ORPHAN TRAIN’S Christina Baker Kline on the genesis of a novel

christina-baker-kline   pieceoftheworld_frontcover-003   bird-in-hand

Christina Baker Kline is the author of the new novel A Piece of the World, about the relationship between the artist Andrew Wyeth and the subject of his best-known painting, Christina’s World. Kline has written five other novels — Orphan Train, The Way Life Should Be, Sweet Water, Bird in Hand, and Desire Lines — and written or edited five works of nonfiction. Orphan Train (2013) spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list, including five weeks at # 1, and was published in 40 countries. More than 100 communities and colleges have chosen it as a “One Book, One Read” selection. Her adaptation of this novel for young readers, Orphan Train Girl, will be published in May. A collection of Baker Kline’s essays on craft will be appearing weekly in a new column in Poets & Writers.


Under the Influence

When I’m working on a novel I become obsessed with its themes, and look for inspiration anywhere I can find it. Paintings, photographs, films, poems, essays, novels — everything I take in is filtered through the lens of my current obsession.

Recently I opened a file I kept while working on my novel Bird in Hand. It’s filled with newspaper clippings, handwritten and typed pages, poems torn out of magazines, Post-it notes in soft yellow and acid green. One 2″x2″ fragment — the bottom of a “To Do” list — has only this, in my handwriting: Don’t worry about starting. Just begin. No story is too large to tell. (Did I write these words, or was I quoting someone? Either way, I must have found them inspiring.)

Leafing through this file, I can trace the genesis of my ideas. The scrap of paper, for example, with phone numbers on one side and “Four danger signs for a marriage: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, emotional withdrawal” scrawled in black pen on the other. Below this I wrote, “Is this novel a love story or a tale of betrayal? Is it about finding your soul mate, or losing everything you hold sacred? How can the two stories be the same?”

 

Visual Stimulation

For years, a tattered newspaper clipping fluttered on the wall in my office. Leafing through The New York Times one day, just as I was beginning to work on a new novel, I had come across a full-page ad. The image floored me. I’d begun writing about a young couple, Ben and Claire, both expatriates living in England, who befriend another American named Charlie … who falls in love with Claire. Who may or may not be falling in love with him. This picture in the newspaper perfectly encapsulated the complexity of my characters’ situation.

A couple on a park bench sits close together, facing away from the viewer. The man has his arm around the woman’s back, his hand resting protectively on her shoulder. The woman’s arm extends along and behind the bench, and her open palm rests on the hand of a man on the other side, who kisses it tenderly. All the markers of romantic Paris — the French restaurant awning, the folded newspaper (Le Monde), the European car in the background and the baroque details of the streetlight in the foreground, a smattering of pigeons, even the man’s black turtleneck and the woman’s plaid skirt and sensible heels — contribute to the illicit thrill of this image.

Does the man on the bench have any idea that his girlfriend/wife is being unfaithful? Did she and the man kissing her hand plan to meet at this place, or was it happenstance? For that matter, do they know each other, or is this a spontaneous moment of anonymous passion? Did the photographer happen on this scene, or was he, perhaps, hired by the man with his back to us on the bench?

The image is shocking in its seeming casualness, in the brazen, in-broad-daylight transgression taking place before our eyes. I was fascinated by the contradictions: the woman so clearly part of a couple, yet making herself available to the man behind her, her demure pose contrasting with her open, searching palm. The man’s body language, too, is contradictory; he sits casually reading the paper, one leg crossed over the other, but his eyes are closed in passion as he kisses the woman’s palm.

Instinctively I knew that this image would help me access the core motivations of my characters, who act in comparably indiscreet and scandalous ways. Claire loves her husband, but she finds something different with Charlie — a passion she’s never felt. Charlie respects Ben, but is blinded by his love for Claire. And when Claire’s best friend from childhood, Alison, comes to visit and ends up engaged to Charlie, things spin even further out of control.

This novel is called Bird in Hand. When I sent the final manuscript to my publisher, I took the faded newspaper clipping down and put it in a cardboard box, along with the handwritten first draft of the novel.

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THE GEOMETRY OF LOVE attempts to solve the problem of a tangled love triangle

The Geometry of Love Jessica Levine

The Geometry of Love

By Jessica Levine

SheWrites Press: April 8, 2014

286 pages, $16.95

Jessica Levine’s debut novel, The Geometry of Love, asks whether a woman with a fiercely creative spirit can ever be content without being married to her muse. It is an astute psychological study of a young woman named Julia Field, an aspiring poet 10 years out of college and 10 years into a relationship with her brilliant British boyfriend, Ben. Julia has put her creative impulses and career on the back burner to follow Ben, who is now on the tenure track at Princeton. Although she is very much a Manhattan girl who thrives on the city’s energy as a source of stimulation and happiness, she has moved to a house in the New Jersey countryside not far from the university, where she is employed as the math department secretary. A chance meeting with Ben’s college roommate, classical pianist and composer Michael, stirs up long-dormant desires, and conflicts and quandaries ensue.

