A Conversation With Acclaimed Columbia, Missouri-Based Novelist Alex George
Alex George’s new novel, “Setting Free the Kites,” is about two families in Maine who have swift and sudden encounters with loss, following two young boys who help one another grow up through their parallel experiences of grief. If it doesn’t sound like the lightest reading, you don’t know the work of Alex George. From pet mongooses to Arthurian amusement parks to the ceiling-shaking music of Iggy and the Stooges, George’s novel is as buoyed by life and color and music as it is grounded by death and our deepest fears of losing the ones we love most.
In his own life, George also illustrates seeming contradictions. He’s a native Englishman whose accent hasn’t faded after nearly fifteen years in Columbia, Missouri, an attorney who spends his days writing airtight legal briefs and his off-hours writing world-spanning stories. In between it all, he sat down to talk to us about writing what you know and what you have no idea about; balancing a writing life against life as a lawyer; and how he really knows what it’s like to be inside an amusement park mascot suit.
How did you become a writer?
I’d love to tell you that ever since the age of six I’ve just been running around with a notebook, jotting down my observations on the human condition. But unfortunately, it wasn’t like that. I’ve always been a big reader, though, and in the mid ’90s, I’d just begun work as an attorney at a big law firm in London—the equivalent of a Wall Street firm—and I went through a period of reading a bunch of just terrible books. I said to a friend of mine, “These are awful! I can do better than this!” And at some point it was suggested to me that rather than just talking about it, I should put my money where my mouth was. So I was in my early twenties and didn’t know any better, so I said, “All right, then. I will.”
I’d read law at university, so I hadn’t had any formal qualifications to do this. I’ve certainly never done a creative writing course or an MFA. So it was just pure early hubris and ignorance. I just started, and with the possible exception of my mother, no one’s more surprised than me to find myself here now. So it’s one of those things that I kind of fell into by accident, and people were daft enough to keep publishing me, so I was daft enough to keep writing.
Now I’ve published six novels and just finished my seventh. My first four books were published in the U.K., and in other parts of Europe in various different territories. I got some very nice rejection letters from U.S. publishers on those first four, but it wasn’t until I moved here in 2003 that I had my work accepted. It’s felt like a second career, almost.
In addition to balancing two careers as a novelist and an attorney, you’re also the founder of the fantastic Unbound Book Festival in Columbia. How did you get started as a festival organizer? How do you juggle it all?
It’s funny you ask that, because today has just been meeting after meeting about this—meeting with sponsors and programming meetings and all those sorts of things. When I began Unbound, I thought, “Oh, this’ll be fun.” But what I found out quickly—and what I think Kris [Kleindienst, owner of Left Bank Books and one of the central organizers of Bookfest STL] is finding out is that it is absolutely a year-round job. I always say that the one thing I had going for me when I started Unbound was a really profound ignorance of what I was getting myself into. Had I had any sense of what was lying in store, I probably would have run a million miles in the other direction. But I didn’t, and I said, “We can do this!” By the time I’d realized just how insanely frantic it was, it was too late.
But no, I do love doing Unbound. Last year, we had Salman Rushdie, and I can’t say on the record who our headliner will be next year, but it’s someone really exciting, and we’ll also have forty to fifty other great authors. It’s completely free, which I think is really important, and it’s happening on April 20 and 21 of next year. Come down and check it out.
So you’re a native of the U.K. who made his home in Columbia, MO, after you married a woman from central Missouri, but you ended up writing a book set in the American Northeast. Why did you locate “Setting Free the Kites” in Maine? It was originally going to be set in Rhode Island, oddly. I don’t know why, exactly, except that there’s a song called “Rhode Island is Famous for You,” though it’s clearly not famous for much else. [Laughs].
So I moved it up the coast to Maine, which is a state that I know very well, because I’ve been going there on holiday for years and years. Mainers have a certain flinty, crafty independence that I really like, in contrast to [my main character, and Robert’s best friend] Nathan’s more open approach to things. I think it’s always a good idea to set books in the places that you love, because, hopefully, it comes through in the writing.
