Nichole Bernier, Author: The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.

I am very happy to welcome Nichole Bernier to my blog for a Q&A. Nichole’s recent debut novel, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., tells the story of Kate Spenser who inherits a trunk of journals from her best friend Elizabeth. I finished this wonderful novel last week, and I highly recommend it. Thank you, Nichole, for the opportunity to interview you!

GIVEAWAY: One lucky commenter will receive a copy of Nichole’s book (thank you Nichole)! Nichole will also send you a personalized bookplate! All you need to do to enter the giveaway is leave a comment before noon on Friday, August 24th. The contest is now closed, congratulations DINDY YOKEL, you won a copy of Nichole’s book!!

Welcome Nichole!

One of the reasons I enjoyed your book so much is that I’m fascinated with the dynamics of friendship. This particularly resonated with me: “…that’s a funny thing about people who don’t fit into a box. They grow to infiltrate everything, and when they suddenly go missing, they are missing everywhere.” I love that. Can you tell me a little bit about your inspiration behind the “friend who doesn’t fit in a box”? Where it came from? What made it so important for this particular story?

I’m glad it touched you, thanks. I’ve always been intrigued by the way people play certain roles in our lives — how, depending upon circumstances and the way we’re thrown together at certain times, we can become quite close without actually knowing one another in a three-dimensional way. I moved a lot growing up, and I’ve moved a good deal as a married adult with young children. And these PTA and playgroup friendships can be quite intense and candid and supportive — though we may be personally and politically quite different, and under other circumstances, might never have become friends. That fascinates me: where people intersect, and what common ground matters most at that moment in time, and where/why we draw the line at becoming closer, consciously or not.


I was also so fascinated with how much Kate learned about her friend Elizabeth that she never would have known if she hadn’t inherited the journals. Was this based on specific real-life friend experiences you had? What was the seed for the “unknown quality” about her friend?
 

The inspiration for the book, and for the friendship between the two women, was the loss of a friend in the September 11th attacks. In that first week I helped her husband by returning the media calls and describing her, over and over, in sound bites that I hoped she would have approved of. But I wondered then — and then for the next few years — 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 difference between the faces we show the world and the aspects of ourselves we keep private, the quiet aspirations and fears. The “what-if” of the novel spooled off from there, and became about a woman who inherits the journals of a friend, and learns she didn’t know her friend as well as she thought — including where she was really going when she died.

I blog a lot about writing from a strong sense of place. In The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. much of the story takes place on Great Rock Island, and you created a vivid scene in my mind. What was it about this setting, outside Kate’s normal life, that was important to the story? Did you visit a similar place? And did you use a particular house as a model for the beach house?
 

My main character Kate Spenser is isolated and lost in the anxious summer of 2002. Though she’s on vacation with her family on the island they love to visit each year, she’s becoming increasingly unhinged by the anxiety of parenting in an arbitrary post-September 11th world. She knows her emotional response has gone beyond the realm of normal but she can’t stop the tapes. Putting her on an island gave her the physical and emotional sense of being marooned, and being amid the pleasant summer-tourism island languor but with the melancholy of being in a bind, seemed the best way to represent a person who is stranded in her own life.

There was a model for the house, and it was a wonderful ranch bungalow we rented one summer on the water on Martha’s Vineyard. When I came home I drew an architectural rendering on a giant white board to keep it in sight.


Follow on to the previous question: I loved the loft space you created for the house—the place that Kate read Elizabeth’s journals. Was there some place that inspired this idea? Why was it important that Kate was so removed from the rest of the house and activity while she was reading?

I loved the idea of Kate reading in a place that was a slight retreat from the chaos of the family, unwatched and uninterrupted.The reading loft was not a part of the bungalow we rented — it was an added figment of my imagination. But I love it so much I’ll probably have to build it someday.


I love the Beyond the Margins blog—one of my daily go-to reads. I know you along with other Grub Street writers started that blog in 2010. Some social media experts think that blogging is on the decline. I’m curious whether you think this is true—both for individual and group blogs? Also, what benefits have you seen from being involved in the group blog—is it something you would recommend to other writers who have an opportunity to be involved in one?
 

I really don’t know about the state of blogging in general, but I can say that good blogs build community, and that’s why we first formed Beyond the Margins: To have an excuse to come together for daily essays on the craft and business of publishing, but also to celebrate the writing of others. We call it a literary magazine run amok, and it’s been great fun as well as a good platform for our writing, but it’s also been an important source of networking. The relationships we’ve formed through the blog over the past three years have been invaluable — with fellow writers, published and not-yet published, editors, agents and editors.


In addition to Beyond the Margins, you also have a personal blog, a very successful freelance writing career, and now a very successful novel. Oh, and you have five kids too. Impressive. Do you write at home? Can you tell me a little about how do you juggle all your commitments? Are you a planner or a pantser (in life and in writing)?

I’m afraid I’m doing more pantsing than planning — or should I say I plan just elaborately enough to let me pants it where I can. I have the kids’ schedules on two electronic organizers and a wall calendar, and when I sit down to write (usually at my coffeeshop or library). I do plan in advance what I’m going to be working on because I’m so thrilled for the babysitting time that I don’t want to fritter it away in warm-up exercises the whole time to figure out what I’d like to say.

