This Q&A has been adapted from a number of sources: a discussion with my book editor, Katherine Nintzel at William Morrow, and guest appearances on a several blogs:
Interviewer: Bird in Hand is about “Four people, two marriages, one lifelong friendship. Everything is about to change.” Where did you get the idea to explore these themes in your latest novel?
Christina: Bird in Hand opens with a car accident that sets in motion a series of events that changes the (interconnected) lives of four people. It moves forward in the present day through the alternating perspectives of these four characters, and it also moves back in time through their perspectives to a specific moment in the past.
The story of Bird in Hand emerged slowly, from a number of sources, but it first began as a “What if?” question.
Just over ten years ago I moved from New York City to Montclair, New Jersey with my husband and two young boys. After many years of relying on subway trains and taxis, suddenly I was driving on unfamiliar (and confusing) highways, with not only my own precious human cargo in the backseat but other mothers’ as well. Late at night, I’d terrify myself with “What If” questions, such as: what if something happens to one of these children, my own or someone else’s? What if somehow I’m responsible? As I turned these kinds of questions over in my mind, I realized – with the writer part of my brain – that it would be a lot more useful and less neurotic to use them as material than to keep pointlessly obsessing.
At the same time, my husband, David, and I were, like many of our friends, adjusting to many life changes: a new house, a new lifestyle, two small children, loss of autonomy for both of us, some loss of identity for me, a stressful job for him, a commute into the city. We weathered these storms, but I wanted to write about the complexities many couples deal with at this stage of their lives, whether or not they come through intact.
In the novel, you have four characters, whose lives are intertwined. Alison and Claire, who are best friends even though Claire is having an affair with Alison’s husband, Charlie. You also write about Ben, Claire’s husband, who desires children and admires Charlie and Alison’s marriage. Was it difficult to write about four characters and keep them all straight? Do you favor any characters over the others?
It was actually exhilarating to move from one character to another in this novel. I loved all of them equally. Flaubert famously said, of the vain, shallow, adulterous heroine of his most famous novel, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” – and that’s exactly how I felt with these characters. I found that I sided with each as I wrote from that character’s perspective. It made perfect sense to me, writing as Claire, that she was entitled to Charlie’s love. I understood Ben’s ironic distance and distraction. I empathized with Charlie’s restlessness and yearning. And though Alison’s perspective begins and ends the novel, I always thought that the other characters were equally entitled to their points of view.
I think that Alison is probably the most sympathetic character; she is sort of an Everymom. But I appreciate Claires unapologetic ambition, her undisguised lack of a maternal instinct. I admire Charlie’s love for Claire – in a funny way, I think of their relationship as a classic love story: kept apart for years, they’re determined to find a way to be together. And Ben, with his working-class background, his ongoing quest to reinvent himself, and his work ethic, is a character I just plain like.
(I will say that I don’t know if Claire will ever be truly happy. I think the other three characters have a greater capacity for it than she does; her restless spirit, her sense of never being exactly where she wants to be, may be too deeply ingrained.)
Your novels are known for exploring “how people tell the stories of their lives, and what these stories reveal about who they are.” How does Bird in Hand fit with this theme, which is included in all your work?
At one point in Bird in Hand a character wonders, “Who breaks the thread, the one who pulls or the one who hangs on?” I wanted to write about love and loss and betrayal and renewal. I wanted to write about characters who don’t know quite what they want, or how to get it, and are pushed into decisions by circumstances beyond their control. One of my epigraphs for this novel is a quote from The Age of Grief, by Jane Smiley: “Confusion is perfect sight and perfect mystery at the same time.” This holds true for all of my characters in different ways – in all of my novels.
The questions I explore in Bird in Hand – about true love, marriage, ambition, dreams, and happiness – aren’t simple ones. I want readers to identify with one character and then another; I want them to think about how the choices they make define who they are in the world. I hope this story inspires people to think about their own lives and motivations.
How does Bird in Hand differ from your other novels such as The Way Life Should Be?
My other novels – The Way Life Should Be, Desire Lines, and Sweet Water – are all about young women on a quest to find out who they are. I wanted to write from male perspectives; I wanted to write about children; I wanted to give my characters clashing motivations. I wanted to explore darker subjects than I’d tackled in the past. For a while Bird in Hand seemed impossible to pull off. I couldn’t figure out the structure. (In fact, I put it aside for a few years and wrote The Way Life Should Be.) My amazing editor at Morrow, Kate Nintzel, came up with the idea of telling the back story – the part that takes place in England – in reverse chronological order. After that, the whole story fell into place.
