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Nichole Bernier: Why I Write

June 05, 2012 By: larramiefg Category: Books, Guest Posts

[Although today celebrates Nichole Bernier becoming a novelist with the debut of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., the truth is she’s always been a writer. In fact one need only look at her professional success as a contributing editor and journalist for proof.

However, in today’s guest post, Nichole shares the personal aspect — the real reason — for why she writes.]

Why I Write

The day I started keeping a journal I was twelve, an awkward twelve—as if there’s ever anything else—and brand new to town. It was the first day of seventh grade. My English teacher gave the class an assignment to write about something on our minds, anything interesting or troubling. We were to do this for ten minutes daily. No one would see it but her.

Moments before, the girl at the desk next to mine had turned to me and said, “I like your skirt.” My family had just moved to Connecticut from the midwest, and as the oldest child of four whose mother still picked out her clothes, I had no concept of cool. So I had no idea I was about to experience my first social catastrophe of junior high.

“It’s not a skirt,” I said, stretching out my legs to show the glorious plaid extending all the way to my lace-up Buster Brown shoes. I can still see the expression on the girl’s face, a combination of disbelief and good fortune, because she had something so rich for the person beside her.

I know these details not just because I remember them – because really, who ever forgets? – but because I wrote them in my journal, and then continued to document my year’s highs and lows. I don’t recall my teacher ever saying anything to me face-to-face about my personal writing, and I’m not sure I would have been comfortable if she had. I remember her as a cool artsy presence, a pen pal, an aloof fairy godmother. But the fact that she didn’t say anything made it possible for me to keep up the illusion that I was writing only for myself.

I continued the journaling habit the following year even though it was no longer an assignment, exorcised each hopeful and painful detail, like when a boy announced to homeroom on the first day of eighth grade that over the summer that Nichole Bernier’s mosquito bites had turned to maraschino cherries. 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 relationship that was not healthy, and later, whether I should gamble everything — job, rent control, beloved city—for one that was. It was where I played with poetry and experimented with long and flowery tortured sentences.

In spite of those sentences, the journal writing probably led to my career in magazines because investigating ideas through writing was second nature to me. I loved that work: the travel, the struggle for just the right word and sentence to describe a place. I loved interviewing people and reading between the lines of their quotes and body language to develop character. Literary journalism was the name my graduate school had for this form of writing, and I loved it — fact through fictional style. It never occurred to me to actually write fiction even though I loved reading it.

But after I lost a friend in the September 11th attacks, my magazine writing wasn’t the appropriate place to express some of the more haunting thoughts, and my journal was no longer enough. I began doing free-form scene writing, though if you told me at the time that it was the beginning of a novel I wouldn’t have believed it. Once I accepted that it was, my relationship to writing changed. Words were a way to report on details and observations, but also a creative vehicle to deeper truths, the why behind the beautiful and ugly things people think and do and have done to them. Fiction writers can take a germ of an idea spool it out into the what-ifs: What if someone felt this way about trying to protect her family in post-September 11th world that suddenly felt dangerously arbitrary, but it became an obsession? What if a mother felt passionately about her career, but left it behind because that’s what she thought good mothers did?

Once I started seeing the what-ifs behind the whats, I couldn’t unsee them. In our old town there was a family — mother, father, and teen son — that sat a few pews in front of us in church. The boy was sadly obese and always had an unwashed look. The mother always had her arm around him protectively. One day they were sitting directly in front of me, and I noticed blanched patches on the boy’s skin around the back of his neck and ears, signs that suggested the beginning of vitiligo disease. I imagined what it would be like for a parent, worrying about a teen who had these strikes against him in a world where appearances matter. What would he grow to be because of, or in spite of, this disease? Was he teased? Would some good person still love him someday?

Writing for me makes beautiful things more beautiful, and distills an ugly thing—prejudice, cruelty—to its ugly core. It clarifies the nauseous prickle of witnessing something you cannot make sense of until you begin to get it down on paper. The sentences will be reduced and discarded, reduced and discarded, until the essence of a thought becomes an of course. It’s an understanding I can’t reach until I write it out.

* * * * *

Previously selected as one of BookPage’s Most Anticipated Debuts of 2012, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D, has now been chosen by VOGUE for its Hit List: Six Summer Novels. And here’s a glimpse of why:

Before there were blogs, there were journals. And in them we’d write as we really were, not as we wanted to appear. But there comes a day when journals outlive us. And with them, our secrets.

Summer vacation on Great Rock Island was supposed to be a restorative time for Kate, who’d lost her close friend Elizabeth in a sudden accident. But when she inherits a trunk of Elizabeth’s journals, they reveal a woman far different than the cheerful wife and mother Kate thought she knew.

The complicated portrait of Elizabeth—her troubled upbringing, and her route to marriage and motherhood—makes Kate question not just their friendship, but her own deepest beliefs about loyalty and honesty at a period of uncertainty in her own marriage.

