By GWEN OREL
Some portraits ask questions: What is behind Mona Lisa’s smile?
Another: What is Christina thinking as she looks up at the house and barn?
“Christina,” Anna Christina Olson, is the woman in Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World”: she lies in a field, looking up at two weathered buildings, her back to the viewer.
The 1948 painting is one of the most recognizable works of 20th-century art. It lives permanently in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City,
For Montclair novelist Christina Baker Kline, the painting was also a mystery.
“I wanted to capture something that was timeless, in a way,” Kline said, relaxing in her elegant living room. She’s lived in Montclair since 1997. “I don’t feel even that it’s set in history. I wanted to show what it was like to live a solitary life in a place fairly remote, and be left to your own devices. The world comes to you. That’s what happens to Christina in this novel.”
SPEEDING UP ‘ORPHAN TRAIN’
Kline’s book “A Piece of the World” was published on Feb. 21. Kline discussed the book, and gave a presentation about it, at the Montclair Public Library’s “Open Book” series on Feb. 24. There had been a lot of advance buzz about the novel — Kline’s 2013 novel “Orphan Train” was on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two years, and sold more than 3 million copies in 40 countries. That novel tells the story of an Irish immigrant child on what were known as the “orphan trains,” which took orphaned or abandoned — mostly immigrant — children from the East Coast to the Midwest, and of a contemporary 17-year-old Penobscot Indian foster child in Maine — and how their lives unexpectedly intertwine.
“Before ‘Orphan Train’ my most successful book sold about 35,000 copies, which I thought was amazing, the best I could ever hope for. The publisher seemed fine with it too. But I also wanted to be able to write a book that sold 5,000 copies, which is why I worked as a teacher and editor too.” She has edited collections of pieces about raising young children, about women’s self-image, about grieving.
“I have two boys in college, and I travel all over the country talking to university students,” she said, pointing out how many colleges had picked “Orphan Train” as “One Book, One Read.” My message to them is — I tell my boys — follow your creative passion, but always have a marketable skill.” For Kline, English literature was that skill, enabling her to become an editor and teacher. But, she said, her first love is fiction. With fiction, she always writes her first draft longhand. “I feel that the tactile experience of writing on a page is very important to me.” The spare yet elegant sentences on the book were “hard won. I would like to say they came out fully formed, but they didn’t.”
ALLEGIANCE TO FACTS
For the author, “A Piece of the World” has roots in her own experience. Like Christina Olson, Kline grew up in Maine — just about an hour and a half from the Olson house, in fact. “My parents were sort of counter-culture in the ’60s and ’70s,” she said. They leased a tiny island in Maine from a paper mill company “for I think $50 a year, on a 100-year lease,” with a frame house. There was no running water, no electricity, no heat. Like Christina Olson, the family used a pump for water. “We lived like she did, in this primitive way that was actually pretty livable. People lived that way for many many centuries. It was fun to explore what it was like to live before modern amenities. People still do that, live off the grid today.”
The poet May Sarton, who lived in Maine off the grid and wrote about “being alone on the East coast,” influenced Kline as well.
In the presentation that Kline recently gave at the Montclair Public Library, and which she used to close the Savannah Book Festival last month, she talked about how she found the idea of fictionalizing Christina Olson’s story, what her early connections were, and how “the story became the story.”
In the author’s note in the novel, Kline describes how her father told her that the woman in the painting reminded him of her, and how as a child she made up stories about the woman in the pink dress. A few months after “Orphan Train” came out, a friend said that she’d seen the painting at MoMA and thought of her. “Instantly, I knew I’d found my subject,” Kline writes.
“It took me really a year and a bit to write the first draft. I revised it so much,” Kline said. “It was a very hard book to write, the hardest book I’ve ever written.”
