Interview with Erin Bartles, Author of WE HOPE FOR BETTER THINGS

by Dan Stout in


As part of the ongoing celebration of upcoming debut novels, I’ll be running highlights of interviews from a number of my fellow debuts through the end of 2019. The full interviews are available on DebutAuthors19.com.

Today, we’re continuing the series with a conversation with Erin Bartles, author of WE HOPE FOR BETTER THINGS, releasing from Revell Books on New Year’s Day, 01/01/19.



ABOUT THE BOOK:

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The story begins when journalist Elizabeth Balsam is tasked with returning a box of never-before-seen photos of the 1967 Detroit riot to a relative she didn’t know she had. Elizabeth wants to use them to further her flagging career. But as she connects with her long-lost great-aunt in the family’s 150-year-old farmhouse outside of Detroit, she begins to uncover the stories of two women who lived in that very house a century apart, who were involved in the Underground Railroad and the tumultuous Civil Rights Era. What she discovers about her family’s past has repercussions for her own future.

Interview Excerpt:


How long did it take for you to write WE HOPE FOR BETTER THINGS?

The first inkling of the idea came in 2011 or 2012. I researched for all of 2013. I drafted it in 65 days at the beginning of 2014. Then it was revise, revise, revise. I signed with my agent in 2015. We went on submission in 2016. In 2017, I signed my publishing contract. And it finally hits shelves January 1, 2019. It’s been a long road. 

How much research did you do for WE HOPE FOR BETTER THINGS?

I read well over a thousand pages on women in the Civil War, Michigan’s involvement in the Civil War, the Underground Railroad, funerary practices in the Victorian Era, Reconstruction, the Great Migration, Jim Crow, the development of the city of Detroit, civil unrest and the Detroit riot of 1967, and more. I also watched documentaries, listened to podcasts, and interviewed people who had lived in Detroit in the 1960s.

 
How did you get into writing?

I was an English major, so I adore great writing, be it novels, poetry, plays, short stories, or essays. After reading other people’s novels for work for about a decade, I think it was inevitable that I would try my hand at writing one.

 What is the most challenging part of your writing process, and why?

Finding time. I work full time. I’m a mom. I have a house to keep up. Etc. Finding time is always, always a struggle. But if something is important to you, you make it work.

Find WE HOPE FOR BETTER THINGS on Amazon.

Full interview here: DebutAuthors19.com

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

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ERIN BARTELS is a copywriter and freelance editor by day, a novelist by night, and a painter, seamstress, poet, and photographer in between. Her debut novel, We Hope for Better Things, is scheduled to be released in January 2019 from Revell Books, followed in September 2019 with The Words Between Us, which was a finalist for the 2015 Rising Star Award from the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. Her short story “This Elegant Ruin” was a finalist in The Saturday Evening Post 2014 Great American Fiction Contest. Her poems have been published by The Lyric and The East Lansing Poetry Attack. A member of the Capital City Writers Association and the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, she is former features editor of WFWA’s Write On! magazine.

Connect with Erin:

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by Dan Stout

Learning my Lines: Earning the Emotional Beat

by Dan Stout in ,


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One of the most powerful tools available to writers is to read and study the work of those who have gone before. For me, hand copying and examination can reveal the techniques of another author and help me advance my own craft. I've written up some of these observations to share with other readers & writers.

 

Okay, I recently read Edgar Cantero's Meddling Kids. There's SO MUCH great stuff in this book, but today I want to highlight one passage in particular that jumped out at me, and see if we can peek under the hood to see why it works.  

 

"Tomorrow, Tim, we'll be in Blyton Hills. You know what that is?"
She scratched his head, their eyes locked and perfectly level, and Tim listened closely.
"You've never been there, but your great-grandfather had. It's the best place in the world," she told him. "A very little town in a valley filled with summer homes, not like those shitty plastic suburbs, but with cute gardens and really old trees, where not yuppies, nor rednecks, but real nice people live. And all around it, in every direction, and the green mantle of woods, miles and miles of... adventure."
Her sight, and Tim's, and strayed into the stars.
"Mountains to climb and creeks to cross in every spot. Swamps where you can build rafts, and caves to take shelter in when it rains, and old mills and barns where hand-wringing bad guys think of their plots, and lakes with monsters, and haunted houses where pirates used to live."
She paused. Tim nose-prodded her like she was a music box that had stopped playing.

This section comes after a lengthy road trip, in a bit of a narrative pause, as the main characters have assembled and are about to enter into the next phase of their story. It's certainly Cantero talking to the audience, as much as it's about the characters expressing their own sense of wonder.

The interesting thing is why is works so well. This direct stating of fact and theme is pulled off because the characters have gone through so much heartache and trouble to get to this spot. The speaker, Andy, in particular has been through a lot, and has been the primary driver in reuniting the gang and returning them to their childhood haunts. She's picked up physical and emotional scars getting this far, and her moment of reflection (with Tim, a dog, who can't speak or judge) feels like a reward to her and the reader, while also serving as a promise of where the story is headed next. 

It's this sense of earned honesty combined with wonder and anticipation that makes this section sing. Truthfully, I'm not even sure it will seem striking if you haven't seen it in the context of the full book. 

But it damn well works if you have.

 

 

Edit:  Interestingly, Jason Sheehan chose the same excerpt to lead his NPR review of Meddling Kids.

