Thursday, May 16, 2013

Christina Baker Kline & Caroline Leavitt at the Center for Fiction

Christine Kline & Caroline Leavitt

The Center for Fiction in NYC held a discussion between authors Christina Baker Kline (Orphan Train) and Caroline Leavitt (Is This Tomorrow) last month. I had never been there before, and I liked their set-up.

The event was held upstairs in a lovely, intimate space. The evening began with Kline talking about her new novel, about the orphan trains, which I had never heard of until I read Laura Moriarty's novel The Chaperone last year. (My review is here.)

Between the years 1854-1929, children from NYC were placed on trains that stopped in various places in the midwest. The children would get out on the train platforms, and people would choose children to come live with them. Many times, these farmers needed more help on their land, and these children ended up working as farmhands.

Over 200,000 children traveled on the orphan trains. Kline discovered a book about it on her husband's father's bookshelf on a visit to Minnesota and her she began a file on it. She did a lot of research on it,  and visited the Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas where they have over 300 first person narratives.

The children could bring nothing with them on the trains, no keepsakes; they were stripped of their identities. Their descendants are determined to keep there stories alive, and Kline's novel does that.

Orphan Train tells two stories- a troubled teen has to do community service and ends up helping an elderly women clean her attic. The woman was on the orphan train as a child and the women bond over   the older one's stories.

Leavitt says that she got the idea for her novel, Is This Tomorrow, from an unlikely source: TV's The Killing. She loved the show, particularly how the characters were not who the appeared to be. She combines the mystery in her story, a twelve-year-old boy goes missing in a Boston suburb in the 1950s, with some of her childhood story.

She was the only Jewish child in a Christian suburb, like her main character, and had very bad asthma. She spent much of her time alone. Leavitt was a smart child in a town where only 10% of the students graduated high school so her outsider status was cemented.

The 1950s setting interested her, she called it "one of the weirdest periods of all", citing its combination of need for "perfection with an undercurrent of fear of the Cold War." She did a lot of research, having three people assisting her, but she got some of the most interesting help from Facebook.

Leavitt has a big social media presence on Twitter and Facebook, and when she asked if anyone was a male nurse in the 1960s, or knew anything about crime in the 1950s,  she said "people told me bizarre stories." I guess the moral is be careful what you wish for.

Leavitt told the audience how her first seven books were well reviewed but didn't sell well. When she sent her editor Pictures of You, they passed, saying "it wasn't special." She asked all of her writer friends for names of other editors, and Algonquin Books told her they wanted it.

She has nothing but praise and gratitude for the people at Algonquin. She said she had five previous publishers and "no one wanted to meet me." At Algonquin, everyone was there at the office to greet her, and they helped get her books to a much wider audience.

They talked about the importance of social media and of helping other authors, Kline saying that "other people's success only helps us." It was a wonderful, informative evening and I got to meet Meg Wolitzer and tell her how much I loved The Interestings.

My review of Is This Tomorrow is here.

2 comments:

  1. What an opportunity! Two fantastic authors. I too had never heard of orphan trains until I read The Chaperone. I have Kline's book on my list and hope to get to it over the summer. As for Caroline ... I loved both her Algonquin books and I got a chance to meet her very briefly in New York last year.

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  2. You have been to some fantastic bookish events lately, Diane! I keep checking The Center for Fiction's schedule ... maybe they'll have something that coincides with one of my visits.

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