Nichole Bernier: Feature writer, editor and novelist

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image-nicholebernier200Nichole Bernier is a feature writer, editor and now novelist. Her debut novel is The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D. She lives in Boston with her husband and five children.

Nichole completed her Masters in Journalism at Columbia University and in 1993 received an award for literary journalism. For 14 years she was a contributing editor at Conde Naste magazine. She has also been a senior editor at Boston Magazine. Over the years she has written for Elle, Self, Health, Men’s Journal, Child and Yankee.

She is also a founder of the literary blog, Beyond the Margins, which she contributes to regularly.

Click play to listen. Running time: 17.30

The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Danielle
Thank you for joining us, Nichole.

Nichole
It’s so much fun to be here.

Danielle
Tell us a bit about the book, The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D.

Nichole
Well, I started writing it about seven years ago. I had never done any fiction at all, I’d always been a journalist for magazines. But, I had an experience, I had lost a friend in September 11th, and I was sort of haunted by the notion of a lost mother. She was a new mother of a six month old. The thoughts kept dogging me for about five years, sort of wondering how well we really know the people that we lose, after reading her obituaries and not really feeling like they reminded me of her.

So, the novel that I created, with a bit of catharsis, has nothing whatsoever to do with my friend, but the story is kind of born out of some of the emotions, and the what-ifs that were going on in my mind. It’s a story about a woman who inherits the journals of a friend who has died and learns that she doesn’t know her friend nearly as well as she thought, including where the friend was actually going when she died. But, specifically and schematically it’s really about marriage and friendship, and the faces of façades that we show one another, and what we conceal and what it costs us to be so private.

Danielle
You use the journals of Elizabeth D. as part of the narrative, and the blurb on the book actually says, “Before there were blogs there were journals.” Do you think blogs have actually replaced journals, or is there still a place for the private journaling that you explore in the book?

Nichole
Well, I think journals are a very different beast than blogs. I mean journals are – and I started keeping journals when I was in junior high, and I kept them for a few decades. It’s really the sort of place where a person sorts out the big decisions in life. You are speaking to yourself, privately, without an intention that anyone else will see them. It’s really, in the best of them I think, at least for me, asking yourself, “What would the wisest person that I can think of counsel me about this situation that I’m in right now?” And if you dig deep enough inside you usually do find the answer for yourself. The difference with blogs, of course, is even the most candid and the most sincere of blogs are always written with a consciousness of other eyes on it. So, you just don’t have that same level of candor and openness, there’s a certain amount of posturing, even if it’s very candid posturing.

Danielle
As a writer, did you find keeping that very private journal helpful to your craft?

Nichole
You know I didn’t realize it at the time, and I never thought that’s what I was doing, I think for me it was just a combination of sorting out the big questions in life, but also just exercising creativity in way of observing things that were going on around me, and things that I was experiencing. Eventually I think just the habit of describing things and sorting things through in words came through in my writing. I mean I worked for a travel magazine for many years, Conde Nast Traveler, and that’s a very descriptive sort of journalism. It definitely fed into the habits of description that I had kind of gotten into the routine of by keeping a journal.

Danielle
You’ve mentioned that you were a journalist for a long time, this novel is your first, what was the biggest challenged you faced going from writing as a journalist to writing as a novelist?

Nichole
You know it’s funny, because in a way all of it was new to me, but certain things weren’t. The things I sort of had more under my belt, that I gave myself credit for, was a sense of describing places and characters with a journalistic eye to detail, but with a descriptive – even in a travel article the plot has a narrative arc, otherwise it doesn’t read like a story. The things that were new to me was literally creating a plot that would last over the course of 300 pages. If you have things that you’re revealing about a character slowly, it’s keeping the readers’ interest and doling out information like bread crumbs almost, like you’re kind of giving them a little bit here, a little bit there, leading along a trail. And, keeping that tension right, keeping the amount right of what you give away and what you keep close, so that you’re not giving them too much and you’re not giving them too little.

I just kept going back to what I like most as a reader, when I read something that’s subtle and I get it, and I pick up on the little clues that are going along, all of the little bread crumbs, it makes me feel gratified and appreciated as a reader, that the author felt that I was smart enough and they didn’t need to spoon-feed it to me.

Danielle
So, really this would have been quite a challenging novel, because you’re essentially trying to tell two stories here, presumably keeping those things close enough to each other that the entire narrative made sense would have been quite hard.

Nichole
Yeah.

Danielle
So how did you go about planning this book?

