Her sophomore year at Bangor High School was a time of rebellion and change for Christina Baker Kline. Bright and bookish all of her life, she began trading schoolwork for a steady diet of good times in order to fit in with friends.
Kline’s normally good grades fell disastrously — she flunked algebra that year and got a D in another subject. Her concerned parents, teachers at the University of Maine, quickly plucked their misdirected daughter from the fast lane and enrolled her in something called the Bates Summer Debate Institute.
To Kline, the place sounded like an insane asylum. But it turned out to be an inspiration. For the first time, she lived among teen-agers from university families like her own, talking excitedly about college, aspirations and careers.
Back in Bangor, she began rebuilding her grades from the ruins and was accepted at Yale University in 1982. Kline took writing classes there and found that she had a facility with words. One of the teachers, a novelist, sent her own agent a sample of Kline’s writing. The agent was so impressed that she offered to represent Kline, who had yet to write anything for publication.
In 1988, with a masters degree in literature and an agent still waiting for something of hers to read, the 24-year-old Kline began working on a novel. It was about a family in a town called Sweetwater, Tenn., and the dark secret it harbored about the terrible death of one of its own.
Kline finished her first novel in 1990 and sold it a year later. “Sweet Water” is scheduled for publication (HarperCollins, N.Y.) on June 16. Yet even before its arrival in bookstores, the book has been blessed with a bounty of advance honors. It was chosen as an alternate selection of the Literary Guild, and already has been optioned by a Hollywood film studio for a possible movie deal.
“Sweet Water” also will be featured (along with John Grisham’s “The Client,”) in July’s volume of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books — a rarity for any first novel. Publisher’s Weekly recently called the book “…a powerful, immensely readable tale of loyalty and betrayal, family and memory, made fresh by Kline’s often beautiful and always lucid prose.”
Now, 29 years old and living with her husband in Manhattan, Kline is working on her second novel while teaching creative writing at New York University and Yale. Not bad, all in all, for a young woman who never really thought of herself as a writer — and perhaps still doesn’t.
“When you’re young, you start out not knowing what the hell you’re doing. You don’t know what a novel is or how to proceed. There are no rules,” Kline said recently by phone from New York. “I didn’t always think I’d be a writer. Many times I could easily have given it up. It’s good to have people around who believe in you and keep you at it.”
Kline credits her parents for providing much of that vital support. Tina and Bill Baker — she teaches English at UMO, he teaches history — still live in the house on Grant Street that Kline recalls so fondly from her childhood.
Kline is the oldest of four daughters, all them graduates of Bangor High. She was born in Cambridge, England, where her father was a student. When Kline was three, the family left England for North Carolina and Tennessee. Their old farmhouse in Tennessee, the model for the house in “Sweet Water,” was rich with books, barnyard animals, and a playhouse where a childhood imagination could run free.
“Those memories are so powerful and evocative to me now,” Kline said, as the busy New York street sounds drifted through the apartment window. “It was my inspiration for using a house as the central metaphor in the book. The idea was that a house could contain a family’s history and secrets.”
Kline’s father is a native Southerner whose Chattanooga relatives provided the inspiration for many of the characters in “Sweet Water.” In 1970, his passionate anti-Vietnam War views made administrators uneasy at the small Tennessee college where he taught. Baker decided to take the family as far from the South as possible.
“So we moved to Maine, which no one in the family could believe at the time,” Kline recalled with a laugh. “I went to first grade at Mary Snow School, and we went back and forth four or five times to England.”
Kline started reading at 3. She wrote early on, mostly fairy tales, on books her mother assembled from blank sheets of paper. At 8, she became captivated by the mythology of Bible stories.
By the time she graduated from Bangor High, in 1982, she had enough fond memories of Maine people and places to fill a book. And that is precisely what she has been doing lately.
“My second book is about Bangor,” Kline said. “The place names are real, so people there will be able to recognize a lot of the city in it. It’s called `Desire Lines,’ which is an landcape architecture term for those shortcut paths people make when they don’t want to follow the paths designed for them.”
The story is about a Bangor High school student who disappears on graduation night and is never seen or heard from again. One of the four girlfriends with her that night returns to Bangor 10 years later to investigate the disappearance and resolve the issues that have troubled her own life ever since.
“It’s kind of a thriller,” said Kline, who researched the book by talking to Bangor police about local missing-person cases.
As Kline prepares to embark on a book tour through New England and the South, she’s a little nervous about visiting the real Sweetwater, Tenn., an hour from Chattanooga. The novel speaks of it as a hick town, and Kline doesn’t want to hurt people’s feelings the first time out.
She said she won’t have the same problem with the novel set in Bangor, though.
“I could never write about Maine in a hurtful way,” Kline said. “I care too much about Bangor and the people I know there. It’s so comfortable when I come home.”