One night, summoned by the dinner bell, we met up at our studio doors. “You’re so quiet in there. Are you working?” I blurted with characteristic tact. I expected an invitation to fuck off, but Christina laughed and invited me in. I observed the neatly made daybed, the desk stacked with books, the overstuffed easy chair with white lined pad and rollerball pen perched on its wide arm. “No computer?” I asked. “I write longhand,” Christina answered. She held up the pad, its pages blistered by layers of black ink, laced with cross-outs and insertions.
Some slacker. By the time our four-week residencies were over, Christina had filled a pile of pads with the draft of a 300-page novel. Like her previous books — and like the vast majority of books published in America — it was published to little fanfare and modest sales.
Then in 2013, Orphan Train changed Christina Baker Kline’s career, and her life. Her first work of historical fiction, Orphan Train was an instant best seller that spawned a small empire: a major motion picture deal, a Young Adult version (Orphan Train Girl), and as of today, more than four million copies sold in 40 countries. Although Orphan Train differs in genre from Christina’s previous works, it bears her unmistakable stamp: intelligently and meticulously constructed and lyrically written, with characters that seem to leap to life on the page, speaking in a chorus of distinct but harmonious voices. So why Orphan Train, I wondered, and not the novels that came before?
And … what happens when a mid-list author suddenly hits the big time? Does it get easier, or harder, to write the books of her dreams? Does life get more interesting, or more complicated, or both? On the occasion of her third best seller, The Exiles (August 2020), I asked those questions of the affable, talented, and profoundly human Christina Baker Kline.
MEREDITH MARAN: Like the vast majority of published writers, you used to be a “mid-list author.” Did you write Orphan Train with the intention of writing a blockbuster hit? If so, what did you do differently to make that happen?
CHRISTINA BAKER KLINE: Years ago, Kathy Griffin had a reality show called My Life on the D-List, in which she cataloged the indignities of life as a not-quite-famous comedian. She’d go from a sold-out show where she was treated like a star to a hotel where she was ignored by the concierge. I always thought it would be entertaining to film my early book tours, which had a similar mix of heady moments and soul-crushing ones. Of course, writers are not celebrities; very few are physically recognizable. Even when I was in the white-hot center of the Orphan Train experience, it’s not like I was chased by paparazzi. But my public appearances — and pretty much everything else related to my professional life — changed dramatically.
I didn’t set out to write a blockbuster. Unless the author is a huge commercial success already, for a book to become a number-one best seller there must be a perfect storm of factors: timing, theme, cover image, publisher support, book-club enthusiasm, etc. If it were easy to predict or replicate, publishers would make it happen more often. This novel clearly hit a nerve: I wrote about a moment in American history that has been hidden in plain sight. There’s a lot to digest and discuss. People tell me they identify closely and strongly with one or the other of the main characters. And this book was more ambitious (a true historical event, a broader canvas, etc.) than my previous novels. But knowing — or thinking I know — what appeals to readers in that novel is no guarantee for the next.
After 20 years and eight books, how did it feel to have your first hit on your hands?
The outsize success of Orphan Train was entirely unexpected. My expectations — and frankly, everyone’s — were so modest that every little thing that happened was a delightful surprise. “Number 262 on the USA Today list? Amazing!” “Target’s buying 2,000 copies? Incredible!” Every day brought a dopamine ping. My publisher was happy; my editor was happy. I was happy to finally, I felt, justify their continued faith in me. It was a joy to be widely read and discussed, and for readers to discover my previous novels as well.
At the same time, though, I found the experience kind of excruciating. The novel stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for two years and spent more than a year in the top five. I felt guilty, which is different from feeling unworthy. None of us would be writers if we didn’t think we had something reasonably valuable to say, if we didn’t yearn to be read. But I have close friends who are immensely talented and write beautiful novels. Why did this happen to me, and not to them? When you’re a mid-list writer, part of what makes publishing bearable is that you get to enumerate and dissect its myriad humiliations and injustices with fellow mid-listers. After Orphan Train hit the best-seller lists, any attempt I made to commiserate with mid-list friends looked like humble-bragging, or, worse, just plain bragging. It felt lonely and somehow undeserved.
Now, seven years later, hindsight tells me I probably should’ve enjoyed the whole process more. The writer Laura Lentz says, “Tragedy is coming, so don’t feel guilty. Embrace the joy when it comes.” She’s right. I will probably never again sell four million copies of a book. I don’t seek it and don’t aspire to it. The books I’m interested in writing and reading usually aren’t blockbusters. But I’m glad to have had that experience. Publishing Orphan Train changed my life, and mostly for the better. I probably won’t ever have to sit in a booth at a county fair trying to persuade people to buy my book, or give a bookstore reading to one indifferent employee and a homeless person escaping the cold (both of which I’ve done!).
