A Famous “World”–Revisited in Christina Baker Kline

In a new novel, Orphan Train author Christina Baker Kline uses a celebrated painting as her canvas.

Montclair author Christina Baker Kline found the muse for her latest novel in a painting by Andrew Wyeth.
Montclair author Christina Baker Kline found the muse for her latest novel in a painting by Andrew Wyeth.
Photo by Karin Diana

Author Christina Baker Kline has been living in Montclair for 19 years, but if you’re new in town, you probably haven’t seen her around.

Blame it on Orphan Train, her 2013 novel. The book spent just over two years on the New York Times best-seller list and has sold 3 million copies.

“I might have been on the road for 100 events last year, and that’s a couple of years after the book came out. That’s crazy,” says Kline on a November afternoon at Tiny Elephant, the café attached to Watchung Booksellers in Montclair.

She doesn’t mean crazy exhausting, though there’s a bit of that. She means crazy in the sense of the unexpected. Kline has written six novels and five nonfiction books, including A Piece of the World—her latest work of fiction, due this month from HarperCollins. To date,  nothing has sold like Orphan Train. The book is based on a little-known chapter of American history between 1854 and 1929, when abandoned children seeking new lives rode trains from East Coast cities to the farmlands of the Midwest.

“My last, most commercially successful novel sold about 35,000 copies,” Kline says. That book, The Way Life Should Be, came out in 2007. “I dreamed that someday I might sell 50,000 copies of Orphan Train, if only to keep being able to publish.”

Orphan Train, by way of its Acela Express-like roar through the book-buying landscape, has all but erased future book-deal worries. The events Kline did last year included stops across the country to discuss the novel at more than 100 communities and campuses that chose it for group-read programs. She’s also traveled to some of the 40 countries where it’s been translated. The book has been optioned for a Hollywood movie.

But the 52-year-old mother of three has avoided dwelling on the Orphan Train fanfare as she prepares to promote A Piece of the World, about the relationship between the American painter Andrew Wyeth and the subject of his best-known painting, Christina’s World. Even a bullet train, she figures, has to stop somewhere.

“Nobody ever follows up a really big book with another book that does as well. Look at books like Water for Elephants and Eat, Pray, Love. You could name many, many books where that’s the case. It doesn’t really happen unless you write the same book over and over, or you write books that appeal to the same exact demographic as the last book,” she says.

Do-overs, however, are not her style.

“All of my novels are different. I’m sure that makes it hard on my publisher,” Kline says. “But I don’t care. It’s more important to me not to rot in a specific market than to sell a lot of books. I won’t be disappointed if this isn’t a huge success,” she says, thumping an advance reader’s copy of A Piece of the World sitting on the café table.

Kline will cop to wanting the book to feel authentic to art lovers and history buffs.

The new work, she says, “was the hardest book I’ve ever written, much harder than I thought it would be. I would have become an accountant if I knew writing books could be this hard.”

The challenge was braiding history—specifically, a thin slice of history that took place in the tiny town of Cushing, Maine, in the early 1900s—with fiction.

“It’s about a real person who lived in the world, and a real artist whose relatives are still alive. Andrew Wyeth’s wife is still alive, his children are still alive. And members of Christina Olson’s family are still alive,” says Kline. “I set myself the task of adhering to the facts of the story as much as I could.”
A further difficulty was the physical handicap of one of the central characters. “Christina Olson literally does not get up out of her chair,” Kline explains. “Nothing happens, so I had to create every second of drama. And my biggest problem when I’m reading books is I get bored easily by long passages, so I wanted this to be really tight, where you feel you’re moving fast from one scene to the next.”

She pulls that off through a pair of love stories, one romantic and  the other—the one between Wyeth and Olson—platonic.

“Christina Olson was someone who was cut off at every opportunity,” partly because of her  handicap (the cause of which was undetermined). “Wyeth saw her and realized the person she was,” says Kline. “I think he adored her. And I think he was the only person who understood her fully.”
Kline might be a close second.

Olson first entered Kline’s life when Kline was around 8. Her parents, professors whom she describes as “hippies who loved art and culture,” left their home in the South in the 1970s to raise her and her three sisters in England, later returning to the States and settling in Maine. Their art and culture quest brought them to the Olson House, now a museum in Cushing. Kline’s father, William Baker, later gave her a woodcut of  Christina’s World; the painting reminded Baker of his daughter. Then, around three years ago, she was having wine in Maplewood with her friend Marina Budhos, a local writer.

“We were throwing around the idea of writing about someone known, like an artist, because she knows a lot about Gauguin. She said, ‘I always wondered if you wanted to write about Christina’s World. For some reason that painting reminds me of you.’ She said it, and I was just like, absolutely. That’s my book. Nothing like that has ever happened to me before,” Kline says.

That moment of recognition may have had something to do with Olson’s temperament and character, which left a lasting impression. “I really love tough old broads,” Kline says.  “Someone once told me the best thing about getting reviews is they help you get to know what your themes are, and I think that’s true. I once read a review for one of my books that said, ‘She writes about old ladies.’ And I really do. I love old ladies.”

Kline did much of the writing in the 19th-century ship captain’s house in Southwest Harbor, Maine, where she spends a chunk of the summer. The house provides solitude that doesn’t come easily in Montclair, where Kline has cultivated a rich social life. She is part of a group of local women writers who meet every four to six weeks in a member’s home.

“We’ve been together since I moved here. We don’t show our work, we just talk about the business and commiserate. And everyone is really productive right now. It’s a really cool period where our kids are all getting older and going off to school, and we’re writing our butts off,” she says.

Two of Kline’s kids have already left what she calls the fishbowl, meaning Montclair’s deep suburbia, with its artistic community, progressive mindset and cultural offerings. She and her husband, David Kline, an executive at the Showtime network, have one son, Eli, 16, a junior at Montclair High, still at home. Their oldest, Hayden, 22, is currently taking a year off from Yale to sing and travel with the Whiffenpoofs, Yale’s a cappella group. Middle son Will, 20, is a junior at Duke.

“Now we have what feels like a lot of house,” says Kline. But she wouldn’t trade it. “Our life here has been very safe and manageable,” she says of Montclair.

The business of literary stardom feels more like a coin toss. Kline’s calendar is filled with engagements behind the new book, including a February 24 reading at the Montclair Public Library. But she’s not yet sure readers will love her hard-to-write novel and its hard-to-know main character as much as she does. “I’m grateful that the publisher is doing everything they can to give this book a shot,” she says.

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