Levine has written an intensely focused novel about one woman in her early 30s who is trying to sort out her life. She is preoccupied with several questions. How did she end up in this place? (Shades of Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.”) Did she make the right decisions along the way? Has she compromised too much? Is she truly satisfied with her long-running relationship with Ben, who is by all accounts (including hers) a devoted, charming, attractive, and economically stable guy with a bright future? What happened to her creative impulse and her desire to be a poet? Is anyone to blame, or is that just how life works? Will cautious Ben propose to her now that he is on the verge of obtaining tenure? Does Michael have a place in her (or their) life anymore? Is it time for Julia to think of herself for once? She has the opportunity to take over her father’s successful financial advising business but that would necessitate living in Manhattan; can she and Ben live apart during the week and alternate weekends between her apartment and their house near Princeton? Would Ben be willing to live in the city and take the train to work? How can they make it all fit together?

From the description above, one could well view the plot as nothing more than a soap opera for smart people, a look into the lives of privileged people struggling to cope with “first world problems.” The Geometry of Love is generally successful in achieving its goals of closely examining the nature of relationships, love, desire, and creativity, but it’s also not surprising that readers seem to have fallen into two camps, love it or hate it.

To some, Julia is immature, unrealistic, impractical, self-indulgent, and neurotic. She is, perish the thought, less than likable. To others, she is just a perfectly normal person, full of complexities, contradictions, and confusion, and thus eminently sympathetic.

I lean strongly toward the latter position, due largely to the strength of Levine’s writing and her deep understanding of what makes these characters tick. I found Julia, Ben, and Michael, and a cast of intriguing supporting characters, to be alternately sympathetic and annoying, and on some occasions even infuriating – just like most of the people in the real world. I found myself immersed in Julia’s world, wondering what would happen next, what the main characters would do, and how what eventually becomes a very messy situation would sort itself out.

Julia and Ben have what appears to be a strong and loving relationship that has stood the test of time. Everyone believes they belong together. On paper, Julia should be fulfilled and content. But recently she has grown increasingly restless, and the meeting with bearded, bohemian Michael has led her to question her life with renewed intensity. She feels she has reached the fork in the road where she must make a commitment to her future; the rest of her life lies ahead, but what kind of future does she want? Her relationship with Ben is comfortable, but it often lacks the spark of truly happy couples who like as well as love each other. It’s clear that Eros plays a key role in creative inspiration for Julia, and that is missing in her otherwise “ideal” life.

“[Ben] saw a relationship as a kind of cathedral under endless construction,” notes Julia. “But I saw it – now – as a living organism with its own peculiar cycles of growth and aging. Woody Allen’s words in Annie Hall came back to me: A relationship is like a shark; it needs to keep moving or it dies.”

Julia soon becomes torn between her intense feelings for Michael – who seems to be her muse – and her devotion to Ben. She is caught in the age-old conundrum. Should she choose passion and poetry or “the good life” of an Ivy League professor’s wife, which would still allow her considerable freedom? Should she follow her heart or her mind? Can either one be trusted? The plot is rich and complicated and develops in a realistic manner until the home stretch, which feels rushed and slightly contrived.

But even when the characters make questionable decisions, acting (or failing to act) implausibly, they don’t necessarily seem unrealistic because people in this type of situation often behave erratically. They can be desperate, deluded, destructive – and full of rationalizations that are convincing only to themselves. The destruction left in their wake by lovers inhabiting their own insular world is very real, and some of it is given short shrift here. There is a lot of thinking and talking about the consequences of various courses of action, but the realistic ramifications are not explored as fully as I would have liked (and as Levine did so well in the first three-quarters of the book). If The Geometry of Love were an actual geometry problem, Levine’s solution would be correct, but in showing her work, one can see that she has omitted a step or two.

Despite these relatively minor drawbacks, The Geometry of Love is an involving read that poses many questions sure to generate lots of discussion; it would make an excellent choice for a book club. Levine deserves particular credit for writing realistic sex scenes between mature, passionate people, and her exploration of female desire is especially impressive. These scenes are central to understanding the characters involved in this love triangle, and we learn a great deal about them through Levine’s skilled handling of this sensitive material.

EUPHORIA combines compelling characters, intellectual ambition, mature sensibility to powerful effect

Euphoria

Euphoria

By Lily King

Atlantic Monthly Press: June 3, 2014

$25, 257 pages

With Euphoria, Lily King tells a compelling love story for mature, thinking adults. Set in the 1930’s, it follows the adventures of three anthropologists working in the Territory of New Guinea: American Nell Stone (loosely based on Margaret Mead), her Australian husband, Fenwick Schuyler (called Fen), and Andrew Bankson, an Englishman who has been working alone studying the Kiona tribe on the Sepik River. Nell and Fen have been studying the Mumbanyo tribe with little success and much frustration (as well as great risk to their own well-being) and decide to return to Australia.

The couple meets Bankson when they converge at the Government Station in Angoram. Bankson has been so despondent following two years of work with the Kiona that he attempts to drown himself, but fails, symptomatic of his efforts in general. He decides he needs time away, so he opts to spend Christmas downriver with some other ex-pats in Angoram.

