A sweeping family saga, Eden chronicles four generations of Meister Fitzpatrick women from 1915 to 2000. The book centers on an extraordinary summer home aptly named after the Biblical paradise. As the novel opens, the family matriarch, Becca, is faced with the loss of this beloved home due to her late husband’s financial missteps. She is also planning to disclose a long-held secret to her extended family over a Fourth of July weekend. Fireworks result from both as family love and loyalties are tested and resentments emerge.
Eden is both a marvelous summer read and a fascinating look at the changing roles and choices available to women throughout the 20th century—and how these choices, or lack of choice, reverberate through generations. Redbook states, “This beautifully written family saga firmly establishes Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg as a rising writer to watch—and it will likely have you liking your family a whole lot more this summer.”
Dead Darlings caught up with Eden’s author, Jeanne Blasberg to talk about her book.
DD: My favorite character is Eden itself. I love that house and your gorgeous descriptions of summer and its endless sea and sky. Did you do anything in particular to turn this house into a character?
Jeanne: Right from the beginning, Eden is a “she” instead of an it. She has weathered grey shingles, just like an older woman would have grey hair. She is a grande dame from another era with wings that stretch out like arms on either side. She also evolves from beauty and sparkle to neglect and a saggy old age. I tried to describe the house, whenever possible, with human characteristics. She is named by her creator and is the witness to so much life within the family.
DD: Given Eden’s powerful place in the novel, I found it interesting that the characters who were not as attached to it, who didn’t spend every summer there, faired better than those who went back summer after summer. Why did you set it up that way?
Jeanne: That’s a great observation—that is a message I intended to communicate—that in order to appreciate “paradise,” one must leave the garden, and return later. The garden is an ideal place to spend a childhood, but it doesn’t do any good for the adults who cling to it.
DD: You cover eighty-five years of family and American history, going back and forth in time with ease. How did you manage all those time shifts?
Jeanne: The time shifts were tricky. I knew I wanted to weave together two time lines, and that was something I was continually jiggering with. I moved the order of the chapters around a lot. I also started the book with a solid dose of the present in order to ground the reader. Luckily, the chapters in the present are more or less static in setting and only cover one week, making them very different from the chapters in the past. It creates the effect for the reader of knowing more about a character’s family history than the character knows him or herself. I really like the dramatic irony this creates.
DD: You also write from many different points of view–nine I think? How did you handle all those different perspectives?
Jeanne: Oh, in earlier drafts I might have had more … This was the first thing that drove my editor crazy and that I was asked to consider changing. We created a spreadsheet listing every chapter and who the POV character was. That was what convinced me a major revision was necessary. It was also a helpful exercise to create balance and as well as a pattern for the chapters. By the last draft, I had made a case for every voice in the book. My four matriarchs (five including Leah) all get a voice. I also wanted the women who were not “of” the family, but were a part of the family, to have an outsider’s POV. These were Ruth, the beloved daughter-in-law, and Lilly, their lifetime housekeeper. Then of course, there was Bunny, Eden’s creator whose voice I felt was very important. Anyway, the effect is that of a big family with lots of similar yet disparate voices. Again, I wanted to show the way misunderstandings spread as opposed to describing the misunderstanding. That could only be achieved by giving voice to many characters’ thoughts.
DD: The first draft of Eden was about 800 pages. How did you get the final draft down to 329? Do you have any advice for novelists who need to make major cuts?
Jeanne: I was so worried about losing the “essence” of Eden while making such huge cuts. The first thing that helped was deciding this was Becca’s story, first and foremost, and anything that didn’t touch her was expendable. In the beginning, there was much more information about each character’s life which I now understand as important backstory. I got great editorial assistance and listened to suggestions and cut. Sometimes I’d put the manuscript in a drawer for weeks or months at a time, not being ready to do the hard work. In addition to cutting, I also wrote new scenes, so it wasn’t just cutting—it was more like shaping the book into one that had a better dramatic arc and was a suspenseful story.
DD: What kind of historical research did you do? I was particularly interested in Becca’s stay in a Kansas City home for unwed mothers and your description of Missouri’s progressive adoption laws resulting in a steady flow of young pregnant women needing a place to have their babies.
Jeanne: My research centered around the industrial revolution in Pittsburgh, the great Hurricane of 1938, and the cottage industry of maternity hospitals that sprang up in Kansas City in the 1930’s, ‘40’s, and ‘50’s. Missouri developed progressive adoption laws in order to facilitate these adoptions. I was able to do some personal interviews, but I absorbed a lot of information by reading. One excellent book was Sudden Sea, which is a terrifying account of the 1938 Hurricane and the day it hit Watch Hill, RI. In addition, the writings in a book called The Girls that Went Away were very helpful in understanding the stories of pregnant young women who were banished from their home towns in the years before 1974. Most of my other research could be done on the internet. An earlier draft was filled with expository sections packed with interesting facts I discovered in my research. Those all got edited out, and what’s left is just enough to set the historical context for a scene.
DD: Near the end of the book one of the main characters, Becca, thinks, “Everything that had happened before would happen again; all the stories, the drama, the goodness, the struggles, would be re-created over and over.” She feels a sense of peace knowing this. What lesson do you want women of this generation to take away from Becca’s statement and from your book?
Jeanne: Sometimes we feel as if our struggles are our own, that our experiences are unique to us. What I would hope Eden conveys to young women, and all people for that matter, is that humans have faced the same core challenges since the beginning of time. Heartbreak, jealousies, and disappointments replay themselves throughout the generations. I’ve always found it comforting to know that others have dealt with the same issues as me and that they will continue to do so. The lesson is that, even though we face similar problems, we have the ability to respond to a situation in a myriad of ways … either positively and hopefully, or negatively and fearfully.
DD: You’ve said that your own mother’s experience inspired some of this story. Did you find it different writing with a real family member in mind, as opposed to characters and situations you wholly create? Did you end up feeling differently about your own mother?
Jeanne: Besides my mother, I had many women in mind while writing Eden. However, the characters in Eden are absolutely fictional. My mother is no longer alive, nor are my grandmothers, and all I have left are voiced opinions, remarks, and anecdotes. My characters may say something or react to a situation in the way a real relative may have. But I like to describe my characters as having a collage of traits, some real and some imaginary. I know many things about my mother and grandmothers, but not nearly enough. That is, after all, one of the lessons of Eden—that we are not capable of “knowing” our parents. The act of writing this novel was, and hopefully the act of reading it will also be an exercise in compassion.
DD: What are you working on next?
Jeanne: I’m working on a novel about the trauma a family goes through when its only child attends a prestigious New England boarding school and gets sucked into a dangerous underworld. One fun fact is that the novel’s protagonist will spend a few chapters summering in Long Harbor (Eden’s fictional setting) with a classmate.
DD: What was publishing with She Writes Press like?
Jeanne: I chose to publish with SWP because I felt a sense of urgency to get Eden out into the world. I am embarking on a career as a novelist and have future projects I want to launch, and I’m not getting any younger! I love the partnership-publishing model where the author has control over the process, retains higher royalties, and maintains ownership of the book’s rights. I am happy to make an investment in Eden, and in myself as I use this book to build a platform. I have the utmost respect for Brooke Warner, the founder of SWP. She hasn’t just created a new model for publishing; she’s also started a movement where her authors are go-getters. We refer to ourselves collectively as a sisterhood and are constantly sharing ideas and best practices.