By Lindsey Wojcik
Author Nicole Blades wanted to examine compassion and the human condition that people can so often forget about in her new novel, The Thunder Beneath Us (out Oct. 25), which follows the story of international style magazine writer Best Lightburn.
On the outside, Best seems to have it all. Not only is she a rising star in the magazine world, she’s dating a gorgeous up-and-coming actor and counts New York City’s fabulous socialites as her friends. Yet, beneath the surface of her seemingly amazing life, Best is struggling with the burden of an accident that happened on Christmas Eve a decade ago. While taking a shortcut over a frozen lake with her two older brothers, the ice cracked, and Best and her brothers fell in. However, Best was the only survivor. The guilt Best has carried with her for 10 years resurfaces after every aspect of her life starts to unravel. As the obstacles arise, Best has to learn to carry her loss without breaking, so she can heal and forgive.
Blades recently chatted with me about what inspired The Thunder Beneath Us, how her journalism career helped prepare her for writing fiction, and how the experience of scribing her second book was different from the process of writing her debut novel, Earth’s Waters.
Lindsey Wojcik: You've been writing since a young age. What are your earliest memories with writing? What enticed you about storytelling?
Nicole Blades: Yes, I’ve been writing stories since elementary school. My third grade teacher, Mr. Polka, was very supportive of creative writing. He encouraged us to dream up stories and put them down in our notebooks. I can still see those Hilroy 3 Hole Punched Exercise Books so clearly, without even closing my eyes. And he showed remarkable interest in what these eight-year-olds had to say. He put a lot of stock into our imaginations.
Storytelling has always intrigued me. It’s at the core of being a human being. It’s what makes us, us. Through it, we can learn about ourselves, about the world, and our place in it. My father is an excellent storyteller. As far back as I can remember he would have us rapt, just enchanted by these tales about his life growing up in Barbados—all the funny, quirky sayings and characters in the neighborhood and his crazy adventures. All of it came alive through his words, and I found it completely fascinating, even back then as a child. To be honest, I’m also really curious (fine—some might call it nosy!) and like being able to get a glimpse into someone else’s world, see how they make certain choices, good or otherwise.
LW: Who were your early influences and who continues to influence you?
NB: There are so many! It’s always tough to winnow it to a few names, otherwise I would be writing long, 3,000-word term papers on my influences for you right now.
Early inspiration definitely came from my dad, my third grade teacher, and authors like Judy Blume, Jamaica Kincaid, Margaret Atwood, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Derek Walcott, and—this might sound a tad odd—the World Book Encyclopedia. We had the full set, including the year in review specials, and I would sit in our basement for hours reading up on an insect with a strange name or some human organ’s superior function or about the phases of the moon. I read those books a lot, plus we also had this crazy-thick, atlas-like book that laid out all these cultural tidbits along with facts about the different countries of the world. I just loved it.
For those who continue to influence me now, the list is exceedingly long. It’s the early influences, plus authors like Alice Munro, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Díaz, Edwidge Danticat, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kazuo Ishiguro, Octavia Butler Zadie Smith, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and magazine writer Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah. Then there are screenwriters and artists like Issa Rae, Donald Glover, Sarah Polley, Ava DuVernay, and Vince Gilligan. And then there’s another jumbo list of one-off books or short stories that I could re-read every year—if somehow we tacked on extra months to the calendar.
LW: What is your writing process like?
NB: I can see certain aspects of my fiction writing process that stem from my career as a journalist. How I approach a story is quite similar to how I would a magazine feature. For example, I do a lot of research, ask questions, interview people, and venture down plenty of rabbit holes to try to understand something from all sides. Also, I take writing seriously. It’s my vocation. And when I’m actively writing, I’m very focused on it. That means devoting large chunks of the day to writing and editing and re-writing and working on it. I write even when I’m not writing. That might sound corn-dog, but it’s the truth. If I’m in the middle of a story, it’s parked on the brain all the time. While I’m out running or eavesdropping on two people at a café (come on, who doesn’t do this?) or acting out dialogue in the shower or just letting my mind float free—I’m always thinking about the story and writing it.
That’s the bulk of my process: writing it down, getting words on the page. I like to edit as I go instead of waiting until I’m completely “finished” with the first draft. That comes from being a journalist and editing other people’s work. I don’t typically do a full-on outline, but I did write a very detailed synopsis for Book No. 3 that I just finished in September, and I found it so very helpful. Knowing where I wanted to end up and the specific plot points and being able to manage the pacing, it was all due to having that synopsis on hand. So, this is me saying I might just go sit with the outline or bust people’s table.
LW: What inspired The Thunder Beneath Us?
NB: Five or six years ago, I read this magazine story about these three brothers who went duck-hunting as part of their Christmas tradition. But it all turned tragic when the family dog accidentally punched a hole in the lightly frozen lake. And while trying to save the dog, all three brothers were sucked down into the freezing water. Two of the brothers drowned and one survived.
The story stayed with me. I kept thinking about the level of guilt and second-guessing and why-me that the surviving brother carried with him. I also thought about how that psychological torment could influence—and not in a good way—how he saw himself moving forward. In that real life story, the men were in their 30s at the time of the ice accident, but then I wondered how the heaviness and utter despair around what happened would be different if the survivor were just a teenager when, after one horrible night, their entire world fell apart.
