Archive for the ‘Bird in Hand’ Category

This is the official release date for the paperback of my new novel, Bird in Hand. To celebrate, I wrote about writing, life, and the pursuit of happiness for Gretchen Rubin’s wonderful blog, The Happiness Project.  One of my favorite questions she asked was, “What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?”  (Long-time readers of this blog can probably guess my answer.)

I’m also launching a redesign of my website today, and even of this blog, ditching my old WordPress URL and finally getting a grown-up domain name of my own.  You can still find me at this address, but it’s a little swankier over there.

I’m really happy that my paperback is out in the world.  (I always feel a little twinge about asking people to cough up money for a hardcover.)  I’m delighted with my website, which was designed by the extraordinarily patient and good-humored Steffen Rasile of sra design studios.  And I’m so pleased that my blog finally has a permanent home.

One of the best things I’ve learned from Gretchen is to “grab those moments of happiness as they wing by.” So here I am, grabbing the moment.  And doing a little happy dance.

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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.

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William Faulkner used to map his stories on his office wall.  If you visit his home in Oxford, Mississippi, you can still see the notes for his novel in his precise, small handwriting.  When Laura Schenone was writing her memoir, The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken, she kept photos of her Genovese great grandmother, Adalgisa, propped on her desk, and Adalgisa’s handmade rolling pin nearby.  Edwidge Dandicat has an evolving bulletin board in her workspace where she tacks up collages of photos of Haiti and images from magazines.

For many writers, visual and tactile stimulation is an important component of the creative process.  I, too, have a bulletin board covered with images that change with each book I write.  Recently I retired a tattered newspaper clipping that had been tacked to the wall in my office for eight years — except for the times I brought it with me to writers’ colonies or on family vacations (under the delusion that I might actually get work done on a beach).

BIH inspiration cropMore than a decade ago, leafing through The New York Times, I came across this image as I was beginning to work on a new novel.  I assume that it was part of an advertisement, but I cut it out carefully around the edges, so I don’t know for sure. I don’t even know when it appeared in the paper, though from what I’ve deduced from articles on the back side it seems to have been some time in the spring of 1998. (An ad for a wine store says “Prices effective through April 30, 1998.”)

The image floored me. I had begun writing about a young couple, Ben and Claire, both expatriates living in England, who befriend another American named Charlie … who falls in love with Claire. Who may or may not be falling in love with him. This picture in the newspaper, it seemed to me, perfectly encapsulated the complexity of my characters’ situation.

For many reasons, the story this photo tells is intriguing. A couple on a park bench sits close together, facing away from the viewer. The man has his arm around the woman’s back, his hand resting protectively on her shoulder. The woman’s arm is around his shoulder, as well … except that it isn’t. It extends along and behind the bench, and her open palm rests on the hand of a man on the other side, who kisses it tenderly. (A two-sided park bench? I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in real life.)

All the markers of romantic Paris – the French restaurant awning, the folded newspaper (Le Monde), the European car in the background and baroquely detailed (if blurry) streetlight in the foreground, a smattering of fat pigeons, even the man’s black turtleneck and the woman’s plaid skirt and sensible heels – contribute to the illicit thrill of this image.

Does the man on the other side of the bench have any idea that his girlfriend/wife is being unfaithful? Did she and the man kissing her hand plan to meet at this place, or was it happenstance? For that matter, do they know each other, or is this a spontaneous moment of anonymous passion? Did the photographer happen on this scene, or was he, perhaps, hired by the man with his back to us on the bench?

The image is shocking in its seeming casualness, in the brazen, in-broad-daylight transgression taking place before our eyes. I was fascinated by the contradictions: the woman so clearly part of a couple, yet making herself available to the man behind her, her demure pose contrasting with her open, searching palm. The man’s body language, too, is contradictory; he sits casually reading the paper, one leg crossed over the other, but his eyes are closed in passion as he kisses the woman’s palm.

Instinctively I knew that this image would help me access the core motivations of my characters, who act in comparably indiscreet and scandalous ways. Claire loves her husband, but she feels something entirely different for Charlie – a passion she’s never felt. Charlie respects Ben, but is blinded by his love for Claire. And when Claire’s best friend from childhood, Alison, comes to visit and ends up engaged to Charlie, things spin even further out of control.

This novel, now in bookstores, is called Bird in Hand. When I sent the final manuscript to my publisher about six months ago I took the faded newspaper clipping down and put it in a cardboard box, along with my handwritten first draft of the novel. Now my bulletin board is covered with postcards from the New York tenement museum depicting the interior of an immigrant Irish family’s cramped apartment, a black and white photograph of a young couple at Coney Island in the 1920s, a map of the village of Kinvara, Ireland, and other inspiration for my new novel-in-progress.

