Q: BIRD IN HAND took you eight years to write. What was your initial inspiration? What kept you going through such a long process? Did the novel change over the years? If so, how?
The story of Bird in Hand emerged slowly, from a number of sources. I’ve always thought of this creative process 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.) Here are a few I can identify:
Fear of Driving … 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.
The Seven-Year Itch … My husband, David, and I had been married for seven years at that point, and were, like many of our friends, going through a complicated time: 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 … I wanted to write about the complexities many couples deal with at this stage of their lives, whether or not they come through intact.
And Now for Something Completely Different …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.
Q: Though Alison is portrayed, in some respects, as the victim of Charlie and Claire’s affair, you are also very careful to show us Claire’s side of the story, and Charlie’s, too. Was that difficult for you to do? Did you find yourself siding with one character over another?
It was 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.
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.
Q: Your personal experience could inform pieces of both Alison and Claire: you are a writer like Claire; you are a mother like Alison. How (if at all) did you use your own life in creating all four characters?
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.”
But to answer the question: I used my own life in many ways in this novel. 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.
Q: If you had to pick: Alison or Claire? Charlie or Ben? One out of all four?
Well … I think that Alison may be the most sympathetic character; she is sort of an Everymom. But I appreciate Claire’s 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.
Q: 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.
In a larger sense, I wanted to convey the idea that mundane and seemingly trivial details comprise the bulk of our existence. These details make us who we are.
Q: 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.
Q: What would you like readers to take away from the novel?
The questions I explore in this book – 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.
Q: 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 ….”
Q: 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. Truly, I don’t think Alison and Ben had much of a choice in any of it. But I suppose I believe that for Alison to live the rest of her married life with someone who isn’t in love with her would be sad and pathetic. It’s better to know it now, while she’s young and has a chance for a rich, happy family life with someone else. Charlie’s decision may have been just the impetus she needs to find out what she really wants. And Ben? Maybe he’ll get that baby after all.
10. And, finally, what’s next for you?
I love teaching at Fordham, where I’m Writer-in-Residence. And 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. I’ve started a blog, which is exciting and fun to work on, about the experience of writing this novel – it’s about craft and discipline and the creative process. It’s called A Writing Year: Ideas and Inspiration for Writing a Novel.
Browse inside Bird in Hand and check out the reading group guide and Christina's website. Christina is available to talk with book clubs and you can also friend her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.