Writer Mother interviews: Nichole Bernier

Nichole Bernier is a freelance writer based in Boston, and the author of the novel The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D, to be published by Crown/Random House in early 2012. She has been a contributing editor with Condé Nast Traveler magazine for 12 years, and has written for magazines including Elle, Self, Health, Men’s Journal, Child, Boston, American Way and This Old House. Her family lives west of Boston, and she can be found on Twitter at @nicholebernier.

How many children do you have Nichole and what age range?

We have five children, four boys and a girl: 10, 8, 5, 3, and 21 months.

When did you start writing? Had you established a writing rhythm or career before or did it happen alongside the kids?

In a way, it was both. I’d been a magazine writer and editor for years, then went freelance after I left New York and got married. Shortly after my third child was born, the monthly column I’d been doing for years as a contributing editor was discontinued to make room for a new feature. I was disappointed, but also knew I’d been coasting unchallenged for some time, and that I should try something new. A flyer came in the mail for fiction classes at a local writing center, and I had an Aha moment. I started a sample chapter based on an idea that had been haunting me since the terrorist attacks of 2001, and I just never stopped. I took the babysitting time and evenings I’d been devoting to my freelance articles, and gave half over to the novel. It was a leap of faith, but also a growing obsession.

What impact has having children had on your writing career?

One big change is that I used to travel for magazine articles, and that doesn’t happen as often or as easily. Another is that I don’t have a desire to be on staff any longer; I like the flexibility and independence of working for myself. But the downside of that flexibility is that you usually aren’t writing when an idea actually strikes you, so you have to find creative ways to save your thoughts. Being a mother has made me a lot more disciplined, because you have to take advantage of writing time when it comes, and I can’t procrastinate deadlines until the last minute, because you never know what might get in the way. All-nighters aren’t a viable option anymore. Oddly, I’m hungrier about my writing and more ambitious than I’ve ever been, which is a funny thing in the thick of the little-kid years, not what I expected to feel.

How do you organise your writing time and space, how do you work your day, do you have a routine or is it more ad hoc?

Flexibility is the only thing that’s fixed. I have a beloved sitter three afternoons a week, but that time also goes toward doctor’s appointments, activities and carpooling, and the occasional freelance article.

I don’t really have a dedicated writing space. I used to write at home, but I now that there isn’t a young infant in the house I don’t feel I have to be on premises, and I usually go to the library or coffee shop. The generic noises there are less distracting than the sounds of my own home, probably because I’m not emotionally invested in them. There’s also something about being part of the hum of the world that I like when I’m writing. When it’s too much, I go to the library.

Is it possible to maintain a balance on a daily basis or do you find yourself readjusting focus from work to family over a longer time span depending on your projects?

It’s always in flux, depending on where I am in my manuscript (waiting for comments from my writer’s group, agent or editor) and in the family schedule (holidays and birthdays). If I’m in an intense phase of revisions, my husband occasionally takes over solo duty with the kids for a weekend and I slip away somewhere to work. That’s a completely different writing experience, a timeless place, totally indulgent.

How do the children react to your writing or the time you spend on it?

They are very supportive. The older three get it, to varying degrees, that I’ve written something that will be in bookstores next year. What’s real and exciting for them is the extent to which they’ve become involved in the writing life, and meeting writers. I belong to the literary blog Beyond the Margins, started by a dozen of us in Boston a year ago, and we have monthly meetings at my house. The kids look forward to these meetings, as well as book parties and readings we host sometimes. It’s personal for them, the people behind the author photos. Being a writer isn’t just a vague concept.

What do you find most challenging in juggling your role as a mother and writer practically, emotionally, and mentally?

In practical terms, it meant years of giving over babysitting time to something that may or may not pay off financially. That was a hard adjustment after 15 years as a paycheck writer.

In mental terms, it means finding the discipline to work when you have the time. The faucet has to go on and off based on the family schedule, not the ebb and flow of your ideas or mood.

Emotionally, it’s meant sometimes curbing the inner toddler that wants to throw a foot-stomping tantrum about not being able to write as much as some other writers do. Spending all day on revisions, or traveling for conferences or retreats—those aren’t things that happen easily with family life. That’s when I have to go back to square one and remind myself how lucky I am to know what it is I love to do and pursue it, because many people never do.

Your book The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D will be published next year by Crown/Random House and you’ve had a healthy career along the way, how did this come about for you?

There are happy successes and milestones in magazine writing—things like awards and promotions—but they were different from the relief and euphoria of getting an agent and selling a book. Writing the novel was like going into a long dark tunnel, isolating and with little feedback. After four years I got an agent, and a year after that we sold the book — those were huge, after so much time invested. But getting an extremely thoughtful three-page rejection letter from an agent who called it a “near miss” felt like a breakthrough, too. In writing you have to take encouragement where you can, and recognize incremental victories.

 Do you think women face particular challenges in career/family life balance or is it something that both men and women face in equal measure?

That’s a hard question. I think the struggles of balancing family life are felt by both men and women who share homefront responsibilities in a significant way, and I know men who write at home while doing the school bus meet-and-greet thing. Writing fiction isn’t terribly lucrative for most people, and when you have family responsibilities, it can be hard enough to justify time away from the family for writing, and then there’s the uncertainty and guilt of not knowing whether it will even sell. At least I felt that way. Others might be better at valuing it as an avocation whether or not it leads to publication.

Something has to give when wearing many hats, what is it for you?

You have to pick and choose the way you spend your time. I have a theory I call Three Things. Once you have kids, you can pick maybe three-ish things that get to be yours and yours alone. If you work outside the home, that’s one big thing. If you exercise regularly, that’s another. If you knit or belong to a book club or hold a board position at the kids’ school or adore reality TV, there you go.

