Nichole Bernier: “The Mother of All Bonfires”

TW Interview by Lorraine Berry 

What Journals Reveal—and What They Spark

 


Addiction to books is a lovely thing. But I plow through them so fast that most books slip my mind in a heartbeat—except last June, when one novel got me to slow way down. The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. had just been released; I'd never heard of the author. Yet, I recommended it to everyone I knew.

That’s how I came to meet author Nichole Bernier a few weeks later at the Colgate Writers’ Conference at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. One of my friends organizes the conference, and he asked me to introduce Nichole at her June reading there. Our time at Colgate led to this TW interview.

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. (Crown, 2012) is Nichole’s first novel. A longtime magazine writer and contributing editor at Conde Nast Traveler, she was a finalist this year for the New England Independent Booksellers Association (NEIBA) fiction award. Nichole lives near Boston with her husband and five kids, who are aged three to eleven.

In her novel, the title character dies in a plane crash in 2002, leaving behind not only a grieving husband and children but also a trunkful of journals. Elizabeth wills these journals to her good friend Kate, who must figure out what to do with them. Kate starts reading Elizabeth’s private entries, and by the novel’s end, Kate wonders if any of us know our friends as well as we think we do.

As Nichole has described in her blog post “Novel Catharsis,” the genesis of Elizabeth D. came four years after 9/11, when rain on a windshield reawakened the grief she felt for a friend of hers who’d died on Flight 11.

On that rainy day, she recalls, she wrote “a dream sequence about a woman imagining her friend’s last moments.” At the time, she didn’t expect her journal entry to turn into anything else—until it did. As she notes in the blog post: 

Elizabeth D cover

Writing the novel was my way to make sense of the thoughts I couldn’t quite put a name to, or put to rest…. I kept writing, and the further I wrote, the more I shed anything that resembled my actual friend, her actual husband, their actual baby. The nameless piece of writing became peopled with strangers familiar only to me, driven by unique motivations, idiosyncrasies, pain, and joy.

When I met Nichole at Colgate, her two eldest children, a boy and girl, were with her. She told me she wanted the kids to experience some of what it’s like for her on the road, when she has to be away from them. (They weren’t allowed to attend her reading, though. The book’s too grown-up for them, she explained.)

Before the reading, we had dinner together. Fiercely intelligent, opinionated, and funny, Nichole was delightful. She and I swapped stories as her kids explored the buffet offerings. I loved watching her follow multiple conversations: with me, with her children, with a stream of Colgate faculty and students who came over to introduce themselves.

This interview, which has been edited and condensed for Talking Writing, was conducted by e-mail in July 2012, shortly after the conference.


 

TW: Much has been made of the fact that you wrote this book while pregnant and mothering four children. Do you think the public emphasis on your motherhood has impacted the way your book has been received?

NB: It’s easy for people to suggest that having a large family gives my writing about parenting added weight, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. People write well about all sorts of things they’ve never experienced personally. Novelist Ian McEwan wrote convincingly about being a neurosurgeon. Margaret Atwood wrote vividly about a world where women were kept as breeders, though to my knowledge she never lived in a dystopian society.

The fact that I have five children hasn’t impacted the book’s reception, although it certainly has made for some lively Q&A sessions at bookstore readings. (“How on earth did you find time to…?”)

The truth is, most writers have other significant responsibilities that make it hard to write. It might be caring for children or sick family members or a day job that has to be worked or chickens that need to be fed. Writing has to be an almost unhealthy obsession that compels you when you’re done with all that—or sometimes calls you away from it—and siphons time away from other normal interests and activities.

Before Elizabeth D., writing nonfiction magazine articles had been a comfortable place for me, the world of reporting facts with, if I was lucky, a bit of creativity. Writing a novel meant going out on a limb, dedicating years to a piece of writing that no one was waiting for or paying me to do. It was frightening, that investment of emotion. It also took time away from my family.

TW: You have a blog—an entertaining one at that—but I wonder if there’s a place where you write secretly. In other words, do you have a journal?

