Riding the best-seller with Christina Baker Kline

Novelist Christina Baker Kline talks about the craft that created her hit novel Orphan Train.

Christina Baker KlineIn the late 1990s, I was a journalist in residence at a symposium for high school students. As is often the case at such events, professional writers of all genres were connecting not only with students but also with each other for conversations about the art and craft of writing. If you’ve been to symposia and conferences, you know random meetings can yield creative connections and powerful networks. Collaborations are born. Friendships are formed.

It’s not exactly a case of sour grapes, but I have often forgone socializing with colleagues in favor of going back to my room to write. Being in strange surroundings is often inspiring to me, and I like to take advantage of the setting that way. During this particular engagement, however, I spent nearly the entire time talking with Christina Baker Kline. I’m sure we talked about writing. I’m sure we discussed our personal and professional stories. And we probably shared teaching tips. In my mind’s eye, I remember us as a two-headed beast: We had so much to say to each other, it was merely a matter of tilting in each other’s direction, and the data exchange started rolling.

That’s the type of writer Kline is: generous and questing. She gets her work done. She has written five novels and edited four nonfiction books. But she also supports the careers of other writers, whether they are her students at Fordham, Yale, Drew and New York University (she has taught at all of them) or others whose books she has edited. You can be sure that at a reading or even a dinner party, Kline will ferret out the other writers and do a mind meld. She lives and breathes the writing life, whether she’s on the train between her home in New Jersey and meetings in New York City or vacationing with her husband and three sons at their home in Maine.

OrphanTrain_coverhighrsJPGAfter spending more than half her life in the writer’s seat (she also sometimes stands when she writes), Kline, who is 50, hit No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list with Orphan Train, the story of the relationship between a troubled Penobscot Indian teen and an elderly Irish immigrant woman who, as a girl, rode an orphan train – as did some 200,000 other children ‒ from New York City to the Midwest in the decades around the turn of the 20th century.

With more than one million copies sold in digital and print editions, Orphan Train has been a sleeper hit of 2014. In July, USA Today reported that 25 groups (including communities, high schools and colleges) chose the book for a common reading experience.

That strikes me as right for Kline. Clearly, she spends a lot of time alone writing, but she has a strong sense of community, a strong drive to write for that community and, now, the best-seller cred to go along with both. As a throwback to that first weekend we met, we put our heads together in the conversation that follows.

You’ve written fiction and nonfiction. Why did you choose fiction for this story? Did you consider nonfiction?
I stumbled on the history of the orphan trains just over a decade ago. My husband’s grandfather, whom I never met, was featured in an article about train riders who ended up in Jamestown, North Dakota. I was stunned to learn that as many as 250,000 abandoned, neglected and orphaned children were sent from the East Coast to the Midwest in a labor program over 75 years, from 1854 to 1929. The idea percolated in my brain for a long time; in the intervening seven years, I wrote two novels and a nonfiction book. I read more than 300 oral narratives and biographies and spoke with seven living train riders, all between the ages of 90 and 100.

I felt I could do more justice to this story by writing fiction than nonfiction. I’ve always been fascinated with how people tell the stories of their lives and what those stories reveal, intentionally or not, about who they are. I’m intrigued by the spaces between words, the silences that conceal long-kept secrets, the elisions that belie surface appearance. Like my four previous novels, Orphan Train wrestles with questions of cultural identity and family history. But I knew right away that this was a bigger story, requiring extensive research. The vast canvas appealed to me immensely. I was eager to broaden my scope.

You’ve talked about the origins of your novel in a book you found. Could you tell us about the origins of the first line you wrote for the novel? How did you know you had a first line? Did it come to you fully formed, or did you rework it? Did it end up being the first line of the novel, or of another section?
“I believe in ghosts” – the first line of the novel – was the first sentence I wrote. It came to me fully formed, and it set the tone for the novel. But it wasn’t until I finished writing the book that I realized where it had come from.