But regardless of what I’ve planned or outlined, when I write, I depart from it liberally. A manuscript, like a big family, can be an unruly thing and you have to work with what comes along.

Nichole Bernier is author of the novel THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D, a finalist for the New England Independent Booksellers Association fiction award, and has written for magazines including Elle, Self, Health, and Men’s Journal. AContributing Editor for Conde Nast Traveler for 14 years, she was previously on staff as the magazine’s golf and ski editor, columnist, and television spokesperson. She is a founder of the literary blog Beyond theMargins, and lives outside of Boston with her husband and five children. She can be found online at nicholebernier.com and on Twitter @nicholebernier.

Comments

  1. Like you and Nichole, I find there is so much to explore about female friendships. This topic figures very heavily in my WIP also. It’s interesting to pull back the corner of these friendships that define our lives.

    Wonderful interview, Julia. You always ask the questions I’m thinking. Also, I love the book cover! It’s so inviting.

    Wishing you lots of success, Nichole, with your book.

    • Thank you, Jacquelin. As you say, pulling back the cover doesn’t always show the expected. It’s a credit to my editors that they let the portrait about friendship, motherhood and marriage stand, without putting a red ribbon on it. Best of luck with your WIP!

  2. This novel is creating quite the buzz! I’m reading about it everywhere. It sounds intriguing to me. Having moved around a lot when my husband was in the military I had many friendships with other women that occurred spontaneously by simply being in the same place at the same time, and neither of us having anyone else we knew where we were. It created a kind of artificial urgency and permission to open up that doesn’t exist outside those conditions.

    “But regardless of what I’ve planned or outlined, when I write, I depart from it liberally. A manuscript, like a big family, can be an unruly thing and you have to work with what comes along.” So true, Nicole!

    • Sometimes I think of parenthood in a big family as riding the top of the wave, trying not to lose your rhythm and get pulled under. It’s a constantly shifting thing, and you have to be able to adjust —changing course isn’t a bad thing, you just have to be nimble. Sort of like moving around a lot, isn’t it? It’s been applicable to a lot of things…probably one of the better on-the-job trainings I’ve gotten in life.

  3. This is definitely on my TBR list. I love the idea of getting to know a friend after she is gone. I think it’s true that we really don’t know each other as well as we think we do and I’m also reminded to appreciate my friends since the future is promised to no one.

    • CMSmith says:

      I love Nichole’s answer to your first question. I was in a “Playgroup” for years when our children were young. Coffee and donuts on Friday. The four of us lost contact during later chil-raising years, but have since reconnected for dinner once a month. Many of my views are polar opposites from theirs, and sometimes I wonder why I stick with it. But I do.

    • Sad but true. I’ve come to feel the same is true of ourselves. After we’re gone, how will we be remembered, and is this the way we really want others to know us?

  4. Great interview questions, Julia, and responses, Nichole. Given that I have just finished reading Elizabeth D., I can attest to the story’s authenticity regarding friendship and marriage relationships. Well done (no easy feat, either)! Your writing, Nichole, is so fluid and beautiful. I’m very sorry for the loss of your friend during 9/11, and hope that the writing of this story – although not about her specifically – has helped in your healing.

    I LOVE books that contain letters, journals, so yours was an easy pick; handwritten artifacts seem to add another level of depth to characters, don’t you think? Thanks for taking us along on this journey, Nichole. (P.S. Also loved your response about blogging and the wonderful connections/networking opportunities made as a result).

    • Thanks so much, Melissa. Yes, I have a soft spot for private writing, especially in this world of blogs (nothing against blogs!). But journals are the self writing to the self, processing the big questions and decisions, essentially asking, What would the wisest person I know counsel me on this? And then finding the answer inside.

  5. I have seen this novel around (and it’s on my TBR list), but I never knew that Nichole’s loss of her dear friend on September 11 was the basis of the plot. This causes me to think about what my own life would look like if I suddenly had to leave it and who would be the one to go through my things. What astounding questions that we should all ask ourselves. Can’t wait to read this, and thank you for sharing, Nichole and Julia!

    • It is a bit of a wake-up call, isn’t it? What’s the state of my life right now if it had to be left and assessed as it stands? My novel really had nothing at all to do with my friend, but it was cathartic to consider where we stand with the people in our life, the private self vs the public self. Thanks for having it on your TBR, Jolina!

  6. Erika Marks says:

    Such tender, telling thoughts on a beautiful book. (I already have my copy!) I was compelled by this novel at once–it’s premise grips you from the outset.

    What a remarkable journey for you as writer and friend, Nichole. All our writing is deeply personal, but this story must have been even more so for you, and certainly for your family. Thank you for sharing with all of us.

  7. Becky Sain says:

    Is it wrong to try to win a copy on two different sites? I’m, uh… I’m asking for a friend. 😉

  8. DrieCulturen says:

    Julia thank you for this nice interview. Nicole thank you for being an inspiring woman. I love reading about women who achieve their goals: like writing a novel, having a family, writing a blog and lots more. It sounds like I want to read this book because of what you said about the different identities women have.