LW: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters in the novel? How do you develop your characters in general?
NB: I think many writers fold some facets of their real world into the ones that they create. Whether it’s a particular sentiment or experience that they’ve lived or observed someone else go through, it gets embedded in their creative skin and finds a way to seep out. With this story, there are definitely certain aspects drawn from real people and real issues in my life and experience. I took some of that and pulled it apart and refashioned into other fresh storylines and characters that become their own new thing.
As for developing my characters, I don’t think I have a set formula. Sometimes it’s based on someone that I’ve met or observed, and then I start wondering about their lives beyond the slice that I was allowed to see. For example, in Thunder there’s a character that was in this horrible car accident where her taxicab crashed into a double-parked delivery truck and she suffered serious facial wounds. The horrible cab accident actually happened to someone I know long before I met them, and I’ve always wondered about the recovery and dealing with the trauma of it and having your face basically rebuilt. So I used that pivotal moment in this character’s life and built on it to develop who she is and why she’s so bitter and feels blighted. Other times a character emerges from a wholly dreamed-up place, based on something that I’ve long been curious about, and then I dive into that world, researching it and “reporting it out,” like I would a freelance magazine feature. Yes, yes, we’ve all been told write what you know. But you can also write about what you don’t know; just research it and peel back the layers to it.
LW: When you were writing The Thunder Beneath Us, was there something in particular you were trying to connect with or find?
NB: I’m very interested in compassion, in general, and with this book I wanted to look in that. We have no idea what’s rumbling beneath the surface of someone’s life, no matter how filtered and fabulous and hashtag blessed it may appear. We all need to feel valued and heard and supported as we make our way through this life. I’ve said it before: The human condition can knock the wind out of you. It’s crucial to understand that we’re allowed to make mistakes. We can have a misstep or even a total wipeout and still get back up, knowing and believing that we are all worthy of honest love and acceptance and compassion.
Another central theme in the book is forgiveness. Everyone in it—Best Lightburn, her parents, her actor boyfriend, her best friends—they all have to forgive someone or themselves (or both!) in order to move forward and begin living a full and real life.
LW: How was the process of writing The Thunder Beneath Us different from writing your debut novel Earth's Waters?
NB: One major difference is that I became a mother in between writing when my debut novel and now Thunder. And parenthood changes every single process or routine you thought you had, basically overnight! I went from “me” to mom, and that meant settling into this new identity while trying balancing it with the other parts of myself, and ensuring that those other vital parts don’t get tucked away. It’s a lot. But it had allowed me to learn so much about myself and develop an even finer sense of compassion.
The other big difference is social media. Back when I was writing my first book, Twitter had just launched. My friend Larry Smith (of Six-Word Memoirs fame) actually introduced me to Twitter while I was working on edits for Earth’s Waters. I was in that early crew that joined, but I was like, “What even is this??” I didn’t get the point of it. So I hopped out only to return several years later, and now I’m all in. Social media definitely changed the process of writing books for me. The procrastination element aside, it’s an incredible tool for research and interaction, and getting a peek through other people’s lenses and lives.
LW: How did your journalism career prepare you for writing and publishing fiction?
NB: One word: deadlines. I met one of my good friends when we were both editors at a women’s magazine. She moved out of journalism a few years back, but we often laugh about how the deadline anxiety is still there, soaked into our bones, so much so that no matter what we’re doing, if you give us a deadline, we are compelled to meet it. More important, journalism has also forced me to pay close attention to details. It’s the details that make something feel authentic or relatable. And those details are what help a fiction writer draw the reader in and, often, keep them there.
Being a journalist has also taught me to appreciate the anatomy of a story and making sure I honor those different parts of it so that I don’t lose my audience. I’ve also learned that all stories—fiction or non—are essentially about conflict. It’s the essence of storytelling, and I make sure I fully understand what that conflict is in what I’m writing. Trying to resolve it—or not—that helps drive the story forward.
LW: What's next for you?
NB: Next up for me is promoting Thunder and getting folks excited to buy the book and talk about it with their friends and book clubs. I have a few book events coming up, and I’m really looking forward to it! Then, there’s book number three. I just finished writing that one in early September. It’s another story about secrets and family and working through knotted relationships, but this story has a big race piece to it that I find fascinating and hope others will too. At its heart, this next book is about identity and the lengths that we’ll sometime go to create and protect our ideal selves. It’s being published by Kensington again and will be out in November 2017.
LW: What's your advice for aspiring journalists and authors alike?
NB: First, I would say read. I know, I know. It feels like there’s not enough time to read this link and that news story, plus this book as well as the other nine that everyone is screaming about on social media. But you have to make the time. You do. Writers read and read and read. That’s just how it goes. Next, write. Writers write. Find a schedule that works with your life—getting up before the sun or blocking off two hours at night after everyone’s gone to bed—and write, and try to do it every day. Storytelling is a craft, and you have to continue to work on it.
Lastly, find your voice and rock with that. Don’t bother emulating your favorite writer. That’s their voice. Use yours to tell the stories you want to read. Getting your mind tangled in what sells or what other people are doing is just not worth it. Focus on one goal: telling a great story. All the other stuff—genre, loyal readers, book deals—they are byproducts that often show up when you’re fixed on telling a good story in your voice.