A Conversation with Amity Gaige
Random House Reader's Circle: Was there something in particular that prompted you to become a writer? Did you choose writing as a profession or did it choose you?
Amity Gaige: That’s a hard question to answer, because I began writing so young that I can’t remember an actual starting of it. I don’t remember making a conscious decision.
Random House Reader's Circle: Is there a specific writing philosophy you follow? Describe a typical writing day.
AG: My personal writing philosophy is to try and write better every day. I certainly want people to like my writing, but I know that if I write with the intention of trying to please people, the writing will not be good, because it will not be authentic. So, ironically, I have to be willing to write something strange or unlovable in order to write anything truly good.
My typical writing day has changed dramatically since I wrote The Folded World, because I now have a baby. But back then, I would take my days off from work and split them in half. In the morning, I would write. In the afternoon, I would research. I would hunt for interviews, try to get people on the phone, or simply drive around Rhode Island to some of the outer reaches —half-way houses, hospitals—in order to learn, down to the smallest detail, about what it was like to lead lives like those described in the novel.
Random House Reader's Circle: What sparked the idea for The Folded World? Did the plot flow from beginning to end or did you write segments and tie them together?
AG: For several years before I began The Folded World, I worked at an urban college campus, and had a job in a tutoring center, and people would come into the tutoring center, and for some reason they just kept telling me their life stories. Liberian refugees, recovering alcoholics, ex-convicts, you name it. At that point, I was struggling to finish and to publish my first novel, and not getting far. Perhaps because of this, I identified with the people who talked to me and sought in them some greater wisdom or perspective. But I was young and I did not always know how to behave, nor did I always know whether or not my interest in them entailed an obligation to them. I had one student who became violent and scared me. About this same time, a local social worker was killed on the job. I think I was basically interested in the question of what one should do with all one’s good intentions and one’s hopeful dreams in the midst of a gritty, unfair world. Although that sounds like a difficult space, it was definitely one of the most vital psychic spaces I’ve been in. For this reason, the book was written pretty fluidly, from beginning to end.
Random House Reader's Circle:The characters in your books are always just a little bit quirky yet easy to relate to. How much of yourself and people you’ve encountered in your own life can be found in your characters?
AG: If you ask me, all the characters are completely invented. No one in The Folded World is based on a real person. But of course your unconscious gets influenced by people you meet over the course of your life.
Random House Reader's Circle: Which character in The Folded World is your favorite? Why?
AG: I have a soft spot for the small role of the “poet/schoolteacher,” who lives below Alice and Charlie and likes to look at Alice through his peephole.
One of the sections of the book I really like to reread is where the poet/schoolteacher talks about wanting to be given an award for being average and unnoticeable. Alice and Charlie are having a very serious fight upstairs, while he stands there imagining winning the competition for “least competitive person.” It was fun to give voice to the feelings of the frustrated artist, working a vaguely related job for a dream of art. On the other hand, that character also represents, to me, a caution against giving in to one’s cynical persona. He is so afraid of the risks of intimacy and passion that he is only comfortable when looking through a peephole.
Random House Reader's Circle:What kind of books do you like to read? Whose is your favorite author and how has she inspired you?
AG: I like the greats—Virginia Woolf, Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence are some of my favorites. I also like to read poetry to remind myself that all writing should always be metaphorical or heightened. I often read poetry to “warm up” before I write. I read Rilke’s Duino Elegies several times a year. Some contemporary books I’ve loved this year: Ken Kalfus’ A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, Christopher Sorrentino’s Trance, and Tom Bissell’s Chasing the Sea, and I love Janet Malcolm’s non-fiction.
Random House Reader's Circle: What do you like to do for fun?
AG: I love to play tennis, though I have a rather limited talent for it. I also like to cook. With my son, we do a lot of abstract “dancing” around the house. My husband and I go on long walks with him. I like to go out with my husband, and talk about all the places we’ve been and what we would do if we were rich.
Random House Reader's Circle: Have you begun your next book? Can you give us a sneak peek?
AG: It’s in such the early stages I can’t yet really see its plot, etc. I can say that it is definitely one of the most personal things I’ve ever written.
1. Which of the characters in The Folded World do you most relate to? How and why?
2. Discuss the mother-daughter relationship between Alice and Marlene. How did Marlene's relationship with her father and the fact that Alice never knew her father play a part in their relationship to each other?
3. Charlie Shade lost his job, nearly lost his family, and almost himself trying to be all things to Opal - to help her. Yet when Opal sees him as she's flying over the earth at the end of the book she says "He looked nice enough from up here, but down there he was somehow horrifying." What does she mean by this? What about him is "horrifying"?
4. As a child, Charlie sensed the moment Alice was born. The author writes, "Some people are born again by God. Charlie and Alice Shade were born again by one another." Do you believe in "soul mates"? Were Charlie and Alice destined for each other? What choices could they have made to change that destiny?
5. At Charlie's birth, his grandmother had a premonition about his death. Her other premonitions had all come to pass. Why didn't the one about Charlie? Or did it?
6. Many of the characters in The Folded World are mentally ill, but others are eccentric, or lost. What do you think The Folded World says about mental illness? What is the fine line that separates the sane from the insane?
7. When Charlie decides to train in social work, he does so because he wants to find the "seam" between his life and others, the place where lives "touch" each other. Is this impulse to find this place a good and noble impulse? What exactly leads him astray from his original intention to help people?
8. Alice is a bookworm. She reads so much she hesitates to make real contacts. At one point, she fears that she believes real people are "less real than people in books." What are the pitfalls of being a bookworm? Is it true that sometimes characters in books seem "more real" than real people? How or why?
9. Why doesn't Alice go to college, the first time when she graduates high school, and the second time when she has another chance after signing up for night classes?
10. At one point, Charlie has the thought that Alice is "spiritually larger" than he somehow. Do you agree? And why are the spirits of each character limited? Which character in the book is spiritually the largest? The smallest?
11. Hal and Opal are both diagnosed with mental illness, and spend time in psychiatric hospitals-the same one, in fact. Both their lives are damaged by the illness, and yet Hal, at the end of the book, seems to have made some type of recovery. Opal, of course, does not. Why do you think their lives end so differently? Why do some mentally ill people flourish despite their illness and some do not?
12. Discuss the italicized sections in the book. Are they literally spoken by Charlie to Alice? Or are they some other form of storytelling?
13. In Part Two, when Charlie is reflecting on his satisfying life as a father and now a mobile clinician, he wonders if, after a life of successes, he can ever truly understand what it means to suffer. Do you agree? Do you think a person needs to suffer himself to understand another person's suffering? Why or why not?
14. Discuss the concept of "the folded world." What is it, and why is it the title of this book? When Hal becomes attracted to Alice in Part Two, he fears that his folded world might disappear, "For in its unfolding, it was no longer a world." Do you agree that this is a predicament in loving someone else?