Self-proclaimed Londoner turned Missouri resident, author Alex George, will be reading from his latest novel, “Setting Free the Kites,” at 6 p.m. today at Off Square Books.
“Setting Free the Kites,” George’s second novel published in the United States, explores the friendship of two boys in coastal Maine over the time span of two summers.
George’s initial inspiration for the book came from the British documentary, “Man on Wire,” which follows French acrobat Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974.
“Philippe Petit was a genius in some ways, but he was also slightly mad and probably a raging sociopath,” George said. “There was something wonderfully pure about his obsession, because going on a tightrope didn’t really achieve very much, but it was just the spectacle of the thing, and I kind of loved that.
“I loved that he was so determined to do what was basically a completely useless thing,” George said.
George thought Petit would be an interesting basis for a character, and thus created Nathan, one of the boys in “Setting Free the Kites.”
Nathan doesn’t really pay much attention to rules or social norms and just does exactly what he wants, George said. George then created Robert, the narrator of the novel, as Nathan’s foil.
George said he selected Maine as the backdrop of the novel because it’s a place with which he’s familiar.
“My wife went to college there, and we go at least once a year, more if we can,” George said. “I do love Maine and I think it’s good to always write stories about places that you love because I think that passion comes through in the writing.”
Placing “Setting Free the Kites” in Maine was an opportunity, George said, for him to write about the sheer beauty of coastal Maine.
In addition, he always just felt like the story should take place in New England.
“When I first started thinking about the book and I could see the climactic scene,” George said. “It originally involved a lighthouse.”
The lighthouse, however, has since been replaced with a different structure, George said, but he kept the Maine setting.
The title “Setting Free the Kites” comes from an early scene in the book, when the two boys go to a windswept beach and fly a kite. Then Nathan, the more adventurous of the two, cuts the line.
“He sets it free, and then they stand and watch the kite disappear into the sky,” George said. “It’s a metaphor for everything that Nathan is trying to do.”
The kite beach scene symbolizes the character Nathan’s constant desire to escape.
Unlike many famous novelists, George said he didn’t walk around “taking notes on the human condition” as a child.
“It’s a rather more boring story,” George said.
He’s always been an avid reader, and in the mid-90s during his career as a lawyer in London, he went through a period of reading a ton of awful books.
“’These are rubbish, and I could do better,’” George said he remembers thinking at the time. “It was finally gently suggested to me that rather than just complaining about it, I ought to put my money where my mouth was.”
So, that’s exactly what George did. He said he began writing a book but never really imagined anything would come of it.
“Here I am,” George said. “So something went right, I suppose.”
“Setting Free the Kites” differs drastically from George’s first book published in the U.S., “A Good American.” The new novel is set over the time period of two summers, whereas “A Good American” spans over 104 years and is thus often referred to as an “epic,” George said.
“I very deliberately wanted to use a much smaller palette and tell a different kind of a story and operate on a different scale,” George said. “That was a challenge I wanted to set myself.”
In other aspects, however, the two novels are similar. He said both deal with the ups and downs of human emotions, like a roller coaster ride.
“There are funny bits and there are sad bits,” George said. Really though, no two books are alike, he notices.
“Every book is its own beast, and after a while, once you set it loose, you have to try and catch its tail and see where it takes you,” George said. “I’d like to pretend that I was always in control, but it’s not always true.”
The book, of course, doesn’t write itself, he said, but there comes a time when an author just gives up control and sees where the story takes him or her.
George visited friends, Ole Miss alums, in Oxford five years ago and is looking forward to returning. He’s already made plans to go to Ajax after the reading.