Excerpted from Leaving Eden by Anne LeClaire. Copyright © 2002 by Anne D. LeClaire. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Lynda Barry is a writer and cartoonist. She's the author of several books,
including Cruddy and One Hundred Demons.
Lynda Barry: Where were you and what were you doing
when this story first showed itself to you?
Anne LeClaire: I was in the middle of a writing residency
at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, which is situated
in a rural town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
One day I went into town to get a haircut and saw a poster in
the local beauty shop advertising a Glamour Day, just like the
one Tallie describes. "They make you look like a star," the
owner told me as she trimmed my hair, summing up in this
single sentence the magic formula. This started me thinking
about the way Hollywood acts as a polestar in our culture,
pulling us along in its wake, however much we deny its magnetism.
I saw in my mind the young girl who would be
Tallie, a teenager wanting to be transformed. It was just a
glimmer, but enough to get me started, although at the
time I thought it would end up as a short story. Out of this
beginning--the daughter of a starstruck mother, deserted
for a dream--a story was formed. I have to add that in the
interest of research I did sign up for Glamour Day, but truly I
did not end up looking like a movie star. More like a female
LB: Was that first glimmer like a picture? Did you see
Tallie in your mind's eye?
AL: It was actually more a feeling than a visual impression.
When I looked at that poster, I felt the yearning a young girl
might feel, an ache really, the wanting to be something
more, more than a person's particular geography or circumstances
suggested was possible. That sense of longing was
central to the story as the work progressed: Tallie's longing
for her mama, for a relationship with Spy, for a connection
to her father, for information about how to become a
woman, and, of course, her desire to be beautiful. Out of that
initial sense of hunger, a visual did surface, and it was of Tallie
standing in that beauty parlor.
LB: I love the Klip-N-Kurl! It seemed a perfect place for
a teenage girl who had lost her mother (twice!) at such
a critical time in her adolescence. It reminded me of a
fairy tale in that way. Many fairy tales begin with an
adolescent girl who has lost a good mother who has
been replaced by an evil stepmother. I've often wondered
if it isn't a way to tell the story of what happens
to us when we hit adolescence and begin to separate
from our mothers. That wonderful, beautiful, loved
mother from our childhood seems suddenly transformed
into an unreasonable, out-of-it, controlling old bag.
Tallie didn't have a chance to have that crucial relationship
with her mother.
AL: Exactly, Lynda. Even for the brief period when her
mother returned from Hollywood, Tallie couldn't explore
normal adolescent separation and independence. The few
times she allowed herself anger, it felt too dangerous because
her mother was ill. There wasn't even an evil stepmother to
rebel against. So to continue the fairy-tale theme, Tallie had
to create her own bread crumb path to negotiate her way
to womanhood because she didn't have the road map a
mother might provide. I don't know if I've ever told you, but
I watched my three nieces grow up without a mother--they
were eight, eleven, and fifteen when my sister died--and
witnessing the confusion, pain, and significance of their experience
helped me slip into Tallie's skin.
LB: That's one of the things that fascinated me about the
book. There is no evil stepmother whom Tallie can hate.
That's a tough position to be in, having your Natalie
Wood-look-alike mother be forever preserved as good,
perfect, young, and most of all, more beautiful than
you'll ever be. It's also a tough position for a writer to be
in, because a horrible person makes a writer's job a
whole lot easier and the story follows a certain path. But
no horrible person shows up directly in Tallie's life. I
kept waiting for one and when I realized no horrible
person was coming, I felt this odd sadness, a loneliness
of being stuck in her position exactly. It was as if Glinda
the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz got the ruby slippers
and then died with them on. She's the Good Witch, so
how can you get mad about it? Our earliest love for our
mothers is like that, like Glinda the Good Witch, like the
original Eden. It was so lonely following Tallie through
all her temptations and transgressions, knowing there
wasn't anyone who cared enough to throw her out of
Eden. In the end she had to throw herself out.
AL: It is lonely when no one cares enough to toss you out of
Eden for your sins, or even notice them. But is it worse if
someone tries to keep you stuck there? And you are absolutely
right about it being easier for a writer if there is a
wretched character threatening the heroine.
LB: Beauty is a main character in this book. And as soon
as I read Natalie Wood's name, I knew exactly what kind
of beauty you meant. There is no way to be more beautiful
than Natalie Wood. I know what it's like to be the
plain-faced child of a beautiful woman. People always
said my mother looked just like Ava Gardner and even
now I can't look at a picture of Ava Gardner without
getting a sad, empty feeling. It broke my heart to think
of Tallie watching Natalie Wood movies.
Was your mother beautiful? Your sister?
AL: My older sister was stunning, and people were always
telling me how beautiful she was. I was the duckling to her
swan. And I know exactly what you mean about that hollow
feeling you experienced watching Ava Gardner. And about
the desire to be beautiful. A lot of what I was exploring during
the writing was this territory of desire. Not just the longing
for beauty, but desire of all kinds. Where do our dreams
and aspirations come from? How do our own experiences
shape our desires? How do dream merchants like Hollywood
and Glamour Companies form them? How do our dreams
shape our lives?
