Christina Baker Kline is the author of the new novel A Piece of the World, about the relationship between the artist Andrew Wyeth and the subject of his best-known painting, Christina’s World. Kline has written five other novels — Orphan Train, The Way Life Should Be, Sweet Water, Bird in Hand, and Desire Lines — and written or edited five works of nonfiction. Orphan Train (2013) spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list, including five weeks at # 1, and was published in 40 countries. More than 100 communities and colleges have chosen it as a “One Book, One Read” selection. Her adaptation of this novel for young readers, Orphan Train Girl, will be published in May. A collection of Baker Kline’s essays on craft will be appearing weekly in a new column in Poets & Writers.
Under the Influence
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.
Recently I opened a file I kept while working on my novel 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 this novel 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?”
For years, a tattered newspaper clipping fluttered on the wall in my office. Leafing through The New York Times one day, just as I was beginning to work on a new novel, I had come across a full-page ad. The image floored me. I’d 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 perfectly encapsulated the complexity of my characters’ situation.
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 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. All the markers of romantic Paris — the French restaurant awning, the folded newspaper (Le Monde), the European car in the background and the baroque details of the streetlight in the foreground, a smattering of 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 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 finds something different with 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 is called Bird in Hand. When I sent the final manuscript to my publisher, I took the faded newspaper clipping down and put it in a cardboard box, along with the handwritten first draft of the novel.