Missouri were spent around people from all kinds of cool backgrounds.
Texas gets a bad rap in the news at times, but if you look past our governor and some of the other stereotypes of the state, it’s such a neat place. I’ve met people from all around the world, here, and I’ve worked alongside a lot of people from south of the border at jobs I’ve held. I always found it interesting that most of the people in factories and warehouses who knocked the Mexicans where I worked were the lazy ones, despite what they tried getting others to believe. Hearing that my great grandparents were treated poorly when they first arrived in America, I can’t imagine being the person treating others poorly.
It’s such a neat country, America. So many different landscapes and people that it’s always worth hopping in a car and just seeing what’s out there.
I enjoyed reading your interview with Alex, Christopher! … As for fitting in: I was born & raised in northern Ohio. In 1978 my wife (also an Ohioan, but with deep Tennessee roots) moved to Atlanta. My wife fit in relatively easily with our neighbors. (It took me a little longer.) Still, she told me, there were a couple of people at the local church who jokingly referred to her as “that yankee”. After I got to meet and know them better I pointed out to them that while I was from Ohio my wife’s family was from Tennessee. No matter, they said, even with her being from Tennessee she’s stiil “that yankee”. And you, they said, being from Ohio, we call you “that damn yankee”.
Christopher Gronlund says
Jamey: I got the yankee thing when we moved to Texas when I was 15. And it was weird to me, because I always thought that was more a deeper south thing. Of course, I viewed Texas as this wasteland full of tumbleweeds and cowboys at the time, so what did I really know? With only one exception, everybody called me a yankee in jest.
Your story cracked me up. “Tennessee…? Yankee! Ohio?! DAMN Yankee!” I wonder what their nickname for you would be had you come from Massachusetts 😉