Ask 33-year-old novelist Justin Go where he lives, and he will give you the honest answer: “I live out of a suitcase that’s currently located in Austin”. Go has lived in Austin for five months—a long stay for a man who has been a nomad for the last decade. When I spoke to him in late March, he had just returned from Germany, where he’d attended a book fair to promote his hotly anticipated debut novel, The Steady Running of the Hour (and where he’d been invited to give an hour and a half-long reading, an invitation that proves German readers have more respect for authors than Americans do, or more comfortable seating.)
Go’s book, a historical novel that straddles continents and centuries, has garnered attention for its unbridled ambition. The story follows Tristan Campbell, a young American who learns he is the possible heir to a fortune left by an English mountaineer named Ashley Walsingham who died attempting to summit Mount Everest in 1924. Days before his Everest expedition departs, Walsingham makes a drastic change to his will, leaving his estate to Imogen Soames-Andersson, a woman he knew for only a week and, problematically, a woman who has disappeared. Decades later, British solicitors find a thread connecting Tristan to Imogen and summon the American to London to prove his legitimacy. To receive his inheritance, Tristan must crisscross Europe and dive into the past, retracing the steps of star-crossed lovers whose brief but passionate affair played out in the parks of London, the bloody trenches of France, the fjords of Iceland and the base camp of Everest.
Like Tristan, Justin Go is a young California native who has always pined for the expat life. After graduating from Berkley, Go went to Europe with a backpack and plans to travel the continent. Suddenly he found himself living in Paris. “I met this girl at a bar and I moved in with her the next day,” Go says sheepishly. “At the time it seemed so much like what I wanted that I didn’t think about how strange it was until later.” It was then that Go started to write, inspired by what he calls “the bohemian dream—living in Paris and being broke.” After Paris came a stint of graduate school in London. Then the albatross of responsibility began to descend, and Go moved to New York City, where he found work at a prestigious law firm. In New York Go had friends, a respectable job and cash, but the promise of Europe beckoned and plans for a novel began to percolate.
Soon Go was stealing away to scribble plotlines in notebooks, squirreling his overtime money and hatching a plan to move to Berlin, which he says was “the closest thing to Paris in the ‘20s,” a place where he could write. “I wanted to be like Hemingway,” says Go, “but I thought, ‘There are no writers like that anymore. Now they just do MFAs and sit in libraries.’ ”
At first he thought of the move as a joke; it soon became the only thing he thought about. In 2008 he quit his job. His boss thought he was crazy. (Indeed, Go knew so little of the German language that he couldn’t read “Good Luck” written in German on his office party farewell cake.) But other lawyers at the firm were encouraging, even envious of his gamble. “On my last day,” Go recalls, “one of the senior lawyers walked up to me and said, ‘I lived in Berlin in the early ‘90s. I hope I never see you again.’ And she meant that in the best way.”
For the next six years, Go was based out of Berlin and traveled throughout Europe, researching, writing and revising the novel. Like a method actor, he immersed himself in historical research (hey, even Hemingway spent some time in libraries) and only read works written before 1930. “Soon my cultural reference points became the same as my characters,’ ” says Go.
Yet the singular focus and passion that had driven Go to complete the book soon clouded his judgment and perspective. For all his effort, was the finished manuscript any good? The few friends he had sent it to had not read it (a bad sign, Go thought). The novel’s only real champion was his mother. Deflated, Go returned to the States, this time to New Orleans where he worked as a hotel clerk in exchange for room and board while he planned his next move. “I was about to turn 30 and I honestly thought I’d wasted the last decade,” he says.
The author decided to move home to California, forget the novel and start a new one.
The week before his cross-country trip, he sent the manuscript to one literary agent, keeping a promise to his mother to get an expert’s opinion before shelving the book altogether. The agent called breathless with enthusiasm. Days later, Go was fielding calls from a host of agents feverish to get their hands on the manuscript. The Steady Running of the Hour sold at auction and is being published into 20 languages.
Soon Go will be packing his suitcase again, preparing for a US publicity tour. After that, he will return to Berlin to work on his second novel (also set in Europe in the early 1900s). “Journalists have asked me quite a few times, ‘What gave you the courage to do this?’ ” Go says of his decision to embrace the unorthodox life of an expat artist. “I don’t know if it’s courage or restlessness or fear of having a normal life.”
Kirk Reed Forrester is a freelance writer who lives in Houston.