Andrea Kleine on Epic Quests, Coping Strategies, and Dismantling the Traditional Narrative of the Artist
When Hope and Eden’s father forgets to pick them up for one of their weekend custody visits, the two teenagers accept a ride from a stranger who soon proves to be far more dangerous than he appears. Twenty years later, Hope is an adrift playwright in New York when she finds out that her abductor is up for parole. Hope sets off to find the now estranged Eden in hopes of convincing her to testify against him, and the resulting quest not only exposes painful truths from her past, but also uncovers insights into her present. Andrea Kleine’s Eden is a riveting character study that has been met with rave reviews. Vanity Fair stated “the mystery of Eden unfolds across America with humor and some clever detective work, combining a page-turner with a moving meditation on the limitations of family amidst trauma” and NYLON hailed it as “a devastating, revelatory examination of trauma, memory, creation, and the ways in which we define ourselves according to our experiences.” Brendan Dowling spoke to Kleine on August 2nd, 2018. Photo Credit: Sylvie Rosokoff.
You’re a performance artist and choreographer. How did those two disciplines inform your writing of the novel?
I think in terms of structure. Whether I’m writing a book or making a large scale performance work, I always start from a structural concept. With Eden, it was very much these parallel lines of the different timelines: the traumatic event that happened to them when they were children; Hope’s contemporary life as an artist; her quest to find her sister Eden; and then this unspoken line of what happened to Eden, Eden’s timeline. If those were four lines drawn horizontally parallel, how would certain moments of them bleed into others? Coming from a background in performance, I personally find writing very performative. I approach these characters sometimes the way an actor would approach inhabiting a character, trying to find a bit of the humanity in an unlikeable or even a violent character. The main difference between writing and performing is that, in performing, you’re executing the art form at the same time the audience is receiving it. It’s happening in the same time and in the same physical space and it’s very magical, but it’s finite. It’s over, applause, bow, everybody goes home. In writing, you’re writing it alone for years, and then there’s this huge chasm that can be years or centuries long, until one solitary reader receives it all at once. Both of those experiences are very intimate but in very different ways. I’m always considering those differences and yet those similarities in both of the ways in which I work.
As Hope investigates Eden’s whereabouts, she interviews people from her and Eden’s past. Even though the reader sees these characters for maybe just one scene, we get a sense of their whole life. I was curious about how you created these peripheral characters?
I think that’s leftover from one of my very early ideas of the book, which I let go in the process of writing it. I started with the idea that there would be a main character who you wouldn’t hear much from, and the book would be composed of a series of monologues of the people she encountered. The early drafts of the novel were very much like that. You didn’t hear much from Hope at all, just in these little interspersals. Each chapter was more structured as the first scene with her father, written more as one long monologue. I was originally interested in this idea of the monologue in prose form, but along the way I just got more invested in Hope. When my agent read an early draft she said, “As a reader we love Hope so much that you have to trust that she’s a very valid, very lovable protagonist and it’s really from her point of view.” So in later drafts the monologue idea opened up a bit and it stayed more with Hope’s perception. But I think that the idea that you really meet one character per chapter is left over from that. The book is in many ways a traditional quest. It follows that narrative tradition of, “Now you have to go and find the ring! Bring me the ruby slippers!” (laughs)
In creating Hope, did you get a sense of what her personality traits were that emerged as a result of having survived this trauma, and what were the traits that were with her all along?
I think Hope is much stronger than she realizes. She also is very self-aware and she’s very committed to being self-determined. I think those traits were with her before this traumatic event happened a bit of their humanity and they continued on afterwards. She has a strong sense of survival, which is also something you need to survive as an artist. She has a lot of other coping strategies that don’t work for her, like not wanting to share what happened to her, not wanting to acknowledge it, and not wanting to consider traditional forms of therapy or anything like that, which are, to trauma survivors, valid. But also therapy is a time-tested way of helping you through trauma and crisis. I think sometimes Hope’s survival instincts keep her from being more intimate with other people in her life and keep her from having truly close and emotionally equal relationships.
Towards the end, I don’t think I’m giving anything away, Hope questions herself, “Will I always be who I already am?” And the answer’s yes and also no. You can also choose. You have the power to say, “This experience happened to me and I survived,” or “I identify as a victim,” or “I identify as a survivor,” or “I identify as someone who made it through this,” or “I don’t identify with that and I cut it off from myself,” which is more Eden’s strategy. It’s this idea of self-determination that Hope has been committed to throughout her life, to living her life on her own terms. She decides to be an artist, and she’s an artist on her own terms. She’s not a traditional or commercial artist at all. That’s frustrating and financially crushing to her, but she’s still very committed to it. She’s queer, she has her chosen family as well as her childhood family, and she’s very committed to her friends. I think all of those things have gotten her this far in life.
We get a glimpse of Hope’s work and how she processes her life through her art. Did you always have a vision of Hope being an artist or did that come later in her development?
From her original inception, she was always going to be an artist. A lot of those details from her life as a playwright were drawn from my life. My background is in performance, dance, and theater. In all of those forms— from a non mainstream, non commercial world of art—there are attendant degradations you go through in order to survive and to get resources and opportunities to make your art. There’s a traditional narrative of the artist where you toil away in the garret, you get a big break, and then you quote unquote make it. I always hate that vocabulary and that narrative, because being an artist—and I include being a writer when I say artist—is such a long career full of many highs and lows. I think that the representation that you often get in traditional narrative media is that it’s just up and as soon as you get to this one level, you’re fine. That’s not true at all.
Likewise that’s sort of mirrored in the traditional narrative of trauma where something horrible has happened to you and then somehow, either through a kindly therapist or a support network or a friend, you have a therapeutic breakthrough. You elocute, you cry, you have this emotional purge, and then you’re fine. That is so contrary to what trauma survivors go through. Even after the very empowering action of acknowledging something that’s happened to you, it doesn’t make that experience go away. I think integrating it is a lifelong process.
The book deals with such a grim topic but I found it really funny throughout. How did you balance the moment of the trauma with these moments of social observation that lends so much humor to the story?
I think that’s part of how life is. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a situation where you’ve had a very emotional argument with your partner and then you’ll both burst out—hopefully—laughing. I think these sort of things intertwine. There are a couple of sections with Hope’s father where they’re very somber and then he’ll say something so completely narcissistic that it’s laughable. Likewise Hope and her friend Jamie get a day job gig as corporate entertainers. It’s so humiliating but it’s also hilarious. Again, I think humor’s a coping strategy where the world is a horrible place, horrible things have happened to you, but you’ve got to get through it somehow.
And finally, what role have public libraries played in your life?
Well, they’re a point of access. I have a huge respect for libraries and librarians. I’ve actually had for many years a job working at a small public college library at the Fashion Institute of Technology, which is part of the State University of New York. That has saved me, but that’s not really what you’re asking. (laughs) But I have a huge respect for librarians in that they’ve devoted their lives to public service and also protecting our civil rights. Information is a civil right, as is access to information, access to education, and access to the tools and resources of literacy. These are all civil rights that are being protected for us by librarians, and I hang on to that.
This interview has been edited and condensed