Eden, Andrea Kleine‘s new novel, is set in the aftermath of a harrowing event: protagonist Hope and her sister Eden were, as teenagers, kidnapped by a man with awful intentions. The novel begins decades later: Hope is a playwright grappling with financial and creative instability, and Eden has gone missing. Hope sets out in search of her lost sister–a plot which gives Kleine a space to explore a number of resonant and disquieting themes. I spoke with Kleine about the genesis of the novel, her own multidisciplinary approach to art, and the roles names play in the narrative.
The chronology of Eden doesn’t follow a set pattern: Hope’s search for her sister is interspersed with glimpses of her past, but the reader doesn’t encounter the bulk of the abduction that shaped their lives until fairly late in the book. How did you arrive on the method by which you structured the book?
I’m a great fan of crime novels, thrillers, and detective television series. I am interested in the addictive narrative pull of these kinds of stories and why we like getting hooked on them. I was curious about how that kind of structure could serve something other than a linear plotline, how it could examine the different aspects of a character surviving trauma. The details of the crime in Eden are not really what the book is about, but yet we want to know them, the details are compelling and alluring and hold the promise of an answer. But finding out “what happened in the woods” isn’t the heart of the book—it’s about the complexities of everything else that it takes to live one’s life.
One of the running motifs in Eden is the way that many of its artist characters grapple with questions of commercialism and success. Eden has a setup that could have led to a more conventional narrative; do you see a parallel in its characters’ search for their own path and the direction your novel went in?
Those are ongoing questions that I wrestle with as a writer as well. In many ways, Eden is about what it means to make a life as an artist, to sign up for a lot of hard work with very little remuneration or recognition. I am also interested in the ethics of making art. Hope, the protagonist, discusses this with her fellow artist friends: What if creating art based on your own personal trauma causes more trauma? Are we then perpetuating trauma? Are we just self-commoditizing savages? A lot of my recent work has been about cruelty, both intimate and systemic, and the ethics of how to present it, and why I’m interested in it, and why it constantly rattles around in my head. I was once at a literary festival and saw a panel of literary horror writers. I very much wanted to ask them a similar question: What are the ethics of scaring people? What does it mean to benefit as a writer from scaring people? But I’m shy in those situations and didn’t ask the question. (Or perhaps my shyness is a convenient social dodge).
Both Hope and Eden have deeply thematically resonant names. Were those in place from the outset, or did they evolve as you worked on the manuscript?
Hope’s name was always Hope. It’s a nod to a friend of mine whose mother named her that after having had several miscarriages. While it is a beautiful sentiment, it’s also a huge burden. But in a sense, all children are named Hope (even if, on paper, their names are Andrea or Tobias). Eden’s name emerged as I was writing the book. Figuring that out made everything fall into place.
Frustrated artists abound in the novel, from Hope and her friends to her father’s various authorial frustrations. What were some of the challenges you encountered when creating an array of fictional artists?
That was the easiest thing to write. There are many details in Eden taken from my own experience and those of my friends. The only difficult thing was dealing with my own internalized shame, similar to what the character Hope describes as “hating myself for being this age and still being in this situation.” Meaning, struggling financially, struggling to find opportunities, and dealing with expectations that one should be further along than they are.
Another motif I noticed in the novel was a sense of broken communities, from dissolved communes to Hope and Eden’s father’s failed marriages to Hope’s issues with her living space in New York City. What draws you to the places where communities or relationships fail in fiction?
Failure is a site of possibility, a place for things to begin, for something to happen. Perfection is boring—it’s fixed. Utopia is also boring. My background is in dance. Dance and performance are all about failure. It’s an attempt at perfection in real time. The attempts and failures at Utopian communes or romantic relationships or happy families are far more interesting than perfect results. I love it when I go to the theater and something very obvious goes wrong. Suddenly things are incredibly electric in the space and the actors have to decide what to do, and as an actor friend of mine says, “No matter what decision you make, it will be the wrong decision.”
You yourself come from a multidisciplinary artistic background. Did that play a specific part in shaping this novel and its handling of the creative life?
I work both as a novelist and as a choreographer/performance artist. I do tend to think in choreographic terms in shaping a novel and I often start with a concept about the structure or shape of it, and in the process of writing (as in the process of rehearsal) things shift and transform. I did want to portray artists as they truly struggle to exist financially, but I also wanted to show what it means to devote your life to making art, what it means as a friend of mine says, “to live your life in aesthetic contemplation,” to structure your life so that you can do this thing that is fleeting and ephemeral. Hope is a playwright. When a play is over, it’s gone. If you want it to exist again, you literally have to bring it back from the dead.
At various points, Hope discusses certain theater pieces she’s worked on. How did you feel about Hope’s art: do you think that she’s genuinely talented, or does her ambition outweigh her skill?
I don’t like the word “talented” because it connotes magic and supernatural anointment, and it devalues things like work and commitment and discipline and risk and the application of creative and critical thinking. I don’t think ambition is a bad thing. Women are historically taught not to be ambitious and we are criticized when we are. Hope is ambitious, but she is ambitious on her own terms. She’s a queer playwright writing unconventional plays. Although she craves more success, I don’t think she’s willing to compromise, as is evident by the last play she writes at the end of the book. You can call that ambition, or you can call it stubbornness, or you can call it self-determination. Or you can just call it work.