May 10, 2012

Nichole Bernier

The secrets we keep
Interview by
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In her debut novel—voted by BookPage readers as their most anticipated book of 2012—Nichole Bernier has written the story of a friendship full of twists, turns and heartache. We asked Bernier a few questions about the book's origin, her life as a mother of five, and her book's place in the literary canon—and got the scoop on where she's going next.

This is your first novel. Can you tell us a little about your publication story?
I’d been a magazine writer for a decade, and though I love reading fiction, I’d never had an urge to write it. But after I lost a friend in the September 11th terrorist attacks, there were things I couldn’t work through in my regular ways of writing. One day in early 2005, shortly after the birth of my third child, I wrote a dream sequence about a woman imagining her friend’s last moments. That sequence became the beginning of chapter three, and it’s never changed.

My big rookie error was in querying immediately after I finished my first draft. My mental timeline was still that of a magazine freelancer: finish, publish, paycheck. I wasn’t used improving something slowly and tortuously with no one in the world even waiting for it. We’d just moved to Boston and I was expecting my fourth child, and eager to cross “Get Agent” off my to-do list. There were some requests for partials and fulls, all leading to rejection.

I put the manuscript aside and fell into the rhythm of life with a newborn, not quite knowing what to do next. A few months passed. Then I received a three-page, thoughtful rejection letter from a well-known agent. Even as a rookie, I recognized this as more of a blessing than a rejection, and threw myself into revisions. When I felt ready to query again, I received three offers of representation, and chose agent Julie Barer.

Julie worked with me for a year, urging me to streamline my story and weave more closely the timelines of my two main characters. After she sold it to Crown, the trajectory of the process suddenly made sense, all the steps and hard work, as if I were viewing it as a whole from a space satellite. 

It was tremendously satisfying to explore that juxtaposition of the faces we show the world and those we hold close.         

Kate is responsible for deciding what to do with her recently deceased friend Elizabeth’s trunk of journals. How did this idea of bestowing journals (via a will) come to you?
I’ve always kept a journal, and been fascinated with why, exactly, people do this crazy thing, put private thoughts to paper. What happens if you’re hit by a truck tomorrow? Were you really writing for your own reflection and catharsis, or were you having your say? Years ago for peace of mind I wrote an informal note in my will designating a trustee for my journals, even if it simply meant identifying someone to destroy them.

The what-ifs that generated the novel spooled out from there: what if you inherited the journals of a friend without clear direction what to do with them, and learned you didn’t know your friend nearly as well as you thought, including where she was really going when she died? How might you feel about why she didn’t confide in you, and how might that make you realize ways you were not candid with loved ones, yourself? It was tremendously satisfying to explore that juxtaposition of the faces we show the world and those we hold close, our private ambitions and fears, and what it costs us in the end.

Reading through Elizabeth’s journals, Kate suddenly sees their entire friendship in a different light. Would you read your best friend’s journal, if you had the chance?
No. People have their reasons for what they reveal and what they do not, and I would never want to force that exposure. But many people hold things closer than they in fact need to, assuming they’ll be misunderstood or that people don’t care to get involved. The most useful thing we can do as friends is listen for hints and dare to ask questions, help someone crack open the door. Signal receptiveness, and that we care.

Kate is terribly preoccupied with 9/11 and has a lot of fears/neuroses in its aftermath. Her husband doesn’t really understand this. Do you find yourself sympathizing with Kate, or are you more of the mindset of her husband Chris, who feels we should live each day as if it were our last?
In 2002, it felt as if anything could happen—reservoirs poisoned, Ebola unleashed, that you could wake up and the sky would be magenta. I think most people, myself included, felt for a while these things were not only possible, but probable. Most of us moved on from that paralyzing fear, but it was fascinating to me to create the profile of a person who was a confident and rational person, but became obsessed with protecting her family, and could not move on.