This essay, in a slightly different form – and with a larger version of the newspaper clipping – originally appeared in In This Light.

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madam mayoRecently I was invited to do a guest blog for Madam Mayo, using a simple format:  I had to provide five links that are in some way relevant to my new novel.  (Other writers have used this format in all kinds of ways – 5 Secrets of Mexico City, Top 5 Aviation Museums, 5 Magnetic Spaces – as you can see.)   Rooting around for ideas, I opened a file I kept while working on Bird in Hand. As I leafed through this file I could trace the genesis of my ideas.  So I chose some passages that shaped my novel-in-progress – and why.  That post is here.

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WNBA-NY-October-2009From left to right: Rosalind Reisner (co-moderator), C.M. Mayo, Julie Metz, Eva Hoffman, Christina Baker Kline, Roxana Robinson, and Miriam Tuliao (co-moderator).

This month I was privileged to be on the Women’s National Book Association panel in celebration of National Reading Group Month.  On her lively blog, “A Reader’s Place,” Rosalind Reisner gives the full report.  She talks about my new novel, Bird in Hand, as well as recent works by Roxana Robinson (Cost), Eva Hoffman (Apassionata), Julie Metz (Perfection), and C.M. Mayo (The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire).   It was an honor to be in a room full of people who are passionate about books; as much as I enjoyed talking about my own novel, I was even happier to listen to the other writers talk about their work.

And here’s what Marian Schembari has to say about this extraordinary evening over at Marian Librarian.

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bestoftimesWhen I lived in London last summer I was lucky enough to get to know the novelist Karen Essex.  (Her recent, internationally bestselling books are Leonardo’s Swans and Stealing Athena.)  Recently she moderated a conversation between Penny Vincenzi, the #1 bestselling British novelist, and me because our new novels — The Best of Times and Bird in Hand — both begin with car accidents that change the lives of the central characters.  Karen was interested in two things in particular:  Was the accident the inspiration for the novel, or merely a device, a catalyst for the story?  And – as long-married women, how strange, unsettling, or awkward was it to write about adultery and divorce?

To find out the answers to these and other provocative questions, click here.

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BIH inspiration“The newspaper clipping is in tatters.  Folded, yellowed, curling at the edges and mended in places with clear tape, it was tacked to the bulletin board in my office for eight years….”  So begins a guest post I wrote this week for In This Light, a blog about the influence of images on writers and writing.   Instinctively I knew that this image would help me access the core motivations of my characters in Bird in Hand, who act in comparably indiscreet and scandalous ways …

You can read the rest here.

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69 signThe “test” is simple:  is page 69 of Bird in Hand representative of the rest of the book?  Would a reader skimming that page be inclined to read on?  These were the questions posed to me by Marshal Zeringue, who edits book blogs including CftAR, The Page 69 Test, and Writers Read.

A fun idea, I thought – if perhaps a little gimmicky.  And then, to my surprise, I discovered that page 69 is a turning point in my novel.  Read more here.

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supermodel1. I am not a supermodel. Or a professional soccer player.
At times, over the eight long years it took to finish Bird in Hand, I was seized with panic. Look at all those fresh-faced young writers madly producing books, while I grow wrinkled and gray! But then I realized: it doesn’t matter how damn old I am. Unlike some professions, writing does not require that you have dewy skin or the speed of an antelope. All that matters are the words on the page. So when I got into a panic about my work, I reminded myself that life is long; some of my favorite writers have done their best work in their seventies and eighties. And not only that, but …

2. Older really is wiser, at least in some ways.
Climbing up and over the hill of middle age, I’ve learned that some of the positive clichés about aging really are true. I trust my first impulses more. I’m more confident about what I know for sure. I believe that I can write a decent sentence. I care much less than I used to about what people think. I understand my own process. Which leads me to …

3. What works for me is what matters.
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?

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 also wrote the first drafts longhand, which few 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. And I also need to remember that …

kid food4. My life feeds my work.
For a long time my “real” life and my writing life seemed like two separate states, and when I was in one I felt guilty about neglecting the other. I’ve come to understand that time away from writing nourishes my creativity; time immersed in the creative process allows me to inhabit my personal life with less conflict and more serenity. All the bits and pieces of my life experience feed my writing in ways I don’t even realize until they’re on the page. I drew on this in Bird in Hand by writing about the minutiae of childrearing, “…endless bland kid dinners, fish sticks and chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese and Classico sauce with spaghetti, on a revolving loop.” At the same time, though …

5. Contrary to popular opinion, quality time is as important as quantity time.
In the final few months writing Bird in Hand, I went around in a perpetually foggy state, and I often felt guilty about my lack of focus. What I came to realize is that my kids – who are 9, 13, and 14 – like having me around, but they don’t always require my undivided attention. Being there when they got home from school in the afternoon, having conversations in the car, family dinners, weekend excursions, cooking together, and the occasional board game made up for a lot of times when I might have been physically present but mentally in a different time zone.

