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Interview: May 22, 2013

In SLEEPING IN EDEN, Nicole Baart deftly weaves together the present-day story of Dr. Lucas Hudson, whose own crumbling life is thrown into further chaos when he discovers a woman buried in a barn floor, and Meg Painter, who years earlier is caught between her deep and dangerous love for Dylan Reid and the security of her older neighbor, Jess. In this interview, Baart opens up to’s Terry Miller Shannon about creating characters from real life and from fantasy, the often unacknowledged pain of miscarriage and the healing joy of adoption, and how important it is not to take for granted life’s smaller pleasures. SLEEPING IN EDEN has a unique narrative form, with the past braiding into the present. How did this unusual setup occur to you? Was this always the plan, or did the structure change as you formed the book?

Nicole Baart: I started writing the book from Lucas’s perspective, but it didn’t take me long to realize that there was a second, equally compelling storyline that deserved my time and attention. It wasn’t enough for me to tell Meg’s story in the margins, I wanted to know more about her --- and because of that curiosity, the second narrative emerged. Though the two stories may seem unrelated, every chapter pairing has at least one similar theme or idea that ties them together so that (hopefully) the switch back and forth isn’t jarring.

BRC: I was struck by how three-dimensional both Meg and Lucas are, which made me wonder if they are based on people you know.

NB: I wish I could say my characters are nothing more than figments of my imagination, but that’s simply not true. My characters emerge from personality traits, quirks and unexpected motivations that I observe in the people around me. But I wouldn’t say that any one character has ever been modeled after a single person. It’s more patchwork than that. A little from here, a bit from there...I reveal in the interview in the reading group guide at the back of the book that Meg was the girl I wanted to be in high school. So I suppose I took traits from all the girls I admired along the way and wove them into her character.

BRC: Meg has an ideal, golden childhood with a wonderful family (although it is realistic, in that she does have problems). I see that you grew up in a small town in Iowa. Is her upbringing similar to your own?

NB: Absolutely. Although I used to cringe at the sweet simplicity of my childhood and young adulthood, as a mother myself I now wholeheartedly embrace the idyllic days of my youth and long to offer the same to my own children. I grew up knowing my neighbors and tenting in the (fenceless) backyard, and Meg’s story definitely grew out of the soil of my own experiences. And yet, I am well aware that even a happy childhood and a loving family do not guarantee future health, safety, or happiness. We all struggle with our own issues, no matter how fairytale life may seem.

BRC: The timing of the interweaving of Meg's story with Lucas's feels impeccable, but I imagine it would be difficult to pull off. Did you outline the book, or was it more of an organic writing process?

NB: Thanks! I won’t lie, it was hard to pull off. In fact, SLEEPING IN EDEN was the most difficult book I’ve ever written. I started writing it over 10 years ago, and in the years between, the book has taken many different shapes. And one of the hardest things to get right was the continuity between the stories and the way they complement each other. If you pull the book apart, I think you’ll find that in spite of their differences Lucas and Meg are quite similar characters with comparable hopes and motivations. They’re both working so hard to get love right, to exist in an intimate, meaningful relationship that isn’t soul-killing. But love is rarely easy!

BRC: One of your characters struggles with the ability to carry and deliver a baby (I don't want to blurt out spoilers here, so I won't go into detail). Is this a problem that is somehow close to your heart?

NB: Yes, it is. After the healthy birth of our first son, I lost four babies to miscarriage. Two were in the second trimester, but each loss was absolutely agonizing. I had no idea how deeply I would grieve every child, but to me (and to many women, I’m learning) I didn’t simply experience the end of a pregnancy. All four of those babies were my children...I daydreamed about them, imagined what they would look like, picked out possible names, and considered them a part of our family from the moment I found out I was pregnant. And not only did I mourn a child every time, I had to go through the suffering and shame of the actual miscarriage and endure the self-loathing that came with the (misguided) belief that I must have done something to kill my own baby. I believed a lot of lies during that time: that my body was broken, that I was being punished for something, that I was an unfit mother. It was a very trying season in my life, and yet it’s something that isn’t often talked about.

I wanted to deal with the devastation of this sort of loss in SLEEPING IN EDEN. But I also didn’t want to leave my readers without hope. My story ends with the beauty of adoption and the joy of a sixth, very unexpected (and high-risk) pregnancy ending in the birth of an adorable baby boy. And I don’t think EDEN ends on a note of despair, either. There is hope after pregnancy loss, though the form it takes may take you by surprise!

BRC: I admired the turns the plot took. Was this always the plan, or did the story twists occur to you during the writing process?

