By MORGAN STEWARD
Arts & Culture Co-Editor
When looking at Andrew Wyeth’s most famous painting “Christina’s World,” many questions come to mind. Who is that woman in the pale pink dress and why is she sitting—or perhaps collapsed—in the field? Where is that large grey farmhouse and why is it so isolated? These are the questions that best-selling novelist Christina Baker Kline answers in her newest work “A Piece of the World.”
Kline served as Fordham’s Writer-in-Residence from 2007-2011, where she taught both undergraduate and graduate level courses in creative writing.Her latest novel explores the life of Christina Olson, the subject of the aforementioned Wyeth painting. While Kline’s book is fiction, the characters and the circumstances she writes of are not. “A Piece of the World” is a gripping novel that explores Olson’s life as a pitied, debilitated woman in early 20th century America and the effect this constant mistreatment has on Olson’s temperament.
I got the chance to speak to Kline about her new novel, the draw of 20th century America and the unique challenges that writing a fiction memoir poses. Here’s what she had to say:
MORGAN STEWARD (MS): After reading “A Piece of the World,” one of the things I was really curious about was why you choose Christina Olson’s story. Out of every painting you could have researched, why did this one appeal to you?
CHRISTINA BAKER KLINE (CBK): Well as you probably noticed, my name is Christina for one thing and I grew up about an hour from where the story takes place in real life… My grandmother and my mother are also named Christina and my grandmother grew up pretty much at the same time period. So…there are a lot of resonances with me. Also I had written this novel “Orphan Train” which takes place in kind of the same time period, the early 20th century. So I had learned a lot about that time period. I wanted to stick with it and stay in that moment, so that is what I did.
MS: Before doing your research for this novel were you already interested in Andrew Wyeth’s artwork? Or did you pick the story and then start looking into his work?
CBK: I had grown up seeing that painting when I was young. It was also sort of widely popular when I was growing up. You know a lot of girls had it on their walls, it was a poster people had. It was just a well known image and I didn’t know much about Andrew Wyeth beyond that until I started going to museums and learning about him, about who he was and what the whole story was. So, I guess I would say I learned about the painting first.
MS: In the back of “A Piece of the World,” you make it very clear that this is by no means a biography of Christina Olson, but instead just a fictionalized account of her life. That being said, how much of the story was true? Or rather, how much creative freedom did you take when presenting the life of Christina in your novel?
CBK: I set myself the task that as much as possible the story would be factually accurate. It’s an internal story, first person narration, so of course I channeled her—I was not really inside of her head in real life. I made that up. But, the facts of the story are pretty true. And as much as possible I worked with them. I wasn’t making up a lot. Well, I mean I was making up a lot but there are certain people in her life that wrote about her, like her niece Jean Olson. [She wrote] kind of a biography about her and it’s very very short. So Jean Olson might have two lines about something and then I turn that into a whole chapter… But, the reason I did it was really that there are a lot of people still alive who were in the book. The story of Christina Olson… a lot of people will only know her personal story because I wrote it. So, I wanted people to feel like they were really getting the facts of what her life was like.
MS: You just mentioned that a lot of people in the story are still alive today. So does that mean that characters like Mrs. Crowley and Gertrude were real people, or were those characters that you invented?
CBK: Gertrude is an interesting one because she is [real]. The story of their relationship is [real]. The fact that Christina stopped speaking to her, that all really happened. But, …I changed her name, which I normally don’t do. Many of the people in the book have their real names, but I changed her name in that bit because in order to make it believable that Christina would never speak to her best friend again (even though that really happened) I had to kind of give her cause for that. And the cause was that Gertrude was actually not that nice a person. So I didn’t want to slander a real person by making her story negative when I don’t really know the facts of it. Does that make sense?
MS: Yes, that makes complete sense. That was one thing that I was wondering as I was reading the novel—how many of these people were real in Christina’s life versus who you planted there to help tell her story. So that was really interesting.
CBK: It’s a very small cast of characters as you know. Most of them are real, yeah. Christina lived on this farm and there weren’t many people around. She had these brothers, and parents, and a few townspeople. Then some people kind of came into her life, like Walton, and all of those people are real. So I didn’t really make up very much in terms of characters in the book because there just really aren’t that many characters.