Nichole
It’s funny that you say that, because I thought this was – you know, I’ve kept journals for how ever many years, and I thought, “Well, surely this is a fairly easy to go about a first novel,” because half of the person’s story is being told through their journals.” It wasn’t until the book was out in galley format, I was getting blurbs from authors, I had some fairly prominent authors saying to me, “Why on Earth did you choose such a difficult format for your first book?”

I think, for me, I had to get a handle on both characters first and who they were. The Elizabeth character is never living in the course of the book, except through flashbacks. And so to get to know her what I did is I started off writing her journals when she was 12 years old, and wrote them through her entire life. I had hundreds of pages of them. Then once I got to the end I promptly threw away about 80 percent of it. I don’t know if that’s the most efficient or normal way to go about it, or what other authors do, but it’s what I had to do to know who my character was.

And to develop the other half of the plot line I was building it around the journals, so that I was creating – the present tense of the book is a woman named Kate, who inherits these journals, and she’s reading them during her family vacation on an island of the coast of Massachusetts. And, so we have her reading them, and in between doing different things with her family, and having different problems with her husband. But, you need to have these journal excerpts interact with Kate’s life in a significant and poignant way, otherwise it just seems like a jumble. And, so that’s where kind of the puzzle pieces came in, we’re trying to figure out where everything would fit together.

I had one of those gigantic white boards against the wall, where I had two huge timelines – one represented Elizabeth’s life and one represented Kate’s life.

Danielle
Right. Just back to your writing life, I suppose, you were a journalist for a very long time, did you ever plan to write a novel? Or did this come as a bit of a surprise?

Nichole
Well, I had always loved fiction. I mean I’ve been an avid reader of fiction forever. But, I didn’t think I had a novel in me. I mean the closest thing I came to it was the bad poetry I wrote in college.

That we probably have in drawers somewhere, to varying degrees of embarrassment.

But, this experience after losing my friend I found myself writing things in my journal that didn’t represent anything that I could write in a magazine article, or that even necessarily belonged in my journal. I didn’t know quite what I was working through. Then when it started cropping up with scenes and imagined scenes, and made up people… the one thing as a journalist that is kind of the big no-no, is verboten, is making things up. So, that’s when I kind of realized I was onto something else completely.

It did take me a few months to kind of admit to myself that what I was doing was a novel. One of the hardest things about it was not just learning how to do a novel, but allowing myself to do this thing, which is so different from paid non-fiction journalism. I mean when you are assigned a magazine article the timeline of it is, you know you get the assignment, you get the contract, you write the piece, you turn it in, you get the paycheck and it’s published. There’s nothing like that in fiction whatsoever. You work at something for years and years that no one is waiting for, no one is paying you to do, and then you continue to revise it even more, until people think you’re a little bit soft in the head, because you keep working at this thing that nobody is waiting for.

So that was probably the hardest emotionally, was managing my own expectations and keeping at it.

Danielle
How many drafts did this one take you? Just out of curiosity.

Nichole
576,000,037. I don’t know.

Danielle
I’m sure it felt like that.

Nichole
I don’t even know how to answer the question, because whenever I would sit down and write I’d revise the chapter I just worked on before, or the section I just worked on before and then move forward. I was always going back and combing it over. The only point of reference that I have is that it reminded me of constantly combing long snarled hair, you’re just going over it, and over it, and over it, and going over different sections and going onto new sections.

So, in the end I don’t know how many drafts it was. I know that after I was all done, as far as I had it done, and I queried an agent and I got representation, I went through it with her two more times. Then when I signed on with Random House I went through it with them two more times. Honestly it was at least, 20-25. That would be being conservative.

Danielle
Did you ever find yourself doing that with your journalism, or was that a very different way of writing?

Nichole
Very different. With journalism, I mean I’m pretty regimented, but you can always work – I’ve always been a disciplined writer, but you can always work sort of at the last minute if you have to, and kind of procrastinate things and then turn it out quickly, and then sort of proofread it for a day or so and turn it in. This is nothing like that. You really are going on and on with proofreading something and revising it, beyond what seems sane and normal.

Danielle
You also blog at Beyond the Margins, and you’re one of the founding editors of that, I believe.

Nichole
Yes. There were a dozen writers all pretty much around the Boston area, and we had met through a number of writers, one of them was Jenna Blum, who wrote Those Who Save Us. She’s a fantastic author. We’d either taken classes through the writing centre, or taught classes there. We sort of came together, and we were looking for a place where we could publish daily essays. And the idea in the beginning was that we were all sort of in the chute towards getting our first novel published. The idea would be that this would be a way to write daily essays that would sort of give us an excuse to be out on Twitter and Facebook and promoting our writing styles and our voices, but also to celebrate other authors, and interact with agents and editors, and authors. It just became kind of an excuse to have a public relationship in this way, and it’s fantastic.