Knowing that there were plenty of times when I’d drop everything and focus on the moment – quality time, that is — my kids were happy to let me work when I had to. And they began taking themselves off to do their own work, too. The oldest one writes and records music. My second child plays piano for hours. And the younger one is currently obsessed with Harry Potter. Some of the best moments are when I feel the household humming with activity – mine and theirs.

I originally wrote this guest post for Lisa Romeo Writes, a terrific blog about “writing, reading, books, life after the MFA, editing (and editors), submissions, getting published (and rejected), media & the publishing business, journalism, revisions, and the writing life.”

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I wrote this piece several weeks ago for SheWrites, a social networking site for women writers, and it was picked up a few days later by More.com.  I’m reprinting it here because I’ve gotten more feedback on it than on any other essay I’ve written.  People called it “brutally honest” and “courageously candid”; one writer said she could never imagine being so self-revealing.  Another wrote that she burst into tears reading it because my experience was so close to her own.  Perhaps because I’ve come through this to some kind of other side, I didn’t worry that I was being too candid — I just wanted to write frankly about my experience.   But it’s hard for writers to speak honestly about the difficult times, I think, particularly when they’re ongoing.

Stacked BooksI suddenly look rather prolific. In the past two years I have published two novels – my new one, Bird in Hand, comes out this week – and co-edited an essay collection, and I’m under contract for another novel. “I don’t know how you do it!” a friend exclaimed the other day. “You make it look so easy.”

I agree that it looks easy now – three books in two years is pretty good. But it took a long eight years to get to this point, during which time my confidence was so shaken that I questioned everything about myself as a writer. More than once, I wondered if I would ever publish again.

Here’s what happened: In the mid-nineties, after making a small but audible splash in the big pond with my first novel, Sweet Water, my second novel floated quietly on the surface. In truth, Desire Lines did nearly as well as the first, but the publisher’s expectations – and advance – had been much higher. Nobody would quite say it, but I sensed it: the book was a disappointment. I felt like a failure.

(A friend who got a large advance for a book that sold modestly described walking down the hall with the publisher himself and running into a famous, perennially bestselling author. “X, this is Y,” the publisher said dryly. “He’s the one who subsidized your book.”)

When Desire Lines came out I was working on a new novel. But my sense of having let people (including myself) down, combined with moving to the suburbs and raising three young children, played havoc with my self-confidence. On top of that, I was writing about the death of a child who was exactly the age of one of my own, and the subsequent dissolution of a marriage. This difficult, painful material, while not specifically autobiographical, cannibalized my own experience in myriad ways and often felt overwhelming.

In the middle of all of this, I took on what turned out to be a disastrous ghostwriting project to help pay for that house in the suburbs. Without an adequate contract (or, it must be said, a clear sense of boundaries), the whole thing eventually imploded. I took a full-time teaching job and other works-for-hire to make up the lost income when my kids were 6, 4 and not quite a year old, and at some point, without even quite understanding what was happening, I became completely demoralized. I sunk into what I now recognize as a mild depression.

With the help of a therapist and support from my husband, I eventually rallied. My children grew, my teaching job got easier, I acclimated to life in the suburbs. And after four agonizing years, I turned in an unwieldy manuscript. My editor at the time took forever to read it; I didn’t hear anything until one day her assistant called to say that the novel was “in the pipeline,” scheduled to be published in the spring. I was flabbergasted – I knew it wasn’t anywhere near ready. I went to lunch with my editor and she asked what I was working on now, and out of nowhere I summoned a new idea, fully formed, like a movie pitch, about a single woman who meets a guy online and moves to Maine.

“I love it,” she said. “Why don’t you write it quickly, and we’ll publish this book first? The economy is rough – people want to buy books that make them feel good. And the other one is dark and complicated. This book sounds like fun.”

So I did it. I wrote The Way Life Should Be in a fever of relief after the torment of the other novel. This new book was a lighthearted, humorous, first-person, present-tense story with recipes, and looked nothing like my life. It was a joy to write.