LB: And what happens when you get your wish? Tallie
prays so hard for her mother to return and when she
does, it turns out she's dying. Did your sister come up
for you a lot while you were working on this?
AL: Here's the odd thing. All the time I was writing it, I
wasn't consciously thinking about my sister or my nieces,
but when I read over the completed manuscript, I had that
lightbulb experience of "My God, I'm writing out of my own
history." I had a similar experience with Entering Normal. Like
I'm the last to know. Does this happen to you, or are you
very aware of where your material is coming from during
LB: When I'm writing and it's going well, it's more like
slow dreaming. Half of my struggle is to be able to stop
thinking and just go along for the ride. I often tell myself,
"Just be the stenographer. Your only job is to be
Someone once pointed out how odd it is that we
can remember our dreams, we're aware of dream selves,
but our dream selves seem to have no awareness of our
waking life. What we call our "real" lives. You never say,
"Man, I had the weirdest reality yesterday."
I think that may be part of why it's so often the case
that writers are the last to know how close the story
may be to their own experience. A story has no awareness
of its author. Which feels very odd after living with
a character for as long as it takes to write a book. They
feel so real to us, but to them we don't exist, can't exist.
And there's a great relief in that, somehow. To give
yourself over and, for a little while, stop existing. I
wonder if it isn't somehow a bit like flying a plane--
which you also do. Are writing and flying planes
AL: I love your statement that a story has no awareness of its
author. It feels odd--and a little sad--to think of characters
that are so very real to me not even knowing I exist. I guess
we humans want reciprocity.
About flying and writing: I've never thought about it before,
but there is a connection in that both of them lift me
out of my daily reality and present me with a different perspective
of life, another way of looking at things. Both also
require a great concentration, the kind of intense focus that
is almost like meditation.
LB: When the writing is going well, it's a different state
of mind. It doesn't seem to include a lot of thinking or
planning. It is absolutely the best when it doesn't even
feel like writing. When it's like the deep state of play
you see kids go into sometimes. From an adult's point
of view, the kid is playing with toys. But from the kid's
point of view, the toys are playing with him. He doesn't
have to plan out a story for the toys. As long as he's not
self-conscious, the stories will happen by themselves.
I've always thought that self-consciousness was an
odd name for that feeling because it's really consciousness
of others. My very WORST writing experiences
happen when I'm aware of "the reader," a reader who
doesn't even exist because until the story exists there
can be no reader, and as long as I'm concentrating on
the reader there can be no story. My worst days are
when I'm frozen into a state of worry about what the
nonexistent reader thinks about my nonexistent story.
AL: But the trick is losing self-awareness, shutting out the
critical mind. Then bliss. For me, writing flows when I don't
plan it out in advance. The only novel I never got published
was one I mapped out in detail first. By the time I sat down
and wrote it, it was lifeless.
But to leap in, not knowing exactly where the story is
going, takes trust, doesn't it? Some days I think writing is one
huge act of faith. You set out with that glimmer and not
much else, and trust if you write straight and true and with
as much courage as you can muster, a story will result. That
is what is required of us.
And I think the worst writing advice I've heard is that
writers should have a particular reader in mind for whom
they are writing. My experience has been that putting the
focus on the reader (or editor or critic) lifts us out of the
story and can lead to some god-awful pretentious prose.
LB: Plus, it's no fun.
We became friends in the early 1990s at an artist
colony where we were both working on novels. The
first thing I noticed about you was how much you genuinely
loved to write. You had an exhilaration about it
that I loved, and your way of talking about writing was
so unpretentious compared to many writers I'd met. I
was just starting work on a novel that became Cruddy
and felt really shaky on my feet about it. You were so
supportive and practical and helped me so much. I
know you have many readers who would love to write
a book but have no idea where to begin. What advice
would you give them?
AL: Right back at ya', Lynda. Your humor and exuberance
and honesty attracted me right from the get-go.
Advice to writers? Hmmm. I guess the old chestnuts:
Take risks. Pay attention. Tell the truth as you see it. And
write, write, write. Write not for fame or fortune or recognition,
but because it brings you joy.
1. What is the significance of the title Leaving Eden? How does
it work on both a literal and a figurative level?
2. Tallie's mother, Deanie, quotes the poet Robert Frost:
"Home is the place that, when you go there, they have to
take you in." How does this indicate Deanie's attitude
about her hometown? In which ways does she stand out
there? How are Tallie's feelings about Eden similar and
3. What is Tallie's reaction to Deanie's departure and subsequent
return? How does Tallie feel inadequate compared
to her mother? In which ways does she feel abandoned by
her? How are mother-daughter relationships presented
in the novel, including those between Goody and Deanie,
Mrs. Reynolds and Sarah, and Mrs. Wilkins and Sue Beth?
4. "A person's as big as her dreams," Tallie recalls her
mother saying. At the beginning of the novel, what are
Tallie's dreams, big and small? How does she measure her
dreams against the ones of those around her? Why does
she adopt Deanie's dream as her own? Does she ever believe
it's truly her own aspiration?
