Christina Baker Kline, THE EXILES

Christina Baker Kline, THE EXILES

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Christina. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Exiles.

Christina Baker Kline: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so happy to be here.

Zibby: As were chatting about before the podcast, we just did this fantastic event for the North Castle Public Library together last week, but it wasn’t recorded. We’re going to do it again as a podcast. At least now I got all this inside information about you from that, sort of like an extra prep session. I promise this is being recorded, so we’re all good.

Christina: Perfect.

Zibby: Let’s start with The Exiles. Can you please tell listeners what it’s about and what inspired you to write it?

Christina: The Exiles is the story of the convict women who transformed Australia and the Aboriginal people whose way of life was destroyed when British colonists landed on their shores. That is the epic version of the description. It’s about three women, essentially, who are transported. There’s one Aboriginal who ends up living with a British aristocratic family. It’s not so exciting for her, and fun. I read a piece in The New York Times maybe a decade ago that was in a column that Lisa Belkin used to have called Motherlode. Zibby, I think you’ve contributed to it.

Zibby: Yes, I did. Much less highbrow of a piece, though. It was my being sad I couldn’t go to Kids In Sports or something with them anymore and I had to sit on the sidelines.

Christina: I was a mother of kids in the parenting needy ages, and so I always read it. This one column happened to be about the convict women and how they took care of their children on the ships, which were often repurposed slaving ships, headed to Australia for four to six months at sea. I read that and I got this tingle. I realized this is what I want to write about next. It was totally intimidating because it’s in the 1840s. It’s in Australia and England, neither of which I’ve really written about. I’ve written a little bit about — one of my novels has a character who’s English. I grew up in England for nine years. I was born there. I have dual citizenship, so I feel a little bit on sturdier ground with that, but not so much with Australia. I knew it would be a big project. I had been obsessed with Australia ever since going there as a Rotary fellow in my twenties. I loved it. I became really interested at the time in the story of the convicts because, of course, Australia was founded as a penal colony. Twenty percent of Australians today are descended from convicts. Also, learning about what had happened, it’s a similar parallel or inside out version, I suppose, or our own story of British settlers coming into America and taking over. It was fascinating to research. I have taught in a women’s prison. I did a book on feminism with my mom and interviewed all these women for it. Those experiences, all three of them came back when I wrote this book and came together.

Zibby: I can’t believe that twenty percent of the people in Australia still are descended — isn’t that crazy? You would think that it would be mayhem and disorder. Yet it’s the place everybody just wants to go visit. They’re so laid back. What do you think that’s about? That’s crazy.

Christina: I do think that the Australian sensibility is in part because of their origins as a penal colony. These people came from a very stratified world in Britain where there was no social mobility. You could not go up and down the social ladder. There were no social programs. The poor were just stuck at the bottom. They got to Australia. Even though the journey was difficult and prison life was definitely not fun, if you got out — in fact, one descendent of a convict said to me, “Our character is forged out of having survived all this and then being able to start anew,” and having all kinds of social mobility once they got out, becoming entrepreneurial, for example, and also this irreverence and this kind of humor that you see a lot of Australian people share. I do think that there’s something about that journey that was very specific. It makes them different than Americans. Religion was never part of the forming of that country. It’s a very different feeling.

Zibby: I am deep in American history these days. I’ve been helping my thirteen-year-old daughter study for her social studies test, so it’s very fresh in my mind exactly how we became a country. That’s all super interesting and timely for what’s going on in my house at least.

Christina: I love how these separate colonies show us different iterations of the effect of British colonialism.

Zibby: How did your family end up — you were you born there and why did you leave, in the UK?

Christina: My parents are Southern. They met at college. My dad was actually in seminary. He was going to become a minister. They were raised Southern Baptist. He got a fellowship for a summer to go to Cambridge and study with Owen Chadwick, this very famous theologian. My father was the first person to graduate from eighth grade in his white trash Southern family, basically, whereas my mother had come from a long line of teachers. They were these two very different backgrounds. I think she influenced him because he agreed to go to Cambridge for the summer. He thought it was just for the summer. Then he fell in love with learning there and became a professor. He got a PhD studying with Owen Chadwick. He became a professor of British labor history of all things. My parents became total hippies and threw off their Baptist shackles. It was also at the height of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement and the women’s movement and all that. They were very radically involved with all that stuff.

Then when we moved back to the South and my father — they were sort of rabble-rousers. Finally, my father was fired from this conservative college — he was teaching in an all-male college — for anti-American activities for housing draft dodgers or something. They moved to Maine. He became a professor at the University of Maine because I think that was as far as you could get from the South without going to Canada. That’s just a circuitous way of saying that that was how we ended up in England. My parents became huge anglophiles. My mother’s sister married a novelist. We have relatives over there now. My children even have dual citizenship because I was born there. That’s kind of wonderful. If Trump had — sorry to be political, but if things had not changed, we were very much considering — I don’t know if you know Jane Green.

Zibby: Yes, of course.

Christina: She’s just relocated to London.

Zibby: I know. I’ve been watching her redo her house on Instagram.

