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Writing Better Essays Christina Baker

Christina Baker Kline is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Orphan Trainand four other novels: Bird in HandThe Way Life Should BeDesire 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.


Christina Baker Kline

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For Christina Baler Kline's website please click here.




What Does It Really Mean When People Say Your Character is Unsympathetic?

by Christina Baker Kline 


Ever since I started noticing the typos in Nancy Drew books, I’ve loved to edit. In high school I convinced my mother, an overworked English professor, to let me do an anonymous first read of her students’ papers. (I marked them in pencil and she’d follow up in pen.) In grad school I printed up business cards and edited everything from Guggenheim applications to resignation letters to doctoral theses. In the years since, while writing novels, I’ve supported myself largely as a freelance manuscript editor. I’ve edited hundreds of manuscripts—and learned a great deal about ruthlessly editing my own first (and second and third) drafts in the process. 

 

One of the most vexing problems a manuscript can have—fiction or nonfiction—is a so-called “unsympathetic” main character. Writers hate being told that their central character is unsympathetic. They not-so-secretly believe that “unsympathetic” is code for complicated and multi-faceted; the reader simply can’t handle the dark complexity of their brilliance.

 

As a writer, I empathize. As an editor, I’ve had to figure out exactly what I mean by “unsympathetic” so I can be as clear as possible in explaining what’s not working.

 

This, for me, is what it comes down to:

 

An unsympathetic character is one who remains elusive and unengaging to the reader. It’s not that the character is unlikeable. Unlikeable is fine, and often—as with everything from Lionel Shriver’s mother of a serial killer in We Need to Talk About Kevin to Shakespeare’s Richard III—the entire point.

 

A character can be sharp-witted, twisted, arrogant, contradictory, vain, narcissistic, boorish, even morally repugnant (think Tony Soprano)—as long as the reader understands the character’s motivations. When readers don’t respond, the problem isn’t the character’s misery or self-absorption or churlishness. (Here I’m thinking of Emma Bovary.) The problem is that the reader can’t see far enough beneath the character’s surface actions to understand the deeper feelings underneath.  

 

The reader needs to grasp what the character is thinking and feeling, however much trouble she may have articulating it to the people around her. We don’t need to like or agree, just to understand. If we don’t know how a character feels about any given event in her life, it’s hard for us to care.

 

Furthermore, an unsympathetic character remains static. She doesn’t change. There aren’t enough revelations and discoveries about her. In one recent manuscript I edited, the central character is described as beautiful and desirable. She is lusted after and admired. But she seems to have little passion for others; she is self-absorbed, enigmatic, and inscrutable. For this character to bloom she needs to function less as a beautiful, passive cipher and more as an active agent.  

 

Here are two ways to make an unsympathetic character spring to life:

 

1. Linger in the character’s head. Let us see and understand how she processes what you show her doing.   

 

2. Make the character active. Give her agency. If your character doesn’t have agency—if she is depressed or confined, for example—you will need to create other characters and/or events that serve as catalysts, sparking her to act.

 

The central character is the reader’s guide, the prism: Everything is colored by her reactions. Ultimately an unsympathetic character at the center of a story is like a metastatic cancer: It infects the entire body. If the central character is unsympathetic the story cannot thrive.

 

 

 

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