Within several years, this new book was published – and I was back on track. (The editor was right; people were eager for a light, funny read.) When I turned back to the old manuscript, I had regained my confidence. I had a new perspective and a new editor who proposed radical structural changes that helped transform the manuscript. And after all that time, I had distance enough to see it clearly. I finally knew exactly what I needed to do.
In my eight-year publishing drought, when I feared I might never finish another book and it seemed as if other authors were whizzing merrily by, writing one novel after another, I felt as if I’d blown my chances, fallen out of the race. But what I’ve come to realize – and what may be heartening to others who, like me, take a while to get their act together or go through ebbs and flows – is that when you do eventually publish, the intervening years disappear. The current book is the only thing that counts, and it doesn’t matter how long it took you to get there.

So yes, now it all looks easy. But I need to acknowledge just how hard it was, and how long it took, if only to remind myself how important it is not to get caught up in other people’s judgments and my own unrealistic expectations. Ten years after I wrote the first word of Bird in Hand, it is finally being published. During the fallow years, I gained insights into marriage and family life and the complicated choices people make that I didn’t have access to when I was younger. I developed the confidence to write from the perspective of mature characters, including men (which I’d never done before). And I think that, perhaps as a result of the many drafts and revisions, Bird in Hand is the best thing I’ve written. It’s certainly my proudest accomplishment — probably even more so because it’s not an overnight success.

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To be linked even tangentially, even as part of an amazon.com promotion, with Richard Russo and Pat Conroy, two writers whose work and careers I admire (who also happen to be men) makes my day.  No, week.  Okay, it makes my year.  Is that so wrong?

Frequently Bought Together

Bird in Hand + That Old Cape Magic + South of Broad
Price For All Three: $48.53

Show availability and shipping details

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Everyone says that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but of course we all do. Presented with an overwhelming array of options, a reader has limited ways to figure out which book on the shelf is worth $20+ – not to mention hours of precious time. The best covers, I think, reveal much about the tenor and style of the book while stimulating the browser’s curiosity.  (Recent covers that spring to mind include Lush Life, by Richard Price; Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert; The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski; and memoirist and book designer Julie Metz’s cover for her own book, Perfection.)

Some of my own book covers have been more successful than others. “Cover consultation” is a standard part of most writers’ book contracts, which means, essentially, that the publisher presents the writer with one or two options, and if the writer strenuously objects they may be willing to try again. Ultimately, though, the publisher usually makes the final decision, saying – with justification – that they have more experience, understand the market better, and are, after all, in the business of selling books.  With my own covers, I won some and lost some; usually there was some kind of compromise. (You can see the covers here and judge for yourself. Which ones work best?)

When my editor and I began talking about the cover of Bird in Hand, I didn’t have a specific thought in mind. We’d recently changed the title, and I was still stuck on ideas that had to do with metaphorical representations of a four-way stop.  So without any input from me, they came up with this option:Bird.in.Hand.cover.world

Isn’t this a beautiful image?  The saturated colors are lovely; the typeface is strong but simple, and the picture is arresting. But I felt that it was too, well, female – and perhaps a bit literal (yep, those birds are indeed in her hands).  My editor wrote, “Our sales force likes this jacket very much; they feel that, as a marketing tool, as a way to catch people’s attention and get them to pick it up from tables at bookstores, it’s very effective.” And I completely understood that. But I still didn’t think it was right for this book.  Bird in Hand is about four people with complex and clashing emotions, and I wanted the image to convey unrest.  The sales force disagreed, but my editor was willing to go back to the drawing board. (This image is now the cover of the international edition.)

The next three covers they sent were wrong for all different reasons:

BIH.cover.wireI understood what they were doing here: four characters, four relationships, crossed wires. But as a friend asked, “Is this book about a concentration camp?”  Here’s the next one:BIH.cover.barn

My novel takes place in New York and its suburbs.  To me, this looks like a bucolic Midwestern building in a field.  And then there’s this:BIH.cover.trees

Which I admit is a bit better. The problem, ultimately, was that these covers struck me as generic.  They didn’t convey anything in particular about my novel.

What often happens is that the writer may not have a clear idea of what she wants at first, but being presented with ideas that don’t seem right clarifies her opinion.  (This is, of course, no fun for any art director.)  So after getting all these options, I put some hard work into figuring out what I did want, as opposed to what I didn’t.  Bird in Hand is about the dissolution of a marriage (among other things), so I wanted to picture a domestic scene with something slightly awry.  I envisioned a marital bed in the foreground—but with an unsettling component, something “off.” I imagined a window with a surprising view or an odd picture on the wall.