One reason writing the novel was difficult was that it was based on real people, some of whom are still alive. “That I will never do again,” Kline said with a smile. “It felt so … so scary to be writing about people who actually exist. I felt a great allegiance to facts. With ‘Orphan Train’ and ‘A Piece of the World’ I adhered as closely as possible to the actual story.”
Fortunately, the people connected to “A Piece of the World” have given her positive feedback. She has even been invited to give a lecture at the Brandywine Conservancy and Museum of Art in Pennsylvania, which houses the Wyeth Studio.
The other difficulty writing the book was that the story was “so interior. Everything that happens in the book happens, through my own sheer will. It’s not because there was a plot point that makes it move forward. In ‘Orphan Train,’ I had an actual train moving through the narrative which moved my story forward. It was easy for it to progress. With ‘A Piece of the World,’ I had to create every bit of forward motion.”
And yet, she stressed, “Everything that happens, happened. The question is how Christina, in my rendering, experiences it. And that’s my creative addition. The truth is, the stories are true.”
THE SECOND KIND OF STORY
“‘A Piece of the World’,” Kline said, is “an interior story. It’s a story about a woman who’s increasingly disabled, and doesn’t have much mobility, so she can’t go anywhere.”
Researchers today speculate that Olson suffered from Charcot–Marie–Tooth disease, a genetic illness that involves the nervous system, loss of muscle and sense of touch across the entire body.
Kline said, “You know, they say there are two kinds of stories: The person sets off on a journey. Or, the stranger comes to town. This is ‘a stranger comes to town’ story. At the end there’s a line in the novel where she says, ‘the stranger at the door may hold the key to the rest of your life,’ something like that. That’s what the book is about, how she’s sort of there.
“And people come and her life is transformed, but she doesn’t really have much autonomy. It’s a philosophical meditation, in a way, on what it means to be human. That’s what her mission is: ‘Where do I fit into the world? Here I am, alone on this remote point in Maine. What does my life mean?’ It’s both really hard, and also really exciting to explore those questions.”
Kline met Olson family members in the course of her research, and also met the daughter of Richard Meryman, author of “Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life,” the biography the author said she considered her Bible when she wrote the book. “I feel like I’ve done a Ph.D. on this book,” Kline said. Sometime in the future she may write a contemporary story – just for a change.
As for the “stranger who comes to town”: in the book there are two, Andrew Wyeth and Walton, a suitor from Harvard.
The book starts in the ’40s, and alternates with chapters of young Christina growing up. Structuring the novel that way was a suggestion of her editor, Kline said. So the reader knows from the beginning that Christina Olson is a spinster, as she calls herself, and that she’s lame, and lives in an old house. Kline found that readers at the American Booksellers Association Winter Institute in Minneapolis, who had read advanced copies enjoyed the back-and-forth structure. Some people did not know the painting, she said. “If you haven’t seen the painting, I still think the book exists on its own.” That was part of the challenge of the novel, she said, writing about a person who’s forged her own path, not about the painting.
“What was important was what gave her humanity and empathy. I wanted to show what we are reduced to when we are fully ourselves, what we become.
“It’s the most personal book to me, and yet it has nothing to do with me,” Kline said. “I’m not Christina, but I inhabited her charcter so fully when I was writing it that it feels like my philosophy.”
“A Piece of the World”
by Christina Baker Kline
Most summer days, around midmorning, when heat thickens over the fields like a gelatin, Andy is at the door. There’s a new intensity to his demeanor; his son Nicky is almost three years old and Betsy is pregnant again, due in a month. Andy needs, he says, to produce some work that will support his growing family.
Sketch pad, paint-smeared fingers, eggs in his pocket. He kicks his boots off and roams around the house and fields in his bare feet. Makes his way to the second floor and moves from one bedroom to another, trudges up another flight to a long-closed room. I can hear him opening windows on the third floor that haven’t been cracked in years, grunting at the effort.
I think of his presence up there as a paperweight holding down this wispy old house, pinning it to the field so it doesn’t blow away.