Andrea Kleine: On Writing and Living the Artist’s Life
Author: Sara Jaffe
August 1, 2018
Within the first pages of Eden, Andrea Kleine’s new novel, teenaged Hope and her slightly older sister, Eden, are abducted by a stranger at a bus station. For the remainder of the novel, Hope, now 35, doles out details of the kidnapping. In the narrative present, she’s embarked on a search for her sister, who she hasn’t heard from in years. The story eddies around these dual mysteries: what really happened all those years ago? And what does it have to do with where Eden is now?
Yet while exploring these larger questions, it also offers a finer-grain picture of Hope’s life. Hope is an avant-garde playwright living in a long-term illegal sublet in New York after a bad break-up with her girlfriend. We learn that she had some significant success with an early play, but hasn’t managed to keep up the career momentum. And we learn about her family, both biological and chosen. For Hope, family—both before and after the abduction—is both foundation and rubble, the swinging bridge and the canyon it crosses.
Which is to say that it would be easy to read Eden as a literary mystery exploring trauma and its after-effects, yet Kleine is up to something more diffuse and sprawling. I was as drawn in to the details of the semi-struggling artist’s life, which recalled Lynne Tillman’s brainy downtown deadpan, as I was to Hope’s increasingly dispirited search for Eden in an old VW camper van. I spoke to Kleine about what she—and Hope—were really looking for.
One of the things that intrigued me most about Eden was how the trauma of Hope’s childhood kidnapping permeates the novel, but it’s not exactly its center. There’s a more subtle interplay at work. What, for you, were the central questions or situations you wanted to follow through the novel?
At one point there was a sentence in the novel that later got cut, one of those sentences you love but have to let go of: “Will I always be who I already am?” Am I always going to be the child of my parents, am I always going to be the person who this awful thing happened to, am I always going to be the person who I was when I started my artistic career, am I always going to be so-and-so’s ex-girlfriend? How do we go on, how do we keep building our lives, and how do we keep searching for who we are and trying to live a life that’s true to ourselves and on our own terms?
Early in the novel, when Hope’s mother has terminal cancer and Hope’s trying to be this dutiful daughter all of a sudden, although they don’t have this super tight-knit close relationship, her mom’s like, “Why are you calling me so much?” And when Hope says it’s because her mom’s so ill, her mom is like, “There’s more to me than having this disease.” That also gets played out around the central trauma of her book: Is this all that I am, this one definitive moment of my childhood?
And, yes, while the book has the structure and narrative pull of suspense around a crime that happened in the past, that element is almost an illusion. It is very much a book about living as an artist, about living a queer life, and about different families and emotional relationships.
How do you think about those concerns in relation to the structure of the novel? At first it seems as if you’re going to go back and forth between present and flashback, leading up to some grand “reveal” about the kidnapping, but then that gets mixed up.
I come from a background of experimental dance, and I worked for a long time as a choreographer and performance-maker, so structure is very important to me. I approach literature the same way I do dance in trying to think what the nature of the story is, how that relates to how it will be told. So it’s not simply A-B-A-B past and present. Everything bleeds into different parts.
And the book doesn’t have a classic resolution. Even about the central trauma, you sort of know, but you sort of don’t. I’m sure some people will find that incredibly frustrating, but it was one of the things that was very important to me—to make the reader put things together for themselves.
I really appreciate how many questions you leave unanswered. It pushes against that “gun has to go off” mentality. It shows that the heart of the story might be something different from what it seems to be at the outset.
You mentioned how your experience as a performer/dancer/choreographer relates to how you think about writing a novel. I wonder how you know when you’re beginning a new project if something is an idea for a novel or a performance, or if some end up being both. How do you maintain your work in these different disciplines?
In an early draft of Eden there was actually an entire subplot that eventually got axed, but that ended up feeding into my recent performance, “My Dinner With Andrea: The Piece Formerly Known as Torture Playlist.” But in general, each project starts with an image or an idea or a hunch that I can’t quite let go of, and it sort of directs me. Of course at the outset of a project there are certain constraints that dictate the form, whether it’s going to be a book or a performance. But there a lot of ways in which I work—like I don’t write a novel in a linear fashion. I know there are certain themes and I’ll write them and then see how they go together, and that’s very much the way I construct a dance. I have an idea about one kind of movement, or I want there to be one part that’s very repetitive, and I want there to be one part that’s referencing a certain something, and I see how these parts relate to one another.
Is that another factor that leads to the kind of structure you were describing? That intuitive sense of how different threads will appear and reappear?
I think it relates to a lot of things in Eden around the concept of self—there can be all these disparate parts of you that are connected. There are ways in which our experiences define us and there are ways in which they don’t, and there is a lifelong process of sorting all of it out. At one point in the novel, Hope’s friend Zara says, “You’re sort of like a junkie.” Hope asks Zara what she thinks Hope is addicted to, and Zara replies, “To continuing.”