NB: Actually, I had a very different plan for SLEEPING IN EDEN. In fact, there is an entire alternate ending hiding in the forgotten regions of my laptop. But I never liked that ending. It felt a bit like a train wreck --- I couldn’t stop where it was going and I wasn’t happy with where it ended up. It took some reader feedback and deep soul searching to realize that there was another way out of this mess I had created for my characters. And when I did finally settle the plot, it was surprising to see that the groundwork for the ending had been there all along.

BRC: Did you always know what had happened to the person whose buried body is found at the beginning of the book?

NB: No. Honestly, it was my biggest struggle in writing SLEEPING IN EDEN. You see, the whole book took root in my heart when I was a teenager. A young woman was found murdered and abandoned in a ditch near my hometown, and she remained unnamed for over 10 years. It tore me up to know that somewhere this woman’s family and friends were hoping and praying...tying ribbons around trees and wishing she would come home soon. Ironically, her cold case was reopened while I was re-writing EDEN for the final time. And, of course, her story has little to nothing in common with mine! But I dearly hope that her family received a measure of peace in finally learning where she was and what had happened to their daughter, sister and friend.

BRC: One person, admirable in nearly all other respects, steals a key piece of evidence from the site of a police investigation, which seemed out of character. Can you explain the reasoning behind your choice to have him/her act this way?

NB: Have you ever done something totally and completely out of character? Have you ever wanted to say exactly what was on your mind instead of filtering your words? Maybe I’m crazy, but sometimes what I want to do and what I do are dead opposite of one another. Societal convention or my own belief system prevent me from giving in to baser instincts, but what would I abandon to save something, someone I love? I wanted my character to face that sort of dilemma and have to deal with the consequences of doing something that for all intents and purposes was wrong but that felt completely right.

BRC: The town of Blackhawk is described as remote and hardly worthy of description…and yet Lucas, as a transplant, appears to develop a certain affection for it. This seems to echo, at least in part, his feelings for a person who reappears in his and Jenna's life. Was this theme of "get to truly know a place or person before you decide how you feel about it or them" purposeful?

NB: It was. I think it’s hard sometimes to let go of our preconceived ideas (and often, misperceptions), but if we allow ourselves to see something for what it truly is, we open ourselves up to a new world of possibility. I’ve seen my own husband do that in relocating from British Columbia to a small town in Iowa. I don’t know many (if any) people who would consider Iowa a nicer place to live than BC, and yet he has found beauty in little things. Our life is simple. Uncomplicated. Sweet. We lack mountains, the ocean, a world-class city. But we have a porch swing and a nest with robins' eggs in the tree. Our children ride their bikes down our sidewalk while we listen to the neighborhood woodpecker and drink our morning coffee. It’s perfect for us, and I think Lucas finds that same sort of peace with himself and his home in SLEEPING IN EDEN.

BRC: The seamy underside of Blackhawk is revealed through memories of Jim Sparks's life, as well as Jenna's clients' problems. Do you have a background in social work?

NB: I don’t, but as a former pastor’s wife and a mother of adopted children, I’m well versed in both the fine art of mask-wearing and the brokenness we try so hard to keep hidden. Everyone has a story. Everyone.

BRC: The intensity of first love experienced by Meg feels so real that it made me wonder if you had relied on diaries from your adolescence.

NB: Not diaries, just memories! I remember in technicolor, and it was a lot of fun to revisit those days of holding hands and first kisses...and to revel in the thrill of realizing for the first time how dizzying love can be.

BRC: Football for females and street bike stunt-riding both play small but significant roles in your book. Have they also had a role in your own life?

NB: Sadly, no. I was certainly a tomboy as a child and participated in my share of risky, questionable activities, but nothing so organized as powderpuff football or BMX riding. My cousin and I mainly stirred up trouble by climbing water towers, scaling the sides of abandoned barns, and trying our hands at barrel racing.  

BRC: If you wanted your readers to take away just one thing from SLEEPING IN EDEN, what would that be?

NB: That life is heartbreakingly beautiful and worth savoring, even when it seems beyond redemption.

BRC: What is your writing process like? Do you write every day? Computer or longhand?

NB: I have three small children and a fourth on the way (through medical needs adoption out of West Africa) and I simply can’t imagine writing every day. Some days I’m lucky to get a shower! But I do set aside two mornings a week to write, and the rest of the time I’m working in the margins. If I have a vacant look on my face, you can bet I’m writing a scene in my head!

BRC: Do you have another novel in progress? If so, can you give your fans a hint of what that story might entail?

NB: Yes! And I am so excited about this book! It’s another mystery that centers around two best friends and the terrible secret that drove them apart. So far it has been my favorite book to write. But I have a ways to go yet!