The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D by Nichole Bernier
I met Nichole Bernier years ago, when we were both living in the D.C. suburbs, writing for magazines, and starting families. I immediately admired her prose - the first piece of hers that I read was a terrific one about house-hunting in our area during a particularly frenzied time in real-estate - and since then, I've followed her on Twitter and Facebook, awed by how she manages to combine motherhood, writing, saving abandoned kittens and exercising (I'm pretty sure she has a secret identical twin). Nichole's debut novel, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D, was released last week to high praise from publications ranging from Vogue to Parade magazine -and it has already gone back for a second printing!
Here's a description of Nichole's book: 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.
I'm thrilled to welcome Nichole today to talk about how she became a writer, and I hope everyone enjoys her debut. - Sarah Pekkanen
The Day I Started Writing
By Nichole Bernier
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 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 a woman inherited the journals of a friend, and realized she didn’t know her friend as well as she thought? What if that included where she was really going when she died? Once I started seeing the what-ifs behind the whats, I couldn’t unsee them.
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.
Nichole Bernier is author of the novel The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. (Crown/Random House, June 5, 2012). She has written for magazines including Conde Nast Traveler, ELLE, Health, Men’s Journal, and Child, and is a founder of the literary blog Beyond the Margins (http://www.beyondthemargins.com). She lives outside of Boston with husband and five children, and is at work on her second novel. She can be found at http://www.nicholebernier.com, and on Twitter @nicholebernier.