When I’m starting work on a novel, I gather scraps like a magpie and hang them on an idea board. On the Orphan Train board, I hung a hand-carved Celtic cross on a green ribbon, a Wabanaki dream catcher from Maine, a silver train pin from the New York Train Riders’ reunion in Little Falls, Minnesota, postcards from Ireland and the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. I tacked up notecards: “Food in Ireland 1900s” was one (“wheatmeal, hung beef, tongue, barley”). Another listed ideas I wanted to explore (“links between misplaced/abandoned people with little in common”). And on one card, I scribbled a quote from a speaker at a Founding Hospital reunion I attended in 2009: “In the absence of a clear story, people create ghost stories about their lives. They construct phantom parents and entire lives for them. When they get the real information, they move from a fantasy story to a reality. It can be hard and disillusioning. But it’s important to create a coherent narrative.” It was only later, as I dismantled the board, that I recognized how deeply those words had influenced me.

In this novel, as in other publications of yours, you reference real family history. What are the challenges of drawing on the actual to create the fictional?
Generally, I feel a lot of freedom in writing fiction. Memoir is much harder, I think, in terms of worrying about accuracy and being sensitive to others’ feelings. But I did feel a sense of responsibility to the train riders and their descendants to be as accurate as possible about the history; I knew it would matter a great deal to them.

This is your second book set in the fictional town of Spruce Harbor. What do writers need to consider when they create settings to which they return?
I was influenced by Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County – “my apocryphal county,” he called it. When I visited his studio in Oxford, Mississippi, I saw the way he mapped out the town, creating room for characters in many of his novels. In my mind, Spruce Harbor is sort of like Platform 9 3/4 in the Harry Potter books, which exists between places that are real. Spruce Harbor is my mythical sliver of a place on the “Quiet Side,” as locals call it, of Maine’s Mount Desert Island, somewhere between Southwest Harbor and Pretty Marsh. I like being able to put things where I want them.

You span many years in this novel. What helped you keep track of the time and the alternating stories? Lists? Storyboards? What’s the process?
The third-person-limited present-day story in Orphan Train unfolds over several months, and the first-person historical section spans 24 years, from 1929 to 1943. I jumped around a bit with the present-day story, but I wrote the historical section chronologically. While I wrote the first draft, I didn’t worry too much about structure – I just wanted to tell the stories. The greatest challenge was finding a way to link the story arcs of the two main characters; it took some time to figure out how to balance the sections so that they fit together seamlessly. (I don’t outline before I start a novel, but I do create and revise outlines, lists and storyboards as I go.)

Often when I’m reading novels with separate story lines, I find that I prefer one to the other. I tried to avoid this in Orphan Train by weaving the stories so that they contained echoes of and references to each other. For example, Vivian’s grandmother gives her a Claddagh necklace in one section, and Molly comments on the necklace in the present-day story pages later. But I didn’t want the references to be too literal or overt. Also, I set myself the complicated task of ending the historical section abruptly with a surprising revelation, after which the present-day story lays bare the mechanics of the storytelling: The train rider is telling her story to the central character of the third-person narrative; in telling her story, she relives it. For a long time, these stories run parallel. Eventually, it becomes clear that the train rider’s story is unfolding in “real time” and the present-day story both influences and is influenced by its telling. (Readers figure this out at different points – some know early on and others don’t realize it until the first-person story ends.) Sometimes I gave myself a headache trying to figure out how it all fit together.

Christina Baker Kline3What was the role of your editor? What should writers expect from a good editor on a novel? How did your editor best serve you? And what do you try to accomplish when you’re editing someone else’s work?
I’ve had many editors over the years, with varying skill sets and interests and personalities, and I’ve learned a lot about what I need and respond best to. I’m lucky to have an editor now who is wise, engaged and thoughtful: honest without being harsh. Among her many skills, she’s particularly good at structure. Bird in Hand and Orphan Train, my two most recent novels, are architecturally complex; she suggested changes that radically improved both books.

