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Exclusive Interview with the #1 Bestselling Author of ORPHAN TRAIN

by Mary Yuhas

Number one New York Times-bestselling author of five novels Christina Baker Kline has spun a tale of neglect that resonates from a forgotten corner of American history to the present day.

LitVote:   How did you come to write about the orphan trains?

Christina:  I stumbled on to the story of the orphan trains a decade ago. I was stunned to learn that more than 200,000 abandoned, neglected, or orphaned children had been sent from the East Coast to the Midwest on trains between 1854 and 1929.  The idea of writing about this little-known part of American history percolated for years. About three years ago, I found the key: an appealingly irascible 17-year-old with nothing to lose who pries the story out of a 91-year-old with a hidden past as a train rider. I read more than 300 first-person accounts and dozens of books, attended train-rider reunions, and talked with half a dozen train riders (all between the ages of 90 and 100), and conducted research in Ireland, Minnesota, Maine, and [New York City’s] Lower East Side.

LitVote: The dialogue in your books is so good.  What’s your secret to creating believable exchanges between characters?

Christina:  Dialogue is hard to get right. It has to sound like natural speech, when in fact it’s nothing like it. When you write dialogue, you have to eliminate niceties and unnecessary patter and cut to the core of the exchange — unless the patter is crucial to the story, conveying a dissembling, depressed, incoherent, or boring personality.  (The writer George Garrett called this “dovetailing.”)  At the same time, it has to sound natural, like something someone would really say.

LitVote:  How do you get into the writing mood?

Christina:  When I’m starting work on a novel I gather scraps like a magpie. On the Orphan Train board I hung a hand-carved Celtic cross on a green ribbon and a stone shamrock on a red ribbon from Galway; a Native American dream catcher from Maine; a silver train pin from a New York Train Riders’ reunion in Little Falls, Minnesota; postcards from Ireland and from the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side.  I tacked up note cards: “FOOD IN IRELAND 1900s” was one (“wheatmeal, hung beef, tongue, barley …”). Another listed ideas I wanted to explore (“links between misplaced and abandoned people with little in common”).  On one card I scribbled a quote from a speaker at a Foundling Hospital reunion I attended in 2009, Wendy Freund: “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.” That quote informed the central themes of the novel.

LitVote:  How much time do you spend writing?

Christina:  I’m strict with myself: I try to finish four pages a day, 20 pages a week. (I write longhand, which I know is odd.)  If I’m engrossed in my story I can write a page standing at the stove, or on the sidelines of a soccer game, or on the subway. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this three-ring circus that is my life, it’s that I’ve got to grab the moment as it presents itself.

LitVoteOrphan Train is a trade paperback release and Target is one of the major outlets. That is not a conventional route to the Best Seller List.

Christina:  No — and I wasn’t planning to publish in paperback. My editor at William Morrow, a HarperCollins imprint, came to me last summer and said that they felt that releasing my new novel, “Orphan Train,” as a paperback original would allow them opportunities for distribution that they wouldn’t get in hardcover. The choice was mine, she said. But I knew this was only partially true. My third novel – published, like my others, in hardcover and then in paperback – had been a regional success, but I’d tried Morrow’s patience with my fourth, which sold modestly. If I wanted to keep publishing novels with a so-called “big five” publisher – an increasingly difficult proposition in this time of turmoil in the industry – it was clear that something had to change.

LitVote:  How well did that strategy work?

Christina:  The success of this novel has far surpassed anything I’ve done before, though of course there’s no way of knowing if the book would’ve taken off in hardcover. It probably wasn’t reviewed in as many national places, though space is so tight and book reviews are so scarce that there’s no guarantee of that in hardcover, either. (It did get a Times review and many others.)  I’m on panels and at conferences with respectable quote-unquote literary writers. So — who knows?  Certainly this novel’s reception has revitalized my career.  Let’s face it: it’s a bleak time for hardcover literary fiction.  It’s estimated that half to three-quarters of hardcovers shipped to stores are returned unsold to the publisher. It’s hard selling books in general:  companies are merging, editors being laid off, bricks-and-mortar bookstores closing, large chain bookstores squeezing out independents and online retailers squeezing out chain bookstores. Convincing people to shell out $25 for a hardcover book they’ve never heard of is very different from asking them to spend $12 or $15.

LitVote:  What advice do you give to aspiring writers?

Christina:  Write, write, write.  Finish a draft.  Revise.  Revise again.  Keep going even when you want to despair.  (I always think of Winnie-the-Pooh stuck in the rabbit hole: he can’t go back, so he has to go forward.  At a certain point in the process of writing a novel it feels that way to me. Every time.)  The single most important thing is to FINISH.  Many extremely talented writers I know and have taught can’t seem to finish a manuscript. At a certain point they abandon it and start over. The dream is always so much more perfect than the reality.

LitVote:  What’s in your future?

Christina:  The novel I’m working on now is inspired by the iconic and haunting American painting Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth, which hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC.  Christina was a real person with an incredibly interesting life and history. The strange, forbidding house in the painting is on a remote point on the coast of Maine.  I spent time there last summer.  I want to tell Christina’s story: what was she doing in that field?  What was she looking for? What did she find?

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Christina has had five New York Times #1 bestsellers: Orphan Train, Bird in Hand, The Way Life Should Be, Desire Lines, and Sweet Water. She’s also the author/editor of five nonfiction books.  Writer-in-Residence at Fordham University from 2007-2011, she is a recent recipient of a Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation Fellowship and several research fellowships to Ireland and Minnesota, and has been a Writer-in-Residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.  She lives with her husband and three sons near New York City, and spends as much time as possible on the coast of Maine, where she grew up.  

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Author Mary Yuhas, has over 80,000 reads on Scribd of the first three chapters of her memoir, Quit and Be Quiet, about growing up with a severely mentally ill mother.

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