Nichole Bernier's debut novel, "The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.," is a novel about secrets and choices and fear. You never meet the character in the title--Elizabeth D. has died in a plane crash before the book opens. But her life, and her story, form the heart of the novel. Elizabeth willed a small trunk full of her journals to her friend Kate, who reads them throughout the summer and grows to understand that Elizabeth was not the person she had thought. The journals are filled with secrets and revelations about Elizabeth's life, marriage and career. And the last journal answers the question of where she was really going when that plane went down.
Bernier will be at Common Good Books at 7 p.m. next Wednesday (July 25). Here, she answers our ten questions, plus a few extras just for her:
Q: Was there something that prompted this story for you---secret diaries you had access to? Or your own diaries
A: I’ve kept a journal on and off since I was a teen, and I’ve always been fascinated with why, exactly, people do this crazy thing, putting private thoughts to paper, and what they think will become of them someday.
But the novel was inspired by the loss of a friend in the September 11th attacks, and the experience of fielding the media calls for her husband. It was a humbling experience, choosing the sound bites by which my friend would be remembered, and afterward I was haunted by the notion of legacy — how we will be remembered in this world, and whether it is the way we would have expected, or chosen.
The what-ifs that generated the novel spooled out from there. What if you inherited the journals of a friend, and learned you didn’t know your friend nearly as well as you thought, including where she was really going when she died? What type of tension might exist with the widower, who resents not being given his wife’s journals? How might you feel about why your friend didn’t confide in you — and how might that make you realize ways you weren’t 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.
Q: Describe your writing room.
A: I sort of wish I had a writing room, some serene window-walled space with a behemoth of an antique desk. But even if I did, I probably wouldn’t write there. Our house is never really quiet because we have five children, and though I don’t need quiet to write, I need the noise to be sounds I’m not emotionally invested in.
So I’ve become that cliché of the coffeeshop writer. I love the impersonal bustle that’s a bit like being part of an office, the juicy bits of conversation you overhear, and yes, the constant flow of coffee and inability to hop up and tweeze your eyebrows. When I need real quiet, I go to the library.
: I don’t really have regular rituals or schedules, mostly because a week in our family is a constantly changing thing. And I don’t have specific productivity goals because if I didn’t meet a daily word count, it’d only make me disappointed in myself. When I first started writing the novel I set a weekly goal of 2,000 words, which was realistic and allowed for daily trip-ups. Sometimes I exceeded it, but usually not.
The closest thing I have to regular strategy is that when I sit down to write, I know what I intend to tackle. That way when I stand up and stretch at the end, whatever else happens along the way, I’m not frustrated that I’ve frittered away time figuring out what to write.
Q: How do you get past writers’ block (or the distraction of the Internet)?
A: Thankfully, I haven’t had much trouble with that. There’s nothing like a house full of children to drive the procrastination right out of you. When I sit down to write, I’m usually so grateful for the sitter that I’ve been anticipating the writing session in detail.
A few times I’ve had to block myself from the internet to resist temptations, and I’ve found the program “Freedom” to work quite well. I think the most potent thing about it is the wonderful shaming effect it had, the knowledge that I’d had to pay a program even a small fee to wall off internet access.
Q: Do you have a favorite book from childhood?
A: I loved "Watership Down." Even today, I’m unable to see the rabbits in our yard as anything less than a fully evolved society carrying out their dramas underground.
Q: What books do you re-read?
A: "Crossing to Safety," by Wallace Stegner. It’s the story of two couples, their lifelong marriages and friendship, and takes a clear-eyed look at how our strengths and foibles become more forgiving and more brittle over the decades. It’s brilliant.
I also re-read "Goodnight Moon" and" Edwina The Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct," evening after evening.
Q: What’s on your desk?
A: For now, my desk is a big fat folding card table, at least until I find the old wooden desk I know is out there waiting. On top of my fancy card table is an old beat-up chestnut letterbox with three drawers for stationery. It isn’t very practical or space efficient, but I love it.
There’s a rustic macaroon tin holding my pens. Yesterday’s coffee. A small drawstring bag with shells from Martha’s Vineyard, and a worn rock from my jacket pocket that I carried into labor with my first child. And a letter from an 80-year-old man who wrote to tell me he is enjoying my book on The iTunes, he’s been married 58 years, and he likes bowling and Pickleball. I really need to find out what Pickleball is.
Q: Where are you right now? Describe what you see.
A: On my backyard steps, watching four of my five children play with waterguns. If the laptop gets wet no one gets dinner for a month.
Q: What are you reading right now?
A: "Salvage the Bones," by Jesmyn Ward. It’s an extraordinary story about motherless siblings struggling to survive poverty and just about every hardship imaginable during a hurricane in Mississippi.
Q: What’s been the best place so far to do a reading?
A: The public library in Darien, Connecticut. My sister lives in town, and the event organizer set up the auditorium like a set of Oprah or Ellen or someone, with my sister interviewing me about the themes of the book — motherhood and personal aspirations, marriage and friendship, authenticity and facades. It was a fantastic time. I love when an audience asks a lot of questions.
Q: What authors have inspired you?
A: Wallace Stegner, for his insights into human nature and relationships. Geraldine Brooks, Marilynne Robinson, Ann Patchett and Jennifer Haigh, for their ability to transport the reader with such eloquent storytelling. Anna Quindlen for her authentic voice that takes the personal to the political and back again. Ian McEwan, for dogged reporterly detail. Dani Shapiro, for her spiritual honesty that transcends the trendy. My friend Randy Susan Meyers, who published a fantastic first work of fiction at age 58, and is outspoken about the value of aging into your writing.
Q: “The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D” is about secrets, fears and trust. What was it that drew you to those fears?
A: There are several levels of fear and trust in the novel, but the most literal fear is the anxiety for your family’s safety in an unsafe world. I set my novel in the year following September 11th terrorist attacks because it was such a horribly fascinating time. Watching CNN in 2002, it felt as if anything could happen —anthrax and ebola unleashed, reservoirs poisoned, Mad Cow disease waiting in every hamburger. I think many people, myself included, felt for a while that anything was not only possible, but likely.
Most of us moved on from that paralyzing place, but it was fascinating to me to create a character who became quietly obsessed with the unknowns, and could not move on.