There are people who, having reached a sweet spot of success, pull up the ladder behind them, cutting off those who wish to follow. Then there are people who arrive at that pinnacle and do everything they can to reach out and help pull up the next person. Author Christina Baker Kline, whose novel Orphan Train spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list, including five weeks at No. 1, is decidedly the latter. My personal testimony: When I was seeking blurbs for my novel, I looked at my own bookshelf for possible kindred spirits whom I might ask (and it’s a big ask — “please read my whole book and publicly praise it?”). My eyes alighted on my copy of Orphan Train, and I took the chance of contacting Ms. Baker Kline. To my astonishment and delight, this busy author, mother, sister, daughter, wife had the kindness to reply that she would try to make time to read it. And then she blew my mind and DID! My gratitude is boundless.
Christina Baker Kline has given us a beautiful new novel, A PIECE OF THE WORLD, inspired by Christina Olson, the woman in Andrew Wyeth’s best-known painting. I am thrilled that she was willing to share her thoughts about writing and give us a glimpse into her personal writing world. Meet Christina:
What have you learned from parenting, or from your own parents, that you bring to your work as a writer?
My mother and father were free-range parents before free-range parenting was a thing (so many years before it was a thing that it was actually another thing, hippie parenting). They were not worriers, to put it mildly. When I visited them for the first time with my own five-month-old son who’d never eaten solid food, I came downstairs one morning to find my father feeding him bacon and eggs. Though I panicked a little in that moment, mostly I took to heart their laissez-faire attitude, and I’m glad I did. My now almost-adult sons (21, 20 and 17) are pretty self-reliant and self-motivated.
My father was a historian and my mother a feminist activist and they both wrote books. They got on with their own work without apology. I think that’s the most important thing I learned from them: that it’s good for kids to have parents who are passionate about their work. The older they got, the more passionate they became about the things that truly interested them. I’ve found the same is true for me.
Where do you write? What do you love about it?
When my kids were little I hired babysitters and went to coffee shops. I found the ambient noise helpful; it tamped down my inner critic. I still go to coffee shops sometimes, but I’ve learned over the years not to make strict rules for myself about where and when I write. I write in dentist offices, on subways, in libraries and lecture halls. When I’m immersed in a novel, I can write almost anywhere.
If you had a motto, what would it be?
James Carville’s legendary directive for the Clinton campaign was “It’s the economy, stupid.” My motto would be a variation on that: “It’s the writing, stupid.” Research and pre-writing and thinking about character are all important parts of the process, but eventually you have to grit your teeth, put pen to paper (literally, in my case; I write longhand), and WRITE. Another motto I love: “If you don’t put it in, you can’t take it out.” I used to attribute that to the writer Honor Moore, but I ran into her at a party and she told me she’d never said it. So I’ll claim it.
Who inspires you?
Fierce and gutsy females who’ve been in this business for a long time and still get up every day and write: women like Toni Morrison and Hilma Wolitzer and Alix Kates Shulman and Louise DeSalvo. I want to be like them when I grow up.
What charity or community service are you passionate about?
When I wrote my novel Orphan Train I learned quite a bit about the foster care system in the U.S. Roots & Wings is a New Jersey nonprofit that provides young adults who age out of the foster care system with safe housing, educational support, counseling, and life skills. They are doing incredible work, and I’m proud to serve on their advisory board.
What are you reading now, and/or what book do you recommend?
I just read Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, and it blew me away. It’s wide-ranging, fierce, and deep. The language sings; the magical-realist railroad is a spectacular fiction. I’m going to re-read it to try to understand how he pulled it off.
Christina Baker Kline is the author of the new novel A Piece of the World, about the relationship between the artist Andrew Wyeth and the subject of his best-known painting, Christina’s World. Kline has written five other novels — Orphan Train, The Way Life Should Be, Sweet Water, Bird in Hand, and Desire Lines — and written or edited five works of nonfiction. Orphan Train (2013) spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list, including five weeks at # 1, and was published in 40 countries. More than 100 communities and colleges have chosen it as a “One Book, One Read” selection. Her adaptation of this novel for young readers, Orphan Train Girl, will be published in May.
Praise for A PIECE OF THE WORLD:
“A Piece of the World is a graceful, moving and powerful demonstration of what can happen when a fearless literary imagination combines with an inexhaustible curiosity about the past and the human heart: a feat of time travel, a bravura improvisation on the theme of art history, a wonderful story that seems to have been waiting, all this time, for Christina Baker Kline to come along and tell it.” —Michael Chabon, author of Moonglow
“The inscrutable figure in the foreground of Wyeth’s Christina’s World is our American Mona Lisa, and Christina Baker Kline has pulled back the veil to imagine her rich story. Tender, tragic, A Piece of the World is a fascinating exploration of the life lived inside that house at the top of the hill.” —Lily King, author of Euphoria
“With A Piece of the World, Baker Kline gives us a brilliantly imagined fictional memoir of the woman in the famed Wyeth painting, Christina’s World, so detailed, moving, and utterly transportive that I’ll never be able to look at the painting again without thinking of this book and the characters who populate its pages.” —Erik Larson, author of Dead Wake