Erin Bartels has been a publishing professional for more than fifteen years. Her short story “This Elegant Ruin” was a finalist in the Saturday Evening Post 2014 Great American Fiction Contest. A freelance writer and editor, she is a member of Capital City Writers and the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and is former features editor of WFWA’s Write On! magazine. She lives in Lansing, Michigan, with her husband, Zachary, and their son, Calvin, and can be found online at www.erinbartels.com. We Hope for Better Things is her first novel.
We Hope for Better Things by Erin Bartels
We Hope for Better Things blends family drama, mystery, and romance into one intriguing story. How did you come up with the plot for your debut novel?
It started with the idea of the photographer—the invisible presence whenever we look at a photo. From there, the story grew . . . a lot. Once it was clear that race relations was going to be part of Nora’s story, I began to think about how quickly a family’s legacy might change. How long would it take to go from brotherhood to bigotry and back again? How long does it take a wound to heal?
With so many great elements, who would you say is your target audience?
My target audience is thoughtful readers who are troubled by the times we live in and are looking for sense in what seems like chaos. People who want to know they’re not the only ones who yearn for meaning in the midst of what often feels like an incomprehensible world.
Your novel covers some very volatile times in American history, including the 1960s and the Civil War. Why did you decide to focus on these time periods?
There’s a long answer to this question, about historical cycles and the myth of progress. But the short answer is, I didn’t decide to focus on the 1960s and 1860s. Those times chose me once the story evolved to tackle issues of race and racism. One hundred years apart, and yet in many ways not a lot of progress was made. Today we are still working toward true equality in a country that was ostensibly founded on the principle.
You have stated that you try to capture “the big emotions inherent in small moments and to tackle sprawling issues in specific details.” What are some of the issues you tackle in your book?
While the issues tackled include racial prejudice, difficult career choices, adultery, neglect of family, economic inequality, whether there are some things too horrible to be forgiven, and even whether we can trust that God is good, they are tackled on a very personal scale, through the eyes of three thoughtful women who ask important questions of themselves, admit they’re not perfect, and choose to change.
What type of research was required for accurately writing about these issues and time periods?
A lot. I spent all of 2013 reading about a thousand pages’ worth of history and sociology, stretching from the early 1800s through the 1970s. I also watched documentaries, listened to podcasts, consulted various experts, read countless articles about current events as they occurred, and had long discussions about what’s been happening in our country for the past decade. Perhaps most important, four African American friends read early drafts and offered their critiques. Their input was invaluable.
Did you find it difficult to intertwine different eras and characters in your book?
Not in the least. It was completely natural. Some people ask if I wrote the stories separately and then combined them. I did not. I wrote the chapters in the order you see them, jumping from one era to the next. It seemed to me the only way to write this story. The connections practically made themselves.
Do you have a character that you really resonate with?
There are parts of me in all three main women in this book. Like Elizabeth, I struggle with feeling that my worth lies in what I can do, not in who I am intrinsically, and I have wondered if I am spending my time on things that really matter. Like Nora, I struggle with how and when to get involved in the explosive issues of our time, pulled between my instinct to mind my own business and the need for people of faith and principle to stand up for those with less power and privilege. Like Mary, I get angry thinking of how much sorrow the world has seen because of war and senseless violence, which has largely been perpetrated by men who desire power and prestige, and I struggle with pretty severe resentment toward men who underestimate or undervalue me.
What do you hope readers will gain from reading your novel?
I hope readers come away with more empathy for others. We never know what someone else has been through or what their family has been through, and we could all stand to be a bit more patient and understanding. I also hope readers come away with a desire to examine their own preconceived notions and prejudices, as I did when I was writing. We can’t change other people. We can only change ourselves. And while we can’t change the past, we are molding our future every day. What kind of future do we want?
How can readers connect with you?
I’m everywhere. I blog at www.erinbartels.com. I have recently started a podcast, Your Face Is Crooked, which can be found at http://www.erinbartels.podbean.com (and on iTunes). And of course, I’m all over social media: Facebook (@ErinBartelsAuthor), Twitter (@ErinLBartels), and Instagram (@erinbartelswrites).