A big part of your novel concerns Elizabeth and Kate’s struggle as working mothers. As a mother of five, how do you manage both raising your kids and finding time to write?
Before I started my novel, my third child was six months old, and I was a fairly multifaceted person. When I became truly serious about my novel, most of my hobbies went down the tubes. It’s amazing how being a busy parent has the laser-like ability to triage what’s really important to you. I have an unscientific theory that if you are an involved parent, regardless of how many children you have, you get about three things to call your own. And the only other things that have remained for me are being involved in my kids’ schools and a base level of exercise, which went from running (reluctant, frenetic) to yoga (strengthening and calming). More than anything else, though, it was critical to have a supportive spouse who’d give me the hours and sometimes days away to really immerse myself in tough sections of writing and revision.

You write on your website, “before there were blogs, there were journals. And in them we’d write as we really were, not as we wanted to appear.” Do you find yourself tailoring your thoughts/emotions when you write somewhere like Twitter, since it’s so much more exposed?
Yes and no. Social media is wonderful in the same triage way that parenting is: it forces you to pick what you want to be known for. In the same way I wouldn’t want to say anything in front of my family that wasn’t sincere or kind, I don’t want that part of my permanent online record. But for social media to be fun and effective for me, I need to be authentic, and sometimes that means being exhausted and irreverent about raising five children. But everyone deals with unruly kids, so even in “authentic” I aim for a value-added, something to lift it above a mundane rant: humor, insight, a different way of seeing things.

One of my favorite parts of the book reads, “it was a gift, solitude. But solitude with another person—that was an art.” Do you think it’s fully possible to share solitude with another person? How do you manage the time to find—and create—that?
That’s the million-dollar question for relationships, I think. If you can be quiet in another person’s company and engaged in your own engrossing activity, with no discomfort or distraction or envy, it’s priceless. But it’s hard. There’s a lot of bustle that has to get done in the downtimes, and even when you go quiet, there are some things that are just difficult to do in the presence of someone else. I can’t write in a room where the TV is on, which is how my husband likes to work at night, but sometimes I join him to do other reading and computer work. I think it’s a matter of finding the common ground, the common setting, choosing where and when you can find that togetherness.

You have already been compared to other successful authors in the “educated women’s lit” group, such as J. Courtney Sullivan and Meg Wolitzer. How would you define educated women’s literature?
I think that phrase first came out of Carolyn See’s review of Nancy Munro’s New World Monkeys. I took it to mean readers who want to be challenged by what they read, be willing to go along with characters who might rub you the wrong way, but you still find them, their voice and their issues and circumstances, fascinating. Unlikeable characters are a hot button in the book world because for some they are riveting, drawn in a train-wreck way that grabs your investment, while others are turned off if they cannot identify with a character. It’s a bit of an excursion and an education, reading beyond your own experience and beyond your comfort zone.

You are one of the creators of the popular literary blog Beyond the Margins. Can you tell us a little about how that came about?

This has been such fun. We were a dozen writers who’d met in the literary circles around Boston, and two years ago decided to create a vehicle for daily essays on the craft and business of publishing. It started as a platform for our writing, as many of us were in the chute toward getting agents and novels sold. But it developed into an online literary magazine run amok—a place to showcase the writing of great guest authors, celebrate and promote other authors’ releases, and yes, interact with agents and editors.

We run fun monthly features such as The Page Turner—booksellers writing about their favorite lesser-known books—and Out Of My Comfort Zone, authors describing a recent bit of research or writing that made them distinctly uneasy. Save the Bookstore Day is a monthly feature that grew out of our passion and fear for independent bookstores, which seem to be dropping like flies. We also maintain an active Twitter feed, @BTMargins, to share news, essays and jobs in the writing world.

What are you working on next?
I’ve become somewhat obsessed with an eerie island, a fascinating and disturbing place that spans three distinct phases of history. The ruins are vivid, and haunting. It’s off-limits to the public, but I had the good fortune to spend a day there shadowing the Park Service. I’m at the point now where I’m fleshing out the story, and trying not to let the nightmares keep me awake at night.

Read our review of The Unfinished Life of Elizabeth D.

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