Christina Baker Kline is the author of the new novel A Piece of the World, which focuses on Christina Olson, the subject of Andrew Wyeth's painting Christina's World. Kline's other books include Orphan Train and Bird in Hand. She lives in the New York City area and on the coast of Maine.
Q: You write, “For many reasons, this was the most difficult book I’ve ever written.” What are some of the reasons why?
A: It was the first book I’d ever written about a real story. Orphan Train was real, but my characters were fictional. The characters in A Piece of the World are based on real people, and some of the people in the novel are alive today. I had to enter with eyes wide open.
The fact that it’s a true story made other things more difficult. In real life, Christina Olson did things I would not have chosen as a novelist, but because I was trying to stick with the facts, I had to work backwards from the consequences of her actions.
Q: So what did you see as the right blend between the actual Christina Olson and your fictional character?
A: That part was fairly easy. I set the task of interviewing a lot of people, studying art history—I immersed myself. I hammered out a document of 50-60 pages, a chronology of her life. One of her relatives would tell me something and I’d find a different version in a book.
I was writing from her perspective, trying to get under the skin of who she was in a way that would make sense of her complicated personality traits and her actions. I kept having to dig deeper…
Q: You write that you became aware of Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World in your childhood. What does it mean to you, and what do you see as its place in American art history?
A: It’s come to mean more to me. It did have a meaningful place in my childhood. As I began researching the painting, I was afraid I would get tired of it, but I didn’t. It became deeper and deeper with each viewing…
Its reputation is changing by the decade. Wyeth was famous in his lifetime, decorated with awards. In the ‘60s his reputation took a hit with the rise of Pop Art and abstract art. Art historians began dismissing him. Even his obituary in 2009 by Michael Kimmelman in The New York Times was dismissive.
That’s changing—people are beginning to reassess 20th century artists. Norman Rockwell is being rehabilitated; he had been derided as a lightweight. The truth is, Wyeth’s style was forged in the ‘30s and ‘40s; there were influences of American realism and figurative surrealism.
Now they call his style metaphoric realism. Like John Currin today, Wyeth plays with a pointillist approach but his work is almost more sinister. He was fascinated with ghosts, goblins, witches.
Q: What especially surprised you in the course of your research?
A: There were a number of things about Christina’s choices that were surprising to me. I didn’t realize she never spoke to her best friend again, that she sabotaged her brother’s only chance at having a lifelong partner.
She was stifled. She was a brilliant girl, but was taken out of school at 12. I think she had quite a lot of anger. In a bigger sense, the novel is about women in history who were silenced by domestic chores and weren’t able to flourish.
I was trying not to be overt, but I wanted to show this person was distorted in some ways. Stymied. That felt very sad to me, but it’s the story of many people; she’s not alone in this. An interviewer said the book is a Rorschach test; depending on where you come from you respond very differently.
I spoke before an audience in an affluent suburb of a big West-Coast city, and one woman said Christina was very depressing, wasn’t it a downer to write about someone like this? Another woman said, I’m from Maine—a lot of people there are like this!
I felt she had three great loves in her life—her brother Alvaro, a wonderful person; her one-time suitor Walton, a terrible person; and Andrew Wyeth, who saw her for who she was.
With Wyeth, I felt he was able to relate to her on a level nobody else could. He said, If you had ended up with Walton, you would have had a conventional life but we wouldn’t be having this conversation now. With Wyeth, she was able to achieve autonomy. I saw it as a happy ending…
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m in the middle of researching an exciting, big project—the story of convict women swept off the streets of London, Glasgow and other cities in the mid-19th century to essentially be breeders on the island of Tasmania. They transformed Australia...
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I really grew to empathize with and love the figure of Christina Olson. Her complexity only makes her more interesting to me. She's not one-dimensional, that's for sure.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb