Interview with Best-Selling Author, Christina Kline Baker, Orphan Train

C.Baker Kline We are so excited and grateful to have with us today, Christina Kline Baker, author of the best-selling Historical fiction novel, Orphan Train. Thank you for speaking with Historical Fiction Addicts. 

Let’s begin with some fun questions about yourself.

Coffee or tea?

 Coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon.

What your favourite dessert?

 Either something involving chocolate and sea salt or a comfort-food custardy treat from my English childhood.

 What do you normally eat for breakfast, or do you skip it and get straight to work?

 Coffee, of course. A Greek yogurt, maybe. I just started making the world’s best granola, a recipe from a foodie friend, and it’s my new favorite breakfast.

Coffee…the breakfast of champions! I am a tea addict and find I must have a cuppa tea with me as I begin my day. Perhaps for a later post HFA can request your recipe for granola? 

What are 4 things you never leave home without (apart from keys, money and phone)?

 A portable charger, lip gloss, Visine, notebook/pen.

Sleep in or get up early?

 Sleep in. I wish.

 Laptop or desktop for writing?

 Longhand! With a Pilot P-500 extra-fine black pen and a college-ruled pad.

 Wow! You don’t hear about authors using longhand in our techno-savy world and most young people today don’t use cursive writing at all. How Hemingway of you 🙂

What does a typical day look like for you?

 I don’t have a typical day at the moment. I’m traveling constantly, doing “One Book, One Community” reads. When I’m home I like to keep things simple: write, exercise, a glass of wine, dinner with my family.

 What does your writing space look like? It’s usually not this neat, but …

Kline's office.jpeg

One of my favorite things about my study on the second floor of my house is the view: I look out over a park with a large oval pond.  The dirty, squawking geese look so elegant from this distance!  Recently, though, the pond was dredged as part of a someday-we-hope beautification project, so at the moment my view is a mud pit and a lot of dumbfounded geese.

I love quotes and often find they inspire me and motivate me in my own life. Can you share one of your favourite quotes with us?

From Light in August by William Faulkner: “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, believes longer than knowing even wonders. Knows, remembers, believes.” When I was in my twenties, working on my first novel, I turned these words over in my mouth like lozenges, sucking at their meaning. They were words from a fever dream, leading me deeper into my story.

 List 3 books you just recently read and would recommend?

This might be cheating, but two by Elena Ferrante: Days of Abandonment and My Brilliant Friend (the first in a trilogy I’m devouring at the moment). I was also blown away by Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel.

 In six words, write your personal narrative story.

 Got up, fell down, got up.

 How did you get into writing?

I suppose I always wanted to be a writer.  I am terrible at many things, but I do have one skill: I’m quite a good editor, and I enjoy it. So though at twelve I imagined myself as a writer, by eighteen I more realistically (and quite happily) dreamed of becoming a book or magazine editor. Luck and happenstance led me to publish my first novel in my mid-twenties to some acclaim, thereby perpetuating the dangerous impression that writing novels was a viable profession.

 

Now onto the “deeper” questions about your novel, Orphan Train

 OrphanTrain_coverhighrsJPG

Has the interest in your novel Orphan Train surprised you?

The success of this novel has far surpassed anything I’ve done before. I’ve learned that for a book to become a No. 1 bestseller – unless the author is a blockbuster commercial success already – there must be a perfect storm of factors: timing, theme, cover image, publisher support, book-club enthusiasm. If it were easy to predict or replicate, publishers would make it happen more often. I think this novel hit a nerve for a number of reasons, but the biggest one is probably that I wrote about a moment in American history that has been hidden in plain sight.

What was the hardest part of writing the Orphan Train

I worked hard to avoid sentimentality. That meant ruthless editing.

The ending was the hardest scene to write. I was living in London for the summer and I set aside an entire weekend. I decided that I wasn’t going to leave my apartment; I would stay there until the scene was done. I had a vision of a woman, Vivian’s daughter, walking up a path, but I didn’t know if she would end up in the house or if I would write more. As I wrote the scene, Vivian was standing on the porch and her nervous daughter was by the car — and her granddaughter came running up. There were multiple generations, there was anticipation; I felt it was clear that the daughter and Vivian were going to need a little bit of time to figure out how their relationship would unfold. I also felt that it was clear that this granddaughter and Vivian would connect in a way that was unfiltered, clear, and clean. That felt like the right way to end.

What was your favourite chapter (or part) to write and why? 

 When you write novels you go on instinct much of the time. As I began writing about Molly, a 17-year-old Penobscot Indian foster child, I didn’t immediately notice parallels to Vivian, a wealthy 91-year-old widow. But as I wrote my way into the narrative I could see that in addition to some biographical parallels – both characters have dead fathers and institutionalized mothers; both were passed from home to home and encountered prejudice because of cultural stereotypes; both held onto talismanic keepsakes from family members – they are psychologically similar. For both of them, change has been a defining principle; from a young age, they had to learn to adapt, to inhabit new identities. They’ve spent much of their lives minimizing risk, avoiding complicated entanglements, and keeping silent about the past. It’s not until Vivian – in answer to Molly’s pointed questions – begins to face the truth about what happened long ago that both of them have the courage to make changes in their lives. I liked exploring these connections between them.

