Nichole Bernier has just released her debut novel The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D, quite a change of pace from her magazine writing. We were able to find out a little more about Nichole, her habits and her novel in this interview.
Your debut novel The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D has recently been published in Australia, Can you tell us a little about the book?
The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D is about a woman who inherited the journals of a friend who died, and realizes she didn’t know her friend as well as she thought, including where she was really going when she died. Set in the anxious summer after the September 11th attacks, it’s a portrait of two women — their friendship, their marriages, private ambitions and fears — that considers the aspects of ourselves we show and those we conceal, and the repercussions of our choices.
You have long been a writer of non-fiction. What prompted the move to fiction? What can you tell us about the inspiration behind the book?
I’d been a magazine writer for more than a decade when I started writing my novel, and though I’ve always loved reading fiction, I’d never had an urge to write it. But after I lost a friend in the September 11th terrorist attacks, there were things I couldn’t work through in my regular ways of writing — thoughts about the legacy we leave behind, and how well we really knew the person behind the memorialization. One day in early 2006 I found myself writing something that took the form of scenes and made-up people, and the one thing that’s verboten in the world of journalism is making stuff up. I continued in this vein for awhile, and had to admit to myself that what I was writing was in fact a novel.
My friend had been on the first plane to hit the twin towers, and her husband asked if I would return the media phone calls for him. For years afterward I was haunted by what an awesome responsibility it is to define a person in sound bites, and I wondered how she would have wanted to be described, and to be remembered. And it occurred to me that it’s probably inevitable that there be some difference in the way we see ourselves, and the way we’re seen by others.
My novel is in no way about my friend, but is about the questions that stayed with me about identity women have as wives and mothers, sisters and friends.
The story follows Kate as she learns more about Elizabeth through her journals. Was it challenging to write some of the book as journal entries, considering this isn’t your main protagonist and a journal entry is about as deep in a person’s head it’s possible to get?
When I began trying to craft the characters, I knew I had a challenge in the fact that Elizabeth had died before the story opened, and didn’t appear in the book in any real-time scenes, aside from small flashbacks.
But I knew she would express herself through journals, and that I just needed to find my way in. I’d kept journals most of my life, and I knew there was a rhythm to an authentic journal writing. Only I didn’t think it was something I could develop in a choppy way, inserting on and off as the plot unfolded throughout the book. So I did what any good journal-keeper does. I picked up my pen and wrote out a life, one journal entry at a time.
I spent several months writing the life of Elizabeth before I wrote the novel’s plotline, and it felt odd, like I was posing as someone else. But I needed to get to know her better than she knew herself so the reader would feel extra clarity. She had a penchant for privacy and didn’t have many close friends, so I had to figure out why: her lonely childhood, the difficult circumstances that formed her, the steely will that transformed her, one journal entry at a time.
I knew Elizabeth because I’d written her life in 100-odd pages. And then I threw most of them away. Because the reader didn’t need them all, but I needed them in the back of my mind in order to bring her to life. And then I wrote the novel around them.
How did you juggle five young children, writing articles for publication and writing this book?
Would you believe me if I said I outsourced chapters to them? No?
I started the novel shortly after my third child was born. Until then I’d been doing freelance magazine writing, and had about 20 hours of babysitting time a week. Once I started writing the novel, I’d sneak in writing sessions nights and weekends, because I didn’t feel right putting work hours toward something no one was paying me to write and might never see the light of day. Many of my best thoughts would come when I wasn’t in front of the computer, and I’d text them to myself from places like the soccer sidelines. I still do.
After a few months I realized this kind of writing wasn’t going away, and I started to siphon off little bits of babysitting time, but the novel mostly took the place of the other hobbies and interests I used to have. In a way, it was a good reality check on what really mattered. I found I could live without running road races or having a gorgeous garden or cooking ambitious meals, but I couldn’t not write.
It was also key to have a supportive spouse. Not only did he NOT make me feel I was frittering time away playing at being a novelist — he’d give me weekends away alone as birthday and Christmas gifts.
Can you tell us a little about your writing habits please?
Our house is never really very quiet, and though I don’t need quiet to write, I need the noise to be sounds I’m not emotionally invested in. So I’ve become that cliché of the coffeeshop writer. I love the impersonal bustle that’s a bit like being part of an office, but one where no one is the boss of you.
I don’t really have regular rituals or schedules, mostly because a week in our family is a constantly changing thing. And I don’t have specific productivity goals because if I didn’t meet a daily word count, it’d only make me disappointed in myself. When I first started writing the novel I set a realistic weekly goal of 2,000 words, which allowed for daily trip-ups. Sometimes I exceeded it, but usually not.
The closest thing I have to regular strategy is that when I sit down to write, I’ve usually been anticipating it awhile and know what I intend to tackle. That way when I stand up and stretch at the end, whatever else happens along the way, I’m not frustrated that I’ve frittered away time figuring out what to write.
Did you sit and plot the book or sit with a start point and see where the characters took you?
I knew where it began and I had an idea of where it would end, or at least the general idea and the mood. I had a rough outline, but I departed from it liberally. A manuscript, like a big family, can be an unruly thing and you have to work with what comes along.
You have been writing nonfiction for a long time. How did the publication journey from idea to light-of-day compare?
It was 6.5 years in all, which I’m very glad I didn’t know at the outset. My point of reference for magazine pieces had always been contract, research, write, publication, paycheck. It was hard to adjust my mental timeline for such intensive and lengthy revisions on something no one was waiting for.
For two years I wrote nights and weekends on the first draft, and finished just before I had my fourth child. I let the manuscript sit for a few months, then when I looked at it with fresh eyes, threw myself into revisions. I developed a writing community, and counted on trusted colleagues’ insights to push me to make it better.
When I signed with literary agent Julie Barer, she worked with me to streamline my story and weave the parallel timelines of my characters more intimately. After she sold it to Crown there were nearly two more years of edits and proofreading, design and marketing. It might seem like an eternity, but at the end, the trajectory of the process made sense, the learning process and all the necessary steps and hard work.
One of my biggest surprises during this time was how fascinating I found the business side of publishing. Querying literary agents, holding an auction for the book with editors at various publishing houses. Selling foreign rights, audio rights, large-print rights. Marketing and promotion. The learning curve was steep, and gratifying.
Is there a favourite book or author you have that you can share with us?
The novel Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner. It’s the story of two couples, their lifelong marriages and friendship, and takes a clear-eyed look at how our strengths and foibles become more forgiving and more brittle over the decades. It begins with the couples in their 60s when someone is dying, but we don’t know who or how. Then it takes us back through their lives, starting at the beginning. It’s brilliant. Stegner won the Pulitzer for Angle of Repose, and with good reason. But this one’s closest to my heart.
Are you working on a new novel you can tell us a little about?
I’ve just begun something set during the dissolution of the former Soviet Union; I traveled there during the summer of 1989, and it was a spectacularly tense and dangerous place. I’m enjoying the research from a cultural and historical perspective while the characters are beginning to come to life for me.
What are you reading at the moment?
About seventy-seven things. I try not to be a book polygamist, but I keep being tempted by shiny objects and believing I can juggle them all. It makes for slow progress in each one, but interesting conversations out in the world. So many things to talk about.
Thank you so much for your time Nichole and best of luck for all that is to follow the Unfinished Journals.