I was inspired by two paintings that hang on the walls in my study:  “Beginning” by Laura Tryon Jennings, a rendering of the room I stay in at my parents’ house in Bass Harbor, Maine, in the summer – and “Rumpled Sheets” by Jessica Dunne, which depicts a bed at the VCCA, the artists’ colony where I met this wonderful artist.  (She did this painting while we were there.)DunneJennings, LT

After discussing all of this with my editor, she went to the art director.  Several weeks later, they came back with this:BIH.final.cover

I knew immediately that this was the one. It retains the color palette and typeface of the first cover but has a whole different feel. I love the bed, with its carefully folded back covers, as if someone got up and out. These sheets clearly aren’t rumpled in passion.  I love the odd little Audubon-like photo-realist picture high on the wall.  (What’s it doing there?) I love the juxtaposition of the soft orange blanket with the cool, shadowed sheets. This cover, to me, has mystery and drama and strangeness, and perfectly conveys the mood of my novel.

But what do you think?  I’d love to know!

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radio microphoneHow can I be a guest on my own blog, you ask?  Over the past few weeks, with the publication of Bird in Hand, I’ve been busy guest blogging for other sites and doing Q&A’s, radio interviews, and podcasts.  (And more are coming up.)  Now and then, if a particular posting or discussion strikes me as pertinent to issues here, I’ll post it as well. Hence my own guest blog.

This is the first.  (And after this I’ll dispense with the silliness of calling it a guest blog!)

When the poet and novelist Lori A. May interviewed me for her blog – Musings, Reviews, News – she pushed me to talk about the themes of Bird in Hand, why I think achieving balance is an impossible goal, the fluky way I got started as a writer, and my advice to new writers.  Below are edited excerpts from that interview.  (You can read the original, longer version here.)

Bird in Hand is about a car crash that changes the lives of four people.  But what’s it really about?

That’s a good (and hard!) question.  At one point in the book 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 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.

Why do you write both novels and non-fiction?
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. All of my nonfiction books have been, in a sense, collaborations — I wrote a book about feminist mothers and daughters with my mother; I’ve edited or co-edited four essay collections. I realized the other day that my own blog on writing fulfills this 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.

You are Writer-in-Residence at Fordham, have three kids, and write novels.  How do you balance it all?
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 in London teaching and working on nonfiction articles and interviews). 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.

Tell us a bit about your journey as an author.
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. Though I know this 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. 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 have been some of the challenges in your writing career?
The biggest challenge for me 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.

What’s up next for you? What can readers look forward to?
I’m working on a new novel that traces the journey of Vivian Daly, a now-90-year-old woman, from a small village in Ireland to the Lower East Side to the Midwest to the coast of Maine. In 1929, after a fire in a New Y tenement destroys her family, nine-year-old Vivian is sent on an orphan train to Minnesota. Stripped of her identity, she has to learn how to survive on her own. She never tells anyone the whole story of what happened to her — until a 17-year-old troubled girl comes into her life when she is an old woman. As Vivian begins to face the truth about what happened long ago, the past becomes more and more present for her.  This novel (working title: Orphan Train), should be out in 2011.

What advice do you have for writers starting out?
Well, as I said before, find someone who encourages your writing. 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 I set myself the task of four pages a day. Sometimes I write more, sometimes less, but that’s always the goal.

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antigoneWriting and blogging and talking in interviews about my new novel this week, I keep encountering the same question:  What inspired it?   There are many answers to this, of course, and I’ve talked in different places about various sources for the story.  But the deepest reasons are hard to articulate.  So I decided to write about them here.

At first it looked like every mother’s worst nightmare:  Several weeks ago a 36-year-old mother of two, driving her own kids and three nieces home from a camping trip in her Ford Windstar minivan, went the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway and crashed head-on into an SUV carrying three men.  Everyone died except the woman’s five-year-old boy.  At the funeral, mourners wept when the woman’s brother, the father of her nieces, sobbed, “Love your children. Cherish your children. Kiss your children.”

It appeared to be a tragic accident.  This woman entered the highway from an exit ramp, and, apparently disoriented, drove 1.7 miles before the crash.  She’d called her brother from a rest stop an hour before, the papers said, complaining of fatigue and sounding confused.  A police officer speculated that maybe she thought she was in the slow lane on the correct side of the road; others suggested that perhaps she was on prescription drugs that impaired her judgment.  Or maybe she was exhausted from being on a camping trip with all of those children, or distracted by their bickering or crying.

But as it turns out, the woman was drunk.  Not just drunk — she was blind drunk, with twice the legal limit in her bloodstream and fresh alcohol in her stomach.  A bottle of vodka was found in the car and she tested positive for marijuana.

How could this happen?  Specifically, how could this woman ingest alcohol and drugs, knowing that she was responsible for the lives of five children — not to mention any strangers who got in her path?  Why didn’t she pull over?  Her recklessness suggests that she may have been suicidal.  But it’s one thing to take your own life, and quite another to put others at such appalling risk.

