When I’m working on a novel I become obsessed with its themes, and look for inspiration anywhere I can find it. Paintings, photographs, films, poems, essays, novels – everything I take in is filtered through the lens of my current obsession. (I’ve written about some of the visual inspiration for my new novel, Bird in Hand, here and here.)
Recently I opened a file I kept while working on Bird in Hand. It’s filled with newspaper clippings, handwritten and typed pages, poems torn out of magazines, Post-it notes in soft yellow and acid green. One 2”x2” fragment – the bottom of a “To Do” list – has only this, in my handwriting: Don’t worry about starting. Just begin. No story is too large to tell. (Did I write these words, or was I quoting someone? Either way, I must have found them inspiring.)
Leafing through this file, I can trace the genesis of my ideas. The scrap of paper, for example, with phone numbers on one side and Four danger signs for a marriage: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, emotional withdrawal scrawled in black pen on the other. Below this I wrote, “Is [Bird in Hand] a love story or a tale of betrayal? Is it about finding your soul mate, or losing everything you hold sacred? How can the two stories be the same?”
Below are some passages I found in the file that shaped my novel-in-progress –- and why:
1) “I used to think if you fell from grace it was more likely than not the result of one stupendous error, or at least an unfortunate accident. I hadn’t learned that it can happen so gradually you don’t lose your stomach or hurt yourself in the landing. You don’t necessarily sense the motion. I’ve found it takes at least two and generally three things to alter the course of a life: You slip around the truth once, and then again, and one more time, and there you are, feeling, for a moment, that it was sudden, your arrival at the bottom of the heap.” — Jane Hamilton, A Map of the World
This novel-– which, like Bird in Hand, is about the accidental death of a child that sets in motion a series of events that changes the lives of the main characters-– had a huge impact on me. My own opening paragraph, I later realized, echoes the beginning of Hamilton’s powerful book.
2) “Those of us who claim exclusivity in love do so with a liar’s courage: there are a hundred opportunities, thousands over the years, for a sense of falsehood to seep in, for all that we imagine as inevitable to become arbitrary, for our history together to reveal itself only as a matter of chance and happenstance, nothing irrepeatable, or irreplaceable, the circumstantial mingling of just one of the so many million with just one more.” — Alice McDermott, Charming Billy
Bird in Hand is about four people, two of whom betray their spouses. I was interested in writing about moral ambiguity, which McDermott so brilliantly parses in this novel. If you truly believe that your spouse is not your soulmate, and that your own happiness is vitally important, what do you do?
3) “Close to the body of things, there can be heard a stir that makes us and destroys us.”— D. H. Lawrence, Study of Thomas Hardy
That people’s deepest feelings cannot be constrained by social norms or boundaries is an idea I wanted to explore in this book (and an idea that preoccupied Lawrence). Though two of my characters disrupt – and arguably destroy – other lives in their quest to be together, they are oblivious to all but their own happiness.
4) “It is a queer and fantastic world. Why can’t people have what they want? The things were all there to content everybody; yet everybody has the wrong thing.” — Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier
My four characters are constantly at odds. Their preoccupations, passions, and dreams are often in conflict. In developing this story, I wanted to give equal weight to each perspective. I was fascinated by the complexity of The Good Soldier, and at how skillfully Ford got to the core of his characters’ motivations.
5) In truth, I did not read Chekhov’s short story “The Lady with the Dog” until after Bird in Hand was published. But this quote (from the Norton edition) is uncanny in its precise application to my story – down to the reference to birds:
“It seemed to them that fate had intended them for one another, and they could not understand why she should have a husband, and he a wife. They were like two migrating birds, the male and the female, who had been caught and put in separate cages. They forgave one another all that they were ashamed of in the past and in the present, and felt that this love of theirs had changed them both.”
At the end of the story, as at the end of Bird in Hand, the characters are on a precipice. Chekhov writes:
“And it seemed to them that they were within an inch of arriving at a decision, and that then a new, beautiful life would begin. And they both realized that the end was still far, far away, and that the hardest, the most complicated part was only just beginning.”
This piece, in a slightly different form, originally appeared in Madame Mayo.