Blind Date

u-haulsplash-truck-Earlier this year I wrote this essay for Redbook…My husband and I celebrated our 15th anniversary this week, which got me thinking about the spirit of serendipity and risk-taking that  got it all started. 

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THE SUMMER I TURNED 30 I took a gamble on a road trip, picking up and moving to a new city with I guy I barely knew in a car I could barely drive. This was more than a little out of character for me. I don’t make aggressive investments. I don’t even wear two patterns at a time, or buy a novel unless it’s been recommended by someone I trust. 

It started with a blind date orchestrated by mutual friends. I was a magazine editor living in New York; he was a Bostonian working at the State House. He drove down one Friday night to take me to dinner 

and one long-distance date led to another, until after three months of  high phone bills and even higher mileage, we agreed someone needed to move. I flipped a coin — mostly for the humor value of saying we had, because Continue reading

Topics: On Faith, Hope & Love, On Relationships | 1 Comment

The Demise of Private Writing?

public_privateShortly after my novel came out, I got an interesting email from a reader.

She said she hadn’t been sure she would like a book half written in the form of journals, but had been grabbed by the point of view: the private side of a woman that made her public self look like a facade, and the surprise of the friend who inherits them.

“No one hears about journals anymore, now that everything is about blogs,” the reader wrote. “Were you afraid it would seem dated?”

To be honest, that never occurred to me. Certainly blogs have become enormously popular: personal and professional blogs, hobbyist blogs, blogs about illness, health and parenting. But have they taken the place of writing people used to keep privately? In this age of everyone trying to have their platform, are blogs to journals what banks are to money hidden in mattresses?

They can’t be. Blogs are just a different beast. No matter how candid and self-effacing it might be, in the end, it’s always written with the consciousness of someone else reading. Even with the most sincere of intentions there’s a certain amount of posturing because it’s crafted to be seen by others. It’s the difference between a candid photo and a portrait.

In my novel, journals show the unexpected portrait of a young mother as she really was, including the mystery of where she was really going when she died. The bestseller GONE GIRL, which came out the same day, uses journals to the opposite effect, reimagined for public consumption (I won’t say any more than that, no spoiling here) — which to me felt emblematic of the modern changes to private writing.

The evolution of blogging has been fascinating to watch. Blogs, with their comments boxes and links to one another’s sites, are looking for community, sometimes even  Continue reading

Topics: On Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Own Your Opinions, Kids


One of my children told me recently that he couldn’t ever be a reviewer — of books, art, restaurants, or a sports columnist — because he didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings. (Never mind that just a few weeks before, he gave a dramatic reading of my book’s one-star reviews while I cooked dinner. Ha. Oh yes, ha.)

Of course empathy is a good thing to encourage in kids. But the more I thought about my son’s aversion to critiquing, the more I wondered what it said about his comfort expressing opinion. Sometimes Continue reading

Topics: On Learning, On Parenting, On Writing | 2 Comments

Scent, Sound, Words and Memory: Reading with their Great-Grandmother

The lobby was empty, decorated in the orderly, outdated way that nursing homes are. Tired but precise, precisely tired.

My mother waited in a corner chair. I was late, but she wasn’t disappointed. It had been a long time since I’d come to visit, but she was just glad I’d made the time. Everyone should be so lucky to have someone who thinks so well of them and forgives their limitations, even when they don’t do the things they ought to.

I was on my way to a book event for my novel, taking me through the town where my 93-year-old grandmother lived in a nursing home. My mother was coming for the reading, but she would have come with me to visit her mother-in-law anyway. It’s her maternal buffering reflex.

I have limited experience with dementia, and I’ve been told my grandmother is becoming increasingly agitated by small things. She likes dessert rather than dinner, sometimes tv over talking, and doesn’t like to be pressured on the things she no longer remembers, which is most everything. I knew she wouldn’t recognize me, and I wouldn’t press for it. I was there to give her a lovely half hour with a pleasant, if forgettable, young woman around her granddaughter’s age.

I brought flowers and a photograph of my five kids, a simple prop because most people enjoy the smiling faces of young children. She wanted to know which ones behaved and which ones caused trouble, and I narrated the circle of faces like I was telling a story. Then I told her I remembered visiting her house when I was a child (though I worried this hint of familiarity might distress her), and that I’d enjoyed playing hide-and-seek in her upstairs closet.