And there are other questions:  What did she actually say to her brother at the rest stop?  Did he, or her husband, know she’d been drinking or smoking pot?  Had there been an argument?  Did she have a drinking problem; had she ever done anything like this before?

These questions, prurient as they may be, matter to us because we want to make sense of the unthinkable. And I think they’re particularly resonant for mothers.  This woman’s behavior at the furthest edges of comprehension.  And yet every mother I know has feared her own capacity – through accident or neglect or worse – for doing harm to her child.

When my first child was born I joined a group of new mothers, and we joked with the blackest of humor about exactly these fears.  One woman said that late at night, lying in bed, waking nightmares would come unbidden about the things that she might do wrong: what if, what if, what if. Another read shaken-baby stories obsessively, worried about her own impatience and anger at her colicky child.  Yet another admitted that post-partum depression had once rendered her apathetic and unresponsive, more concerned with her own needs than those of her (neglected) child.  I admitted that I was terrified of getting in a car crash that was my own fault and being responsible for maiming, or killing, my child or – god forbid – someone else’s.

This quiet terror propelled me into writing my new novel, Bird in Hand. I began to tell the story of a woman, a mother, who has several drinks and gets into an accident in which a child dies.  As I started writing, though, I found that it was like staring directly into the sun; I had to squint and turn away. I put the manuscript in a drawer and only came back to it after several years, when my children were older and my own fears had subsided.  And I changed the focus of the novel: the accident became a catalyst for the larger story rather than the story itself.

Writing this book was a way of exploring my deepest fears around this subject.  I wanted to follow my character through her grief and guilt to some place on the other side. In Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone says, “Now the finish comes, and we know only in all that we have seen and done bewildering mystery.” I wasn’t looking for answers, only for a way to comprehend the mystery.

Like Greek tragedy, the terrible accident last week goes straight to the darkest places within us.  It makes manifest our deepest fears, vividly revealing what the unimaginable looks like.  What if, what if, what if.

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four-way stopBaristanet, a “hyperlocal” citizen-journalism blog in northern New Jersey run by veteran journalists Debbie Galant and Liz George, featured a piece this week on the original inspiration for Bird in Hand, which used to be called Four Way Stop.

Here’s the story — part of it, anyway — of the title change:

When my husband and I moved to Montclair after years of living on the Upper West Side, one of our first purchases was a minivan.  I hadn’t driven in years, much less an unwieldy, seven-seat bus, and I was filled with anxiety.  Traffic can be fast and unforgiving; caught in the maze of unfamiliar roads, I was constantly losing my bearings.  My children’s lives were in my hands – my white-knuckled hands, that is, gripping the steering wheel.

This quiet terror propelled me into writing my new novel, which was called, until recently, Four Way Stop.  Four-way stops had always struck me as quaint, something you might find out in farm country, but I began to see them all over the place in New Jersey.  (In fact, Montclair recently installed them near many schools.)  As traffic situations go, they strike me as oddly ambiguous: they require not only manners and mutual respect to work as they must, but a basic knowledge of the rules.  What happens when someone doesn’t understand – or follow – the rules?

In my novel the central character, Alison, gets into an accident at a four-way stop in which a child dies.  This accident changes the (interconnected) lives of four people.  Somewhere along the way I realized that I was writing this book as a way of exploring my deepest fears around this subject – and that those fears were too close. I put the manuscript in a drawer and only came back to it after several years, when my children were older and my worries had subsided. (For one thing, I’d become a fairly competent driver.) And I broadened the scope of the novel: the accident became a catalyst for the larger story rather than the story itself.  As the book took shape, I replaced the title with one that better fit the emerging story: Bird in Hand.  I’d come to terms with the four-way stop.  It was time to move on.

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shewritesiconAs someone who loves to read other people’s personal essays but has a hard time being so candid herself, I am kind of proud of myself for writing an honest piece for SHE WRITES, a new social networking site for writers, on the long journey to publication for Bird in Hand.   SHE WRITES is a place where, as founding editor Kamy Wicoff explains, “women writers working in every genre — in every part of the world and of all ages and backgrounds — can come together in a space of mutual support.”

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Publication Day, I’ve learned over the years, is an elusive concept.  You imagine that something momentous will happen — after all, the date has been printed in catalogs and announced on amazon.com; it seems significant.  You think of other important events in your life:  college graduation, your wedding day, the birth of your first child.  Things actually happened on those days.  You were awarded an official degree in front of several thousand people, you suddenly found yourself yoked for life to another person, you loosed a new human on the earth.

fireworks.3So what do you expect for pub day?  Oh, not much.  Maybe just some triumphal music, mortarboards tossed in the air, a parade with marching bands, a few fireworks.