For most of my adult life, I have taught creative writing and worked as a freelance manuscript editor – editing as many as 50 manuscripts a year. This experience taught me much about how to edit my own work and how to critique others’ work in a way that yields fruitful revision. Most of all, it taught me how to revise – which has led me to write faster and bolder first drafts. I’ve learned to trust that I’ll know what to do to improve a draft once the words are on the page.

How do you edit at the word and sentence level? Or do you?
I revise endlessly. I write longhand, edit the previous day’s pages on the pad the next day, eventually type up these dense scrawls (editing as I go), print off a double-spaced copy and hand-edit that, type the changes, print a single-spaced copy and hand-edit, type the changes again. Often, then, I retype the entire thing. And I find that when I re-read passages I’ve published, I usually want to edit them, too. At a certain point, as in musical chairs, I have to stop the music and sit down.

I’ve learned not to give anyone pages to read until I’ve taken them as far as I can go. It’s a waste of my editor’s time if I haven’t done the hard work alone first.

Your book has an ethical soul to it. But it’s not preachy. How did you avoid being didactic?
Ruthless editing. As I revised this novel, I kept returning to Raymond Carver’s collection Where I’m Calling From. I learned more from reading these stories (edited by Gordon Lish) than I did from years of writing classes about showing versus telling, the well-chosen detail and how to expunge unearned emotion: the sentimental, the false, the twee. No doubt some remains, but I got most of it I think.

How has having a best-seller affected you as a writer?
Several years ago, when my fourth novel came out, I was at a party with a Very Famous Writer who barely deigned to speak to me. I had a Scarlett O’Hara fist-shaking moment in my head (in reality, I slunk away): As God is my witness, I’ll never be nameless again! If I’m going to spend my life at my desk, goddamn it, writing, I want at least to be recognized for my work by other writers. Tragically unambitious, I know, but it’s the shameful truth.

A more serious answer is that my life has gotten better and also more complicated. I can afford to send my kids to college; I bought a house in Maine. But the demands on my time are much greater (blurbs, appearances, articles), and if I don’t learn to say no to things, I’ll never write another book.

Your book changes voices frequently, as well as person – first and third, for instance. How did you decide on the best voices to use? Did you try various approaches? What happens in your head when you’re writing in the voice of a teen versus the voice of an elderly woman?
Two of my Southern grandparents were orphans; I grew up hearing their stories. My grandmothers in particular were powerful storytellers, and their voices are in my head. (I’ve written from the perspective of old women in several novels.) The train rider’s story held certain challenges; I was determined that it not feel romanticized or sepia-toned. I wanted Vivian’s voice to be fresh and immediate, and the action almost cinematic, which first-person present tense allowed me to do. For Molly’s story in the present day, I liked the slight remove of close third person. It gave me more room to move around. It wasn’t hard to channel her voice – I’m the mother of three teenagers and have a fairly good sense of that patois.

You mention contemporary elements in your story: brand names, TV shows. What risks do writers take by being era specific? And why did you choose to use these actual elements, even though you chose a fictional setting?
It’s a fine balance. I didn’t want to clutter the novel with brand names and pop culture detritus, but I did want to root it in specific eras and milieus, from New York in the 1920s to 1940s Minnesota to early-21st-century Maine. It’s useful to know what people are reading and wearing and watching in any given period; these details add color and verisimilitude. One of the challenges was to include time-specific period information without it sounding like regurgitation; I did this by paring back, including only the most relevant details. And I made the decision to include 2011-era technological details that I knew would be quickly outmoded because, after all, the story takes place in 2011.

This is your fifth novel, your first best-selling hit. Besides your writing chops, what factors contributed to your placement as No. 1 on the NYT list? Theme? Paperback? Distributor? Publicist? Cover image? Book clubs? Generally, what do you see as the factors that influence a novel’s success?
I’ve learned that for a book to become a No. 1 best-seller – 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. This novel clearly hit a nerve: I wrote about a moment in American history that has been hidden in plain sight.