In hindsight I’m not even sure if it was quite that conscious, but we knew we wanted some kind of a platform and an excuse to get together with others. It’s been fantastic, because that’s exactly what you do. If someone’s book is coming out and you admire that writer, you contact them, we would contact them and do an interview, or do a book review, or ask them to do a guest post on what was the most challenging aspect of writing their book. That was just so exciting, because then you can reach out. I interviewed Paul Harding who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction a few years ago. I interviewed Julia Glass twice, who was one of my kind of writerly crushes and idols. She wrote Three Junes, the book is so lovely. It’s just been a fantastic opportunity to meet people.

Danielle
With all of this going on, and you also have five children, how do you fit your writing in? Do you have a daily routine that you force yourself to stick to?

Nichole
Oh, that’s the dirty question. I don’t have a very rigid routine because the one thing about the family life that I’ve found is that it breaks every rule of routines. Just when you think you’re going to have a chunk of time to write, someone gets an ear infection, or gets poked with a stick the wrong way, it all kind of falls apart. I do have – when I started it I had three children, I had just had my third. I would have sitters come to the house probably four times a week for little chunks of time, and I would try to make that precious and untouchable, and I would just use that for my writing. It was also nights and weekends at that point. I was still a night owl back then, before I became so tired and useless at night, the way I am now. That time was really enough to get it done.

Now I’ve had to become a little bit more regimented. My youngest has just turned three, so I don’t have to be quite in the house in the same way. Afternoons are the time when I have sitters from about 12:00 to 5:00, and when I sit down to write I am so excited, anxious, and focused on what I’m doing. There’s really no room for procrastination anymore. I mean there’s nothing to really chase the procrastination right out of you like having a house full of kids and limited babysitter hours. So, when I sit down to write I know what scene I’m going to work on, or what blog post I’m going to write. I’m pretty focused in it, because I know that time is hard won.

Danielle
So, now that you’ve had a taste of writing fiction, are you working on another novel?

Nichole
I am. I’m working it over in my mind. I’ve got two sort of dueling ideas right now that I’ve outlined. I’m still in the thick of the book tour right now, but I’m sort of plotting it out in my mind. I expect to start working on it in the next few weeks, do the actual writing.

Danielle
Are you excited about that?

Nichole
Very, very. I’ve read some books, I’m doing some research. The idea that is probably haunting me the most takes place in the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s, so I’m starting to read some books about the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, and it’s a time when I actually visited there, right after college. I just find it a fascinating place in time.

Danielle
Yeah, there will be some fascinating research in that.

Nichole
Yeah, yeah.

Danielle
Absolutely. Now, just one final question, and I’m sure you get asked this all the time, what’s your advice to budding authors?

Nichole
Oh, so many things. I’d say the first thing is if you really love to write, and you really cannot not write – that’s the first thing, if you’re forcing yourself to write, then don’t put yourself through that torture, but if you really love it and it’s what you drift towards doing all the time, then make time to do it, don’t give it up. Make time to squeeze it in around the day job, around the kids, around paying the rent and doing the laundry, and whatever it is. Make time for that. I ended up giving up almost all of my other hobbies and any TV shows I used to watch, because this is the one thing that I could not do.

Then when you get your manuscript as good as you can possibly get it, find a like-minded group of people that will critique it with you and help you get it further, because you don’t want to settle for publishing something that is just good enough. It takes so long to get a book published that you really want your debut novel to represent your best work. So, get a group of people that can help you push it even a bit further, have a writing group, whether it’s a writing centre that you’re taking classes through, so that you really get it tip-top.

Then when you start querying agents do it, and do it, and do it, and make your query letter just rock solid. Don’t take rejections too personally, because there are so many reasons for being rejected. It could just be that someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed and they just broke up with their boyfriend that day, and they don’t feel like reading a book that has a romantic ending or something. Just stick with it, because all it takes is one agent and one editor who feels as strongly about the story as you do, then they can take it to find its audience, which is the broader world. But, all it takes is one representative who believes in it.

Danielle
Excellent advice. Thanks so much for your time today, Nichole. Enjoy the rest of the book tour.

Nichole
Thank you so much.

Danielle
Good luck with the book. I’m sure it will do brilliantly.

Nichole
I appreciate it. This was fun. Thank you.

Danielle
Thanks a lot.

Nichole
Take care.

 


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