The Booktopia Book Guru asks
Christina Baker Kline
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in Cambridge, England. My father was a country boy from the red clay hills of Georgia, the first person in his entire family tree to go to college; improbably, he earned a PhD at Cambridge and became a British labor historian. My mother came from a long line of educators in North Carolina. Despite their different backgrounds, my parents shared a love of literature and travel and music and social justice. We spent years going back and forth from England to the American South before finally settling in Maine, where I mostly grew up. My own post-secondary education I now see as a funhouse mirror of my childhood: I went to Yale, returned to Cambridge to do a master’s in literature, and then back to the South, to UVA, for a MFA in fiction writing.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
I suppose I always wanted to be a writer. I am terrible at many things, but I do have one skill: I’m quite a good editor, and I enjoy it. So though at twelve I imagined myself as a writer, by eighteen I more realistically (and quite happily) dreamed of becoming a book or magazine editor. Luck and happenstance led me to publish my first novel in my mid-twenties to some acclaim, thereby perpetuating the dangerous impression that writing novels was a viable profession.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I thought that my mother – thin, healthy, brimming with life — would far outlive my father, who had scarlet fever as a child that weakened his heart. The doctor told him he wouldn’t live to be forty. Well, my mother died last year at 73 of complications from an unexpected stroke, and my 76-year-old (potbellied, whiskey-drinking, red-meat-eating) father is still going strong. With a 58-year-old girlfriend, to boot. There’s a lesson in this, but I’m not sure what it is.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
This is cheating a bit, but the three plays that make up Aeschylus’s Oresteia – Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Furies – rocked my world when I read them at Cambridge. They deeply influenced the structure and tenor of my first novel, Sweet Water. “The house itself, could it take voice, might speak aloud and plain” – these words, spoken by a watchman at the beginning of the trilogy, encapsulate the themes and preoccupations of my novels: family history, secret-keeping, the search for home.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I’m a terrible singer, and despite years of piano lessons I never developed the slightest flair for music. I’m a mediocre painter, a pathetically bad actor, a ho-hum poet, a slapdash journalist. Really, what’s left?
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?
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope readers come away with some thoughts about the human experience that hadn’t occurred to them before. And this is kind of touchy-feely, but I hope they are inspired to think about their own lives and relationships.
As the mother of three boys I admire Kate Chopin, who wrote anywhere and everywhere, with kids underfoot and dinner bubbling on the stove. Her example inspired me to forge ahead when it would’ve been far easier not to write.
Really, I admire anyone who actually finishes a book and puts it out in the world. It’s harder than it looks!
And oh yeah, George Eliot.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
Several years ago – when my fourth novel had just come out – I was at a party with a Very Famous Writer, and while I was standing in a small group with her I realized she was thinking, “Who the hell is this person and why is she speaking to me?” I had a Scarlett O’Hara fist-shaking moment (inside; in reality I slunk away): As God is my witness, I’ll never be anonymous again! If I’m going to spend my life at my desk, goddamn it, WRITING, I want at least to be known and respected by – and in conversation with – other writers. Tragically unambitious, I know, but it’s the truth. I’d like to be part of the cultural conversation, or at least a cultural conversation at a cocktail party.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
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.
Christina, thank you for playing.