KlineORPHANTRAINtrainThere have been other books about the orphan trains. Why this one?
I think it attracts a broad readership, from teens to old people to history buffs (way beyond my usual “women 30-60” demographic). It appeals to book clubs because there’s a lot to digest and discuss. People tell me they identify closely and strongly with one or the other of the main characters. And this book was more ambitious (a true historical event, a broader canvas) than my previous novels. But knowing – or thinking I know – what works in this novel is no guarantee for the next. I hope people like my next book, too, but I don’t expect anything like this to happen again.

Give us a window into your writing habits, please. Where do you write? When? How do you get inspired? Are there phases to your energy and interest? Do you have talismans?
When I’m writing the first draft of a novel, I’m strict with myself: 20 pages a week, which usually translates to four pages a day. Once I’m fully engaged in a story I can write almost anywhere: standing at the stove, on the subway, in the dentist’s office. I actually enjoy writing in places like the back row of a lecture hall or a concert hall during a talk or a performance; I appreciate the creative energy flowing around me. I also write in coffee shops and generic cafes like Panera, where the staff leaves you alone. I find that writing in these public places often quiets the editor in my head.

I’ve learned that when I’m writing, I need to let go of the things that usually occupy my time and my brain. It’s just me and the lined paper in front of me. Any distraction not only affects my writing that day, it can change the course or the tenor of the work I’m trying to do. To unspool a story, I have to let the world in my head grow until it becomes more important than the world I inhabit. I have to calm my heartbeat, slow my skipping brain, become comfortable with silence. I have to accept that I will get nothing done except this one thing – this one paragraph or page or, perhaps, on a good day, a chapter – and possibly not even that.

Balancing this need to concentrate with a full life that includes three kids is hard. It’s why I’ve written only five novels.

Writers are often told: “Write what you know.” And yet, as a writer, you and many others cross into the unknown with fiction. Research is a big part of your process, of course. But what did you “know” with this book? What aspect of it mostly deeply reflects what you came to the story already knowing?
I wanted to write about how traumatic events beyond our control can shape and define us. “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,” Kathryn Harrison wrote in While They Slept, about what happened to a girl who survived her brother’s massacre of her family. As Orphan Train progresses, my central characters both discover the regenerative power of claiming and telling their life stories. Only by doing so are they able to move forward. It’s the archetypal hero’s journey.

In the included excerpt, you introduce a lot of information. Tell us about crafting of the opening of that section. Molly loves words. What words or phrases were key to you in this passage?
I worked and reworked this opening section because I wanted it to contain all the elements of Vivian’s story – the theme of loss that runs through her life, the stark reality of her aloneness in the world and the way she has come to terms with it. When I wrote the line “I’ve come to think that’s what heaven is – a place in the memory of others where our best selves live on” I knew I’d found the key to her character.

What’s your best advice to novelists?
There comes a moment in every novel – actually, there are many, but for me the most serious one usually comes about 120 pages into the first draft – when you realize you’re on a fool’s errand; it was delusional and hubristic to think you could pull this off; the words on the page are so much cruder and less nuanced than the story in your head. You want to abandon it. My advice: Don’t. This is normal. You have to finish a draft before you know what you’ve got. And you’ll probably have to tear that draft apart several times, at least, to get close to what you envisioned. Breathe, focus, keep your head down and keep going.


Christina Baker Kline25 novels that made CBK want to be a writer

Middlemarch
by George Eliot

Mrs. Dalloway
by Virginia Woolf
(years later, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – I was already a novelist, but that book is a master course in writing)

Madame Bovary
by Gustav Flaubert

Anna Karenina
by Leo Tolstoy

The Good Soldier
by Ford Madox Ford

5 recommended writing guides from CBK

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft
by Janet Burroway
“Brilliant.”

Bird by Bird
by Anne Lamott
“Accessible and passionate.”

Writing Down the Bones
by Natalie Goldberg
“Still inspiring, after all these years.”

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
by Stephen King
“A perennial favorite.”

The Poetics
by Aristotle
“Of course.”

Alicia Anstead is editor-in-chief of The Writer.


