Interview with Nichole Bernier, author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D

I’m always fascinated by authors who find the time to write and publish their work, even when they clearly have a very full life in addition to that of writer. Nichole Bernier is author of the novel The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D, and has written for magazines including Elle, Self, Health, and Men’s Journal. She wrote for Conde Nast for 14 years, is a founder of the literary blog Beyond the Margins and has taught at Grub Street , the second largest creative writing center in the US, in Boston. As if this weren’t enough, she has five children and a husband.  She’s a staunch supporter of independent bookstores and local writers near her Massachusetts home, something I heartily endorse. She was kind enough to give me an interview recently, telling me what made her write this particular novel, when she first started writing (7th grade!) how she moved from magazine writing to novel writing, and how she has published and promoted the book. You can find and follow her on Twitter and Facebook. Read the full interview below, while I go buy a copy and start reading…
GC: Tell us something about your novel.
NB: The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D is about a woman who inherits the journals of a friend, and realizes she didn’t know her friend as well as she thought, including where she was really going when 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 wrote about 2002 because that year was such a fascinating time. It was both terrifying and numbing to watch CNN because you never knew what you might hear; I think many people felt for a while that anything was not only possible, but likely. Most of us moved on from that paralyzing fear, but it was fascinating to me to create a character who became quietly obsessed with protecting her family from so many unknowns, and could not move on.
GC: At what age did you first start writing?
NB: I remember really writing with intention in 7th grade. An English teacher gave us a year-long assignment to keep a journal, and I never really stopped. Over the years it became a place where I processed thoughts and explored writing styles. And yes, this is a plug for the value and lasting impact of teachers.
GC: You have a background in journalism, so what inspired you to write a novel?
NB: 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. It didn’t occur to me that that would be anything more than a bit in my journal, but that sequence became the beginning of chapter three, and it’s never changed.
GC: How long did it take from first word to final publication?
NB: Six years.
GC: Can you tell us about the process of getting the novel published? How did you come to be published by Crown?
NB: For two years I wrote nights and weekends, and when it was clear this odd bit of writing wasn’t going away, I started siphoning off hours from my babysitter time meant for freelance magazine work. As I got close to finishing the first draft, I found I really loved studying the business side of fiction and querying, which I found fascinating and altogether different than magazines.
But my big rookie error was in querying immediately after I finished the first draft. My mental timeline was still that of a 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 rejections in the end.
So I threw myself into revisions. I developed a writing community. I revised for a year and a half. When I felt ready to query again I received three offers of representation, for which I was endlessly appreciative, and I felt a strong connection to 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 necessary steps and hard work.
GC: I understand your book is available as an eBook. Current wisdom (and I realize this applies largely to genre fiction) suggests that the best way to build readership is to have a steady stream of books available once you’ve hooked your readers. Are you planning another, and if so, how soon do you expect to have it out there?
 NB: I am on fire with two ideas, and can’t wait to start ripping into one that I’ve already outlined. But after all these years writing and revising, I feel strongly that I owe Elizabeth D the time to focus on promoting it, reading from it, meeting people and talking about why this story means so much to me. I think I’m a one-book-at-a-time kind of person, especially since my family consumes so much of my non-writing time. But the next book won’t be long off. I love writing fiction.
GC: How did you manage to get the great ‘advance praise’ comments for the book? Did you know these writers already, or did Crown organize that part of it?
NB: They were people I’d already admired and had come to know. Jenna Blum, Randy Susan Meyers, Robin Black, Courtney Sullivan, Vanessa Diffenbaugh, Dani Shapiro… I was very fortunate and grateful to have their early support.
GC: How much of the promotion of the book do you have to do yourself these days?
NB: I think it probably depends on the author, but I’m a fairly hands-on person, so I initiated a lot of the tour schedule, and my publicists and fantastic marketing team at Crown ran with it, booking television, newspapers and radio, and helping me get into independent bookstores I respected tremendously. There’s no doubt an author has to do a lot of the legwork. But I love seeing Random House appreciate it, and back it up.

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