Between the Covers with Nicole Blades
October 30, 2017 | By Baltimore County Public Library
Nora Mackenzie has her dream job as a personal-fashion stylist and is about to marry the love of her life, whose family is one of New York City’s most powerful. But Nora has a secret that she's hidden from everyone—the fact that she is the biracial daughter of a Caribbean woman and a white man. Adopted and abused by her mother’s employer and sent to an exclusive boarding school to keep her quiet, Nora found that passing as a white woman could give her everything—until a former classmate returns to her life and wants revenge. With her wedding only days away, Nora must decide what lengths she will go to in order to maintain her secret.
In Have You Met Nora?, Nicole Blades blends mystery, intrigue and romance in a fast-paced, tense story about identity, and I was thrilled to talk with her about her novel, her other writing experiences and her dream movie cast for this captivating novel.
Between the Covers: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Nicole Blades: I am a novelist and freelance journalist with 20 years’ experience working for magazines, newspapers and online publications. I started my journalism career at Essence magazine, worked as an editor at ESPN and Women’s Health and even co-founded an online magazine called SheNetworks during the early dot-com glory days. My freelance work has appeared in lots of different places, including The New York Times and Cosmopolitan. This past spring, I also launched a weekly podcast with my younger sister. It's called Hey, Sis!, and it's all about women’s stories on finding their focus and place in business, art, culture and life.
I'm also mom to a delightful 8-year-old boy, and I'm one of those crazy people you see running outdoors year round, even in those brick cold, winter mornings. And I really enjoying baking. More butter, that's what we all need in this life!
BTC: Did you always want to be a writer?
NB: When it comes to writing fiction, I’ve been doing that basically forever. I started putting my dreamed-up stories on paper back in the third grade. I was so fortunate to have a teacher, Mr. Harry Polka, who was a big supporter of creative writing. He encouraged me to write down my stories and to do it every day. It really made me believe that what I had to say, my stories and my voice, were interesting and important. I’ll always be grateful to him for that. But I didn't officially admit that I wanted to be a writer in a real sense until university. That's when I developed the confidence to finally say that writing was what I needed to pursue.
BTC: The title character in Have You Met Nora? is harboring a secret that she believes could topple her world. You do such a good job of bringing her inner turmoil to the page that I had knots in my stomach reading this novel. How challenging was it to bring such an internal, emotional character to the page? Was it a deliberate choice to make her unlikeable at times?
NB: Thank you, and sorry about the stressful reading! It's always a challenge trying to bring verisimilitude to a novel, but I think it's crucial. Things need to feel real, authentic, in order to keep the reader locked into the story and desperate to know more.
As for Nora being "unlikeable" at times, I definitely set out to investigate a protagonist who was complicated. I don't buy into the "unlikeable" tag that too many strong female protagonists often get pinned with simply because—if we're being honest—they are strong women. I think people are complex and flawed, and I'm interested in delving into those layers, especially when it comes to women's stories. A reader doesn't have to like what your protagonist does or support the choices the person makes, but if there's something real and relatable about the character’s behavior, it's intriguing enough to keep folks reading, to make them care about what happens next in your story. And ultimately, that is what turns pages, the lure of what happens next.
BTC: Author Taylor Jenkins Reid said your novel is “a deft and searing commentary on identity and race.” Was this something you had in mind when you began writing the novel or did it develop throughout your writing process?
NB: Over the years I’ve definitely noticed definite threads running through all of my writing. I have always been drawn to stories about identity and the search for our best selves. I like stories that venture into the underneath, the “basement” of some of the things we all have to deal with as human beings in this life: complicated family dynamics; trying to pull the plug on a tangled relationship; feeling unsure of how to reconcile who you think you are with who you hope to be. These are the kinds of realistic, human stories that I find utterly compelling, so that's what I write about. And because I am a black woman born and raised in Canada, of Caribbean heritage, now living in the States, the subject of race is always present. It's part of my identity, so it will no doubt get folded into any story that I'm telling.