“That was a big closet,” she said, to my mother’s surprise. This might have been a spark of recall, or a throwaway comment disguised as one. My grandmother has been savvy for years about hiding the shortcomings of her memory.

Memory is a funny and fleeting thing, bobbing out of reach like an inaccessible sea creature. We’ve all read the studies about sensory triggers, the memories brought on by a few bars of music or Continue reading

Topics: On Faith, Hope & Love, On Relationships | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

The Year in Reading

The literary website The Millions (http://www NULL.themillions asked me to contribute to its year-end package of authors talking about their most memorable reads of the year. When I went back through my book journal of 2012, a diverse foursome stood out, and I thought, Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. I’m not a singsongy person, but the monkey mind does love patterns.

The something old was my re-read of an old favorite, Crossing to Safety (http://www NULL.indiebound by Wallace Stegner. This was my third time, occasioned by an invitation from my local indie bookstore to lead a book club on my favorite novel. Crossing to Safety is the story of two couples, their lifelong marriages and friendship, and it takes a clear-eyed look at how our strengths and foibles become more forgiving and more brittle over the decades. It’s brilliant, more so each time I read it. This time I treasured the voice and dry humor of the narrator poking fun at the champagne bubbliness of his own youth — hoo hoo, ha ha — naïve to the hardship up ahead.

Something new was The Light Between Oceans (http://www NULL.indiebound, a summer debut by Australian writer   M.L. Stedman. I’ve been a bit of a zealot for this book while on book tour and probably should be on commission, because when I give my elevator pitch, the audience sighs with that reader-hunger that must be appeased. I tell them this: It’s set on a tiny island in 1920s Australia, and its sole inhabitants—a lighthouse keeper and his wife—have been unable to have children. One day a rowboat washes ashore with a dead man and a live baby. What to do? Report the child, or raise her as their own? The decision the couple makes that day reverberates through the decades, and through the lives of others. It’s the kind of novel I love because it involves a moral choice where there is no clear right or wrong, no clear path of lesser harm.

Borrowed is a bit of a stretch, but work with me here. My pediatrician told me recently about a little-known and out-of-print children’s novella by Faulkner called The Wishing Tree (http://www My first thought was, What would Faulkner have to say to kids? That when you mimic the help, it’s important to get the dialect right? That you shouldn’t drink while doing your homework, only after you’re done?

Intrigued, I tracked down a used copy online. The Alice-in-Wonderlandesque story is in classic Faulker terroritory, a sloshing bouillabaisse of race, relationships and social class but served up in kiddie bowls. It hints at many of the themes and characters to come in his later work, The Sound and the Fury, which I borrowed from the library to refresh my memory. The strong doomed sister. The disgruntled black maid carrying the weight of the world and none of the family’s respect. The menacing jaybirds, always swooping. No Dick and Jane.

I decided to read The Wishing Tree to my kids anyway and they loved it, along with the controversial way it found its way to publication some 40 years after it was written: First as a gift to an eight-year-old girl whose mom he wanted to marry, then to three other kids, including a girl dying of cancer. Each thought he’d written it only for him or her, and were in for a rude awakening when the first girl published it after Faulkner’s death.

Blue is how Salvage the Bones (http://www NULL.indiebound made me feel, the blue of neglected children and spurned love and rushing hurricane stormwater before it goes brown in its race through dirt lots of Mississippi. This is the Katrina most people didn’t hear about, put to merciless fiction by Jesmyn Ward. In her hands, four siblings’ fierce bickery loyalty is the closest thing to unconditional love, and a teen’s dedication to his fighter of a pit bull and her pups is as close as it gets to salvation.

This audiobook kicked my tail clear from Kansas City to Minneapolis to Chicago, where I bought a paper copy to finish on the flight home. Because I love a book that beats me up a little, makes the monkey mind sit still and show respect.


Topics: On Reading | 2 Comments

Faulkner For Kids?

At a recent visit to my children’s pediatrician, the doctor asked, “Have you ever read your kids that children’s book by Faulkner?” He said he read it to his kids a lot when they were younger, that it was their birthday treat.

This prescriptive advice wasn’t as random as it sounds. The pediatrician and I tend to talk books (while my children roll their eyes), especially since my first novel came out a few months ago.

I didn’t know Faulkner had written a children’s book. The doctor looked pleased to have stumped me. He pulled out his prescription pad and wrote The Wishing Tree plus WILLIAM FAULKNER, in case I forgot. This is a man who knows the fate of vague notes stuffed in diaper bags.

