After meeting at the docks in Northeast Harbor last week, Christina Baker Kline and I walked to a nearby fish and chips joint to chat and eat. The food was disappointing, but the conversation more than made up for it. The fact that Christina is a best-selling author only came up incidentally. What really stood out was her natural aptitude for uplifting and engaging conversation, which is particularly striking given the trials she has faced over the past year.
Christina was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer last year. Her mother, who became an especially stalwart supporter for Christina after her diagnosis, died earlier this year while Christina was still undergoing radiation treatments. In an article that she wrote for Psychology Today, Christina offers a beautifully poignant tribute to her mother and their relationship.
Also during this past year, Christina’s 10th book became her first to make national bestseller lists.
I knew all this before I met Christina (now cancer free) for a harborfront conversation. And yet, while we lingered at a lopsided picnic table picking at dull food, our roles were repeatedly reversed. Buoyed by Christina’s expressions of interest, I’d find myself answering her questions, sharing my story. It was disarming; I worried that I was losing the thread of my effort to get to know my subject. On reflection, however, I realized that though I might have missed some personal data, I learned more than enough about Christina Baker Kline to recognize that her prowess as a writer is far exceeded by her prowess as a person.
Christina lives in New Jersey with her husband and three sons, but she spent most of her formative years in Bangor. Her family is still Maine-based, and she spends time with them here every summer. This summer, dovetailed into her vacation time, she has scheduled several book talks promoting, “Orphan Train,” which has spent six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and completed its 10th week on the USA Today bestseller list on the day we met.
Christina loves writing, even though she doesn’t consider it one of her innate skills.
Like physical exercise, she says, it’s not always fun during the process, “but I love having written.”
The skills that come more naturally to her involve working with other people, which is no surprise to me after meeting her. She does a great deal of professional editing, teaching, and mentoring, in addition to having written and edited several books collaboratively. Her blog is a kind of writer’s forum, highlighting others’ work as much as her own. All those jobs balance well against the more solitary aspects of a writer’s life.
Collaborating, commiserating, exchanging ideas and offering support infuse Christina’s work, but they also appear to infuse her overarching attitude toward life.
Possibly it is a “pay it forward” mentality that came from two influential events in her writing life — the first when her fifth grade teacher told her, ‘I read your story to my husband and he loved it!’ The second, when a college instructor, unbeknownst to Christina, submitted her work to an agent who took her on as a client.
But I get the impression that Christina’s inclination to offer positive feedback goes deeper into the roots of her soul. Maybe she just can’t help it.
“Listen to the people who are encouraging you, and don’t listen to those who aren’t.”
That’s what she tells her students, her friends, her children — anyone who will listen.
Finding those grains of optimism and confidence is what keeps us going, even in the face of terrible struggle. The memorable main characters in “Orphan Train” embody that spirit in very real ways, which surely adds to the book’s appeal. They also, incidentally, find solace on the coast of Maine.
Christina has learned firsthand how important it is to hold onto those things that sustain us and to maintain a hopeful attitude, no matter what. A case in point is her response when I finally did get around to asking about the hellish year she has just experienced. No sighs of remembered grief, only this: “It taught me that sorrow is inevitable,” she said. And, considering various obligations in her professional life, she feels fortunate that all her troubles didn’t start sooner.
Therein lies the jewel at the heart of a writer worth reading, a person worth hearing.
Christina Baker Kline is scheduled to appear at the following times and locations to discuss her book: 6-7:30 p.m. July 11, Ellsworth Public Library; 7-8 p.m. July 15, Bass Harbor Library; 3-5 p.m. July 16, Bangor Public Library; 7-8:30 p.m. July 18, Devaney Doak and Garrett Booksellers in Farmington; noon-1:30 p.m. July 19, Left Bank Books in Belfast; noon-1 p.m. July 24, Portland Public Library; 7-9 p.m. July 30, Southwest Harbor Public Library; 7-9 p.m. Aug. 1, Jessup Memorial Library in Bar Harbor; and 1-2 p.m. Aug. 2, Sherman’s Books in Bar Harbor. For information, visit christinabakerkline.com.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.