The more Kate reads, the more she learns the complicated truth of who Elizabeth really was, and rethinks her own choices as a wife, mother, and professional, and the legacy she herself would want to leave behind. When an unfamiliar man’s name appears in the pages, Kate realizes the extent of what she didn’t know about her friend, including where she was really going on the day she died.

Set in the anxious summer after the September 11th attacks, this story of two women—their friendship, their marriages, private ambitions and fears—considers the aspects of ourselves we show and those we conceal, and the repercussions of our choices.

TRUST: A novel based on loss, introspection and ultimate self-discovery, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D is hauntingly bittersweet, often asking more questions than can ever be answered. How well do we know others is an obvious example but how well do we know ourselves may be more thought-provoking. Intriguingly honest, this is a story told within a story about a life of quiet desperation until its end(?).

Now please, explore the book on your own….enjoy!

More about Nichole Bernier can be found on her website, on Twitter, and on Facebook. 

Book Giveaway: The Divining Wand is giving away one copy of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier — in a random drawing — to anyone who leaves a comment on this post by 11:59 p.m. EDT tonight! The winner will be notified by email tomorrow.

The Revealing of Nichole Bernier

May 23, 2012 By: larramiefg Category: Profiles, Q&A

Contributing editor/features writer/journalist, Nichole Bernier — inspired by a family friend’s healing following the September 11th attacks — becomes a novelist when The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. debuts on Tuesday, June 5, 2012.

Selected as one of BookPage’s Most Anticipated Debuts of 2012, the novel’s introductory description explains:

Before there were blogs, there were journals. And in them we’d write as we really were, not as we wanted to appear. But there comes a day when journals outlive us. And with them, our secrets.

Intrigued? Consider the following stellar blurbs and reviews:

“The question of what makes a life, secrets shared and secrets kept, and the complete makeup of a single human being are the cornerstones of Bernier’s introspective debut… Even best friends can withhold shattering secrets, the kind that can forever change the lives of loved ones and make everyone question the fine nuances of what it means to be a parent, a spouse, a friend, a community member, and a resident of this earth for only a finite, unknown amount of time. Bernier’s tale blends bittersweet heartaches with soaring truths in a style reminiscent of Jodi Picoult and Anita Shreve.” —Booklist

“An absorbing, bittersweet novel that examines the vast grey area between protecting and deceiving the ones we love.” — Vanessa Diffenbaugh, New York Times bestselling author of THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS

“I loved this bittersweet novel, which manages to be both a compelling mystery and a wise meditation on friendship, marriage and motherhood in an age of great anxiety. Bernier will have you thinking about her characters long after you’ve turned the final page.”
J. Courtney Sullivan, New York Times bestselling author of COMMENCEMENT and MAINE

“Nichole Bernier writes as though she were born knowing how to do so. She understands the fragility of the human heart and also the enduring strength of even imperfect relationships. The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D is a gripping book with a delicate, tender core. You will read on to unravel a mystery but also to be moved on page after page.” — Robin Black, author of the story collection IF I LOVED YOU I WOULD TELL YOU THIS

“Written with exquisite grace, depth, and honesty, THE UNFINISHED LIFE OF ELIZABETH D explores decisions driven by motherhood and marriage. I was transfixed as Kate read the journals she’d inherited from Elizabeth, peeling back the layers of her friend’s life, and in the process grappling with her own choices and terrors. Women have secret lives—sometimes hidden in the corners of our minds, sometimes in dreams unrealized. One mark of friendship is when and whether these nightmares and ambitions can be revealed. This riveting novel fiercely captures this fulcrum of the public and private lives of American mothers.” -– Randy Susan Meyers, International bestselling author of THE MURDERER’S DAUGHTERS

“A smart, poignant novel about the bittersweet choices women make and the secrets they keep. This is one of those rare novels that’s so real you forget it’s written; I literally carried it around with me, and I missed the characters when I was done.” —Jenna Blum, New York Times bestselling author of THOSE WHO SAVE US and THE STORMCHASERS

Even more intrigued? Explore the book and read the first chapter.

The Divining Wand has scheduled a visit with Nichole on Tuesday, June 5, 2012 but, for today, let’s meet the author through her “official” bio:

Nichole Bernier is author of the novel THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D, and has written for magazines including Elle, Self, Health, and Men’s Journal. A 14-year Contributing Editor for Conde Nast Traveler, she was previously on staff as the magazine’s golf and ski editor, columnist, and television spokesperson. She received her master’s degree from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and is one of the founders of the literary blog Beyond the Margins. Nichole lives west of Boston with her husband and five children.

And now it’s time to get to know Nichole much better:

Q. How would you describe your life in 8 words?
A. Failed yogi. Shower thinker. Human zamboni. Happiness seeker.

Q. What is your motto or maxim?
A. You never know. Because you never really know what makes another person do the things they do. All you can do is give them the benefit of the doubt.