And for another Meddling Kids review, check out this one from Sarah Hans

 

by Dan Stout

Skreeonk!!

by Dan Stout


I keep journals, filled with ephemera, sketches, inspirational lifts, and random story ideas.  They're essentially little time capsules, ready for me to go back and stare in wonder at the weird things that at the time I thought were good ideas.

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One of the perks of this kind of bookkeeping is that I get to decorate the journal covers however I see fit. This time around, I went with the big green kaiju, in a black-on-black design. 

Credit to Art-Minion-Andrew0 for the stencil design.  

by Dan Stout

Learning my Lines: Staggered Timelines in a Novel

by Dan Stout in ,


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One of the most powerful tools available to writers is to read and study the work of those who have gone before. For me, hand copying and examination can reveal the techniques of another author and help me advance my own craft. I've written up some of these observations to share with other readers & writers.

 

There's a lot to love in Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon. But one thing I took away was his nimble shuffling of POV chapters, each jumping to the character who is most logical to follow without becoming confusing. 

He does this a few times in the course of the narrative, and each time it was clear what was happening, who was involved, and when everything was taking place. That's not something I can say about every book I read.

The best example -- and the one that really made me sit up and take notice -- happens just over 25% of the way into the story.

At this point in the story the protagonists are arguing, and tempers flare enough for them to stomp off and give themselves (and each other) some breathing room. The next two chapters each follow a different character in the wake of the fight, jumping back to start a few seconds later after the argument ends, as if they're all tree limbs extending from a broad trunk.

The "trunk" chapter is written from the point of view of a character named Litasz. She and four other people are in a room, and as the chapter comes to a climax, Litasz's old friend Adoulla  ends an argument by storming out of the house. 

"Some fresh air," he blurted, and bolted for the door, slamming it behind him.

After this comes four brief paragraphs establishing how the roomful of people react to Adoulla's departure. The next chapter begins:

Adoulla slammed the heavy wooden door to his friends' shop behind him.

So we're slid back in time, prior to the last four paragraphs of the previous chapter. But look at what Ahmed's done here: he's hanging his time shift on the strong physical act of slamming the door. That's an action that all readers will relate to. We know what it looks like, what it sounds like. Hell, we've probably done it ourselves a time or two. 

Even better, the door slam is a turning point in in the trunk chapter, and it happened only a couple pages ago. Further, Ahmed uses the same verb, "slammed," reinforcing the connection. Even a casual reader will remember it when the next chapter begins. 

So with this new starting point, we follow Adoulla as he storms off from the argument and collects himself. Clever enough, but what blew my mind was that the following chapter begins like this:

Raseed bas Raseed watched the Doctor storm out of the shop and slam the front door.

We're back in time, but as a reader I still knew exactly where we were!  Ahmed's use of the door slam in the trunk chapter marked it in memory. The use of it in the following chapter underlined it. And now, many pages after the original event, I slipped back into the time stream with no trouble at all. 

Note the recurrence of "slam" yet again, and that this POV shift is happening immediately after the chapter following Adoulla. If we'd stayed in his POV for multiple chapters, I suspect that I'd have had a harder time returning to the door slam, but as it's written I found it easy, even natural to do so.

The new chapter follows Raseed as he travels into the city. While we're in his POV, our experience is enriched by knowing what is happening to Adoulla simultaneously. 

 

Throne of the Crescent Moon is great fun, but it also displays some pretty skillful handling of reader expectations. Reading it helped me learn how to lodge a moment in a reader's mind, and then use that later, like a rock climber setting a piton. 

by Dan Stout

Learning my Lines: Creating Instant Emotion

by Dan Stout in


One of the most powerful tools available to writers is to read and study the work of those who have gone before. For me, hand copying and examination can reveal the techniques of another author and help me advance my own craft. I've written up some of these observations to share with other readers & writers.

This excerpt is from SPARROW HILL ROAD, by Seanan McGuire. The quote below comes early in the book, and demonstrates how to quickly create a bond between reader and character.

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by Dan Stout

Even when conceived with racist undertones, great fiction can evolve.

by Dan Stout


Recently, I came across a blog post by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. She's working on an anthology call "Swords & Mythos" which is a crossing of Robert Howard-style Sword'N'Sorcery with good-ol' fashioned horrors beyond imagining, a la H.P. Lovecraft.  (If that sounds fun to you, I encourage you to check out her Indiegogo fundraiser for the project.)

In her post Ms. Moreno-Garcia doesn't waste any time, but dives into the issue at hand with these opening lines:

What do you do when you are a person of colour (POC) planning an anthology inspired by the work of not one, but two racist writers? That’s my situation right now. I say you talk about it!

She then proceeds to clearly and intelligently lay out both her appreciation of the artistry of these two men, and also the disturbing depths of their racism. But she never falls into the trap of over-simplification, which is all too easy to do when dealing with topics like this.

People are not divided as villains and heroes. Lovecraft and Howard were not villains or heroes. They were men. Just as they could be very fun to hang out with, they also had their unpleasant side. We must accept this, and accept them as human beings with their quirks and their failings.

In the end, her article is about the importance of new voices and viewpoints, an absence of which for any genre means at best stagnation and more likely death. I agree with her, and it's not too much of an extrapolation to apply her points beyond genre to entire art forms, or even wider cultures. 

I'd also like to mention that the comments section on her post is relatively free of the yammering and trolling that so often clogs up internet discussions, especially with hot-button topics such as race. Hats off to both Moreno-Garcia and her readers.  

Check out the full post here.  

by Dan Stout