What, I wondered, would Faulkner have to say to kids? That when you mimic the help, it’s important to get the dialect right? That you shouldn’t drink while doing your homework, only after you’re done?

In academic journals, The Wishing Tree is described as Alice in Wonderlandesque, aimed at kids ages 8-11. It was originally written in 1927 but not published by Random House until 1964, when one of the children for whom it had been handmade offered it for publication (more later on the awkwardness of this). It had been out of print for years, but there were used copies online in middling condition for $30-$50.

I tweeted about my curiosity a few times, and someone replied with a tip on a used copy: a former library book, first printing, $3.99 plus shipping. I felt like I’d found a triceratops fossil in a Cracker Jack box.

To be honest, it was more about my intrigue than any conviction my kids would enjoy it. Fast-paced contemporary books, full of suspense and the bells and whistles of modern fantasy, have left them lukewarm to quieter classics with antiquated language. And then there was the question of whether it would even be appropriate for them. Several articles proposed  Continue reading

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Daring to Care: What fostering animals taught me about parenting

The kids were clamoring for a new pet. A year earlier we’d said goodbye to our dog, and before that, the cat. In between was an unsuccessful series of hermit crabs. When each one crossed that proverbial rainbow bridge in the sand, we’d stood around its tiny hole in the ground and offered a tearful remembrance for little guy who never ever pinched, well, almost never.

The kids now wanted a dog, only I wasn’t up for it. I didn’t feel like going back down the pet road. I kind of didn’t want to go down the anything road. We had five children aged 2-10, and we’d had a few losses in addition to pets that left me feeling less than resilient. So I said no when my husband and kids wanted a giant Leonberger puppy. I said no to the rescue rabbit and chinchilla, no to the turtle, please no to the Christmas hamster. How about fish?

My husband was surprised: So, we’re not going to have pets anymore? But you were the one who raised all those crazy animals as a kid.

There’s a scene in my novel in which a woman sees her children touching baby rabbits in the bushes, and freezes in panic. On the island where they are vacationing there’d once been an outbreak of tularemia (http://www NULL.cdc, a sometimes-lethal disease carried by rabbits. And though my main character isn’t ordinarily paranoid, it’s the summer following the September 11th attacks, and she’s becoming unhinged in a million small ways.

Writing this fear hadn’t come naturally to me, because I spent much of my childhood loving and raising wild baby animals. Each spring, the wildlife rescue hospital where I volunteered would be inundated with orphaned and injured raccoons and squirrels. Junior staffers would bring them home to bottle feed them, wean them on fruit and dog food and, if we were lucky, keep them alive to be released in a park upstate. It was a formative experience, maybe the most significant one of my teen years.

But I’m not sure how I’d feel if one of my children wanted to do something like that, themselves. This occurred to me recently when my kids were aflutter over a baby bird we found on our driveway, so young it was still mostly bald, and we were trying to find something to do for it. I cupped it up gingerly while the kids dug up a syringe of water, a nest of grass, a worm. A neighbor came outside, visibly stunned to see us doing this. What about avian flu? She asked. I didn’t know. What about avian flu? After we did what we could for the bird, I made the kids wash up like Lady MacBeth.

I don’t have a medical bone in my body beyond the fact that, well, I have bones in my body. I don’t know if various animal and insect-borne diseases are on the rise, or if it just feels that way. But I do know a few things about anxious things: namely, that in the space between knowledge and confusion, paranoia blooms. Continue reading

Topics: On Faith, Hope & Love, On Learning, On Parenting, Wild Kingdom | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

If You Can’t Stand The Heat, Get Into The Kitchen


When my first novel came out two weeks ago, I had most of my ducks in a row. I’d arranged a book tour to places where I had the most friends and family. I’d written magazine articles related to my book, and planned a launch party. I bought a few dresses. Notecards sat in neat piles, waiting to be called into duties of gratitude.

But there was one area in which I really wasn’t well prepared, and it was sort of an important one. I hadn’t read my work aloud under pressure.

Over the years I’ve done public speaking, and used to appear on television a bit for my old job. I’ve even interviewed authors for a fun piece (http://beyondthemargins on how they became comfortable reading in front of a crowd. But read my own fiction? Out loud? That had only ever happened in the privacy of my shower-stall auditorium.