Writing Bird in Hand, with its multiple perspectives, spoiled me. When I began my novel-in-progress this spring (working title: Orphan Train), I intended to write from one character’s POV, but found it constricting. I decided to give voice to two other characters around her. It creates a richer writing experience for me – and I think it will expand the scope and the depth of this book.
Part of what makes Bird in Hand so compelling is the thought that any (or all) of this could happen to any of us. From the day-to-day minutiae of all four characters’ lives to the police response after Alison’s accident, the details that make up this novel feel very authentic. How did you make that happen?
The accident scene gave me a lot of grief. I consulted with police officers, a passel of lawyers, and finally with a Vice President of Public Relations at Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, who patiently explained the intricacies of New Jersey laws and liabilities. Several times I was tempted to cut that opening altogether: I worried that it tilted the book too heavily toward Alison, that it formed a cloud that she couldn’t get out from under. But ultimately I think it is a crucial part of the story, propelling everyone toward the kind of seismic change that might not otherwise have happened.
How did you come up with the title?
I began this book with a different title in mind: Four Way Stop. Alison gets into an accident at a four-way stop, and it changes the lives of the four central characters. For years I worked on the book with this title. But when I handed in the final manuscript, the consensus was that Four Way Stop was perhaps too literal, too negative, too much of an end stop.
Bird in Hand was one of about ten alternates I came up with. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush …. I kept thinking of the choices my characters had to make: is it better to play it safe and stick with what you have, or reach for something more, something that may elude your grasp? And when I re-read the book, I realized that I played with this idea throughout. There are lots of (literal and metaphorical) birds in this book.
Bird in Hand can be seen as a criticism of romanticizing modern marriage. And yet the ending isn’t necessarily sad. Do you feel that each of the characters made the right choice? Or just made a choice, and that if Alison hadn’t gotten into the accident, nothing might have changed?
In real life, I am something of a romantic – and happily married! But I also know that marriage is hard, even under the best of circumstances. In this novel I wanted to show what’s hard about marriage; I wanted to explore characters who can’t quite figure out how to communicate with each other. I wanted to follow them to all the dark and elusive places.
You’ve switched between narrators before in your novels, and from present-day to past. How does this novel compare to your earlier work?
This is my most structurally ambitious novel. Bird in Hand is told from the third-person limited, past-tense perspectives of all four characters, moving forward in time chronologically through each point of view. At the same time, in alternating chapters the story goes back in time through each of their perspectives, in reverse-chronological order. The back story ends at the genesis of the relationship: the moment Claire met Charlie. The present-day story ends in the present tense.
I’ve always been intrigued by multiple perspectives. One of my favorite books, Virginia Woolf’s experimental novel The Waves, is made up of six first-person interior monologues that comprise a larger central consciousness. I love this line from the story-telling character Bernard: “But in order to make you understand, to give you my life, I must tell a story – and there are so many, and so many ….”
Bird in Hand is your fourth novel. Does it get easier or harder to think of new ideas for novels? What are the challenges of being a multi-published author?
If anything, it gets easier to think of ideas, because there are always things that come up in the writing of a book that ultimately don’t fit that particular story. But I suppose the biggest challenge for me in my writing career came after I’d written my second novel (Desire Lines) and was working on a third (called, at the time, Four Way Stop). A lot of things changed at once — I moved from New York to the suburbs; I had three children in fairly quick succession; I started a full-time teaching job. As a result, I lost the thread of the novel I was working on and couldn’t figure out how to find it. Eventually I abandoned that novel and wrote another very quickly, The Way Life Should Be, which was lighthearted and funny and had recipes. Writing it was a pleasure! After that, I had the clarity to return to Four-Way Stop, which eventually became Bird in Hand. Though it was a long and difficult process, I learned a lot about myself and my writing in those years. And I think that ultimately Bird in Hand is much stronger for it.
Do your experiences as a cook, caterer, and personal chef ever make it into your fiction work?
Yes! I wrote extensively from my own experience as a cook in The Way Life Should Be. One of the many joys of writing fiction is the alchemy of it. I love that bits and pieces of my own experience, my thoughts and feelings, overheard conversations, friends’ stories, movies, TV shows, and other books work their way in, often without my consciously realizing it. (Grace Paley once said, “It is the responsibility of writers to listen to gossip and pass it on. It is the way all storytellers learn about life.”)
