Not only will Kline offer the closing address on Feb. 19, she also will pre-release her new novel, “A Piece of the World,” before its national release later in February. It’s a real coup for the festival.
“A Piece of the World” follows the life of Christina Olson, who spent her entire life on her family’s remote farm on the coast of Maine. Despite a disabling illness, she was the inspiration for artist Andrew Wyeth, becoming the subject of his famous painting, “Christina’s World.”
Kline is looking forward to the festival.
“I have been to Savannah twice in the last year and loved it so much,” she says. “I had a marvelous time.”
Bestselling author Jonathan Rabb, a resident of Savannah, is Kline’s close friend.
“I think he must have spoken to the organizers about the fact that the festival is right before my book comes out,” she says. “The publisher had to lift the embargo in order to make this possible. I thought it would be a fun kickoff.”
“A Piece of the World” is highly anticipated. “Orphan Train” was on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two years — including five weeks at the No. 1 spot — and was published in 40 countries.
“This book has a number of similarities to ‘Orphan Train.’” Kline says. “My new novel is the story of the relationship between famous artist Andrew Wyeth and the subject of his painting, which hangs in the Museum of Modern Art.”
Wyeth himself said Olson “was limited physically but by no means spiritually. The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless.”
The style of painting Wyeth used, known as magic realism, imbues everyday scenes with poetic mystery.
“I was captivated with the painting as a child,” Kline says. “I grew up about an hour from where the painting was made and where Christina lived.
“My name is Christina and so is my mother’s and grandmother’s. Dad was from Georgia and Mom from North and South Carolina.
“My grandmother Christina grew up very similarly to Christina in the painting,” Kline says. “She lived in a white farmhouse, was afflicted with polio and had trouble walking. She grew up in a rural setting with no modern amenities.”
“A Piece of the World” is set in the same time period as “Orphan Train.”
“As I finished ‘Orphan Train,’ I began thinking about staying in that moment,” Kline says. “I learned so much about what it meant to be alive at that time. When I stumbled onto this story, I knew right away that was what I wanted to do.”
When Kline writes her novels, she conducts extensive research.
“I read hundreds of orphan train rider stories and met 11 of them for ‘Orphan Train,’” she says. “It wasn’t based on any one person, but very closely based on fact.
“Both of these novels took a departure from the way I wrote before. They were very reliant on fact.
“With both of them, I was very careful to stick to what happened in the historical record,” Kline says. “I wrote the fiction around that.”
While Kline did a lot of writing, she didn’t plan to be an author.
“I always did write in one way or another, but I didn’t know I would end up being a writer,” she says. “It’s such a combination of things that lead people into this bizarre profession of making things up.
“I have edited a lot as an adult and worked as a freelance editor,” Kline says. “I also was a professor teaching English and creative writing. It’s only since ‘Orphan Train’ that I have been a real writer.”
With three sons, including two in college, Kline always tells them to “follow their bliss.”
“But they need to have a marketable skill, as well,” she says. “That’s important for anyone who does something creative. I never assumed I would always make a living from writing.”
Currently, Kline is working on a new novel, but ironically, her success has made the process more difficult.
“Since ‘Orphan Train’ came out, things have changed so much,” she says. “I don’t have an assistant. It’s hard to delegate this stuff. I must do interviews and there are essays I have to write. A lot of my job is responding to requests and doing events.
“I have a dual life at the moment, which is usually a solitary, quiet life. Then there is this very public life that is part of the promotion but also just the business of writing.
“At the moment, I’m trying to balance,” Kline says. “Last week, I had two full days when I worked on the new book. The rest of the week, I was doing events.”
The other novels Kline has written are “The Way Life Should Be,” “Sweet Water,” “Bird in Hand” and “Desire Lines.” She also has written or edited five works of nonfiction.
The success of “Orphan Train” came rather late after it was published.
“The New York Post named it one of the top book club reads in 2017, and it was published in 2013,” Kline says. “I’m under no illusion that it will ever happen again. It was kind of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“A number of factors came together. It’s about a little-known moment in American history when children were put into a form of slave labor, indentured until they were 21.
“Learning about that story enlightened a lot of people about modern-day foster programs, how we treat children who are abandoned or unwanted,” she says. “The great surge in genealogical research contributes to it. And it spans different parts of the country.”
There is a personal factor in “Orphan Train” that appeals to readers.
“I think it’s because I have a young protagonist and a 91-year-old protagonist,” she says. “It’s appealing to high school and college readers, as well as adults. It hit home with everyone.”
Kline is pleased that her new novel is being released early.
“I’m honored to be included in this festival,” she says. “I’m a huge fan of Colson Whitehead’s and am excited to meet him, and of course James Patterson. And I love Savannah, as well.”
IF YOU GO
What: Savannah Book Festival closing address with Christina Baker Kline
When: 3 p.m. Feb. 19
Where: Trustees Theater, 16 E. Broughton St.
Info: 912-525-5050, savannahboxoffice.com