A few days before my book was to be released, I faced up the fact that this was a pretty big Achilles heel. So I sought out the toughest training ground I could think of, the crucible in which my fortitude would be forged. The harshest audience, the most easily bored and most vocal one I’d ever seen.

The Sisters of Charity Nursing Home.

My children play piano recitals there several times a year, and each time without fail, they’re heckled. At Easter, while my daughter plunked out a slow ballad from Titanic, a woman in the second row became increasingly agitated. She looked around for a friend to share her resentment, and finally just shared it with the room. “Who are these children,” she cried, “and what the hell are they doing in my kitchen??” I knew I had to read there.

It was a Friday afternoon, just after lunch but before naps or game time. The residents came into the Rec Room in singles and pairs, wheeled in by nurses. Fran, the activities director, told me how excited they were to hear me read from my novel. “Many of them like to read quite a bit. Or, used to.”

Fran introduced me, and I stood in front of the silent and still room. It was almost entirely filled with women in wheelchairs, crumpling grand dames and matriarchs who’d outlived most of their partners and contemporaries. About half of them looked up expectantly. The rest were slack-jawed and inattentive, asleep, or listening to their own internal monologues.

“Thank you for letting me come today,” I said, taking pains to speak very slowly, because as my mother reminds me, I’m guilty of speaking far too fast. Continue reading

Topics: On Learning | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

What I’m Reading Today: WILD, by Cheryl Strayed

Part of the busywork of being an author-about-to-launch is writing essays for book blogs about a variety of things. This weekend I received a request to write about either a) something I’m reading right now, or b) who I’d envision in the movie version of my book. Since b isn’t even something I can wrap my mind around, I wrote this, and wanted to share it since I’m often asked to recommend books.

I’m reading WILD by Cheryl Strayed and every night my heart is like a crime scene. The memoir recounts a journey in Strayed’s mid 20s when, after her mother died and her marriage disintegrated, she went hiking the Pacific Crest Trail alone for three months. The goal was to reawaken her soul, which for a long time she’d numbed with all the unhealthy substitutes we find for love.

Though the expedition was made out of desperation, it wasn’t carried through that way. Yes, she was physically unprepared and poorly packed — the things she carried in Monster (her massive backpack) would have brought a team of oxen to their knees. Poorly fitting boots made her toenails turn black and fall off. But there’s calm wisdom in her raw unsentimental drive to conquer the trail. It’s as if a remote corner of her unanaesthetized brain was sending out morse code and she had no choice but to listen: You must do something. You must do something to save yourself.

This is living like you have nothing to lose, only to gain. It’s not about courage, though of course there’s that, so much as it’s about necessity. And to look at the beautiful place Strayed has arrived in her life — marriage, child, and writing that makes me weep — is testament to the importance of listening to the morse code.

It also speaks to the interpretive power of journals over time; she relied upon hers to create this memoir, decades after the trip. This speaks to me too because found journals are a centerpiece of my novel. Appreciating the level of Strayed’s detail here, brought up from notes and memory so many years later, requires a reader to believe in the strength of a person’s need to document and examine their lives as they’re living it. It might be a difficult leap for someone who has trouble imagining doing this. But not for me.

Topics: On Reading | 5 Comments

Author One-on-One: Nichole Bernier and Dani Shapiro

Dani Shapiro: This is your first novel after years of being a magazine editor and writer.  What made you decide to write this story?  Joan Didion describes material she wants to write as having “a shimmer” around its edges.  What was this shimmer for you?

Nichole Bernier: I have always been intrigued and haunted by the notion of legacy, the trace people leave behind once they’re gone — how others define them, and what they’ve done to define themselves. I lost a friend in the September 11th terrorist attacks, and in the days afterward, I fielded the media calls for her husband so he wouldn’t have to describe his loss repeatedly. I tried to offer short memorial statements that were meaningful and true but in the end they were still sound bites, and I couldn’t stop wondering what would she have wanted said about her. What was the difference between the way I saw her, and the way she would have wanted to be seen, and remembered?

My book is not in any way about my friend, but grew out of the what-ifs: What if a mother left behind hints of a more complex and mysterious person than their loved ones thought they’d known? The shimmer for me was the incomplete obit, the discrepancy between the public and the private self. We all die with bits of our story untold.

DS: The backdrop of your novel is the year following terrorist attacks, a time Continue reading

Topics: On Writing | 5 Comments