Culture Street

Our Book of the Week is the fabulous The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D by Nichole Bernier.

We are thrilled that Nichole Bernier agreed to be interviewed for the Culture Street community.

Journals are now being replaced by blogs. Elizabeth’s journal seems so much more personal than a blog. She reveals secrets that she would never have revealed online. Today, with so much personal information made public, were you deliberately trying to show that there is still a place for the secret, personal journal/diary?

Initially, I thought of journals as a way to give voice to someone who was no longer living, and provide a source of strength to someone left behind, struggling in a world that felt dangerously arbitrary. I wove the two women’s storylines to show how they might have had some of the same experiences but perceived them differently—to show the way the friends connect but also pass one another by. 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. 

The evolution of blogs has always been interesting to me. I kept one for decades, and it was 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 longtime love that was not healthy, and later, whether I should gamble everything for one that was.

There’s such a difference between journals and blogs. In journals, people are working through questions looking for comfort and insight, essentially asking themselves, What would the wisest person I know advise me on this? It’s a conversation with the best part of oneself. Blogs can be many things — entertaining, poignant, cathartic. But even with the most sincere of intentions, blogs are crafted with the consciousness of another reader. It’s the difference between a candid photo and a portrait. Not much in our world is truly private anymore, which makes journals all the more rare.

Why did you set your novel in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks?

Setting a debut novel in the year following the September 11th attacks was actually a bit controversial, something I hadn’t anticipated; some agents and editors felt that was still off-limits, too sensitive. I considered changing it, but it was an important part of the story I wanted to tell. That was an extraordinary time when it felt as if the range of threats — anthrax, mad cow disease, poisoned reservoirs — were not only possible, but likely. I was a new mother that year, and I think many of us had the impulse to grab our loved ones and run. But we didn’t know where to go, or from what. Most of us moved on from that place of paralysis. But it was fascinating to me to create a character who could not: someone who was confident and competent, but felt the strain of keeping a family safe when no one knew where safe was.

One of the central themes of your book is friendship. You pose the question: how well do we know our friends?  Do you feel, in our fast paced world, that friendships have become superficial?

That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? We might think we know our friends well and think we take the time for them, but there are small things everyone holds close. I suppose the difference between a superficial friendship and a substantial one comes down to whether those bits we hold back are small, or not so small.

So many of us hold it closer to the vest than we need to, assuming we’ll be misunderstood or that people don’t care to get involved. It’s time consuming, especially when people are busy caring for families. But the most useful thing we can do as friends is listen for hints and dare to ask questions, help someone crack open the door.

One of my favorite sayings — and one I gave to my character Kate to show her hidden sensitivity under the brusqueness — is, “You never know.” Because there’s no knowing why people do the things they do, or what kind of unseen things they’re struggling with.

Your book was selected as one of the most anticipated debuts of 2012. Was this thrilling or terrifying?

If I had known this when I was writing the book, the pressure would have been daunting. During the writing and editing process there was the constant questioning of wondering whether I was really writing a first novel that would represent the writer I wanted to be, and to become. But the process of finding a literary agent and then an editor and publishing house is reassuring, proof that someone who is a professional—and  unlike your husband and parents have no vested interest in making you happy—likes your work.

Releasing the book has been so much better than I even imagined. Years of writing and editing the novel while raising five children felt so schizophrenic. Now that it’s out and I’m talking about it with bookstores and bookclubs, there’s a sense of settling into myself, of being in my groove, with the parts of myself coming into alignment.

You are one of the founders of Beyond the Margins, a blog about writing and publishing. What was the inspiration behind setting this up?

This has been such fun. Three years ago a dozen of us writers who’d met in and around the literary circles of Boston 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 intermittent feature that grew out of our passion and fear for independent bookstores, have become an endangered species. We also maintain an active Twitter feed, @BTMargins, to share news, essays and jobs in the writing world.

The opportunities of the internet, blogs and twitter cannot be overstated. Someone like me, essentially a kitchen and minivan jockey, can use her kitchen laptop as a bullhorn to develop relationships with all kinds of writers and professionals in the publishing world. All it takes is a bit of time management and a sense of humour.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

If you feel compelled to do a creative thing, do it. It doesn’t matter how many people say you can’t do it. It doesn’t matter if you can’t sell it or survive on it. Find the thing that makes you feel most yourself, then make sure you fit that into your life — get it in there somewhere alongside the paying job and the laundry and exercise and flossing. Triage your activities, and let the unnecessary things fall away.

And then there’s the exhausting and unsexy advice that you have to work at it, work past where it seems reasonable and justifiable. Work beyond the point where all the civilians in your life are saying, “Surely this must be finished by now, you just don’t know when to let it go.”

Practical advice: You have to make your writing the absolute best it can be, and then find a handful of like-minded writers who will help you push it further. Any writing that’s too easily done just doesn’t represent the best you can do. And even if it’s technically publishable, you don’t want your first published work — the thing that first establishes your literary reputation — to represent something shy of your best.

When you’re ready to send it out into the world, do your homework. It’s so easy now to learn about agents and editors and the query process with all the resources online. On Twitter, for example, you’re hearing query preferences and pet peeves right from the horse’s mouth.

Network on social media. Write essays, articles, blogs, clever email, anything that’s a limbering-up exercise to keep your thinking process sharp and your creativity going and your voice out there. Then get thick skin and be persistent and find a way to keep up your stamina through the rejections. You’re not rejected until you’re rejected a LOT. There are as many reasons for rejection as there are Eskimo names for snow. You just have to find that one agent and editor with whom your story resonates, and who can bring it out to the world.

This week, on Culture Street, you could win one of five copies of The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D by Nichole Bernier


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