NB: I did, for decades. I started it in seventh grade as an assignment for English class, processing the adolescent angst. As the years passed, the journal became the place I processed the big decisions. What kind of person I might become if I went to this college instead of that one. Whether I should let go of a longtime love that wasn’t healthy. Whether I should gamble everything—job, rent control, beloved city—for a love that was.

I stopped keeping a journal shortly after I started writing the novel. But I don’t think there’s a direct correlation between the two, beyond the fact that it was one more activity that fell by the wayside to focus on the book, that triaging of time and energy. There’s also the chance that after decades of writing in a journal, I’d learned the thought processes necessary for counseling myself. It became familiar and automatic, like a macro keystroke, and I didn’t need to write it out in the same way.

TW: I keep a journal, and now I’ve found myself wondering what I want to have happen to my journals after I die. Have you decided what you’d like done with your own? (I know this sounds like a morbid question, but I’m anticipating that both of us are going to live long, happy lives.)

NB: I have about thirty years of journals tucked away at home. The earliest, most ridiculous books are in one of the small boxy valises my grandmother gave me when I was a child. I never thought of them as something for others to read eventually, as a way to be fully known or to have my say.

I always thought it would be interesting to go back and read them someday, and, in fact, I have mined them for some details from my early parenting years. There’s a dramatic and hilarious scene [in one of the journal entries in Elizabeth D.] that came almost verbatim from my own journal about a dropped mercury thermometer and a HAZMAT team.

But for me, there’s going to be no saving of them for posterity. I think I am known about as well as I need to be known. So I’ve designated a few people in my will to be responsible for my journals and to use them for the mother of all bonfires.

TW: Many of us dream of getting our first book published. What does it feel like to walk into a room to read your book, knowing that those people have shown up specifically to hear you?

NB: Euphoric. Surreal. I know I often feel relieved—all the years of hope, disappointment, faith, and endurance finally seem to be paying off. Sometimes it’s intimidating: the empty, expectant expressions of strangers in an audience, who are waiting to be won over. I’m exhausted; I’m energized.

But above all, there’s a sense of settling into myself, of being in my groove, with the miscellaneous, scattered parts of myself—personally, maternally, creatively, professionally—coming into alignment. That’s what it feels like most of all.

TW: This issue, Talking Writing is looking at the writer’s version of the seven deadly sins. Do you have a writerly sin?

NB: Well, if we have to stick to the classical seven, I’d probably have to say sloth, though it’s not really true anymore. In the old days, I had my moments of dithering against a deadline. But there’s nothing like having a large family—and a precious few babysitting hours at your fingertips—to drive the procrastination right out of you.

TW: Has being a mother enriched your writing?

NB: Absolutely. Although I do believe what I said earlier—that one doesn’t have to be a mother to write well about mothering—I know motherhood has made an impact on me that’s impossible to overstate. The complex backpack of emotions, the empathy and heart-wringing terrifying love and rabid protectiveness…. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I wouldn’t have access to these feelings without being a mother, but I don’t know if I’d have them in quite the same way.

But I think this is true of so many life experiences that enrich our writing. When I was a teen, I worked for a [Connecticut] nature center raising orphaned baby raccoons and squirrels. We junior staffers would take them home to bottle-feed and wean them until they were old enough to be released upstate, though most of the animals died before they made it. That marked my writing pretty indelibly, too.

So did moving ten times growing up and feeling like a perpetual observer to a party that was in motion long before you got there. We all move through the world collecting experiences we can’t shrug off. If they were visible, we’d look like human magnets with all kinds of nails and paper clips and scrap metal hanging off us.

TW: Do you look at how Elizabeth D. is selling? Do you read your reviews? How does what other people are saying about your book affect you?

NB: My novel hasn’t been out for very long yet. But yes, so far, I’ve been reading everything written about it.

I suppose I respond to reviews the same way I deal with workshop critiques and any criticism. It’s the way I deal with praise, too: consider the source, consider their point of view and preferences and baggage, and decide whether or not it rings true. When it comes to my book, pragmatic thinking—realizing that a certain kind of writing or topic isn’t everyone’s cup of tea—is my fallback and a blessing. Which is not to say it doesn’t still hurt sometimes.

TW: I teach creative writing at a college. What advice do you have for “those who want to?”