Christina: Don’t you love it?

Zibby: her room, her wallpaper, painting, whatever. Yes, I love it, her bathroom. It’s fantastic.

Christina: She’s so fun.

Zibby: She is so fun.

Christina: We’re sort of living through her. I’m sort of living through her.

Zibby: Yes, me too. This also gives more context because the other night we discussed your dad and how you didn’t mean to but ended up emulating his deep research skills and how you thought you were a novelist only in that you sort of poo-pooed that whole cerebral sitting just pawing through research. Yet your historical fiction has become a cross between him and what you thought you were going to do. Now that I hear his trajectory, it’s even more interesting.

Christina: He was sort of an autodidact, I guess you would say, growing up. He just was in love with learning, always. He was meticulous. He has like a dozen books. I’m really proud of him. His brother and sister then went to college also, and then of course, subsequent generations. It’s this American success story of education changing your life kind of thing. I started out writing contemporary novels. I loved that. I stumbled into the Orphan Train story because my husband’s grandfather was an orphan train rider, was featured in this article. None of us knew. He was dead. We discovered that he had this whole past that my mother-in-law never knew. Orphan Train, only a third of that novel is set in the past, a hundred pages, but that’s what people think of when they think of the novel, and obviously the title and all of that, but also because it was just such an — people didn’t know the story even though a quarter of a million American children went on trains to the Midwest in a labor program ending in 1929. That was how I got into researching.

I realized it’s terrifying to write about the past. I remember reading a book by Kathryn Harrison, a novel, that was about foot binding, I think. She wrote contemporary books, novels and memoir. Then she wrote this book set in the past. My first though was, why would she do that? That’s so weird. Then my second thought was, that’s way too hard. I could never do that. I would never presume to understand any culture other than my own. That seems ridiculous. Then Orphan Train, I sort of was terrified every second that I was writing the stuff set in the past, but I learned I could do it. Then the next book was a whole different challenge about Andrew Wyeth and the subject of his painting, Christina’s World. Then this book was an entirely different challenge. Writing Orphan Train made me realize — here’s a big lesson for aspiring writers. Don’t box yourself in. Don’t tell yourself what your style is or what your subject is or what your interests are or what you’re capable of. You never know. If you take chances, you’ll surprise yourself, always. It might not always work. In the case of my writing these books, I wrote my way into learning that I could write this way.

Zibby: And that you obviously liked it. You must have enjoyed it to be able to .

Christina: Yeah, that was the thing. Right, that was your original point. My father, his research style and everything, I thought, I will never do that. I do do that. I take notes the same way he did. We both write longhand. We talked about that the other night. I love that part of it. With that said — I did an event with Lily King last month.

Zibby: I love her too. She’s amazing.

Christina: I know. I love her too. She’s so great. She has written a contemporary novel after writing one set in the past. She’s like, “Oh, my god, it’s so much easier.” I was reminded that it is a little easier to write about the world you know. At some point, I will definitely do it again. Maybe I’ll bring some of what I learned about this stuff to the present day. We’ll see.

Zibby: But then you said your next one, you’re making the same mistake again by delving into Civil War history.

Christina: It’s so stupid. The Civil War is the worst period to write about because there are so many real experts. What am I doing? It’s about two couples. I’m just going to hew closely to their world. We’ll see.

Zibby: It’s great. You obviously enjoy challenging yourself on some level. That’s okay. Maybe it’s too easy. Maybe you thrive on it. I don’t know.

Christina: You know what? Here’s another secret that’s not secret. I think that writing about the past in some ways makes plot easier because writing about the present is sort of amorphous. If you’re writing about people in your own world, in a way, then you have to make terrible things happen to — something has to happen in a novel. You put people through misery in one way or another. That’s sort of the plot of every novel. In some ways, writing stories set in the past gives you more of a frame for the story. That’s what I have trouble with. The words on the page are one thing. Really, the structure and the plot, I could just write and write not have a plot, but that is not how a novel works.

Zibby: I was just talking to people about some Holocaust-era fiction and how just knowing it’s about World War II or the Holocaust or something, you already know the general plot. You might not know the substories and exactly what the book’s about, but you already are moved and emotional. You know where your emotions are going to go because of that. This is going to come out the wrong way. It’s not cheating, but you’re relying on an inherent structure, which is sort of what you’re saying about some of your stories, not cheating though of course.

Christina: No, I totally know what you mean.

Zibby: It’s like riding that wave.

Christina: I am flabbergasted at the ongoing interest in novels about World War II. Of course, I get them all across my desk in advanced reading copy form because I write about the past. It’s amazing to me, the appetite for World War II fiction that doesn’t end. In fact, I was talking to an editor about it who said, “We really thought it was a trend.” They have all these trends in publishing like chick lit, whatever. Then you never hear that anymore. She said, “What we’re finding is that there’s an endless appetite.” Not all the books succeed, but you’re exactly right. I actually, Zibby, had never thought of it that way, that it is about knowing what you’re getting in a certain way when you read a book about World War II, especially a novel. Not to generalize too much, but a novel by women with a certain kind of figure on the cover is going to yield a certain kind of story about World War II.