Hope’s strategies for survival haven’t been all that great, but she is committed to surviving. It takes a great deal of commitment to survive and continue. Trying just to survive on a very basic level, trying to survive as a queer person, or an economic level, or as an artist trying to go from project to project, trying to work creatively and finding an audience for your work. And on a larger scale, trying to survive as a community.
And that really speaks to the moment when Hope is living in her van in Maryland and thinking about how easy it would be to slide into homelessness, and then realizes that she has this web of connection that will probably never allow her to do it. I wonder if the “addiction to continuing” is another thing that would keep her from rock bottom.
Someone who’s not an artist was talking to me about this book, and said it’s about an artist trying to decide whether to give up or not. But I thought, of course, being an artist, there are so many frustrations, most of them financial, but especially for Hope the thought of giving up never crosses her mind. She is much stronger than she realizes.
For me one of the great pleasures of the novel was recognizing aspects of my and other artists’ lives in Hope’s—her experience as “an alien among all the other passersby on the street who seem to have no problem with normal life.” Did it feel important to you to be representing the dailiness of a “not normal” or artist’s life in this way?
Very much so. There’s a romanticism of artists toiling away in the garret, wearing ripped up tights, dancing alone in an unheated studio, and the reality is that artists work very hard for very little recognition. We also feed off the dregs of capitalism—the scene where Hope gets a job with her friend who does these corporate dance gigs, being sprites dancing around at corporate events, but it pays very well, that’s why they do it. And she has an illegal sublet, she often has to do temp office work. There’s also someone like her friend Jamie, who’s a choreographer, and he tells Hope, ‘I just met someone who hooked me up with this movie star, and they’re going to do my benefit’—there’s a lot of competitive desperation. For me, that’s normal life for an artist.
One time when I was a poor and struggling dancer I really needed a job, and a friend of mine said, “Oh they’re hiring where I work, you should come in, I took everyone at the office to your last show,” and I thought, “Great!” But the guy at the interview asked why I wanted a job there, I’m doing so well, I just had this show, and I said, “I can’t pay my rent,” and he said, “I can’t give you a job here, you’re an artist!” Some people think we make a lot more money than we do and that publishing a book is some kind of golden ticket.
Right now I’m in my late forties and it’s interesting to see how artists survive into “middle age.” Sometimes I think we should have in our bios, “Andrea Kleine manages to survive because she has a rent-stabilized apartment and has had the same part-time job for over 15 years where she gets benefits.”
I feel like the shorthand for that for a while was when everyone would have the laundry list of the cute quirky weird jobs they’d had, which always really irked me, because the undercurrent to that is exactly what you’re describing. They’re survival, and they’re not that cute or quirky when you’re doing them.
One last question: What you were reading or looking at or listening to in the writing of this book. What outside art was in your brain?
Hmm, I usually keep a shelf of books while I’m writing a book of things I’m interested in, and of course I’m working on something else so it’s a completely different set now…
I think when I was writing, Kate Zambreno still had her blog up, and I was really interested in her approach to personal essay and autobiography and the intersections of how you relate to works of art. I’m a great fan of her work, and I think that definitely seeped into Eden.
I was also reading Patti Smith’s memoirs at the time. In Just Kids there’s a nostalgia for the time of being a young artist in NYC, and it feels very romantic, but I read it knowing that it actually wasn’t such a great era, there’s nothing really romantic about being poor or being ill or struggling against sexism and homophobia. I read it thinking about what my version would be.
Also, Agnes Varda’s film Vagabond and Chantal Akerman’s Je Tu Il Elle. The long sex scene in Akerman’s film was the inspiration for the form of the play that Hope writes in the novel.
I’m also a big fan of the Kate Bush album Fifty Words for Snow. I really liked this idea of “drift” in the album, how one song sort of morphs into another. There’s nothing really catchy in that album, nothing that would stand out as the critical single, yet there are moments that are more rhythmic, or emotional, or more crooning. I’m also interested in people who disappear and why they disappear, why they choose to remove themselves. I’m interested in why Kate Bush early in her career was putting out album, album, album and then she stopped and took at least 10 years off.
I’m always curious about people who decide to be reclusive, like the character Eden in the novel, because I’m naturally an introvert, and all my self-survival strategies have been to try to get myself out. I think that’s one of the reasons why as a teenager I was very attracted to performing arts, because here’s a structure that will help me be more vocal and more seen, and it has a built-in network of friends.
Isn’t it interesting how so many people who are so comfortable and outgoing socially have terrible stage fright? I identify with your description of feeling much more comfortable performing than at a party or something.
For me the stage is a safe place. I know the rules, there’s the trust that everyone’s going to play by these rules, and it’s finite, and then everyone will come together and say goodbye. But just putting yourself out into the amorphous party or social scene is just like oh my gosh—for that I need a script