NEW YORK, July 11 (Reuters) - Writer Nichole Bernier has written for magazines such as Elle, Self and Conde Nast Traveler for almost 25 years, but "The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D." is her first work of fiction.
In Bernier's novel, suburban mother of two Kate Spenser inherits her friend Elizabeth's journals after Elizabeth's sudden death in a plane crash. Kate soon becomes consumed by the content of the journals, which reveal a startlingly different portrait of the friend she thought she knew.
Reuters talked to Bernier about what The Washington Post described as her "excellent storytelling skills."
Q: You've been a magazine writer for almost 25 years, but this is your first novel. Where did the ideas come from?
A: "I lost a friend in the September 11 terrorist attacks. Her husband asked me if I would field some media calls for him, so he wouldn't have to describe over and over again who his wife had been. I did that for about a week and after I was finished, I was really humbled by the experience of having that responsibility of defining what a person's life had been. It really hung with me for years - whether I had accurately described her and if that was what she would have said about herself.
"That sort of set the idea in motion. How is it that we are remembered? How is it that we present ourselves to people that we know? And are we living in a way that these people would describe us in a way that we actually see ourselves?"
Q: The book is based on Elizabeth's journal, but the journal is more than a storytelling mechanism - it's essential to the plot. How did you get the idea? Do you keep a journal?
A: "I've kept journals my whole life, not so much anymore. I've been really interested over the past few years to see the evolution of blogs overtake journals. It strikes me that there's such a difference between them. Even the most sincere and candid blogs are still written with the knowledge or intention that somebody else will see and read them.
"Journals are really speaking to ourselves about the wisest parts of ourselves and giving ourselves our own counsel. I think that there's something so candid and honest and painful and beautiful about that. I thought it would be very interesting to look at a character after she died. Obviously she can't play in real time in the book except in a few flashbacks, but I thought that would be a way to make her as three-dimensional as possible.
"The real challenge was to weave the two women's stories together. To really make it poignant, you want it to really touch down in the other character's life. As she (Kate) is reading them, you want her to be having an experience that's poignant in the juxtaposition of the two things, whether it's her reflecting on her career and challenges and seeing that her friend went through similar things, that they really weren't so different after all."
Q: A lot of this book is about how we perceive ourselves versus how other people see us and remember us. Can it ever be good to keep things about ourselves from those we love?
A: "I guess it depends on what the secrets are, doesn't it? The book is not a how-to or a moral lesson in any way, but I've come to feel in the process of writing it and keeping my own journals that it's so much better for mental health if you're living your life in a way that's the closest to how you really feel and how you see the world. That way you don't have the experience of being misunderstood or not being able to share with the people close to you."
Q: With Kate, Elizabeth and all the mothers in the play group, there's a lot devoted to what the characters think they have to do to be good mothers and fit in, and balancing motherhood with other parts of themselves. You have five children - did you draw on your own experiences for that?
A: "It's not my experience or that of any of my friends, but it's a lot of things I'm familiar with. For me, so much is new about writing a novel and writing fiction that it was easier to write about a terrain that was familiar to me. Motherhood is certainly that, career aspirations and trying to juggle work and family is certainly that, and the continuously evolving nature of women's friendships.
"I was fortunate, I had the most fantastic play group and we're all still wonderful friends. But it's very easy to see how the intensity of those friendships might not always be positive and could be filled with mixed feelings and pressure. You essentially have a group of women who are learning something for the first time and may or may not want to show insecurity about that. Perhaps my first fictional act was the imagining of a play group that was a force of pressure rather than solace.
"If you look at the landscape of people in your own world, the ones who seem the most perfect and most together aren't necessarily the ones we feel the most connected to or the warmest towards, because it makes them a little inaccessible. It was a bit of an eye-opener for me even as I wrote the book - the value of being imperfect, and the value of showing that imperfection to other people. (Reporting By Andrea Burzynski; editing by Christine Kearney and Andre Grenon)