Orphan TrainExcerpt from Orphan Train

Prologue

I believe in ghosts. They’re the ones who haunt us, the ones who have left us behind. Many times in my life I have felt them around me, observing, witnessing, when no one in the living world knew or cared what happened.

I am ninety-one years old, and almost everyone who was once in my life is now a ghost.

Sometimes these spirits have been more real to me than people, more real than God. They fill silence with their weight, dense and warm, like bread dough rising under cloth. My gram, with her kind eyes and talcum-dusted skin. My da, sober, laughing. My mam, singing a tune. The bitterness and alcohol and depression are stripped away from these phantom incarnations, and they console and protect me in death as they never did in life.

I’ve come to think that’s what heaven is – a place in the memory of others where our best selves live on.

Maybe I am lucky – that at the age of nine I was given the ghosts of my parents’ best selves, and at twenty-three the ghost of my true love’s best self. And my sister, Maisie, ever present, an angel on my shoulder. Eighteen months to my nine years, thirteen years to my twenty. Now she is eighty-four to my ninety-one, and with me still.

No substitute for the living, perhaps, but I wasn’t given a choice. I could take solace in their presence or I could fall down in a heap, lamenting what I’d lost.

The ghosts whispered to me, telling me to go on.

 

Spruce Harbor, Maine, 2011

Through her bedroom wall Molly can hear her foster parents talking about her in the living room, just beyond her door. “This is not what we signed up for,” Dina is saying. “If I’d known she had this many problems, I never would’ve agreed to it.”

“I know, I know.” Ralph’s voice is weary. He’s the one, Molly knows, who wanted to be a foster parent. Long ago, in his youth, when he’d been a “troubled teen,” as he told her without elaboration, a social worker at his school had signed him up for the Big Brother program, and he’d always felt that his big brother – his mentor, he calls him – kept him on track. But Dina was suspicious of Molly from the start. It didn’t help that before Molly they’d had a boy who tried to set the elementary school on fire.

“I have enough stress at work,” Dina says, her voice rising. “I don’t need to come home to this shit.”

Dina works as a dispatcher at the Spruce Harbor police station, and as far as Molly can see there isn’t much to stress over – a few drunk drivers, the occasional black eye, petty thefts, accidents. If you’re going to be a dispatcher anywhere in the world, Spruce Harbor is probably the least stressful place imaginable. But Dina is high-strung by nature. The smallest things get to her. It’s as if she assumes everything will go right, and when it doesn’t – which, of course, is pretty often – she is surprised and affronted.

Molly is the opposite. So many things have gone wrong for her in her seventeen years that she’s come to expect it. When something does go right, she hardly knows what to think.

Which was just what had happened with Jack. When Molly transferred to Mount Desert Island High School last year, in tenth grade, most of the kids seemed to go out of their way to avoid her. They had their friends, their cliques, and she didn’t fit into any of them. It was true that she hadn’t made it easy; she knows from experience that tough and weird is preferable to pathetic and vulnerable, and she wears her Goth persona like armor. Jack was the only one who’d tried to break through.

It was mid-October, in social studies class. When it came time to team up for a project, Molly was, as usual, the odd one out. Jack asked her to join him and his partner, Jody, who was clearly less than thrilled. For the entire fifty-minute class, Molly was a cat with its back up. Why was he being so nice? What did he want from her? Was he one of those guys who got a kick out of messing with the weird girl? Whatever his motive, she wasn’t about to give an inch. She stood back with her arms crossed, shoulders hunched, dark stiff hair in her eyes. She shrugged and grunted when Jack asked her questions, though she followed along well enough and did her share of the work. “That girl is freakin’ strange,” Molly heard Jody mutter as they were leaving class after the bell rang. “She creeps me out.” When Molly turned and caught Jack’s eye, he surprised her with a smile. “I think she’s kind of awesome,” he said, holding Molly’s gaze. For the first time since she’d come to this school, she couldn’t help herself; she smiled back.

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Christina Baker Kline © 2013, HarperCollins.