“A warm, relatable—at times heart-breakingly so—story of two boys becoming men in 1970s Maine... George authentically relays the dynamic, difficult nature of families.”
—Columbia Daily Tribune
Alex George is wonderful in a whole variety of ways. First, there's his writing. He's the author of the sublime A Good American, a national and international bestseller, and a Library Journal Best Book of the Year. Alex has been named as one of Britain’s top ten “thirtysomething” novelists by the Times of London, and was also named as the Independent on Sunday’s “face to watch” for fiction in its Fresh Talent feature.
Second, he's a guy of many talents. In addition to writing, he also runs his own law firm and is the founder and director of a new literary festival, The Unbound Book Festival.
And third, he wrote Setting Free the Kites, which is so haunting, so moving, so gorgeously crafted--and I'm excited to be talking to him about it at the Unbound Book Festival.
And finally, of course, what matters most--he's kind, funny, smart and I'm thrilled to have him on the blog.
I always want to know what was haunting the author enough to propel him or her into writing the novel? What was it for you?
From the very start of thinking about this book I had a profoundly visceral image in my head of the climactic scene in the novel – which I can’t really talk about at all without giving the whole thing away! But you’ll know what I’m talking about. “Haunting” is precisely the word for it. It was an image that has echoes of another, real-life event (sorry to be opaque, but no spoilers!) which made it resonate even more for me. So all the way through the book I was writing toward this final image, which gave the story its own kind of internal momentum. I wrote that scene and finished the first draft of the book in a frenzied ten-day rush tucked away in a tiny cottage in L.A. It was very intense, and exhausting, but satisfying.
I loved the way the past informed the present—haunted it really—haunted me, as well.
Thank you! One of the things I wanted to examine was how youthful friendships leave a legacy that endures for decades afterwards. By bookending the narrative with scenes from the present I was able to provide a sense of perspective to the events that constitute the heart of the book. The protagonists are teenagers when the action of the novel takes place. I wanted to be able to provide a measure of distance from that – and, of course, the knowledge that comes from maturity and experience.
I have to tell you, I just adored the amusement park. Was this one of your hang-outs? Or based on one in particular? I don’t know why but as happy as amusement parks are supposed to be, they also serve as a backdrop for the tragic. Why do you think that is?
The amusement park was a lot of fun. I never used to hang out in one as a child, but – and I know this sounds wildly improbable! – I actually ran the largest outdoor water park in central Missouri for four years, and much of what is in the novel is based on my experiences working there. For example, during the summer in Missouri the park still runs TV advertisements that feature a furry shark dancing by the side of a wave pool. That’s me in the shark suit. So naturally the amusement park in the novel had a mascot – in this case, a dragon – and I had one of the boys wear it. Write what you know, and all that.
Amusement parks are fun to write about. They are rich with potential for authorial metaphor. For example, behind every nicely painted panel there is usually a grimy, oil-encrusted motor on its last legs. The line between fantasy and reality was never thinner. And for all that we relish the collective having of fun in public, I think you’re right – there is something inherently tragic about amusement parks, too. If you go online you can find countless photographs of abandoned parks, and they are haunting to look at. The motionless Ferris wheel, the silent carousel – the ghosts of their joyful pasts still linger palpably in these images.
I put this in my blurb: As one character says, loss can destroy us, but it can also create us. You could also say that about the bonds and fissures of family, too. Can you talk about this please in the context of the book?
I wanted to examine the impact of profound loss, not only on individuals, but also in the broader context of family. For example, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to tell the story of my own childhood without telling the story of my parents, too – at that age (maybe at any age) family narratives cannot be neatly extracted and presented in isolation. So I began thinking about how cataclysmic events affect the family unit more generally, in addition to how individuals respond to such things. It brought the boys’ parents – Robert’s parents in particular – much more to the forefront of the story. Perhaps that’s just a function of where I happen to be – I have two children, fifteen and eleven, and telling this story forced me to confront some of the very worst fears that all parents harbor somewhere deep within them, and so I wanted to tell that part of the story. When you start wondering: how would I react to this, or to that? – well, that can make for some interesting material. But – to come back to your point about the bonds and fissures of family – our reactions to such things do not happen in a vacuum, no matter how personal they may be. I say in the book, “Grief did not bring people closer. Loss turned you inward and shut you down.” And that’s true, I think, but it doesn’t mean that in turning inward, and away, family dynamics are not dramatically affected. The sad fact is that terrible loss can be a catalyst for yet more loss, of a different kind.
How fun was it to write about the 70s?
It was very fun, especially researching the music. There’s always lots of music in my books, but I wanted to explore something different this time – which is how I ended up writing about 70s rock – the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Iggy Pop and the like. I didn’t know much about the music before I started (I’m more of a jazz person) but I’ve become quite fond of it now. And of course the iconography of all that is wonderfully resonant. I know I’m going to sound like a terrible old fogey, but back then rock stars really knew how to be rock stars. There’s a moment in the novel when I talk about the anarchy of shows at the famous punk club on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, CBGB’s, when the bands spent as much time fighting with the audience as playing their instruments. I can’t imagine the manufactured pop stars of today contemplating such a thing. OK, I’ll stop now.
One of the great things about writing about the 70s was that I was able to unshackle myself (and my characters, more importantly) from all the technological advances of the past forty years. These days Robert and Nathan would have spent all their time playing on an X-Box and texting each other. Back then they got on their bikes and went off looking for adventures. As a novelist, the latter works much better.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Paris! I mean, Paris has always obsessed me. I went to school there when I was 13 and worked there as an attorney for a year when I was in my 20s. I’ve tried more than once to set a book there, and I’ve finally managed it (I think.) My new book, which I’ve almost finished, is set in Paris over the course of one day in 1927. I’ve been reading about Paris for years and now I get to call it research. It’s been blissful, these past few years, waking up every morning and going over the Atlantic in my head to tell these stories.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
You didn’t ask me about all the stories in the novel. Joan Didion wrote a book of essays called, “We Tell Each Other Stories in Order to Live,” which is a fantastic title in and of itself, but it’s really true. There are all kinds of stories in the book – ghost stories, war stories, love stories, histories of people and places. These stories give heft and vitality to the novel (I hope!) and provide fuel for Nathan and Robert’s young imaginations. And there are books, as well, both ones I made up and The Great Gatsby. Books are (or should be!) a formative part of any young person’s growing up, and so I wanted to include them here.