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Christina Baker Kline: On Bringing History to Life

New York Times bestselling author Christina Baker Kline shares insights into the writing and publishing process of her latest historical fiction novel, The Exiles.

A #1 New York Times bestselling author of eight novels, including The Exiles, Orphan Train, and A Piece of the World, Christina Baker Kline is published in 40 countries. Her novels have received the New England Prize for Fiction, the Maine Literary Award, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Award, among other prizes, and have been chosen by hundreds of communities, universities, and schools as “One Book, One Read” selections. Her essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in publications such as the New York Times and the NYT Book Review, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, LitHub, Psychology Today, and Slate.

Christina Baker Kline

Christina Baker Kline

In this post, Baker Kline shares insights into the writing and publishing process of her latest historical fiction novel, The Exiles, and much more!

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Name: Christina Baker Kline
Literary agent: Eric Simonoff, WME
Book title: The Exiles
Publisher: Custom House/HarperCollins
Release date: July 6, 2021
Genre: Historical/Literary Fiction
Elevator pitch for the book: A powerful, emotionally resonant novel that captures the hardship, oppression, opportunity and hope of four women’s lives—three English convicts and an orphaned Aboriginal girl—in nineteenth-century Australia.
Previous titles by the author: Orphan Train; A Piece of the World; Bird in Hand; The Way Life Should Be; Desire Lines; Sweet Water; Orphan Train Girl

The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline

The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline

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What prompted you to write this book?

My imagination was ignited half a dozen years ago when I read an article in the New York Times about British convict women and children shipped to Australia—but I realize now that several different strands of my own life story sparked that interest. In my 20s, I read Robert Hughes’s history of the British colonization of Australia, The Fatal Shore, which inspired me to apply for a six-week Rotary Foundation fellowship to southeastern Australia. A few years later, my mother, a Women’s Studies professor, and I wrote a book, The Conversation Begins: Mothers and Daughters Talk about Living Feminism, interviewing 60 women in the process. Over the years, I have taught memoir writing and art in women’s prisons. These experiences shaped my interest in Australia, in the power of women telling their stories, and in the criminal justice system—all foundational components of my novel The Exiles.

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How long did it take to go from idea to publication?

My novels usually take three years from research to publication, and this one was no different. The main thing that changed from my original conception was the addition of an 8-year-old Aboriginal character, Mathinna. She is based on the real-life orphaned daughter of an Aboriginal chieftain who, in 1840, was taken in on a whim by Sir John Franklin, the British governor of Hobart, Tasmania, and his wife, Lady Jane. They abandoned her when they went back to London several years later. Initially, I’d planned for the novel to be a metaphorical passing of the baton from one convict woman to the next, but when I visited Tasmania and learned about Mathinna, I decided to include her story. I felt it would be irresponsible not to address what happened to the Aboriginal people who’d lived on the island (then called Van Diemen’s Land) for thousands of years before being exiled by the British.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

The Exiles was published in hardcover in August of 2020, during a period of great international turmoil. COVID was raging throughout the world; the Black Lives Matter movement, sparked in large part by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, had spread across many continents. In Australia, large rallies and marches were held in support of Aboriginal people, demanding justice, recognition, and reparations. Though my novel takes place more than 180 years ago, the questions it raises about social justice, the poverty-to-prison pipeline, and discrimination against indigenous people and women are still relevant today. I was surprised at how many of my interviews and conversations about the book drew direct parallels between then and now.

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Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

I had not realized, until I dove into the research for this book, that Britain sent more than 50,000 convicts to America before the States declared their independence and ended the practice. It was only then that Britain began casting around for another place to send their criminals. They settled on Australia, but made a tactical error: By 1803, the penal colony of Australia held nine men for every woman. That was when the British government cooked up a plan to send poor women to Australia as convicts, most of whom had committed crimes of poverty such as stealing bread. These women were essentially sent to Australia as breeders. And populate it they did: today 20 percent of white Australians are descended from convicts.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

Of course, I hope readers will find the story compelling. And I hope they might—as I did—enjoy learning about this significant but little-known piece of history. The convict women left Victorian England—one of the most stratified societies in history, where your accent alone determined which social class you were in—and moved to Australia, where those strict rules no longer applied. Once they became free of their literal and metaphorical shackles, the former convicts could make new lives. They ended up creating a whole new world.

This narrative is in marked contrast to that of the Aboriginal people, whose story of colonization is similar to our American history (for good reason, since both countries were originally British colonies). Opportunity for some does not mean opportunity for all.

Christina Baker Kline: On Bringing History to Life

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Forge ahead through the hard parts.

With every novel I’ve written, I come to a moment when I want to give up. For some reason, it’s usually around page 120 for me. I decide the idea isn’t good enough, the writing isn’t good enough, the story is boring. I feel like Winnie-the-Pooh, stuck in the rabbit hole: he can’t seem to move forward, but he definitely can’t go back. The only thing to do is inch ahead little by little. There’s a quote I love by Honor Moore: “If you don’t put it in, you can’t take it out.” If you don’t get something on the page, you won’t have anything to work with. That advice has saved many a writing day—and many a novel.

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