I used my own life in many ways in Bird in Hand. I think that these four characters are all me, and they’re all my husband, David. They’re also lots of other people I’ve met. And no one at all. I felt like an actor (or perhaps several actors) writing this book: I truly inhabited these characters. I became them as I wrote.
Please share with us a little about your novel writing process. Do you start with characters, a theme, or a plot idea? How long does it generally take for you to work through your process?
For me, the process of writing a novel begins months or even years before I start writing. It evolves from pieces of my own past, stories I’ve heard, things I’m curious about, emotional journeys that interest me, unexpected ideas, unresolved questions. Most of this development of a central idea isn’t even conscious. Over the years I’ve learned to trust this creative process, slow and circuitous as it may be. I’ve always thought of it as akin to sand rubbing against other detritus inside an oyster shell, eventually creating a pearl. (Though I recently learned that this theory of pearl formation is apocryphal, I still like the idea.)
Bird in Hand took much longer to write than my other novels; I left it and came back to it. But writing a novel usually takes me two years in all, with many detours along the way.
You also have co-authored and edited nonfiction books. Tell us about the type of nonfiction books you have worked with, and how they are similar or different from your fiction.
All of my nonfiction books have emerged out of a genuine interest in and curiosity about a subject – and all have been, in a sense, collaborations. I wrote a book about feminist mothers and daughters with my mother (The Conversation Begins); I’ve edited or co-edited three essay collections – two (Child of Mine and Room to Grow) about raising young children and one (About Face, co-edited with Anne Burt), about what women really see when they look in the mirror. My novels touch on some related subjects, but in an entirely different way.
Many writers stick with one type of genre once they are published. You have been published multiple times in fiction and nonfiction. Why have you chosen to explore more than one type of writing? Would you recommend this to all writers?
Writing novels is my passion, but writing is, by definition, a solitary pursuit. Another side of me wants to be out in the world, interacting with people and exchanging ideas. (I know this isn’t true for all novelists!) I realized the other day that my own blog on writing fulfills this same social/intellectual need. I can share my thoughts about writing with other people, and work with guest bloggers on their own ideas. I love doing it.
What is your writing routine like?
Writers are always asked about their work habits because it’s endlessly fascinating (even to other writers). Do you write in the morning or the afternoon? Do you work on a laptop or with a ballpoint pen? Do you sit in a basement, like John Cheever, or an austere sliver of a room, like Roxana Robinson? Do you work for two hours or ten?
I used to worry that I wasn’t working the “right” way. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter what anyone else’s process is. What matters is what works for me. For example – unlike most other novelists I know, I’m not a morning person. My best writing time may be mid-to-late afternoon. Writing Bird in Hand, I often worked in a generic Panera Bread Shop in a different town, on subways, and in dentists’ offices. I set myself the task of writing four pages a day … on a college-ruled notepad – faint blue lines on white paper, a firm pink margin with an old-fashioned micro-point Uniball pen, which few people seem to do anymore. Maybe I could train myself to write first drafts on the keyboard, but why should I? This is what works for me.
And that’s my point. I’m still intrigued by how other people work, but I also know that writing is a strange alchemical business, and I need to follow my own impulses. Whatever it takes to get the words on the page is what I need to do!
How do you manage all the requirements of being an author from writing new novels to marketing yourself and your work?
I rarely feel that I achieve balance. What I’ve learned over the years is that sometimes things will be out of balance, and that’s okay. Sometimes I don’t have time to work on my fiction (like now, while I’m beginning a new semester at Fordham and working on nonfiction articles and interviews about Bird in Hand). And sometimes I’m focused on my family and just want to be in the moment with them. I’m not sure whether it’s my nature or whether I’ve learned to do this because I have a complicated life, but I’m pretty good at hunkering down and working on my novel when I need to. When I’m consumed with writing, other parts of my life suffer — laundry piles up, for example, and we do a lot of takeout. My family is pretty understanding; they know it’s all part of the process, and will be over before long. They all have their own passions as well.
Can you share a couple time management tips for readers who are struggling with finding the time to write and/or market themselves?
I’d like to share two things, one simple and one complicated. The simple thing is that you should remember that even if you waste the entire day running errands and responding to “fire drills,” as my husband calls last-minute, drop-everything requests (which for me might range from picking a sick kid up from school to reading page proofs), you can redeem the day if, at some point – for fifteen minutes or an hour – you write. Every minute you spend writing brings you a small step closer to finishing your article, essay, story, or even book.
