|Nichole Bernier, author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.|
Nichole Bernier talks to Colin about her first social catastrophe, not giving up, and sneaker bombs.
CGB: Hilary Mantel has said that to write a historical novel, you have to research and be true to the ideals and behaviors of people, or characters, from the period you're writing about. While every novel is historical, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. calls attention to itself as an especially salient instance of the modern novel, not only because it takes place just after 9/11, but because the premise of the book is based on that which we make public and that which we conceal, and how both serve as documents of who we seem to be.
Did you feel at all obligated to make your characters behave authentically to 2002, in the sense of being perhaps less attentive or more anxious than they might have been in 1889 or even 1987? Let's say, hypothetically, encumbering the narrative by nature of their being unable to concentrate on one scene at a time, or furtively texting lines of dialogue across the page? And while we're on the subject, do you think the novel of the not-so-distant future might not do away with speech and action altogether, in favor of more beautifully written accounts of people switching to Verizon or staring at their iPods?
NB: It’s a fascinating question. The issue of time, in terms of era, was one that was always on my mind from a psychological standpoint. The summer of 2002 was an extraordinary time when it felt like anything could happen: anthrax, Mad Cow disease, sneaker bombs, threats of poisoned reservoir. It was an unnerving time to be a new parent responsible for a small new life in an uncertain world, and for Americans who hadn’t experienced the proximity of threats in that way, it happened literally overnight. Most of us moved on from that place of paralysis, and we know with the gift of time showed that no next huge thing was, in fact, about to happen. But I was fascinated by the prospect of creating a main character who could not move on, and didn’t yet have the gift of passage of time to temper her anxiety.
As far as other temporal accuracy and encumbrance: my main character has a tendency to forget to recharge her cellphone, which does become a plot device. (In case you’re interested, I once wrote about the role of technology as a plotdevice). But I don’t think that’s going too far out on a tech limb. At least as long as batteries have to be recharged, there will probably be distracted parents who forget to charge them.
I imagine that writing a story like this would bring to mind some things that you yourself have never shared with anyone. What's one thing that on purpose or absent-mindedly you've kept, until now, to yourself? Could be embarrassingly private, could be that you've always thought of Bill Russell as more of a power forward.
So… I’m going to take my embarrassingly private thing, and after 45 years of keeping it to myself, share it with the blog of one of the country’s most beloved bookstores? Sure, why not.
My novel is about lifelong journals that begin with a preteen’s coming of age pain, and my journaling started a bit that way, too. I started keeping a journal when I was twelve, an awkward twelve (as if there’s ever anything else) and brand new to town. My English teacher gave the class an assignment to write about something on our minds, and we were to do this for ten minutes daily. My first entry was about something the girl at the desk next to mine had said to me 10 minutes earlier. “I like your skirt.” My family had just moved to the East Coast from the Midwest, and as the oldest child of four whose mother still picked out her clothes, I had no concept of what was cool. So I had no idea I was about to experience my first social catastrophe of junior high when she realized it was not in fact a skirt but pants, glorious plaid extending all the way down to my lace-up Buster Brown shoes. I can still see the expression on her face, a combination of disbelief and good fortune, because she had something so rich for the person beside her.
I continued the journaling habit the following year even though it was no longer an assignment, recorded each hopeful and painful detail that had to be exorcised, like the time a boy announced to homeroom on the first day of eighth grade that over the summer, Nichole Bernier’s mosquito bites had turned to maraschino cherries.
So there you have it. I once had plaid pants, and I once had mosquito bites that became maraschino cherries. As you can see from my author photo, they pretty much stayed that way.
Now that you mention it, you look believably relaxed in that photo for a woman with five children. The average person finds it hard to unwind between their work and magazine subscriptions. What's your secret? And how on earth did you find time to write a book as a full-time mom, and then some? Are you holding on to one of them with your feet (not pictured)?
If I look relaxed in the photo, it’s because I’m in a serene sunlit studio in New York being spoken to gently by a photographer and stylist, which couldn’t be more unlike my daily life than if they’d done a photo shoot on Mars.
There really was no big sexy secret. The short answer is that I chipped away writing time little by little, night and weekend hours, and when I became really obsessed, I started giving over some of my babysitter hours that were supposed to go toward my paying freelance writing assignments. The long and very unsexy answer is that I gave up a lot along the way. I started the novel shortly after my third child was born and finished just before the fifth came along, and the further into it I went, the more hobbies and activities fell by the wayside. In a way, it was a good reality check on what really mattered, because it made me triage my interests. I wouldn’t be PTA president, I’d be a room parent. I could live without running road races or having a gorgeous garden or cooking ambitious meals, but I couldn’t not write.
But the most important thing by far was having a supportive husband. He gave me chunks of time to steal away when I was really in the thick of it, and believed in the book even at times when I didn’t.
Your blog, like Elizabeth D's journal, gives a look behind-the-scenes as well of how a book is brought into existence. I was especially taken by your account of the events surrounding your friend's death on 9/11, and your realization that "Fictionalizing the facts of the story freed [you] up to dig deep into emotion." I'm guilty as the next guy of taking creative license when it comes to seeing people not for who they are, but as someone else who likes me. But I mostly mean acquaintances, not friends. Was writing about the secret journals of a fictional character a way for you to re-conceive the friend you lost in life?
I know it’d be more poignant to say yes here, but truthfully, no. Once I went through the initial catharsis of writing about a woman imagining her friend’s last moments on a doomed flight, it was as if I’d balled up a bad wad of paper and sent it into the stratosphere. Everything was fictionalized, based on my observations and curiosities about marriage, friendship and motherhood, frustrations and aspirations and fears.
My thoughts about my friend — who was a part of my group, but not an intimate or confidante — were inspired by a small role I’d played for the family, helping them field media calls and describe her in quotes and sound bites. For a long time afterward, I wondered how she would have wanted to be described, how she’d have perceived her legacy. That led to wondering about how well any of us are known and memorialized, the roles of honesty and facades, and years later, to the book.
Nichole Bernier is author of the novel The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. (Crown/Random House). She has written for magazines including Conde Nast Traveler, ELLE, Health, Men’s Journal, and Child, and is a founder of the literary blog Beyond the Margins (www.beyondthemargins.com). She lives outside of Boston with husband and five children, and is at work on her second novel. She can be found at http://www.nicholebernier.com, and on Twitter @nicholebernier.