    • The nice thing about having a specific goal, any kind of goal, is that it forces you to consider the other ways you’re consuming your time. Which is sort of a blessing along with a challenge, isn’t it?

  9. Barb Riley says:

    Oh, I’m so glad I came over here to read this interview. Nichole’s book had gotten lost within my TBR pile, and I’d nearly forgotten about it. But… I just pulled it out and am going to start reading it tonight ( I already own a copy, too).

    Very cool how something totally fictional (the loft reading room) was something that felt so real to Julia. I swear, some of the most authentic scene locations of my WIP are the ones written from the figments of my imagination. Lovely interview. Thanks Julia and Nichole.

    • Imagination is such a gift, isn’t it? Has a way of pulling out something we didn’t even know was so real to us, and making it tangible. I really do want that loft now. :-)

  10. I love the book cover. I was already hooked with seeing the cover and the title of the novel. And then your interview questions were really excellent, Julia. Nichole’s responses make me hope I’m the winner of the prize draw.

    Nichole, I was so sad to read about the loss of your friend. How healing it must be to write a novel based on your wonderings about how she would have liked to be presented. And (I hope) how freeing that you were able to do it through a fictional character. Friendship-wise, it sounds like a healing book for all women.

    I love the sound of the loft space where Kate would go to read her friend’s journals. I absolutely want one of those myself now, to journal in as well as for quiet reading time.

    ~ Milli

    • It was cathartic, Milli. Funny, because I always thought writing in a journal was the truest catharsis. But it wasn’t until I departed from the journal and went to fiction that I really felt the release. Thanks for the kind words about the book, and I hope you enjoy it.

  11. Emily says:

    Great interview!!! I”ve been hearing a lot about this book and I’m moving it towards the top of my “to read” list!
    THanks!

  12. Dindy Yokel says:

    Congrats Nichole and super interview Julia. “…person who is stranded in her own life…” resonates so. Just spent a gorgeous day with three very close friends whom I haven seen in four years as we have all been hither and yon but finally caught up. How we’ve aged but haven’t changed. Our roles among our clique are the same though a two of us have had radical life changes – two are still where they were but we are all trapped by our own DNA. Looking forward to reading The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D and adding to my Goodreads TBR shelf immediately.

    • You know what you might also really like? Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner. It’s a portrait of two couples — best friends — from their 20s into their 60s: their strengths and flaws, and how their traits become both more forgiving and more brittle as they age…. how over the years they simply become more essentially themselves, for better or for worse. It opens as someone’s dying, in their 60s, but you don’t know who or why. A lovely, lovely book about friendship and, as you say, being trapped by our own DNA.

  13. What a great interview Julia. I was enjoying getting to know Nichole and her story and then I read …”Oh, and you have five kids.” Holy cow. Even more impressive. Can’t wait to read Elizabeth’s unfinished work.

  14. A fantastic interview, Julia, with one of my favorite writer / friends. I love the questions you’ve asked, as well as Nichole’s answers. Like this: “A manuscript, like a big family, can be an unruly thing and you have to work with what comes along.” I love that. And, what a great recommendation for literary/group blogs. Thanks, Nichole!

    I own Nichole’s book (so no giveaway entry for me, please) and it is so moving and beautiful on many levels. A big congrats to you both.

  15. Love this interview, Julia! This really resonated with me: “where people intersect, and what common ground matters most at that moment in time, and where/why we draw the line at becoming closer, consciously or not.” I’ve thought about that a lot as I make new friends in a relatively new town, and run into old ones here as well. The dynamics are so different, and you can never predict who you’ll hit it off with.

    I just won Nichole’s book (no need to enter me) and I’m so excited to start reading!

    • Glad you enjoyed the interview, Natalia! (And congrats for already winning the book — nice!) I completely agree with you when you say “you can never predict who you’ll hit it off with.” Definitely my experience with friendship, too!

  16. Nina Badzin says:

    Already own the book but wanted to say how exciting it’s been to watch Nichole’s book soar. She’s a champion for other writers and we are all champions of hers!

    Great interview, ladies.

  17. I’m really looking forward to reading this book. Like Natalia above, I was struck by the idea of people coming together who wouldn’t think they have much in common otherwise. I think that’s probably a pretty good lesson for us all–that if we can get off our preconceived ideas about who belongs in which category, we could all get along pretty well. That certainly resonates in my experience as a parent of a child with Down syndrome. I’ve gotten to know parents I would never have run into otherwise, because our circles are so different. And we love each other and lift each other up.

    I also sympathize with not wanting to waste babysitting time! I have four kids and freelance, and I’m in awe that Nichole managed to get a novel published, too! That’s still on my list….

  18. Great interview! Sounds like a fascinating read. Thanks for introducing us all! 😀

  19. Demitria says:

    Awesome interview! Definitely going to check out her book.

    New follower….

    http://demitrialunetta.blogspot.com