The result, not surprisingly, is a love triangle among three very different and very complex people. The Stone-Schuyler marriage is troubled for several reasons: a miscarriage, professional jealousy, mutual self-absorption, the shadow of one of Nell’s earlier love affairs, and their drastically different approaches to their anthropological work. Bankson is personally and professionally lost. But his discussion of the Kiona and the other tribes along the Sepik River fascinates Nell and Fen, and they agree to return upriver, where Bankson will help find them a new tribe to study. The whole feels to them as if it were greater than the sum of its three parts.

Although Nell and Bankson are intrigued by each other from the start, the relationship remains platonic and professional as he observes her working methods, so different from his own. She has heard a great deal about him from Fen, but it doesn’t match the man in front of her. In her journal she writes, “But what was all the fuss about him anyway? If he was ever cold or arrogant or territorial, his 25 months with the Kiona must have knocked it out of him. Hard to believe the stories about the string of broken hearts he’s left back in England. Plus Fen says he’s a deviant. What I saw was a teetering, disheveled, unaccountably vulnerable bargepole of a man. A skyscraper beside me. I’m not sure I’ve seen such height and sensitivity paired before. Very tall men are so often naturally removed and distant.”

But Fen seems thrilled to have a friend only a few hours away by canoe, and Bankson feels rejuvenated by their presence, both personally and professionally.

Their relief in finding each other and their pleasure in each other’s company soon wanes and conflicts arise in nearly every aspect of their lives. Nell has published a book about her work, The Children of Kirakira, that breaks new ground with its narrative skill, making it the rare science book that is popular with the general public. When she gives it to Bankson, he reads it straight through, then again the next day. “It was the least academic ethnography I’d ever read, long on description and sweeping conclusions, short on methodical analysis….She wrote with an urgency most of us felt but did not have the courage to reveal, because we were too beholden to the traditions of the old sciences. For so long I’d felt that what I’d been trained to do in academic writing was to press my nose to the ground, and here was Nell Stone with her head raised and swiveling in all directions. It was exhilarating and infuriating and I needed to see her again.”

Fen feels overshadowed by his charismatic, intellectual celebrity of a wife, who acknowledges in her journal that “Once I published that book and my words became a commodity, something broke between us.”

Bankson falls in love with Nell, first as a professional admirer, then as a man who discovers he has a hidden romantic streak. Fen is not unaware, but he is preoccupied with a professional obsession that he takes pains to keep from the others.

While a plot summary can make Euphoria sound like a potboiler, it is actually a nuanced evocation of the intellectual fervor of single-minded people dedicated to understanding another culture. King’s measured prose maintains a placid surface while the plot percolates beneath.

In particular, King has given us a marvelous fictional creation in the character of Nell Stone, a feminist who makes her case with actions rather than words. She is fearless in simply living the life she wants to live. Writing in her journal, she confesses, “I think above all else it is freedom I search for in my work, in these far-flung places, to find a group of people who give each other the room to be in whatever way they need to be. And maybe I will never find it all in one culture but maybe I can find parts of it in several cultures, maybe I can piece it together like a mosaic and unveil it to the world. But the world is deaf. The world — and really I mean the West — has no interest in change or self-improvement and my role it seems to me on a dark day like today is merely to document these oddball cultures in the nick of time, just before Western mining and agriculture annihilates them. And then I fear that this awareness of their impending doom alters my observations, laces all of it with a morose nostalgia.” Nell is a thoroughly modern woman with a gift for prescience in her work, if not in her personal life.

As we observe Nell alternately at work and play, in and out of love, ecstatic and despondent about her professional and personal lives, we come to understand what makes this unusual woman tick and to fall under her spell just as first Fen and then Bankson have.

One of the most memorable scenes comes late in the novel when Nell and Bankson, who have a more compatible work style than Nell does with Fen, are typing up their research findings in Nell and Fen’s hut. “I loved the sound of our two typewriters,” writes Bankson. “It felt like we were in a band, making a strange sort of music. It felt like I was part of something, and that the work was important. She always made me feel that the work was important. And then her typewriter stopped and she was watching me. ‘Don’t stop,’ I said. ‘Your typing makes my brain work better.'” Euphoria depicts a meeting of the minds, not just the hearts, of two rare people.

The euphoria of the title refers to those rare moments when an anthropologist achieves a cultural breakthrough in his or her work. Nell describes it well when Bankson asks her the favorite part of her work.”It’s that moment about two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It’s a delusion — you’ve only been there eight weeks — and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.” (Bankson laughs and tells her that “a good day for me is when no little boy steals my underwear, pokes it through with sticks, and brings it back stuffed with rats.”)

The novel’s title also refers to the even more moving experience of truly understanding another person from one’s own culture, that moment when you realize you are in love with someone new and your world seems to open up before you.

Euphoria is an absorbing and thought-provoking read. Like the long line of novels exploring journeys into uncharted territory on the map and in the heart, from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, Euphoria depicts the inexorable consequences of the encounter between intellectual ambition and romantic sensibility.