For this book, I didn't set out to make any statements or commentary. I was just fascinated by the concept of a person constructing an identity rooted in an incredible lie, taking “fake it ‘til you make it” to a totally different level. And then examining how far they would go to protect that identity that they’ve created out of nothing but dust and dreams.
BTC: The story takes a turn when Dawn, Nora’s bitter former classmate, enters the picture. The mystery, scandal and intrigue are all developed so well and your pacing creates a gripping page-turner. What was most challenging about telling such a fast-moving story filled with secrets?
NB: The tricky part about pacing is ... pacing. You want to make sure that you don't throw too many (potentially unnecessary) twists and turns into the story and wind up losing your reader a quarter of the way into things. You also want to make sure that you are constantly placing obstacles in the way of the protagonist getting what they want, meeting their need. Often that "need" is simple—love, belonging, acceptance—but overcoming the obstacles can't be easy. It's the actions that the protagonist then takes to try to prevail over the obstacles that keeps the story moving forward.
BTC: Have You Met Nora? is your third novel. Does the writing get easier? The inspiration come more quickly?
NB: I don't think writing ever gets easier. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to pull a fast one on you! For me, writing gets deeper. I have become more dedicated to the craft. I take writing seriously; it’s my vocation. And when I’m actively writing, I’m very focused on it. It might sound a little corny, but it's the truth: I feel very honored to be a part of the storytelling tradition. I often say that storytelling is the things that makes humans human. And I'm happy to be involved in that process.
As for inspiration, I wouldn't say it comes quicker the more novels I've been fortunate to write and have published. Instead, I've been finding inspiration in more everyday things, in "ordinary" stories of regular life. I'll let my curiosity guide me from there. Maybe it is coming to me a bit more quickly because as I get older, my eyes and heart seem to be more open and aware and ready to be inspired to learn more about a topic, person or experience.
BTC: You are also a journalist on a wide-range of subjects. How does writing a novel differ from your writing as a journalist?
NB: First, it's all storytelling. Whether it's a fact-based, magazine story or something completely plucked from the back of your imagination, the stories have a lot in common in terms of conflict and characters and their needs and the obstacles blocking them. All of these kinds of stories are aiming to pass along information, traditions, history, and—I think most important—stories are trying to help us expand our understanding and widened out scope beyond our limited perspectives. We can only see the world through our own lens, our own POV, and stories—both in literature and journalism—allow us to break out of those limitations and see the other side of something, see it from another person's experience. That creates a deeper sense of compassion and empathy. Man, do we need a whole lot of that these days!
BTC: What can your readers expect next?
NB: What's next for me is, knock on wood, another novel. I'm working on a new book, hoping to finish it by the end of the year. I don't like to let the steam out of the pot on what I'm cooking, so I'll just say it's another story about a strong, complicated woman.
BTC: You just got the call that Have You Met Nora? is being made into a movie and you have free reign with the casting. What’s your dream cast? Do you use celebrities as models for your characters when you’re writing?
NB: Goodness! Please put this out into the universe and make it real! Getting that call would be an absolute dream. Since I do use real people (often celebrities, but sometimes it's strangers on the street) as models for my characters, I have a folder on my desktop that is filled with photos of celebrities/magazine ad models who are "stand-ins" and help form the composites of what my made-up characters look like.
For example, Nora is a mix of a photo I saw of a younger Angelina Jolie with blonde hair and a model I spotted in a Vogue magazine ad. Fisher is a mix of soccer superstar David Beckham and actor Peter Hermann from the television show Younger. Basically, I have a subfolder of photos for every character, even Lady Eleanor, whom I envisioned as a Lee Radziwill type with some of the late NYC socialite Nan Kempner sprinkled on top for good measure.
BTC: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. We're eagerly anticipating your next book!
Category: Collection and Materials