In the early 1980s, Washington, D.C., became the setting for two acts of violence that captivated the nation. The first was the attempted assassination of then-president Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley Jr.; the second was the murder of a 10-year-old girl by her disturbed socialite mother, Leslie deVeau. The incidents became even more sensational years later, when Hinckley Jr. and deVeau—who were both found not guilty by reason of insanity—became lovers while patients in the same psychiatric hospital.
For Kleine, who attended the same school as Leslie deVeau’s daughter and was friendly with her, the events had deep personal resonance. “It was one of the defining moments of my childhood,” she says.
Kleine’s debut novel, Calf (Counterpoint/Soft Skull, Oct.), presents a fictionalized version of the events in the form of dual narratives that converge.
It took some time for Kleine, who was 12 at the time of the deVeau murder, to put the story into words. For many years, she worked in experimental theater and dance in New York. But in 2002, she abruptly turned to writing, wanting “more complete control” over her work.
She finished the manuscript of Calf in 2008. But it took several years for her agent, Betsy Lerner, to find a buyer. Lerner says the book is “disturbing and unflinching,” with material “that’s frightening for people.”
Rolph Blythe, the publisher of Counterpoint and Soft Skull Press and Kleine’s editor, wasn’t scared off. “Dark books aren’t foreign to us,” he says. “It’s part of what we do.” He believes readers are “willing to give writers the benefit of the doubt if there’s a strong narrative... and really spot-on characters. This book [has] both those things.”
Has writing Calf changed Kleine’s feelings about that time in her life? “I don’t think it changed my experience of it,” she says. “But I do see the whole story more generationally, and more historically, and sort of where I, as a person, fit into all of that.”