Q. How would you describe perfect happiness?
A. Holding your newborn. Solitude with productive thoughts. That sweaty pacing contentment after exercise is done and you feel like you could take out an army. Flipping a perfect crepe. Feeling understood. Watching a Kindergarten basketball game, and seeing that moment of panic when a kid hugs the ball to his chest and flat-out runs down the court.

Q. What’s your greatest fear?
A. Sophie’s Choice. Mad Cow disease. That I won’t wake up from one of my apocalyptic nightmares.

Q. If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you choose to be?
A. A warm uncrowded beach with a good book… I don’t remember the last time I read on a beach.

Q. With whom in history do you most identify?
A. Noah. Sometimes I want to build an arc to collect everyone and everything I love and protect them from whatever terrible thing is next down the pike.

Q. Which living person do you most admire?
A. Dedicated inner city teachers. Dick Hoyt, who runs the Boston marathon each year pushing his adult son in a wheelchair. Every parent who treks from a rural village to bring their cleft-palate child to a Smile Train medical outpost they’ve only heard of through rumors. That act of blind faith and love and determination — when so many superstitious people hide their cleft-palate children in back rooms — stops my heart.

Q. What are your most overused words or phrases?
A. Spoken: “Just a minute.” Written: “tenuous.” I’ve wanted to be able to overuse “balls to the wall,” ever since I learned it refers to the mechanics of fighter-jet throttles, and not something anatomical. But I won’t put it in print knowing my mother will see it and misunderstand.

Q. If you could acquire any talent, what would it be?
A. I wish I could fly. I used to have vivid dreams of flying when I was a child, and in my dreams I knew exactly how to do it: fierce concentration could make me levitate higher and higher. I’d always be disappointed when I woke up.

Q. What is your greatest achievement?
A. The greatest risks make the greatest reward. Opening my heart to the spontaneity of a blind date, and giving up my rent controlled NYC apartment to move to Boston and marry him. The decision to have five children, even though I was afraid of what it would do to a solitary person. Going out on a limb day after day for a piece of writing that was not any assignment, not anything that anyone in this world was waiting to see. Then selling it, and being able to hold it as a hardcover.

Q. What’s your greatest flaw?
A. Privacy.

Q. What’s your best quality?
A. Privacy.

Q. What do you regret most?
A. That I didn’t know my mother-in-law better before she died of multiple sclerosis last year. She was a complex package of fortitude and stubbornness and depression and mystery, and now there’s no opportunity to really understand her. I think that will continue to weigh on me more the older I get.

Q. If you could be any person or thing, who or what would it be?
A. The family of rabbits that live in our yard. My four-year-old adores them and brings them lettuce every evening. They seem to have a pretty wonderful life.

Q. What trait is most noticeable about you?
A. If you’re sitting near me in the library, it’s that I type very loudly. It makes me feel alive.

Q. Who is your favorite fictional hero?
A. Olive Kitteridge

Q. Who is your favorite fictional villain?
A. Reginald von HoobieDoobie, from Edwina The Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct

Q. If you could meet any athlete, who would it be and what would you say to him or her?
A. Amelia Earhart. I’ll call her an athlete because of her sheer strength of will. “Where did you go?”

Q. What is your biggest pet peeve?
A. People who don’t wait their turn and think rules don’t apply to them. But when I’m furious at someone who bullies through a four-way stop or cuts in traffic, I remind myself “You just never know” (see motto). Maybe they’re rushing to the hospital.

Q. What is your favorite occupation, when you’re not writing?
A. Reading in a warm patch of sun. Walking the four-mile loop around our local lake carrying my youngest child in a backpack. Making pie. Laughing with my husband. He’s got a great sense of humor.

Q. What’s your fantasy profession?
A. Being the protector of orphaned baby animals at a wildlife preserve. I’d also like to have the job in Mother Nature’s factory that gets to design the color and symmetry of kittens.

Q. What 3 personal qualities are most important to you?
A. Kindness, kindness, and kindness.

Q. If you could eat only one thing for the rest of your days, what would it be?
A. Only one thing? Then chicken korma with bleu cheese and strawberry rhubarb pie. With just enough space between them on the plate to not really be one thing.

Q. What are your 5 favorite songs?
A. They might be different tomorrow, but today: Rikki Lee Jones, We Belong Together. Van Morrison, Whenever God Shines His Light. David Bowie/Queen, Under Pressure. U2, One. Ferron, Ain’t Life a Brook.

Q. What are your 5 favorite books of all time?
A. Crossing to Safety, Gilead, Gift From the Sea, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Bartleby the Scrivener (I know it’s a short story, but still).

Nichole Bernier is definitely a new author to follow on Twitter, like on Facebook, and read/pre-order her debut The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.