‘Orphan Train’ author Christina Baker Kline talks book party with Kristin Hannah and Elin Hilderbrand
In “The Exiles,” a young governess named Evangeline is wrongly convicted of stealing a ruby ring and sentenced to be shipped from Victorian England to Australia for 14 years of labor.
It’s a journey into the unknown for Evangeline and the other women she meets onboard a slave ship-turned-convict transport in Christina Baker Kline’s most recent novel.
And in its own way, the book itself traveled stormy seas to an uncertain destination given its arrival in August 2020 in a literary world turned upside down by pandemic and lockdown.
“It was such an interesting and difficult time to have a book come out,” Kline says of the way in which the pandemic forced authors out of their usual book tour routines.
By the time “The Exiles” arrived, Kline had time to see which kinds of virtual events worked or didn’t. One, a conversation between writer-chef Ruth Reichl and author Bill Buford, became the template for her own virtual programs.
“The two of them are old friends and had a glass of wine, both sitting in their kitchens, one in California, one in New York,” Kline says. “Their families were roaming around in the background and they were just having the best time, gossiping about chefs and talking about food and regaling people with stories.”
That seemed like a fun way to converse about books and writing, and so for the initial hardcover release of “The Exiles” Kline enlisted writer friends from Amor Towles and John Grisham to Claire Messud and Jodi Picoult to chat with for virtual audiences.
Now, as “The Exiles” arrives in paperback, Kline’s taken all the lessons she’s learned from during the pandemic and created a one-night literary variety show. (The show begins at 4 p.m. Pacific, Wednesday, July 7. For details go to christinabakerkline.com/events.)
Writer and book critic John Searles will serve as emcee, with Kline bopping from conversation to conversation with authors Elin Hilderbrand, Chris Bohjalian, Kristin Hannah and Paula McClain.
Her composer son Hayden Kline scored a book trailer. A video on Kline’s research into the history behind her fiction is featured. And her sons will sing an Australian sea shanty.
Of course, we wondered: will there be wine?
“There will definitely be wine,” Kline says, laughing. “Unquestionably. Or maybe a gin and tonic. I think gin is more of the convict’s drink.”
The spark that started Kline on the path to “The Exiles” ignited from a New York Times article on convict women shipped to Australia.
“When you’re writing novels, you draw inspiration from all different sources,” Kline says. “You don’t always quite know why things appeal to you.”
She’d first read about the convict transports in her historian father’s copy of “The Fatal Shore,” Robert Hughes’ landmark history of the settling of Australia, a country where she briefly lived as a graduate student.
With her mother, a professor of English and women’s studies, she’d collaborated on an oral history on feminist women. In her own career, she taught writing to women prison inmates.
“So that experience of reading that piece, I realized now tapped into all of these things,” Kline says. “The fact that I spent six weeks in Australia when I was in my 20s The fact that I wrote a book where I interviewed 60 women about the sort of hidden secrets in their lives. And then also this teaching in two different women’s prisons, which made me really interested in why and how women end up incarcerated.”
And while the story is set in the 1840s, Kline says its themes of race and class and gender felt fresh and relevant in today’s world, a point that’s been important in her work, especially as more recent work such as the bestseller “Orphan Train” have shifted from contemporary stories to historical fiction.
“I didn’t think I had any interest in writing novels set in the past, and in fact, ‘Orphan Train’ is a 300-page novel or something, and two-thirds of it takes place in the present day,” Kline says. “I didn’t even think of that as a historical novel — I was always surprised when people said it was.
Her interest in historical settings grew, though the stories were never stories stuck in the past.
“For me, the whole goal of writing about the past is making the novels feel contemporary,” she says. “I want to write stories that people fall into. That they feel that they’re immersed in, not that you’re seeing through some kind of sepia, you know, sentimental scrim.”
“The Exiles” begins with Evangeline but shares its perspective with Hazel, a Scottish teen convict, and Mathinna, an Aboriginal Tasmanian child who is removed from her people and forced to live with the territorial governor upon a whim of his wife.
“As I was tackling this story, this research, it’s such a big story,” Kline says. “How do I find a way in that feels intimate?. And so I created the character of Evangeline as sort of a stand-in for the reader. She herself is literate. She’s a governess. She’s a fish out of water, doesn’t have anything to do with this world. Every single thing that happens to her is a fresh shock to her system.
“And then I sort of envisioned the novel as a passing of the baton from one woman to the next,” she says. “So Hazel to me was the perfect next step because she has lived in this world forever. She has this sort of superpower, this skill that she can use to barter for other things. She knows how to heal people. She also knows how to use medicine for ill. And she’s very scrappy — she’s really street smart.”
Evangeline is pregnant by her former employer’s son, who gave her the ring she was accused of stealing, when she meets Hazel on the transport ship, a journey during which a shocking event occurs.
“George R.R. Martin said when he was writing those ‘Game of Thrones’ books that he wanted to create a world in which nothing is certain, and anything can happen,” Kline says. “And when I was researching ‘The Exiles,’ I was struck by how true that was for the convict women. They had been thrust into this world where, as I said, anything could happen and did.”
Chapters from Evangeline and Hazel’s perspectives are joined by those told by Mathinna, a real-life figure whose story was the most challenging for Kline to write, she says.
“I didn’t want to be accused of appropriation, but I ultimately felt it would be irresponsible not to address the story,” Kline says of the treatment of aboriginal people within their native country.
“She’s actually pretty famous in Australia because she’s come to represent what happened to the Tasmanian people, and her real-life story was terrible and tragic.”
A party and more
“The Exiles” is in development for a limited series with Made Up Stories, the production company of Australian producer Bruna Papandrea, who in a long collaboration with Reese Witherspoon successfully adapted for film and TV books such as “Big Little Lies,” “Gone Girl” and “Wild.”
“I’m really excited about it,” says Kline, an executive producer on the project. “It’s an all-female team of producers, and they’re moving ahead quickly, so it feels like it’s happening.”
She’s also at work on a new novel, a story inspired by a piece of her own family history: The great-great aunts of her mother married the famous 19th-century conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker; the story is told from the wives’ perspective.
First, though, is the July 7 event which 50 or so independent bookstores around the country are jointly hosting.
“I wanted four writers who do quite different things,” Kline says. “Elin Hilderbrand, I adore her. We have very different writing styles, and I just thought it would be fun to do something with someone who’s the queen of the summer read.
“And then Chris Bohjalian, I’ve just admired for many, many years since I read ‘Midwives’,” she says. “He’s a writer who writes about the past and is entirely engaging, and so I thought that would be an interesting person to pull in.
“Kristin Hannah has conquered writing about women in historical moments. And Paula McLain has pivoted to literary suspense but she’s a very soulful writer. And, Kristin and Paula are very close friends of mine.
“They were friends that I could just pull in, and I knew those conversations would be really easy and fun for people,” Kline says.