Zibby: If you like that, then you can just keep dipping into that well.

Christina: One of the things for me is that I don’t want to — maybe somebody I will, but I don’t want to revisit the same territory. Even though I’ve written three books set in the past, they’re all very different from each other. They’re all very different parts of the world and in the past.

Zibby: It’s not like the past is limiting. You can write about anything anywhere. The world is your oyster. You could do this forever. You probably will do this forever. There’s an endless amount of really interesting things. Particularly with The Exiles, I didn’t know a lot about this at all. I feel kind of like a moron with all the things that I’ve learned from you about it. Even the idea of being trapped on a boat with your children for three to six months, even that alone, that little tidbit when I can’t even drive from here to the grocery store with all four of my kids sometimes, I’m like, how do people do that for months on end with no iPads or no nothing to distract them?

Christina: Oh, god, I know. It’s just amazing what they went through. We don’t know the stories of the poor and the dispossessed because those are not the people who write the history. History is wars and presidents and generals and treaties and robber barons and the wealthy and the educated, the people who are in power. The people I write about are not the people in power. They’re the quiet stories. They’re the stories that nobody has heard. This story of the convict women, as you say, every continent has its own stories like this. A lot of them are still ongoing. That’s one of the things that writing about the past opens you up too, is the realization — I think we talked about this the other night too. I’m sorry.

Zibby: That’s okay.

Christina: The realization that, yes, things have changed in some amazing ways and it’s great to recognize that, but a lot of things stay the same. Character is the same in some ways. In other words, the feelings people had in 1840 are as real and as deeply experienced as the ones we have today. I think that’s what I try to do in these novels, is to stay very close to the bones in terms of making my characters feel as if they could live now so that readers experience these situations through their eyes in a way that feels familiar in some ways. I’m not trying to approximate what someone wrote like in 1840. I’m writing as a contemporary writer about the past. If the books succeed at all, I think it has something to do with that, that impulse to make it feel fresh and modern, to make 1840 feel as relevant as 2020.

Zibby: Which you totally did. You also do it by letting the reader into the inner world of your characters. If you were to see a picture, not even that there were pictures, but a sepia-toned brown and white picture, people seem so different, but they’re not. The child — I always forget her name.

Christina: Mathinna.

Zibby: Thank you. Mathinna, she’s an orphan who doesn’t want to go off with strangers. That’s any child today. Of course, you poke fun at the people who actually were real people in real life with their snootiness and wanting to dabble in basically child snatching for their own amusement. You immediately put us there. It feels so real, which is great.

Christina: When I was researching Orphan Train, I was at New York Public Library a lot. The Lewis Hine collection of photographs of immigrant children working in factories, The Lives of the Poor, really interesting stuff. A friend of mine on Facebook, Margaret , is doing a project. She’s working with an expert colorist. They’re taking his photographs — it’s stunning. I’m going to send you one of them. It looks like my child or me standing there because she makes it as if it’s today. This kid’s standing on a factory floor. You’re like, wow, this is not this cracked sepia-toned photo. This could be now. It’s cool. That’s sort of what I’m trying to do, is a written form of that idea of colorizing, of making a story come to life that seems as if it’s in the dusty pages of an old book.

Zibby: Tell me about all the different movie-ish adaptations of the various projects you have going on.

Christina: My three latest novels have all been optioned, two for — does the big screen even exist anymore? — for movies and the latest one for a series, which is where everything is going these days. The team that bought The Exiles is all female. They’re half in Australia, half in Sydney, half in LA. They’re just so fun and wonderful. I’ll be executive producing and hope to be quite involved. COVID has delayed everything. They did Big Little Lies and The Undoing that we saw recently on HBO.

Zibby: Which we watched start to finish from eight PM to two AM nonstop. We could not get off the couch, whole thing. I couldn’t believe it. This is last weekend, by the way.

Christina: Don’t you live somewhere near where they filmed? The house?

Zibby: Yeah, I live in the middle of every scene. I felt like I was in the movie. I’m glad I watched it while I was in the city because she could’ve been walking down my block as I was watching it.

Christina: I just found it really fun and stylish. I think all of us got a little boost in the dark days of November watching that.

Zibby: Yes, though I have heard from some Upper East Side moms, “Nobody would dress like that.” We’ll leave that alone. Anyway, Christina, thank you for doing another conversation with me that’s so fun. I feel like I could just chit-chat with you about your work and why you do the things you do. Next time.

Christina: Next time, we’ll talk about you because you have a very interesting life. I want to hear more about it. I can’t wait until we can hopefully get together in person.

Zibby: Me too. That’ll be great.

Christina: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: Thank you. This was so delightful. I’m thrilled to have gotten to do it twice.

Christina: Yay! I hope it’s entertaining for people.

Zibby: It was entertaining for me, so that’s all I care about.

Christina: That’s good. Have a great day, a snow day. Hope to see you again.

Zibby: You too.

Christina: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Christina Baker Kline, THE EXILES