The painter, the muse and the novelist Christina Baker Kline
IF YOU GO …
Who: Christina Baker Kline, presented by Aspen Words
Where: Paepcke Auditorium
When: Tuesday, Feb. 20, 6 p.m.
How much: $25
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com
Christina Baker Kline’s latest novel opens with one of the great teasers in contemporary literature. In the prologue to “A Piece of the World,” the artist Andrew Wyeth asks the book’s narrator, Christina Olson, who she is and she responds: “(W)e’ll have to start with the witches. And then the drowned boys. The shells from distant lands, a whole room full of them. The Swedish sailor marooned on ice …”
If that doesn’t get you to turn the page, well, nothing will.
The book, recently released in paperback, tells the surprising story behind the making of Wyeth’s iconic painting, “Christina’s World,” depicting a woman — her back to the viewer — gazing across a desolate field toward a farmhouse.
The woman is Olson, who narrates Baker Kline’s fictionalized version of her hardscrabble life and her relationship with Wyeth, who arrived on the Olson family farm in rural Maine in 1939 and would go on to paint “Christina’s World” in 1948.
Baker Kline, who will speak Tuesday at the Winter Words author series, grew up in Maine in a home where “Christina’s World” hung on the wall. But the entry point for this research-heavy project, she said, was writing her previous book, the runaway global bestseller “Orphan Train.”
“I learned a lot about early- to mid-20th century America and I became particularly interested in rural life — how people got by and what emotional tools they needed to survive,” she said in a recent phone interview while driving to New Haven, Connecticut, where her son was directing a musical at Yale.
After all of her research for “Orphan Train,” about the orphan children shipped from overcrowded cities on the eastern seaboard to the Midwest, Baker Kline recalled, she wanted to dwell in that world. As she was mulling different stories set in that milieu, she said, a friend mentioned that she’d thought of Kline when she’d seen “Christina’s World” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In that moment the book that would become “A Piece of the World” materialized in her imagination, Baker Kline said.
“I knew instantly,” she said. “I’ve never had that before, where it was like, ‘Wow, this is what I’m going to write a book about. This is my novel.’”
Olson proved to be a complex subject. A degenerative ailment, which went undiagnosed, left her without the ability to walk. But she refused to use a wheelchair or crutches, pulling herself on the ground with her arms instead. She was pulled out of school at age 12 to do domestic work. And she spent nearly her whole life in the small farmhouse in Wyeth’s painting. Baker Kline sought to portray her rich interior life, as perhaps Wyeth sought to through the years he spent painting her.
“I wanted to capture this smart and ambitious person who had been thwarted at every turn,” Baker Kline said.
How she did it will be the subject of Baker Kline’s talk in Aspen. She’ll give a slideshow presentation about Wyeth, Olson and how she came to write “A Piece of the World.”
Baker Kline said she was surprised by how bound she felt to the historical record while writing the book. She took less creative license than she thought she would when she began it.
“It became a kind of straitjacket,” she said. “It was an incredibly uncomfortable experience as a novelist. … There are people in the book that are still alive, living as humans on Earth. And a lot of people care deeply about the Wyeth legacy. So it would be irresponsible of me to misrepresent him as a real person.”
Writing in the first-person from Olson’s perspective, she also wanted to stay true to Olson’s shrewd and stubborn personality.
“I was looking at her from the inside, so I had a lot of latitude,” Baker Kline said. “But she did things in real life that I would never choose for a character to do. She was unsympathetic in many ways. So I had to find the humanity in her and that was the biggest challenge.”
Surprisingly, she said, the phenomenal commercial success of “Orphan Train” didn’t raise the stakes for writing its successor.
“Everyone asks, ‘Did you feel pressure to sell another 4 million copies?’ Absolutely not,” Baker Kline said. “I will never do that again. That was a fluke. I’m glad it happened to me, it was a crazy experience and that’s lovely, but it doesn’t need to happen again.”
Between fiction, nonfiction and editing, she noted, she’d published nine books before “Orphan Train.” So she knew what she was doing as a writer. A blockbuster didn’t change that. The book did, however, raise her public profile. And Baker Kline is determined to use the platform she’s been given.
In the fall, as the #MeToo movement took off and sexual misconduct of powerful men came to light in nearly every American industry, Baker Kline was one of several women to accuse former president George H.W. Bush of inappropriate touching. She wrote an essay in Slate about Bush groping her as they posed for a photo at a fundraiser in 2014. The allegations kicked off one of the thornier segments of the movement, as many questioned whether Bush — elderly, wheelchair-bound and afflicted with Parkinson’s — could have intentionally assaulted women.
Whether it’s going public about her experience with Bush or advocating for the rights of immigrants during her talks about “Orphan Train,” Baker Kline said that critics won’t shake her resolve to speak out.
“I don’t care about alienating anyone, so that’s not something that concerns me,” she said. “I’m not going to not speak up because I’m worried about alienating anyone in the audience.”
Kline said she’s currently at work on a novel about “the convict women who transformed Australia,” set among the women taken from England to Australia in the mid-19th century. The new Australia novel, she said, is touching on many of the issues around patriarchy and gender roles currently at issue in the United States.
She’s hoping to take a break from historical fiction after that one is done.
“My next novel’s going to be set in the present,” she said with a laugh. “I’m done with all this massive research for the time being.”
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