The second thing is that we all go through challenging times when writing a novel seems impossible. Just remember: this too will pass. The biggest challenge in my writing life came after I’d written my second novel and was working on a third. A lot of things changed at once — I moved from New York to the suburbs; I had three children in fairly quick succession; I started a full-time teaching job. As a result, I lost the thread of the novel I was working on and couldn’t figure out how to find it. Eventually I abandoned that novel and wrote another very quickly, The Way Life Should Be, which was lighthearted and funny and had recipes. Writing it was a pleasure! After that, I had the clarity to return to the novel that became Bird in Hand. Though it was a long and difficult process, I learned a lot about myself and my writing in those years. And I think that ultimately Bird in Hand is much stronger for it.
All writers have to start somewhere! What was your first book publishing experience?
Did you have an agent? If so, how did you acquire your agent?
In my senior year of college a visiting novelist took my short stories to her literary agency, and a young agent (Beth Vesel, who is still my agent) called me up and said she wanted to represent me. This gave me confidence at an early age — the idea someone believed in me and cared about my work. After college I went to graduate school in literature and didn’t write a creative word, but this agent called every few months, just checking in: “Are you thinking about your novel yet? How are you going to carve out time to make that happen?” She encouraged me to apply for MFA fellowships so that I’d have two free years to write. And that’s what I did — I went to the University of Virginia, did an MFA in Fiction Writing, and wrote my first novel.
What are some tips you can share with new authors about acquiring an agent and/or book contract?
Though I know that my experience is pretty unusual, and I was lucky, I always tell my students that what’s most important is that they find someone — a mentor if possible, a friend, even a parent — who believes in their work and encourages them to move forward.
Further advice: Avoid people who are “toxic,” to use an old self-help phrase — people who are competitive with you or otherwise sabotage your writing. Set clear goals for yourself (”I will write a draft of a novel in one year,” “I will write one short story a month”) with daily goals as well. When I’m writing a novel, as I said, I set myself the task of four pages a day. Sometimes I write more, sometimes less, but that’s always the goal.
What has your experience been working with an agent and a publicist? What are some advantages and disadvantages of working with agents and publicists?
I am not sure it’s possible, these days, to publish novels with a mainstream publisher without an agent. (Self-publishing is a different matter.) I’ve never hired a freelance publicist, but many of my friends have. My in-house publisher at HarperCollins seems to be doing a good job. The question of whether to hire an outside publicist is one that all authors struggle with, in my experience.
Even though you have a publicist, what types of marketing do you do on your own?
I reach out to other writers, reviewers, and radio hosts as much as possible. I also blog and guest blog frequently, and I accept many invitations to talk about my work. I’m sure I could be doing more!
What are some tips for a successful book signing?
As a “fan,” I prefer it when the writer doesn’t simply read, but talks about the book – the process of writing it, where the ideas came from, etc. People also like the Q&A, so I try to leave time for that when I give readings.
Do you use social media such as Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn to promote yourself and your work? In your opinion are these sites a must in today’s society?
They may not be a must for Philip Roth, but I think they’re incredibly important to most writers trying to expand their audience. Being visible on the Web has transformed my ability to connect with people. I’m pretty accessible; I have a website and a blog and an email address that’s easy to find. As a result I get a lot of mail from readers, which is a terrific way to learn about the impact your work has on others.
I started my blog, A Writing Year, as a way to talk about the creative process. Essentially, I write my blog the way I teach — with an emphasis on tips and ideas for getting words on the page and turning them into readable prose. I also “commission” pieces from guest bloggers, published authors with specific things to say about craft and the life of a writer. Unlike many blogs, mine is not stream-of-consciousness; it’s not a diary of my experience. Though I sometimes talk about my personal life, I’m more interested in talking about ideas and inspiration. (http://christinabakerkline.wordpress.com.)
What about blogs or blog tours for marketing?
I’m doing a lot of guest blogging, but I’m not specifically on a “blog tour.” The more people who know about your book, the better, I think.
And, finally, the question we always ask: what’s next for you?
I love teaching at Fordham, where I’m Writer-in-Residence. And, as I mentioned, I’m working on a new novel, tentatively called Orphan Train. This is the first of my novels that involves an actual historical event and lots of research, which is both exciting and daunting. My new blog is about the experience of writing this novel – it’s about craft and discipline and the creative process.