What's in a Page: The Exiles's Christina Baker Kline writes her novels with pen and paper
Christina Baker Kline's next novel hits shelves today, but it started making waves long before — The Exiles has already been picked up for adaptation by Bruna Papandrea's Made Up Stories production company (the team behind the upcoming Nicole Kidman-starring Nine Perfect Strangers). The book takes place in early nineteenth-century London, rural Australia, and the high seas: protagonist Evangeline, a young British governess, is arrested and then exiled to a penal colony in rural Australia after she becomes pregnant. Exiles uses this story to reveal the complicated — and often tragic — history of the aboriginal population down under.
Before Kline started writing her New York Times bestselling novels (including the beloved Orphan Train), she got her start at the tender age of five, creating homemade hand-bound books. And today, she still uses a low-tech strategy to crank out each tome. Below, she answers EW's burning book questions.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?
CHRISTINA BAKER KLINE: As soon as I was old enough to spell phonetically (at around the age of five, as I recall), my mother started making blank books for me to write in: sheets of typing paper between cardboard covers, hole-punched down one side and held together with string. I don’t recall whether she instructed me to write stories that would fill the entire book or whether it was my own obsessive-compulsive decision, but I planned them carefully so that each story would end on the final page (with “THE END” in block letters for emphasis). I was writer, publisher, editor, and designer; I created the covers, came up with titles, and drew colorful and elaborate illustrations. Sometimes — like my favorite picture books about a hedgehog named Frances who had complex feelings and an annoying younger sister, not unlike my own — I wrote stories in a series. I honestly don’t remember what the books were about, only that even at the age of five I thought of myself as an author. I was proud of my little shelf of self-published books.
What is the last book that made you cry?
I was afraid to finish Miriam Toews’ brilliant novel All My Puny Sorrows, both because I didn’t want it to end and because I was terrified of what would happen. I haven’t had such a visceral response to a novel in a long time. Toews’ prose is a delicate balancing act; she writes about heartbreak with such subtlety, wisdom, and humor that the pain is not only bearable but almost pleasurable. I am tempted to read this novel again to see if I can figure out how she does it.
Which book is at the top of your current To-Read list?
Next on my list is Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste. Her previous book, The Warmth of Other Suns, is utterly brilliant. I read that she sees this new book not as an argument but as an “invitation to seeing ourselves differently than we have before.” We’re in a radical time of transformation, in many ways. Caste could not be more relevant and timely.
Where do you write?
When my kids, now in their twenties, were little, I often escaped to coffee shops for peace and quiet. Now I can, and do, write at home. Nearly every room in the house has a comfy chair or couch where I can settle in with my Uniball Vision Elite rollerball pen (micro point, black), my college-ruled perforated pad, and my trusty plastic clipboard, and get to work.
Which book made you a forever reader?
I usually say the Little House series, but now that I think about it, I was obsessed with the Frances-the-hedgehog books long before I was old enough to read Laura Ingalls Wilder. A Birthday for Frances, in which Frances has some unpretty feelings about her little sister Gloria’s birthday, is an absolute classic.
What is a snack you couldn’t write without?
Trader Joe's Sea Salt & Turbinado Sugar Dark Chocolate Almonds. Addictive.
If you could change one thing about any of your books what would it be?
I don’t like rereading my books because I’m always tempted to re-edit them. When I was on tour for Orphan Train, some readers expressed dissatisfaction about a pivotal moment in the novel. A few years later, my publisher decided to publish a “special” edition with some new material in the back, and I had the rare opportunity to re-edit the entire book and add some pages to that section. In the end, I don’t know if it was a good idea. When I re-read the novel I saw that I’d actually planted all the clues that an astute reader would need to understand my character’s motivations; in revision, I made those more overt. I’m not sure I should have done so. I think many readers enjoy figuring things out on their own. Maybe it would’ve been better to leave it alone.
What is your favorite part of The Exiles?
I’m really happy with the ending of this novel. I feel like a gymnast who nailed the landing (not that I have any idea what that would feel like, lol). In the last section, the story leaps ahead more than twenty years. You return to the literal scene of the crime that begins the saga, you find out what happened to most of the characters, and you witness Australia’s development from a penal colony to a thriving community of free settlers.
What was the hardest plot point or character to write?
The character of Mathinna was the most difficult to write. She was based on a real person named Mathinna, an orphaned Aboriginal girl who was taken from her community by Sir John Franklin and his wife, Lady Jane, as a kind of social experiment. When they returned to London from Australia several years later, they abandoned her. She spent the rest of her life between two worlds, and drowned at the age of 17. It was never determined whether her death was murder, suicide, or a drunken mistake.
It’s complicated to write about real people whose lives ended long ago, their fates solidified. I knew from the beginning that I did not want to depict the brutal final years of Mathinna’s life. Her story, in my novel, is hard enough. As I did in my previous novel, A Piece of the World, I chose to end Mathinna’s story with a moment of connection, of recognition — to show that even in the midst of suffering, there can be moments of grace.
Write a movie poster tag line for your book.
The (starred!) review of THE EXILES in Kirkus is better than anything I can come up with: “This fascinating 19th-century take on Orange Is the New Black is subtle, intelligent, and thrillingly melodramatic.”