After I had my fifth child, exercise went out the window. I used to be a regular runner, but I no longer made it enough of a priority. I could whine about it and say there aren’t enough hours in the day. But in the end it’s about choices, and if there’s something I’m not making time for, I have to be honest with myself about what else I’m doing.

What suggestions do you have for mothers or indeed parents who want to write or further a writing career?

You have to make your writing the absolute best it can be, and find folks who will help you get it there. Find a handful of like-minded writers who will be supportive and honest. Then revise, revise, revise.

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. But don’t let that become so time consuming that it usurps the actual writing you want to see published.

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.

Thanks Nichole for a really insightful, pragmatic and very inspiring interview. What you have achieved is amazing and I wish you tremendous success with your book which sounds enthralling. I can’t wait to read it. If you want to find out more about Nichole read her blog.
Nichole is also involved in the excellent literary blog Beyond the Margins, I highly recommend it for original and clever articles.

If you liked this interview, read more of the series here


In this week’s flash there is a guest appearance of the café from Lethargy

‘I love you’ said the man at the book signing.

He was one of the last. The shop was closing. The staff were starting to turn off the lights. She was sitting in the glow of a table lamp with her latest novel in stacks around her. There had been a respectable turn out, her nerves had faded once she’d seen a queue of several.

‘I’ve read all your books’ he said. ‘I feel I know you.’

‘That’s nice’ she said. ‘Who will I write it for?’

‘For me’, he said. ‘For Tom.’

He loved her. He must mean her work. ‘I just love you, you’re brilliant,’ they’d gushed earlier.

He stood aside momentarily. He let the last two ladies with their plastic shopping bags hand over their books and ask for a personalised message.

She was distracted; she had to ask them twice what she should write. She was aware of the man at her shoulder, his presence in the dark, rubbing out the edges of her on that side, melding her with his shadow.

She wasn’t afraid. She stood up to get her things, the back of her neck felt vulnerable, virginal but the air was still warm from the press of people. The sensation she felt was from the inside, not from air.

He came forward, lit up. ‘The things you say’ he said. ‘I know what you mean.’

‘It’s fiction’ she said, looking at her bag as she rummaged for her keys.

‘Never do anything to alienate your readers’ her publisher had told her. ‘Be courteous, friendly and uncontroversial – try and hide your frown lines.’

‘It’s fict…’ she repeated, more softly, looking at him. But she saw in his eyes. He knew. She had always been better at atmosphere than plot but she thought it had been enough to distract them; the narrative was the shiny neon light guiding them to the playhouse. They weren’t meant to look too closely at the subtext, duck into the alleyway or the authentic cookhouse on route, or some red light backstage dressing room where she sat half-undressed in front of a mirror, all shallow breath and heaving breasts, rouge, heart on sleeve.  I solemnly decline to let you read between the lines.

She thought he would kiss her, he came so close but he thunked closed the book and made for the door. She chatted with the bookshop manager, thanked everyone and stepped into the street, black, damp, quiet.

Her car was parked just down the now empty city centre thoroughfare. As she walked water, under the tyres of a moving vehicle whished like shorebound waves.

He was sitting in the café window. She recognised the shape of him without truly seeing. The glare from the café flared in her face, like a blush. There was the quickening of her footbeat heartbeat footbeat. The light subsided, dropped. There was a gap between the buildings, all dark, wet on the inside, up the walls. The next building was shut up, gloomy. She saw her car alone on the street.

He was not the only one in the café. There was a couple holding hands, tightly, in anticipation of separation. The owner was staring into space. He had a moustache and a head of black, oily hair, flat on top. He looked like he’d just slid out from under a car. He was sweating, wiping his hands with a cloth. He wasn’t staring into space. He was looking at his own reflection in the café window, against the night. He was seeing what he had come to after all these years. He didn’t sigh.

She sat down across from him. Behind his head were plumes of smoke. A heavily jowled woman puffed and coughed in the corner. She had a chin mole. She was out of a fairytale. She was eating the gingerbread. She rummaged in a canvas bag and took out an apple, green on one side, red on the other. She plonked it on the table and continued to rummage. She looked at the owner. His lip quivered slightly.

The author looked at Tom. She wasn’t sure of the name yet. The oil cloth was greasy but someone had put forget-me-nots in glass vases on each of the tables. He began to tell her how he had come across her books, which one he had liked best but in the end she took his hand and they held on tight, in anticipation of separation. After a while they went out, he kept holding her hand up the steps to his flat.

He wanted to meet her, tomorrow, again and again. He said they had so much in common, so much to talk about. He said this while he traced a line from her fingertips, along her arm, across her shoulder and neck, up to her cheek over which he laid his warm palm. She rolled against him with familiarity. They lay along the length of each other, restful, as if they had always done. But they didn’t talk then. They played music instead which they made love to, then didn’t, just listened, the notes playing in and around their heads, all joy, and then he kissed her and it all began again.

Later his eyes tired from the fill of her and his eyelashes dipped.

She slipped from the bed while he dreamed of them walking in parks, watching movies, buying mince.

She was naked but warm and she saw the bookcases and cd racks with the books, not only hers but other authors she loved, music she was into. She looked into his wardrobe where he hung his clothes with the same sort of absentmindedness as her own. She took out a shirt and breathed him in, as if he was dead, as if she was saying goodbye.

She got dressed and went into the kitchen. There were two cups where they’d had tea and bourbon biscuits. They were facing each other on the otherwise empty table, just the tiniest residue of crumbs spilled during laughter.

Before she left she went to look at him, searing him into her memory. She already felt nostalgia, the first sharp flickers of pain. She felt in her pocket for her notebook and pen. Then she went outside into the same darkness, the same rain.