You’re known and loved for being an exceptionally generous, active literary citizen. Since your books have started becoming so commercially and critically successful, do you feel any newfound responsibility to share the wealth: to support the equalization of publishing across writers of different races, economic backgrounds, sexual orientations, genders, etc.? If so, what have you done about it so far? What do you think other writers might do?
I come from a long line of activists and do-gooders, so it’s always been ingrained in me to feel responsible to share the wealth, even when I had none. Now, given my relative financial stability and advanced age, not to mention the calamitous state of the country, it’s more important to me than ever. For one thing, I think established writers should mentor and advocate for emerging writers any chance we get. I do that through the Studio Duke program at Duke and the BookEnds program at Stony Brook, and by advocating for other writers, and by supporting organizations that promote literacy. I also work with a group called Roots & Wings, a New Jersey–based nonprofit. When I wrote Orphan Train, I learned a lot about the foster care system in the United States, which made me want to do something to help the young people in it. So I joined the advisory board of Roots & Wings, which gives safe housing, educational support, counseling, and life skills to young adults who are on the verge of “aging out” of the system.
What’s better for you since you’ve become a mega-best seller? What’s worse?
Some years ago, the week my fourth novel, Bird in Hand, came out, I was introduced to a Very Famous Writer at a party by a mutual friend. The Famous Writer had clearly never heard of me and barely deigned to speak to me. I had a Scarlett O’Hara fist-shaking moment (in my head — 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 writing, goddamn it, I want at least to be recognized for my work by other writers. (Also, I thought: fuck her for being so rude.)
Thanks to Orphan Train, in my small corner of the literary world I’m something of a known quantity now. (Very Famous Writer actually sent me a friend request on Facebook.) My subsequent novels, The Exiles and A Piece of the World, have both been lofted onto the best-seller list, albeit for modest stays, by the Orphan Train tide — I’d like to think for their own merits, though I’m well aware that merit doesn’t always equal sales. I know I’ll always be able to find an agent or publish another novel. I get asked to take part in interesting events in far-flung places, now virtual because of COVID-19, but interesting nonetheless, and I’ve become friends with several writers I admire, whom I probably wouldn’t have otherwise met. Almost every day I get notes from readers telling me how my novels have affected their lives.
Financial hardship is a tremendous source of stress and anxiety for most writers. Certainly, before Orphan Train, it was for me. When my children were young, I juggled a full-time college teaching job with freelance work as an editor, manuscript consultant, and writing coach. I barely had time for my own writing. Now all the time and energy I used to expend on earning a living goes instead into research and writing, as well as into related work: speaking engagements, panels, interviews, essays, social media, etc. (I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s actually pretty time-consuming.) Having more time means that I can write books that are larger in scope and ambition, books that require a deeper dive into research and a lot of time to wrestle that research into submission.
There are some negatives, I suppose. Sometimes I wonder if people are nice to me because they want something from me: a blurb, a favor, money. I get asked to do lots of things (now virtual or on recorded video) and I have a hard time saying no. But these are minor and come with the territory.
How have critical and commercial acclaim affected your skill/scope/aspirations as a writer? Your enthusiasm about being a writer? Your productivity as a writer? Is there a downside, artistically?
Some writers don’t like being under contract, but I’ve always preferred it. I feel more secure knowing that someone is waiting to read my book. (I’ve always said that, like bottlenose dolphins and the Galápagos tortoise, I breed well in captivity. I mean, look, I’ve been married for 30 years!) I signed a two-book deal after Orphan Train and I’m signing another one now. My publisher knows that I’m not interested in repeating that book or writing a sequel, which is not to say that I don’t feel a certain kind of pressure. Accepting a larger advance also means accepting certain expectations. Even so, after Orphan Train I deliberately wrote a very different kind of novel: quiet, interior, almost claustrophobic. I want to take on challenging and intimidating ideas. Why not? I only have so many books left in me. I want them to matter, even if only to myself.
But I’m not immune to worry. I worry that I’m a one-hit wonder, that I’ll let my publisher down or let my readers down. When you’re not writing to formula, or writing a series or a sequel, there’s no way to predict how an audience will respond. I know it’s unlikely that I’ll ever have another novel like Orphan Train; all I can do is write books that matter to me. And be grateful that it happened once and led to so many wonderful things.
