Christina Baker Kline
Author Interview - Christina Baker Kline
After reviewing A Piece of the World and hosting a virtual book club discussing the book, I reached out to the author, Christina Baker Kline, to ask a few questions about her latest novel and her approach to the writing process. I hope you enjoy my first author interview, below! If you have requests for authors you'd like me to interview, please contact me and let me know!
About A Piece of the World:
1. What was your first reaction and experience with Christina's World?
I first saw the painting when I was very young, and had the poster on my wall. My family moved to Maine when I was six; my parents were determined to show me and my three sisters everything the state had to offer. Among other adventures, we went to visit the place where Christina’s World was painted. (I wrote about this excursion for The New York Times)
2. What about this painting made you want to write this story?
While I was writing Orphan Train, I became particularly interested in the hardscrabble lives of people who don’t have much and the emotional tools they need to survive hard times. I had always felt a connection to Christina; my name is Christina, my mother and grandmother are also named Christina. My grandmother grew up in the same time period as the woman in the painting. My father gave me a woodblock for my eighth birthday that reminded him of Christina’s World and me -- a figure of a girl facing away, standing in brown grasses, looking towards something slightly ineffable. In the presentation I’ve been doing on my book tour, which is still taking place, I always say that I was the only person in the world who could have written this novel because of all the resonance the painting has for me.
3. How did the title of this book come about? We talked a bit about this during our book club, Christina's world is already quite small so why only a piece of this already small world? Related to this question, when did the title come to mind? Before you started writing? Somewhere in the middle or end?
Near the end of the novel, Christina muses that this place -- this house, this point -- may only be a small piece of the world, but it is the entire world to her. In becoming an artist’s muse, Christina claimed her piece of the world for posterity.
4. What is your personal opinion of Christina? Strong, independent and admirable? Stubborn? Which way do you lean?
You know how people go on wilderness retreats and bond over the rough time they had together? I feel that way about Christina Olson. The more I wrote, the more I came to understand why she was the way she was. She was a true individual -- a feisty, complicated, and stubborn woman. She had a hard life in many ways: She was a “spinster,” disabled, and, despite her brilliance, was taken out of school at the age of 12. She lost her one chance at true love and ended up taking care of her parents. But she found beauty, meaning, and grace in unexpected places. Because she didn’t live a conventional life, she was able to open her home and self to Andrew Wyeth. As a result, I believe her life was profound and meaningful. In my presentation, I like to compare her to the hypothetical sister of Shakespeare that Virginia Woolf writes about in A Room of One’s Own. She might have achieved some remarkable feats outside her home, if she hadn’t been bogged down by chores inside it.
5. Could you tell us a bit about your writing process for this book? How long did it take you to write? Did you have this story in mind for a while or did the project develop quickly?
I did lots of research. I read books about Wyeth, including his excellent biography by Richard Meryman. Wyeth is so eloquent in describing how he felt about what Christina Olson represented and about the feelings he wanted to evoke in his paintings of her and the house and her family. I read books about Christina Olson, including a lovely short biography by her niece, Jean Brooks Olson. I interviewed a Wyeth relative and an Olson relative, tour guides for the Olson house, museum curators. I just lived in that space for a couple of years.
I will tell you that this is the hardest book I've ever written. But it wasn't because I felt pressure about Orphan Train; it was because writing a novel about real people was so difficult. For the first time I had to work backwards from the consequences of a character's action to create the character, as opposed to beginning with a character, moving to motivation, then to action and eventually to consequences. I tried as much as possible to follow the true-life story of Andrew Wyeth, Christina Olson and their relationship — but also Christina's life before he came into it.
About writing in general:
1. Do you have a favorite novel you've written? Why or why not?
My latest novel is always my favorite. I like to believe that I get better as I go along; I learn from experience. (With that said, some people insist that my first novel, Sweet Water, is my best.)
2. What is it about historical fiction that interests you? Why do you write in this genre?
I didn’t set out to write “historical fiction.” I don’t particularly like that classification, even. I just want to write stories about people’s inner lives, their motivations and obsessions, in any period. At the moment I’m writing another novel set in the past, but I’ll probably move to the present after this. I don’t want to be pigeonholed. I just want to write about what excites me.
3. What genre do you prefer to read?
I will read any genre as long as the writing is excellent. Well … I suppose I’m not a huge fan of fantasy and sci-fi. Books like The Martian and The Handmaid’s Tale, which brush those categories, are about as far as I’ll go. Station Eleven, another genre-bending novel, is one of my all-time favorites.
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