Christina Baker Kline is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Orphan Train and 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.