What would you have done differently if you’d known, when you were publishing your early, mid-list books, that this fate would one day be yours?
At one point, I went eight years between novels. I was teaching full-time and raising young kids, but I also had a callous, borderline abusive editor who did a lot of damage to my already fragile self-esteem — even though she told me a few things that turned out to be prescient, and very smart. For example, when she bought my second novel she told me that I’d have a breakout, but it wouldn’t be until my fifth or sixth book. (Orphan Train was book number five.) “Some novelists need time for their work to expand,” she’d said.
Also, when Desire Lines (novel number two) didn’t sell well, I summoned the courage to ask her why, and she said, off the cuff — as if she’d been waiting for me to ask — “Two things. First of all, you need to be more ambitious. Your novels need more scope, a bigger canvas. You need to write like a man. Second, your writing is too bloodless. Your reader wants to feel emotionally invested in the central character, not pushed away. You need to lead with your heart, not your head. Get closer to your character. Create someone the reader truly cares about.”
She may have been right, but she made me feel like a failure and I was consumed with self-doubt. My friend Bonnie Friedman, in Writing Past Dark, says, “Successful writers are not the ones who write the best sentences. They are the ones who keep writing.” That’s true. Eventually I got back on track, but it took a while. Eventually I was smart enough to switch to another editor who is brilliant and opinionated but is also empathetic, and it made all the difference.
This was a painful lesson to learn, but an important one. External validation and criticism can have the power to ignite or destroy careers. When I mentor and teach, I’m careful not to judge too harshly. My job is to validate and encourage creative expression, not to stifle it. The publishing world is brutal enough. (Not to mention Very Famous Writer.)
Talk about launching a new novel in the pandemic, on a Zoom book tour with interlocutors like Claire Messud, Jodi Picoult, and John Grisham.
It’s a challenge publishing a novel during COVID. No in-person events; no opportunity for readers to discover your book in libraries or bookstores or even airports. We all have Zoom fatigue; who wants to watch an author blather on for an hour on your laptop?
So I thought it would be interesting to invite an eclectic collection of novelists to chat with me about books. Because these people are writers, not professional interviewers, they tend to lead with their own interests and obsessions. Each one has a different point of entry. For example, Jean Kwok and I focused on craft and structure. With Lily King, the conversation centered on research. Amor Towles wanted to talk about how we both use physical objects in key moments to make larger points and emphasize themes. I’ve found these conversations pretty interesting, and I hope others have, too.
My publisher ticketed the first 12 events (which included a signed book); now they’re free. Requiring the purchase of a book made me uncomfortable, but they felt it was the best way to spur sales. Did it work? Who knows? When the dust settles in a few weeks, we’ll assess how successful that strategy was.
How does bestsellerdom beget bestsellerdom? What’s different about the support you get from your publisher now, versus the support you got before Orphan Train?
When you’re a mid-list writer and the publisher doesn’t anticipate any major changes in your status, they tend to be reactive, not proactive. The was true with Orphan Train. When things began to happen, they jumped into gear. After Orphan Train, I learned what it really means to have the weight of a Big Five publisher behind you in the build-up to publication. For certain books, publicity and marketing begin a full year before it even comes out. From strategic ads, to giveaways, to media lunches, to bookseller dinners, to national and regional trade shows (curtailed in the time of COVID-19, of course), publishers are hard at work building word of mouth — the “word of mouth” that, from the perspective of a mid-list writer, is something that seems to just happen, somehow. Usually to other people.
When were the standout moments that made you realize Orphan Train was about to become a monster hit?
When you’re at the center of a storm, you don’t have any sense of how strong it is. I actually thought Orphan Train was a monster hit long before it was a monster hit, because by my modest standards, it was. Each milestone — when it hit 20 weeks on the list, when it sold a hundred thousand copies, when it was chosen for Philadelphia’s citywide “One Book, One Philadelphia” selection, when the University of Alabama chose it as their first-year read, when I was invited, with John Grisham and Walter Isaacson, to speak at the Bush family gala in Houston — felt like the peak, after which attention would wane.
Eventually, of course, attention did wane somewhat, though there’s something about that book; it will probably always have readers. I think of it as a beloved pet that used to be a champion show dog. It still has some life in it, though mostly it just lies around and wags its tail. It understands that most of my attention has to go to the younger dogs that are still in the running, whether they end up with those blue ribbons or not.
Meredith Maran, www.meredithmaran.com, is the author of a dozen books including The New Old Me and Why We Write. She’s a contributor to The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and many other publications.