Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Picture that Inspired 80,000 Words: Christina Baker Kline's BIRD IN HAND

[It’s my pleasure to host a guest post this week by novelist Christina Baker Kline]

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 – 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).

More 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. © 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 tattered 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.

a Baker Kline is the author of four novels, including, most recently, Bird in Hand and The Way Life Should Be. She is Writer-in-Residence at Fordham University and lives outside of New York City. Her website is and her blog, A Writing Year: Conversations about the Creative Process, is


Anonymous said...

I loved your book but I didn't like the characters at all. They were people I would never want as friends, so lacking in strength, morals and spirituality. Alison was the only worthy of our empathy and she seemed so beaten down, so lacking self esteem.
Charlie and Claire were so disgusting and self involved. Claire's husband was OK but very elitest and judgmental.

I am not so hard usually on real people. I am a therapist. : )
But because they were fictional characters I felt freer with my opinion.

I do so love your writing.. I couldn't put the book down even with characters I couldn't stand.

Dory Adams said...

Hi Deb, thanks for the comment about whether characters need to be likable or not in order to make INTERESTING characters -- and a good story that keeps us reading.

cynthia newberry martin said...

Christina, this is a fascinating essay on how photos inspire your writing, and how this photo precipitated all the questions that would fuel the story of your novel. I look forward to reading Bird in Hand and seeing how it all plays out.

Another wonderful link, Dory, between images and narrative.

Dory Adams said...

Thanks Cynthia! It's always nice to read your comments here -- and I love reading your blog "Catching Days."