A novel appears in hardcover about a month before the pub date.  It sits in boxes in your publicist’s office before making its way, with a pitch letter tucked under its flap like a schoolboy with a note in his pocket, to reviewers and others who will, you hope, help it on its way.  So pub date is kind of irrelevant.  Except in the ways that it isn’t.  For example, glossy monthly magazines will review books in September if the pub date is after August 10th.  Amazon calls any book bought before pub date a “pre-order,” and it’s not immediately available.  Bookstores usually put it on shelves (or, if you’re lucky, on tables) on the official day.

But none of that has much to do with the author.  I’ve come to understand that pub day is a rough marker, a general concept.  And I’ve learned to view the day as a time to reflect on my own journey in publishing a book.  It may not be a warm bundle in my arms, but the weight of my book in my hand, with its smooth pages and pulpy scent, makes me swoon all the same.

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For years I’ve been a fan from afar of the novelist and book reviewer Caroline Leavitt.  So it was an honor when she requested a review copy of Bird in Hand from my publisher, read it immediately, and asked me to do a pre-publication interview.  She posted the interview today on her blog, CarolineLeavittville.

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BIHcover.US-1August 11th is the official release date of my new novel, Bird in Hand.  Over the several weeks I’ll be telling the inside story of how and when and why I wrote this book, and how it ended up getting published.  I’ll also post links to other blogs and websites with my guest posts and interviews.  I hope that learning about my process will inspire you with your own work!

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In anticipation of the release in exactly a week of Bird in Hand, I am posting the prologue.  Yesterday was Part 1; this is Part 2.  Sorry, you have to go back, but I’ll make it easy for you.

(*My publicist made me say that.  He also made me promise to point out that if this excerpt intrigues you, the book is available for pre-order at indie.org and amazon.com.)

Bird in Hand (Prologue, Part 2)

“Do we need a lawyer?” he said when it was clear she wasn’t going to answer, and she said, “I don’t know – maybe.  Probably.”

“Don’t say anything,” he said then.  She could tell he was flipping through scenarios in his mind, trying to lay things out in a methodical way.  “Just wait until I get there.”

“But I already said everything.  A boy is – a little boy is – they don’t know yet – hurt.” She said this although they’d already told her there was swelling on the brain.  The police weren’t wearing uniforms, and they didn’t handcuff her or read Alison her rights or any of the other things she might have expected.  The boy’s parents were weeping; the mother was wailing I let him sit on my lap; he was cold in the back and afraid of the dark, and the father was slumped with his hands over his face.  The walls of the lobby vibrated with their sadness.

“Jesus Christ,” Charlie breathed.  And she thought of other times he’d been exasperated with her – on their honeymoon, when, after two days of learning to ski, she suddenly froze up and couldn’t do it; she was terrified of the speed, the recklessness, of feeling out of control; she was sure she would break a limb.  So she spent the rest of the time in the lodge, a calculatedly cozy place with a gas flame in the fireplace and glossy ski magazines on the oak veneer coffee tables, while Charlie got his money’s worth from the honeymoon.  She tried to think of an experience comparable to what was happening now, some time when she had done X and he had reacted Y, but she couldn’t come up with a thing.  Eight years.  Two children.  A life she didn’t plan for, but had grown to love.  Friends and a hometown and a house, not too big but not tiny, either, with creaky stairs and water-damaged ceilings but lots of potential.

Potential was something she once had a lot of, too.  Every paper she wrote in college could have been better; every B+ could have been an A.  She could have pushed ahead in her career instead of stopping when it became easier to do so.  She hadn’t known she wanted to stop, but Charlie said, “C’mon, Alison, the kids want you at home.   It’s a home when you’re home.”  But after she quit he complained about bearing the heavy load of responsibility for them.  There was no safety net, he said; he said it made him anxious.  He wanted her at home, but he missed the money and the security and she knew he missed seeing her out in the world, though he didn’t say it.  He saw her at home in faded jeans and an old cotton sweater, he saw her at seven o’clock when the kids were clamoring for him and strung-out and cranky and he had just endured his hour-long commute from the city.

And yet – and yet she thought she was lucky, thought they were lucky, loved and appreciated their life.

But tonight she was living a nightmare.  Her friends – some of them, at least – would probably try to comfort her, provide some kind of solace, but it would be hard for them, because deep down they would think that she was to blame.  And it wasn’t that they couldn’t imagine being in her position, because every woman has imagined what it would feel like to be responsible for taking a life.

But worse, every mother has thought about what it would be like to have her child’s life taken from her.

