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:
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
- “Novel Catharsis” by Nichole Bernier, June 11, 2012.
- “The Training Wheels Novel” (Amy Bloom) by Nichole Bernier, January 25, 2012.
- Beyond the Margins, a group literary blog, co-founded in 2010 by Nichole Bernier with “a dozen writers, many of whom met or taught at Grub Street, a nonprofit creative writing center in Boston.”
- “Hingham Mom’s Group Provides Inspiration for Debut Novel,” by Sara Mason Ader, Wicked Local Hingham, June 21, 2012.
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