Nichole Bernier is the author of the novel The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., available in paperback from Broadway on March 12, 2012.
Here, she talks with friend and fellow author Dani Shapiro, author of the the novels Black & White and Family History and the best-selling memoirs Devotion and Slow Motion. They discuss journal writing, working mothers, and how a novel can grow out of a series of “what-if’s?”.
Dani Shapiro: This is your first novel after years of being a magazine editor and writer. What made you decide to write this story? Joan Didion describes material she wants to write as having “a shimmer” around its edges. What was this shimmer for you?
Nichole Bernier: I have always been intrigued and haunted by the notion of legacy, the trace people leave behind once they’re gone – how others define them, and what they’ve done to define themselves. I lost a friend in the September 11 terrorist attacks, and in the days afterward, I fielded the media calls for her husband so he wouldn’t have to describe his loss repeatedly. I tried to offer short memorial statements that were meaningful and true, but in the end they were still sound bites, and I couldn’t stop wondering what she would have wanted said about her. What was the difference between the way I saw her, and the way she would have wanted to be seen, and remembered?
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My book is not in any way about my friend, but grew out of the what-ifs: What if a mother left behind hints of a more complex and mysterious person than her loved ones thought they’d known? The shimmer for me was the incomplete obit, the discrepancy between the public and the private self. We all die with bits of our story untold.
DS: The backdrop of your novel is the year following the terrorist attacks, a time that I’ve written about too. What made you choose that tumultuous period as your backdrop?
NB: That was an extraordinary time when it felt as if the range of threats – anthrax, mad cow disease, poisoned reservoirs – were not only possible, but likely. I was a new mother that year, and I think many of us had the impulse to grab our loved ones and run. But we didn’t know where to go, or from what. Most of us moved on from that place of paralysis. But it was fascinating to me to create a character who could not: someone who was confident and competent, but felt the strain of keeping a family safe when no one knew where safe was.
DS: The spine of the story is the inheritance of a trunk of journals. This was an ambitious structure, and I’m curious why you chose it. Do you feel there’s any correlation between journals and today’s blogs? Or does today’s blogosphere make journals seem historic and quaint?
NB: Initially, I thought of journals as a way to give voice to someone who was no longer living, and provide a source of strength to someone left behind, struggling in a world that felt dangerously arbitrary. I wove the two women’s storylines to show how they might have had some of the same experiences but perceived them differently. But it turned out to be more difficult than I thought; the parallel timelines had to consistently meet in some narrative way – thematically, or with some common event – so the reader would feel the way the friends connect, but also pass one another by.
The evolution of blogs has always been interesting to me. In journals, people are working through questions looking for comfort and insight, essentially asking themselves, What would the wisest person I know advise me on this? It’s a conversation with the best part of oneself.
Blogs can be many things – entertaining, poignant, cathartic. But even with the most sincere of intentions, blogs are crafted with the consciousness of another reader. It’s the difference between a candid photo and a portrait. Not much in our world is truly private anymore, which makes journals all the more rare.
DS: A big part of your novel concerns two mothers struggling to balance their jobs – or finding ways to keep a finger in work they loved – while being engaged in raising their children. As a mother of five, how do you manage both raising your kids and finding time to write?
NB: It’s a challenge, and I won’t pretend it’s not. I’m not usually at the computer when ideas come along, so I jot notes on whatever scrap of paper happens to be nearby and sometimes type on my cell phone when I pretend to be taking pictures on the soccer sidelines. Time is scarce and precious, so there’s no room for procrastination anymore; when I sit down to write, I’ve been planning what to work on in advance. More than anything it helps to have a supportive spouse, and my husband knows the greatest gift is the gift of time.
Still, no matter how many kids you have or how supportive your partner, there are only twenty-four hours in a day, and being busy forces you to triage what you value most. After I started my novel most of my hobbies fell by the wayside. But it clarifies what’s most important to you – to know, say, that you can enjoy life without making gourmet meals or running a marathon, but you can’t not write.
I also think it’s good for my children to see that their mother loves them and loves her work, too. In a way, the kids have come to feel an ownership in the writing life; we have a lot of events at our home, and the kids enjoy talking to authors and passing food trays. It has been fascinating to watch their evolving awareness of writers as real people behind the bylines—people who started out loving to read, just like they do.
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