 When arranging the stories of Molly and Vivian did you write each part independently and then weave them together or write them simultaneously?

I wrote Vivian’s story all at once so I could keep of the historical details. Eventually I wove the stories together so that they contained echoes of, and references to, each other. Vivian’s grandmother gives her a Claddagh necklace in one section, and then pages later Molly comments on the necklace in the present-day story. Vivian later notes the charms around Molly’s neck. I didn’t want the references to be too literal or overt. But the necklaces became a way to connect my characters literally through touch and figuratively through a shared depth of feeling.

Both Vivian and Molly suffer traumatic events. Do you believe traumatic events define us?

Most people are remarkably resilient. Even those who have been through war or great loss often find reservoirs of strength. But the legacy of trauma is a heavy burden to bear. In Orphan Train, I wanted to write about how traumatic events beyond our control can shape and define our lives. “People who cross the threshold between the known world and that place where the impossible does happen discover the problem of how to convey that experience,” the novelist Kathryn Harrison wrote. Many train riders were ashamed of this part of their past, and carried the secret of it for decades, and sometimes until they died. Over the course of Orphan Train Vivian moves from shame about her past to acceptance, eventually coming to terms with what she’s been through. In the process she learns about the regenerative power of claiming — and telling — one’s life story. Perhaps the main message of my novel is that shame and secrecy can keep us from becoming our full selves. It’s not until we speak up that we can move past the pain and step forward.

 Do you think that Molly and Vivian’s definition of home would be the same or different?

 I think both of them are seeking love, safety, and understanding. Aren’t we all?

There is the understanding that if we do not know our history we are destine to repeat it. Do you see this axiom from writing this novel and what do you hope will result from bringing this part of history to the forefront?

 In the course of writing this book I attended train riders’ reunions in New York and Minnesota and interviewed train riders and their descendants.  There aren’t many train riders left; those who remain are mostly in their mid-to-late nineties. I was stuck by how eager they were to tell their stories, to each other and to me.  In talking to them and reading their oral histories, I found that they tended not to dwell on the considerable hardships they’d faced; instead, they focused on how grateful they were for their children and grandchildren and communities – for lives that wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t been on those trains.  I realized that in fiction I could do something that is difficult to do in real life:  I could dwell on the stark details of the experience without needing to create a narrative of redemption.

If you gave one of your characters an opportunity to speak for themselves, what would they say to your readers?

I think that both characters express themselves fairly clearly throughout the novel. At the end, their conversations are, in many ways, conversations with the reader. I think they are grateful to have found each other.

How did researching and writing this book change you?

was an ambitious book, both in terms of historical research and emotional range. Writing it taught me that taking risks is important at every stage of my career.


Is there a message in your novel that you hope readers will grasp? 

 Many train riders were ashamed of this part of their past, and carried the secret of it for decades, and sometimes until they died. I think that the main message of my novel is that shame and secrecy can keep us from becoming our full selves. It’s not until we speak up that we can move past the pain and step forward.

 I hope readers come away with some thoughts about the human experience that hadn’t occurred to them before. And this is kind of touchy-feely, but I hope they are inspired to think about their own lives and relationships.

 What advice would you give to another writer trying to get their work published/noticed?

Write, write, write.  Finish a draft.  Revise.  Revise again.  Keep going even when you want to despair.  (I always think of Winnie-the-Pooh stuck in the rabbit hole: he can’t go back, so he has to go forward.  At a certain point in the process of writing a novel it feels that way to me. Every time.)  The single most important thing is to FINISH.  Many extremely talented writers I know and have taught can’t seem to finish a manuscript. At a certain point they abandon it and start over. The dream is always so much more perfect than the reality.

The writer Anne Lamott tells a story about when she was a kid and her little brother was overwhelmed by a school project about birds. Their father’s gentle advice: “Just take it bird by bird, buddy.” That’s useful to remember.  You can write a draft of a book in a year if you write a page a day. The secret is not to get overwhelmed by the big picture. Set yourself concrete goals (in my case, four pages a day or 20 pages a week) and try to stick to them. Yes, this is easier said than done!

 That’s great advice. Thank you.

What project are you presently working on?

I have a few other novels that are in my mind’s pipeline and a little bit down on paper that will be set in Spruce Harbor. But because Orphan Train has been doing so well, and the historical angle has been so big for this one, I have an idea to do a novel that looks at the haunting American painting Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth, which hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC.  Christina was a real person with an incredibly interesting life and history. The strange, forbidding house in the painting is on a remote point on the coast of Maine.  I spent time there last summer.  I want to tell Christina’s story: what was she doing in that field?  What was she looking for? What did she find?

I can hardly wait to read you newest work and wish you much luck and enjoyment as you write, edit and prepare it for publication. Thank you for your time today!

For more on Christina Kline Baker please visit her website.

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