Alison could hear Charlie asking for her, out at the front desk.  Polite and deferential and panicked and impatient – all of that.  She could read his voice the way some people read birdcalls.  She almost didn’t want him to find her.  As she looked around at the dingy lights, the dirt-sodden carpet, heard the clatter from the holding cells down the hall, she wondered what it would be like to stay here – not here, perhaps, but in prison somewhere, cut off from other people, penitent as a nun.  Or in a convent, a place with stone walls, small slices of sky visible through narrow slits, neatly made narrow beds.  A place where she could pay for this quietly, away from anyone who had ever known her.

You might expect that she’d have thought of her children, and she did – peripherally, like a blinkered horse looking sideways; when she tried to think of them straight-on her mind went blank.  Her own boy’s brown curls on the pillow, her six-year-old daughter’s twisted nightgown, her covers on the floor . . . Alison saw them sleeping, imagined them dead – just for an instant.  Imagined explaining – and stopped.  The only thing she seemed able to do was concentrate on the minute details of each moment:  the cold floor, hard seat, dispassionate officers tapping on keyboards and shuffling papers.  The tick of the wall clock.  11:53.

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Over the next two days, in anticipation of the release in exactly a week of Bird in Hand, I am posting the prologue in two parts.

(*My publicist made me say that. He also made me promise to point out that if this excerpt intrigues you, the book is available for pre-order at indie.org and amazon.com.)

Bird in Hand

For Alison, these things will always be connected: the moment that cleaved her life into two sections and the dawning realization that even before the accident her life was not what it seemed. In the instant it took the accident to happen, and in the slow-motion moments afterward, she still believed that there was order in the universe – that she’d be able to put things right. But with one random error, built on dozens of tiny mistakes of judgment, she stepped into a different story that seemed, for a long time, to have nothing to do with her. She watched, as if behind one-way glass, as the only life she recognized slipped from her grasp.

This is what happened: She killed a child. It was not her own child. He – he was not her own child, her own boy, her own three-year-old son. She was on her way home from a party where she’d had a few drinks. She pulled out into an intersection, the other car went through a stop sign, and she didn’t move out of the way. It was as simple as that, and as complicated.

Something happens to you in the moments after a car crash. Your brain needs time to catch up; you don’t want to believe what your senses are telling you. Your heart is beating so loudly that it seems to be its own living being, separate from you. Everything feels too close.

As she saw the car coming toward her she sat rigid against the seat. Shutting her eyes, she heard the splintering glass and felt the wrenching slam of metal into metal. Then there was silence. She smelled gasoline and opened her eyes. The other car was crumpled and steaming and quiet, and the windshield was shattered; Alison couldn’t see inside. The driver’s door opened, and a man stumbled out.

“My boy – my boy, he’s hurt,” he shouted in a panicky voice.

“I have a phone. I’ll call 911,” Alison said.

“Oh God hurry,” he said.

She punched the numbers with unsteady fingers. She was shaking all over; even her teeth were chattering.

“There’s been an accident,” she told the operator. “Send help. A boy is hurt.”

The operator asked where Alison was, and she didn’t know what to say. She’d taken a wrong turn a while back, gone north instead of west, and found herself on an unfamiliar road. She knew she was lost right away; it wasn’t like she didn’t know, but there had been nowhere to turn, so she’d kept going. The road led to other, smaller roads, badly lit and hard to see in the foggy darkness, and then she came upon a four-way stop. Alison had pulled out into the intersection before she’d realized that the other car was driving straight through without stopping – the car was to her right and had the right of way, but it hadn’t been there a moment ago when she had moved forward. It had seemed, quite literally, to have come out of nowhere.

Alison knew better than to explain all this to the operator, but in truth she had no idea where she was. Craning her neck to look out the windshield, she saw a street sign – Saw Hill Road – and reported this.

“Hold on,” the operator said. “Okay, you’re in Sherman. I’ll send an ambulance right away.”

“Please tell them to hurry,” Alison said.

She called her husband from the hospital and told him about the accident, about the car being totaled and her injured wrist, but she didn’t tell him that all around her doctors and nurses were barking orders and the swinging doors were banging open and shut, and a small boy was at the center of it, a small boy with a broken skull and a blood-spattered t-shirt. But Charlie knew soon enough. She had to call him back to tell him not to come to the hospital; she was now at the police station, and there was silence for a moment and then he said, “Oh – God,” and whatever numbness she’d had was stripped away. She flinched – told him, “Don’t come” – and he said, “What did you do?”

It wasn’t the response she’d expected – not that she had thought ahead enough to expect anything in particular; she didn’t know what to expect; she didn’t have a response in mind. But her sudden realization that Charlie was not with her, not reflexively on her side, was so profoundly shocking that she braced for what was next.

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