Apr 19th 2014

Interview With Christina Baker Kline: #1 New York Times Bestselling Author of Orphan Train

by Loren Kleinman

Loren Kleinman’s poetry has appeared in journals such as Nimrod, Wilderness House Literary Review, Paterson Literary Review, Narrative Northeast and Journal of New Jersey Poets. Her interviews appeared in IndieReader, USA Today, and The Huffington Post. She is the author of Flamenco Sketches and Indie Authors Naked, which was an Amazon Top 100 bestseller in Journalism in the UK and USA. Her second poetry collection The Dark Cave Between My Ribs releases in 2014 (Winter Goose Publishing). She is currently working on a literary romance novel, This Way to Forever. Loren’s website is: lorenkleinman.com.

Christina Baker Kline is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Orphan Trainand four other novels: Bird in Hand, The Way Life Should Be, Desire Lines and Sweet Water. She lives outside of New York City.

Loren Kleinman (LK): Your books explore the "legacy of trauma." Talk about how trauma contributes to our life's story. In other words, how does trauma define our lives? And is there the possibility to love and live again after trauma?

Christina Baker Kline (CBK): Most people are remarkably resilient. Even those who have been through war or great loss often find reservoirs of strength. But the legacy of trauma is a heavy burden to bear. In Orphan Train, I wanted to write about how traumatic events beyond our control can shape and define our lives. "People who cross the threshold between the known world and that place where the impossible does happen discover the problem of how to convey that experience," the novelist Kathryn Harrison wrote. Many train riders were ashamed of this part of their past, and carried the secret of it for decades, and sometimes until they died. Over the course of Orphan Train Vivian moves from shame about her past to acceptance, eventually coming to terms with what she's been through. In the process she learns about the regenerative power of claiming -- and telling -- one's life story. Perhaps the main message of my novel is that shame and secrecy can keep us from becoming our full selves. It's not until we speak up that we can move past the pain and step forward. And yes -- you can learn to love and live again.

LK: I also explore the fallout of traumatic events. I was initially attracted to the idea of trauma narratives after experiencing a particular personal trauma. I can say that the trauma prompted another life course, but I'm not sure it defined me. I'm still exploring that through therapy and time. What attracted you to writing about trauma? Do you consider trauma an illusion? Does it have to control us?

CBK: As a novelist I have always been interested in how people come to terms with difficult, life-altering events. I am intrigued by the spaces between words, the silences that conceal long-kept secrets, the complexities that lie beneath the surface. How do people tell the stories of their lives and what do those stories reveal, intentionally or not, about who they are? I don't think that trauma is an illusion; there is no question in my mind that circumstances beyond our control can shape and define us. But ultimately we make choices about letting ourselves be defined by our pasts.

LK: Let's talk about Orphan Train. You mention rootlessness being a major theme of the book, which seems a result or symptom of being an orphan. Do you agree? Does one have to experience abandonment to feel a sense of rootlessness?

CBK: Many people, for many reasons, feel rootless -- but orphans and abandoned or abused children have particular cause. I think I was drawn to the orphan train story in part because two of my own grandparents were orphans who spoke little about their early lives. My own background is partly Irish, and so I decided that I wanted to write about an Irish girl who has kept silent about the circumstances that led her to the orphan train.

LK: Was Vivian Daly, the first-person speaker of Orphan Train, rootless? Do you consider such rootlessness traumatic for the narrator? How do you identify with her and her experience? How does she recover?

CBK: Despite having lived in many places, Vivian can't really call any of them home: Ireland, New York, the Midwest, even Maine, where she ends up. Until she learns the truth about her past, she doesn't feel particularly connected to anyone or anywhere. But eventually she begins to connect with Molly, a 17-year-old Penobscot Indian foster child. Vivian is a wealthy 91-year-old widow, and at first it seems they have nothing in common. But as I wrote my way into the narrative I could see that in addition to some biographical parallels -- both characters have dead fathers and institutionalized mothers; both were passed from home to home and encountered prejudice because of cultural stereotypes; both held onto talismanic keepsakes from family members -- they are psychologically similar. For both of them, change has been a defining principle; from a young age, they had to learn to adapt, to inhabit new identities. They've spent much of their lives minimizing risk, avoiding complicated entanglements, and keeping silent about the past. It's not until Vivian -- in answer to Molly's pointed questions -- begins to face the truth about what happened long ago that both of them have the courage to make changes in their lives.

The necklaces the women wear become the catalyst for connection between them, though I didn't originally intend to give both of them necklaces with metaphorical significance. In my research I learned that though children weren't allowed to bring anything with them on the orphan trains, some did smuggle small keepsakes. These became increasingly important to them as the years went by. In Galway I went into the small corner shop where the Claddagh, a traditional Irish emblem with two hands encircling a heart, was invented and realized that I'd found my Irish-immigrant character Vivian's keepsake. Later, researching Maine Penobscot Indian legends, I discovered that certain animals -- a fish, a raven, a bear -- have specific powers and talismanic significance. These, I knew, would be important to my half-Native American character, Molly.

As I wrote the novel I wove the stories together so that they contained echoes of, and references to, each other. Vivian's grandmother gives her a Claddagh necklace in one section, and then pages later Molly comments on the necklace in the present-day story. Vivian later notes the charms around Molly's neck. I didn't want the references to be too literal or overt. But the necklaces became a way to connect my characters literally through touch and figuratively through a shared depth of feeling.

Though I am not much like either of these characters, I found myself identifying with (and rooting for!) each of them as the story progressed.

LK: Do you consider Vivian a survivor or a victim? Why? Why not?

CBK: She, like most of us, contains multitudes. She is both.

LK: Are you a survivor?

CBK: I actually prefer the term "veteran." I am a veteran of trauma and many other things.

Christina Baker Kline

To follow Loren Kleinman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@LorenKleinman

For Loren Kleinmann's website please click here.

For Christina Baler Kline's website please click here.


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Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."