MS: One thing that I also noticed reading through the novel was that the poems of Emily Dickinson played a significant part in Christina’s life as she was finding herself. Is Emily Dickinson a “character” that you planted in Christina’s life or was the real Christina Olson interested in her poetry?
CBK: Yeah, that’s a great question. Emily Dickinson was conjecture on my part. Christina was known as a big reader. She loved to read, and all of this stuff about how she was taken out of school when she was 12 years old, that was true. I knew that Emily Dickinson was popular at the time, and so was Willa Cather whom I also read about, so that was conjecture that she would have been reading Emily Dickinson. But I imagine that she may well have been doing that.
MS: Did you choose Emily Dickinson over Willa Cather just because you have a personal preference for Dickinson or out of all of the popular poets of that day?
CBK: Well if you think about it, and Christina makes the analogy herself, Emily Dickinson is really similar to her. She lived in a home with her family, she never really left. She had this kind of secret inner life— she might have had her heart broken at a certain point. She was kind of left to her own devices. She was kind of sickly in the way that Christina was, so I think my identification with Emily Dickinson for Christina was pretty overt. I mean they’re so similar in some ways that it seemed natural to me that Christina might identify with Emily Dickinson. And I really like her poetry which is about solitude and rural ife and gardens and flowers and all these metaphors that come from that kind of simple existence.
MS: You grew up very close to where this story actually took place. Throughout the writing process, did you return home and travel out to any of these historical places to really get a feel for the environment Christina lived in?
CBK: Oh for sure! I grew up in Maine about an hour and a half from where the house is. I went back to the house and I got to know these tour guides who work there, two in particular, that were really helpful. I [went] there and this woman, this tour guide, took me aside and slipped me her card and said I have all of this information if you want to talk further. And I did. I reached out to her right away and we became really good friends. This other tour guide also reached out and so we became friends. The two of them introduced me to other people, like family members, who could help me and things like that. I interviewed a lot of people and in some ways I treated it like a nonfiction book even though I think when you read it, it is clearly not a nonfiction book. You know, it’s a novel—it’s this woman’s personal story. It would be impossible to write nonfiction unless you were actually her in that way. As time went on, I felt this responsibility to try to be accurate because when you finish this novel you are left with this impression of this women and I wanted it to be kind of accurate.
MS: One thing that I noticed about Christina throughout the book was that, well she obviously did lead a very hard life with her physical ailment, but at times she is portrayed as bitter, although I am not sure if that is the appropriate adjective, and cold. Were you afraid at all that as readers are reading this they might start to dislike Christina for how bitter she becomes?
CBK: Yeah, there were some things that happened in her real life that I would never as a novelist had chosen for my character to do because it made her seem so unsympathetic. But, it was such an interesting task for me. It was such a harder job for me to create the world backwards in that way, to create motivation for her that would help you understand why she acted the way she did. If I had been writing this story myself from scratch without the real historical story, I probably would have told it differently. To me, that’s one of the things that ultimately makes the book more interesting than I would have even imagined. It is not predictable because life isn’t predictable. Things happen to Christina or she does things that you might not have predicted because she was this individual, feisty, complicated stubborn woman. But you know, my job is to make it believable for the reader… I had to make you believe that she is capable of doing that.
MS: Well I definitely think you sold it, I believed it completely. All of these people in Christina’s world seemed to live outlandish lives as well. Her father immigrated from Sweden, her family played an important role in the Salem Witch Trials and she is even related to Nathaniel Hawthorne. As you were doing this research, was there any one character that you wish you could have spent a little more time on, but in the end you couldn’t because it’s not their story it’s Christina’s?
CBK: That is the best question ever because I wrote specifically this at the beginning [of the novel] about the Salem Witch Trials and about her father stranded on ice. We decided to cut it because it wasn’t quite her story. I wrote it at the very beginning because I was just getting into it. So that section is actually going to be published on…LitHub (an online newsletter that gets sent to your inbox)… [as] a short story. But, that story that whole crazy background about the Salem Witch Trials and her father…I could have written a whole book about her father. [His] coming over and what it was like to be this Swedish sailor who didn’t speak English. He was pretty calculating actually to look up at that house on the hill and decide that’s my ticket. He definitely had a plan.