And then, of course, if you write a book set in a place, you have to go there for quote unquote ‘research’—which is all, hallelujah, tax deductible. Not entirely coincidentally, my next book, which I just finished, is set in Paris. I’ll have to set the next one in the Bahamas or something.
Without spoiling too much, “Setting Free the Kites” focuses mainly on two characters, Robert and Nathan who both experience great tragedy. Robert, our narrator, is watching his teenage older brother, Liam, slowly succumb to a severe form of muscular dystrophy; Robert’s new best friend, Nathan, loses his father in a dramatic accident shortly after his family moves to town. The book tackles dark themes early on, which is a risky structure for a novel. How did you balance the themes of loss you wanted to explore with writing an entertaining, page-turning story?
I was talking to a book group yesterday and I realized that ever since my son was born—he’s sixteen now—everything I write has changed, and it’s all about being a parent now. I didn’t set out to write about this book, exactly—I didn’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write about grief.” It doesn’t quite work like that.
What did happen was I had this vision of a person falling from a building. And then the other thing that happened was that I read this essay from this wonderful writer called Penny Wilson in Best American Essays, which is about her son who had muscular dystrophy. I couldn’t get that essay out of my head. It was extracted from a larger book of hers, and I knew I had to read it, but it was out of print. So I tracked it down and had it sent to me by some library in Vermont, and then I read another memoir about Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and then I started checking out textbooks … you see where this is going.
When an idea latches onto you like that and doesn’t let go, that’s a clue that you should write about it. When I thought that I was reading all of this stuff, my primary, visceral emotion was one of utter horror. Specifically, I thought: what must it be like for the parents to know from the age of four or five that your child is not going to live a full life, and then to see the deterioration manifest itself in this grotesque, physical way? I just kept going back to that.
At the same time, I was aware that you can’t write a story like this without some levity, or else, your reader is going to throw themselves, or at least the book, off a building, too. I always like to take the reader on a journey, and that journey should have twists and turns and many different emotions. If you can deliver a wide spectrum of feelings to the reader, that’s probably a job well done.
After reading the synopsis, I was really surprised by how much I laughed in this book. Along those lines, I’ve got to ask you about the mongoose in this novel. I’m not even going to explain it more than that; readers should really pick the book up to see what it’s all about, because it’s such a gem.
The mongoose actually, believe it or not, is real. My father was born in Dhaka, which I believe is now in Bangladesh—this was in the 1930s, when it was a part of Pakistan—and when my father was an infant, the family had a mongoose, which was there to kill snakes. But my father, of course, was a child, and he thought it was his pet, and he was very attached to it. His family was eventually sent back to England, but my father always talked about this mongoose. I thought it would be a slightly more interesting character to put in the book than a dog or a cat or something. [Laughs].
It’s fascinating to me how much of the book doesn’t come from your own experiences, and yet so much of your own story still comes through, at least in little details like that. How do you feel about the timeworn adage, “write what you know?”
It’s interesting. “Write what you know” is such an old saw these days. [Novelist] Ann Patchett once said something like, “I don’t write what I know; I write what I want to know.”
I fall somewhere between the two camps. Certainly, if you only write what you know, you’re going to run out of stuff. I started writing “The Good American” in 2003, and that book was all about immigration, which I was in the midst of myself at the time.
But in general, I write about things that interest me, and where I do employ personal experience is often just in the details. For example, a lot of “Setting Free the Kites” is set in an amusement park that’s owned by Robert’s family, and people always ask me where that came from. And the simple answer is that I used to run Big Surf Waterpark down in Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri. If you ever come to mid-Missouri and turn on the TV in the summer, they’re still running these ads with this very cute, seven-foot-tall furry shark dancing by the side of a wave pool. That’s me. I’m the person in the shark suit. It’s a bizarre and complicated story how I got in there, and it’s rather undignified, but I did think to myself at the time, “I’m going to write about this someday.” And so when I wrote “Setting Free the Kites,” the amusement park’s mascot suit, which is a giant dragon, became quite a central part of the whole thing.
But many of the big things in the book—severe illness, grief, loss, and I’m knocking on wood as I say this—those are not something that I have any experience of. For the big stuff, I’m taking a leap.