Name: Nichole Bernier
Hometown: moved a lot, but lived longest in Westport, CT
Based In: suburban Boston
Education: Colgate University BA English, Columbia University MA journalism
Favorite Read: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
Briefly: Author of the novel The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. Have written for publications including Psychology Today, ELLE, Men’s Journal, Self, Salon, Boston Magazine. Former features writer, golf and ski editor, and TV
spokesperson for Conde Nast Traveler magazine. Mother of five. Almost always tired.
Pet Peeves: It makes me crazy when drivers don’t take turns at four-way stops. We’re all on this planet together, people.
If You Weren’t a Writer You’d Be…Probably working with orphaned and injured wild animals. I did it as a teen volunteer at a nature center, bottle raising raccoons and squirrels until they were old enough/well enough to be released in a state park. About half survived to make that run from the cage to the woods. In my dreams and nightmares I go right back there, like emotional hard-wiring.
Author Crush: If I listed them all I’d sound promiscuous. But Wallace Stegner is at the top of the list. Ann Patchett, Geraldine Brooks, Julia Glass and Marilynne Robinson are all there, too.
Fiction or General Publishing How-To Book I’d Recommend: I’m joining the chorus of fans here, but Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing are my go-to reads when the writing doesn’t flow. The empathy comes through as strong as the teaching.
Up Next: I’m working on my second novel, about a tour group to the USSR in 1989 that goes terribly wrong. The emotional core of the book is the reason the main character has joined the tour: to find out the truth about a missing child she believes has been brought there.
Is your living room your ideal writing space?
No, not by a longshot. My house is too loud, too populated, too many distractions and obligations. I love the library, and sometimes the coffee shop. The noise there is noise I don’t have an emotional investment in.
What do you most enjoy about writing for readers, who are female in their majority?
I love hearing that the book moved them, made them think, and that it was still under their skin well after finishing it.
The premise of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D has Kate rediscovering her friend Elizabeth who died in a plane crash. Have you ever discovered that someone had snooped into your room and read your personal journal or documents?
Not that I know of. I don’t keep a journal anymore, but when I did, I didn’t really tell anyone, and was pretty discreet about where it was kept.
Have you ever read someone else’s journal or diary?
Interesting; I’ve never been asked that. So: you get a fresh truth. When I was in 8th grade, I occasionally babysat for the remarried father of a popular girl at my school—well, I sat for his kids. One evening a notebook was lying out on the kitchen counter — incredibly, the journal of this classmate of mine I barely knew, who was incredibly beautiful and bright, in the gifted program, and about to go away to some boarding school.
As someone who kept a journal myself it was inconceivable that it could be a real diary, just lying out like that, but apparently it was. She wrote about how frustrated she was that no one treated her like she was smart, but assumed that because she was pretty, she was superficial and stupid. I never forgot that — both that I’d violated her privacy in a way I’d be mortified to have mine breached, and the revelation that people can be so much more than they appear.
You are also a writer of non-fiction travel. Do you feel most liberated when you’re writing fiction?
Sometimes, yes. Sometimes I feel tormented, chained to my chair to say that seems unsayable with no blueprint or deadline. My favorite kind of writing is essays, hands down. I love writing at that intersection of current events and individual experience.
There are two cover versions of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. One for the hardcover edition and another for the paperback. Which one were you most taken by? The one with Kate facing the window, or the one that has the journal?
There is no moment like the one a jpg appears in your inbox with your cover for the first time. Especially if it’s so creatively envisioned and captures the essence of your book.
That’s how I felt about the hardcover: the suggestion of a package wrapped in twine, the intimacy of handwritten script on butcher-block paper, the rip-through sections showing a beach with a complex moody sky. To me that captured the complex mood of mystery and possibility of a woman inheriting the journals of an artistic friend who died, leaving behind questions about where she was really going.
The paperback cover is lovely too, with the woman looking out the window at the ocean, and from what I hear it might appeal to people in a more personal way.
What do you wish you had known prior to becoming a published author?
I’ll tell you what I’m glad I didn’t know: how long it would take to write and publish a novel. Seven years isn’t a long time in the arc of fiction, now that I’ve come to know so many other authors. But compared to the timeline of newspaper and magazine articles, it isn’t exactly a tidy, efficient package.
What was your reaction when the ever chic Vogue magazine chose your book for its Summer Reads Hit List?
So honored. It was in such good company: The Age of Miracles, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Little Century…I wish I could have sent a copy of that Vogue page back in time to the exhausted woman rocking her newborn in the middle of the night and wondering what on earth she was doing, trying to write a novel with five young children.
While writing The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D, did some parts pose a dilemma for you? In terms of the ending, certain aspects of the characters, and stuff like that?
When I wrote the first draft, it was in alternating chapter form: one chapter about a woman struggling with anxiety and parenthood in the year after the September 11th attacks, the next chapter an immersion into the life of the friend whose journals she’s reading, and her secrets. Structurally, my literary agent thought it would be stronger if the two women’s stories were more tightly intertwined on each page.
Re-weaving the two storylines made it more poignant, I think, to see how the two women had more in common than they knew, but their friendship was like ships in the night because the weren’t open with one another. But making happen, cutting and pasting the stories together, was like doing a 5-million piece puzzle. Made out of vellum. In a hurricane.
How can writers improve their writing?
Read, read, read. Absorb as much good writing as you can, then find a group of like-minded writers, and share your manuscripts. You learn so much about mistakes and techniques by reading others’ unpublished work. And then recognize the same mistakes and room for improvement in your own.