Nichole Bernier: Does Publishing a Novel Change Your Life?

Nichole Bernier’s fabulous The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D – which was a finalist for the New England Independent Booksellers fiction award – is just out in paperback. J. Courtney Sullivan calls it, “a compelling mystery and a wise meditation on friendship, marriage and motherhood in an age of great anxiety,” and the Washington Post says, “Bernier’s excellent storytelling skills will keep you pondering long after the final page.” Nichole is a journalist by training – she won the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s award for long-form literary journalism and has written for Psychology Today, Elle, Health, Self, Salon, and The Huffington Post. Her post … well, I don’t want to spoil it by saying too much, but her take on what publishing a novel does to your life is charming, and funny, and so very very true. – Meg

Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D CoverMy book’s launch party felt a little like a wedding. Well, one where my five children had already been born, and were racing around jacked up on chocolate-dipped strawberries.

The bash was in an old brownstone in Boston. There was a long brass bar and passed hors d’oeuvres, a few speeches, some roasting. I read a bit from the first chapter in front of friends who appreciated the efforts it had taken to get there, and wore teetery yellow shoes more than a few inches beyond my comfort zone. (My fear and secret thrill: I’ll never be able to chase the kids in these.)

In the past 10 years of my writing life, I’d gone from being a magazine journalist/mother of one to being a sometime-freelancer/mother of five. That evening of the launch party felt like another line of demarcation down my life: before kids, after kids, and kicking it back into gear. Here I was, burning rubber in my Sienna minivan cocoon. Just look at that S car go.

Shortly after the launch party we got an au pair for the summer, and I started traveling for readings at bookstores. It was both heady and humbling: One night an audience of 75 and the next just a few people, including several who had to, because they worked there. Mornings, I’d get in a rental car and drive to bookstores that weren’t stocking my book in hopes they might give it, and me, a chance. My father asked in an email what it felt liketo be on book tour. I told him that while one person did squeal excitedly to meet me (I’m pretty sure she mistook me for someone else), a lot of the time it felt like being a Fuller Brush salesman, hawking your wares door to door. Brushes you’d made yourself. Plucking one horsehair at a time from a pissed-off rodeo bronco.

The truth is, I love it. Just about every single bit. After a pretty intense diaper decade there is a sense of settling back into myself, with the miscellaneous scattered parts — personally, maternally, creatively, professionally — coming into alignment. I feel incredibly fortunate that all the years of of being the crazywoman writing in the attic have resulted in something I can hold in my hand, and share.

But with the sharing came traveling, time away from the kids and from a household that operated, on the best of days, like a catamaran flying a hull. I created this travel schedule myself, and had anticipated it for forever three months. The bigger trips shimmered on the calendar like tinsel and Easter grass. Why was I so excited? Did I think I was going to shed my momma skin and slip back into the my 20s professional self, the travel and independence, the adult stimulation and striving? The shoes?

But to be honest, I had dreaded it, too. I imagined reading in a Chicago bookstore and receiving a call from a hospital back home. Or almost as bad, a simple text message that I’d failed to call in time before bed, and small people were sad. (Which happened.) My husband was able to come on several trips — my parents gave us babysitting as a Christmas present — which was wonderful. He’s my best supporter and critic, and things are just plain more fun with him around. It reminded me of the early years of marriage, zipping around at the top of our games.nichole bernier portrait

But a funny thing happened once I got home and started doing the regional events this summer: I wanted my kids around, too.

I started feeling this way when some health issues hit my parents and father-in-law, and all three needed surgeries. Home didn’t feel like something that was functioning just fine back there. Home felt like something that needed to be in my back pocket, my tote bag, the train seat beside me.

I adjusted my travel plans, put rollaway beds in small spaces. Reading in New York was more fun with my two oldest along; they were wide-eyed at the hotel mini-bar candy, the Empire State Building, Greenwich Village street vendors, Amtrak’s café. Likewise, on Cape Cod, the highlight of a reading was my dinner date afterward — my four year old so giddy about the high patio over the dunes, that he dropped the ketchup bottle down into them. Ooops.

Back to the launch party, which I’d both hoped and feared would represent a thick yellow line down the middle of my life. Toward the end of the evening, as I sat signing books, my oldest child walked up. My 11 year old, my mature one. He interrupted my conversation with the publisher of a magazine where I’d once worked to hand me his stained napkin and empty kebab stick. “Here, Mom, I can’t find the garbage.”

Here Mom, I can’t find the garbage.

And that — along with the fact that after the party, I was squatting in those vertiginous yellow shoes to change a diaper — perfectly summed up the line of demarcation. Sure, there was stimulation and striving, but mostly, the change to my life was invisible. Because of course there’s no going back to that person in her 20s, and nothing had substantively changed in the watchworks of my daily mamma world. Nor did I want it to. Except every so often, the shoes. – Nichole