When Amy Bloom sold her first novel—in the time between making the deal with a publishing house and having it actually published—she came to feel it didn’t represent her best work. And so she bought it back from the publisher and put it in the drawer. She actually gave back her advance, buried the work, and started on something else. That’s the kind of courage and conviction that takes my breath away.

 


 The Nichole Bernier Journal

For more information, see Nichole Bernier’s website and find @nicholebernier on Twitter.

 


I’m a dropout, a quitter. Let’s call it what it was. At the time it just seemed to happen, a series of unrelated accidents: choosing to stay in Florence, coming home to take care of my mother, starting to work and then sticking in my rut. But there are no real accidents, only decisions that feel like accidents, one after another, that take you down a certain road and take on a momentum that can’t be reversed.”

 

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier


 

Comments

Following up on the "making time" discussion, I am reminded of the comment by Annie Dillard, which Jeremiah Horrigan so generously provided us, along with other writers' quotes, as a New Year's gift: "If you want to take a year off to write a book you have to take that year or the year will take you by the hair and pull you toward the grave...you can take your choice. You can keep a tidy house and when St. Peter asks you what you did with your life, I kept a tidy house. I made my own cheese balls."

Thanks for all your thoughtful comments. Lorraine, this was an intriguing interview to do, because of your focus upon the way our life's personal experiences impact our creative process. Matt, funny you should mention the Chris Stevens journals; I'm working on an op-ed on this right now. Journals are a fascinating gray area when it comes to confidentiality: does it depend upon whether the author is a public figure, or whether the author's next of kin give permission? Should it make a difference whether a person is a public figure? Or if the writing contains information about, say, criminal investigations?

Martha, thanks for the kind words. It's interesting that you say your journals are "[your son's] history, too." It's a fascinating question, isn't it, how much of a person's life is "owned" by those who follow?

Laurie, you made me laugh. But writing the book in some ways was a very basic choice that made itself: The more children I had and the busier things became, the more writing became the one thing I retained that was non-negotiable. Exercise, television and most of my old hobbies fell by the wayside. Because when I really had to triage my interests — two free hours, how are you going to spend it?! — the writing always won. It's sort of a blessing to have to recognize that about yourself.

Thanks again for the wonderful interview opportunity, Talking Writing!

I would probly want mine to be burned - if, that is, I had any. Unless I'd won the Nobel for literature or even a Pulitzer, then I suppose everything, including my grocery lists, would be fair game. Interesting synchronicity here with the discussion of CNN's reporting Chris Stevens's journals.

Thanks, Matt. It was fascinating to get to both meet Nichole and later, interview her. I attended her reading, and she held the audience rapt. The book asks difficult questions, and I think, as a writer, she rises to the challenge of those questions beautifully. As in all great literature, there are no easy answers, and I often placed myself in her characters' positions, wondering whether I would have left my journals to a friend to sort out, or whether I would choose to disclose what's in the journals. It's certainly made me think about whether I want to have a literary executor/trix in my will who is separate from my family.

Matt--What a fabulous quotation. I find that writing tends to push out at the seams of my life. I had to make myself take a week off writing, partly to re-fill the well so that I had some fresh inspiration, but most importantly, because the desire to write was actively interfering with other parts of my life. I can always justify writing--it counts as "work" for my job, but last weekend, I spent 16 of my precious weekend hours writing, and I missed out on time with Rob and my girls. And I started my working week feeling exhausted and cranky.
So, I can always make time to write. What I'm finding is that I'm having trouble finding time to not write, but to do other things that give me the material from which I draw inspiration and love.

"Making time"--yes, it's complicated, Lorraine, and I know what you mean. The joy of creative flow is something I learned from my mother, a visual artist, and I grew up thinking it was okay to lose yourself in art, even if it means taking a mental break from the ones you love. I still think that, with my own child, but in truth, I also know that writing can fill my head in a way that distracts me from difficulties, big and small. It's always a balancing act, but I'm rarely in balance. I think this kind of push and pull, not to mention the way a very dramatic event like 9/11 can ripple outward into our domestic and inner lives, is what Nichole Bernier captures so well in her novel.