5. Tallie doesn't believe that anyone she knows, other than
herself and her mother, has the capacity to dream. How
is she proven right or wrong? What actions, both good
and bad, do Deanie and Tallie undertake in order to realize
6. How does Tallie characterize the relationship between
her parents, and how accurate is her viewpoint? Does the
partnership seem imbalanced? What do you think attracted
Deanie to Luddington, and vice versa? What
role does Tallie play in their relationship? What is the dynamic
of the family unit before Deanie's departure, and
7. What is Tallie's relationship with her father like both before
and after Deanie's death? How do they both cope
with their grief? Do you think that Tallie is stronger than
her father? In which ways does Tallie need someone to
take care of her? In which ways is she older than her
years, and how is she younger?
8. Were you surprised to learn that Deanie's abandonment
of Tallie was actually her death from cancer? What
techniques does Deanie use to brave her illness? How
do humor and laughter play a part? In which ways does
imagination alleviate her pain? How do the people around
her cope with her sickness and death?
9. How does Martha Lee serve as a foil to Tallie's mother?
What does Tallie learn from their friendship? Does Martha
Lee act maternally toward Tallie, or is she more of a
nontraditional mother figure? What does Tallie admire
about Martha Lee, and what would she like to change?
What aspects of Martha Lee's personality are reflected in
Tallie's? In Deanie's?
10. Tallie compares everyone she comes in contact with to
her mother. "Not like Mama" is her constant refrain.
How does Deanie's presence guide Tallie in her day-to-day
life and overall? In which ways does Tallie most miss
her mother's influence? How do other women, like Martha
Lee and Raylene, attempt to fill that void?
11. Tallie is upset when a social worker comments that she
idolizes her mother. How accurate is his statement? Why
does Deanie provoke such strong feelings in those who
surround her? How does Tallie's trip to California cast
Deanie in a more realistic light?
12. Tallie keeps many things to herself, from her feelings for
Spy Reynolds to her plans to flee to California. How does
her "secret self" compare to the persona she projects to
the outside world? Do others in Eden--everyone from
Deanie to Luddington to Spy to Martha Lee--also possess
a hidden identity? How do they express or hide that
facet of their personality?
13. Physical appearances play a pivotal role in the novel. How
does Deanie's striking resemblance to Natalie Wood shape
her life? How is Tallie driven by insecurities about her appearance?
Why is Glamour Day so important to her, as well
as to the ladies at the Klip-N-Kurl?
14. How does Tallie's makeover on Glamour Day affect her behavior
toward Spy? What about Spy is so appealing to Tallie?
How does her initial impression of him differ from
how she comes to feel about him? Why does Spy, in turn,
find Tallie intriguing? Does this surprise her?
15. Why does Martha Lee decide to attend Glamour Day? Why
does she take Tallie's spot? What facets of her personality
does this reveal?
16. Did the disclosure of Sarah's drowning surprise you? In
which ways, both subtle and overt, does it affect Tallie's
behavior? Why do you think Tallie skipped Sarah's funeral?
How is this characteristic or uncharacteristic of her
17. What is Tallie's initial conception of the Reynolds family?
How do they appear to the outside world? How does their
outward demeanor conceal secrets?
18. Initially, why doesn't Tallie believe the rumors that Sarah
killed herself? What are the clues that point to Sarah's suicide?
How does Mrs. Reynolds stand in sharp relief to Tallie's
mother, particularly in relation to her children? How
does Spy react to these forces and the emotions they unleash
19. Why does Spy come to Tallie after he has been arrested?
What compels her to make love to him? What is her attitude
toward the possibility of having his baby? How are
her feelings similar and different to her mother's feelings
20. Why did Deanie make a special trip to find Sasha? What
do you imagine their reunion was like? Do you think
Deanie would have believed Sasha's assertion, "It takes
more than an accident of blood to make a family"? Why
or why not?
21. What is Sasha's attitude toward Tallie when she shows up
on her doorstep? Do you think that Tallie was surprised
to discover an older sister? How does Tallie react to the
secrets that Sasha reveals about their mother? Do you
think that Tallie and Sasha will ever be in contact again?
22. What about her visit to Natalie Wood's grave evokes such
a strong emotional response from Tallie? Why do you
think that her father undergoes a significant change at
this point in the novel?
23. "Wanting is a powerful thing," Anne LeClaire writes
in Leaving Eden. How does LeClaire present the different
forms of desire? How is desire a positive force in Tallie's
life and in the lives of those around her? In which ways is
24. What propels Martha Lee to fall in love and get married?
How do you envision her life together with Tallie's
father? How do you think Tallie will adjust to having
Martha Lee as her stepmother?
25. Why does Tallie initially begin to keep her book of sayings
and advice? What does it grow into?
26. The last line of the book is from Tallie's journal: "The
Queen of Cures is Love." How does this theme resonate
throughout the book? What other lessons has Tallie