Nichole: I'm delighted that we could interview you for TW, and perhaps we can continue this fascinating discussion about journals and privacy and family history in another venue at some point. Meanwhile, I have finished "Elizabeth D.," and find myself deeply moved. I don't say this often about a novel, but I think your own work--"unfinished"as it still may be--is wise and illuminating. In a novel that offers so many insights, I'm struck by this simple statement toward the end: "It was all so exhausting, trying to be understood." Yes.

Thanks for stopping by, Nichole, and for responding to all the comments! We hope to see you again in Talking Writing.

My grandmother, who wrote plays and radio scripts as well as fiction, told me that children should come first, writing second, and everything else (including housework) last, if at all. She was my mentor, and your comments above are an inspiration for me as well. Yes, the time we set aside for our own writing really must be non-negotiable.

Laurie--It's hard not to concentrate on that fact--that she wrote this book when she had just had her third child and finished when she was pregnant with her fifth. And yet, I don't want to take anything away from the book. Elizabeth D. would be a great book regardless of the circumstances under which it was written, but I agree with you--given how hard it is to find writing time, imagining her working under those conditions, with just the occasional babysitting help, is awe-inspiring.
And I hope you do get to read it.
Martha--so glad you're enjoying the book. I loved it, and it felt like Kizmet when I wound up meeting her just few weeks after finishing it.
And Matt--there's a huge box of my journals that are sitting in the living room. I drew from them when I was writing my memoir, and I haven't even put them away anywhere (there's just no room in my house.) So, they're a constant reminder that my private stuff is really open to the world. So maybe I wouldn't be so skittish about having people read them. I wonder if people would find them boring? As you say, if I became "known" as a writer, someone might have an interest, but. Well. I have to continue to think on all of this.

Agree, Nichole B's novel asks very difficult questions--especially about how we present ourselves in public vs. in private. I'm in the middle of reading her "Elizabeth D." right now, and it's terrific. It's a great read and it goes deep with all the ways family members, lovers, and friends can fail to understand each other.

My own journals? I dunno. Some, yes, should be consigned to the flames. But others, particularly those written when we first adopted my son, would certainly be ones I'd want him to have. They are his history, too. I guess I'd opt for making my own decisions before I go about which ones to burn and which ones to pass on. Alas, sometimes we don't get the luxury of making such decisions in advance.

Having read this interview, Lorraine, and its peek into "Elizabeth D.", I'm dying to read the novel. On a very scrappy, how the hell did you accomplish that note, I take my hat off to Nicole Bernier. To cleave out a place for a piece of fiction, and bring it into this often frenzied world, with five kids, is remarkable. Impressive. Daunting. For me, terrifically inspirational. Sometimes you have to hold onto the personal reality, and integrity, of a work of fiction like your fingers are anchoring you onto a crag on Mt. Everest. Nicole Bernier must have some serious writing tenacity. Really enjoyed the interview. Laurie Weisz

So, speaking of making time and creative flow. I've just taken a full week off writing. I had fallen dreadfully behind on my other real world obligations, and I also felt "frantic" when I was writing, as if I was racing against the clock, which, of course, I was, given how much other stuff needed doing.
Yesterday was the first day I gave myself permission to think about writing, and I've been amazed. I haven't done any writing yet, but I've realized that, over the week, I've germinated several new ideas for potential essays or interviews and that I'm eager to be "back in collar" as my English father would say.
So, my advice to all my over-scheduled, afraid-not-to-write friends is this: take a week off. The writing will keep, and you'll benefit from the down time to allow the creative well to re-fill itself.
This is something I'm going to try to remember the next time I get to one of those places where my writing simply feels like spinning my wheels. There's a whole lot to be said for writerly discipline--I'm a huge fan of it--but there's something to be said for a writer's vacation, too. And I've become a new adherent to scheduling them so that the writing can find its way back to being in proportion to living.

What a great idea--taking a writing break! For me, though, it needs to be a break from the zillion other work things going on in my life--because so many of them are writing related--and also from a whole network of personal commitments that often feel very much like a restricting collar. But I think you're right, Lorraine, in that writing can't just serve as a distraction from those commitments. It requires a kind of energy and focus that needs to be nurtured.

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