Erin's publisher has offered to give away TWO (2) hard copies of the book (US ONLY). You can enter by using the Rafflecopter link at the end of the post. (Giveaway ends January 11, 2019. If you are the randomly chosen winner, I'll contact you.)
Q&A with Erin...
Q: 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?
A: It's hard to say exactly how it all came about, because I'm not a big plotter. In fact, it wasn't initially a story that was going to delve into race relations and reconciliation at all. That element came later. The first spark of the idea was simply a little mystery: who is the man behind a bunch of photos?
As the photographer in my family, I have to make a conscious effort to take a photo of myself during trips or special events, in order to prove I was actually there. The photographer is the silent, invisible observer, and when we look at a photo, we look at what someone has chosen to show us. And that role of silent storyteller is interesting to me.
From there, the story grew … a lot. Once I decided that the photographer was not going to be around, I had to decide why. Once it was clear that race and race relations was going to be a 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? How long does it take a wound to heal? The mystery of the identity of this photographer became the romance between William and Nora, which led naturally into a lot of family drama. The whole process was unplanned and organic, just following where the story was logically leading me.
Q: With so many great elements, who would you say is your target audience?
A: When people ask me what I write, I find it hard to come up with a quick and easy answer. I can tell you what the book is not. It's not a romance, though there are romantic elements. It is not a mystery, though there are plenty of mysteries to unlock. It is not historical fiction, though two of the three storylines take place in the past. Fundamentally, it is the story of a family, and it is the story of three women trying to find their way through lots of different relationships that are fraught with traps and pitfalls.
In a way, it is the story of all of us as we try to navigate our times, polarized and volatile as they are. 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 more than just an escape when they read. People who want to feel less alone in their struggles. 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.
Q: Your novel covers some very volatile times in American history, including the 1960s and the Civil War. Why did you choose to focus on these time periods?
A: I've always been a student of history. At some point in my adulthood I had a realization that fundamentally changed my view of it. When we learn history as kids in school, we generally cover things in chronological order. We put things on timelines. This linear way of learning sends a subliminal message to us that history is a line, that it is moving forward, that it is progressing. Which seems to mean that things are improving. How could it be otherwise?
But when you really delve into world history, you don't see lines. You see cycles. We like to believe we are living in enlightened times, but we aren't. People are people and will always be people. And people are sinful. Time doesn't change that. We're still making the same mistakes our ancestors made — and we're making new ones besides. I read people saying things online like, "How can something like this happen in 2018?" And I think, Why wouldn't it? It's been X number of years. It was bound for a comeback.
So when I started thinking about Nora and William, I started thinking about how little had changed for black Americans in the 1960s since the end of slavery. I started thinking about how little had changed for black Americans today since the 1960s. Progress. Backlash. Regression. So many of us are apt to say, "Well, my ancestors didn't own slaves," thinking that excuses us from discussions about race and racism in our country. But it doesn't. Every generation needs to choose how they will believe and behave.
The short answer is, I didn't decide to focus on the 1960s and 1860s. Those times chose me. One hundred years apart, and black Americans still couldn't live in certain neighborhoods, still earned less than white Americans, still had to worry about making the wrong people mad, still found themselves being viewed as a danger to the rest of society. The next natural question to ask is, Is it any different today?
Q: Did you find it difficult to intertwine different eras in characters in your book?
A: 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, even if it might be considered rather ambitious for a first novel. The connections practically made themselves.
Perhaps this is because I've always felt that everything in history and life is completely entangled and intertwined. I'm obsessed with making connections between events as they try to make sense of why things happen in history. It's like the world is one giant billiard table, covered in millions of balls all smacking into each other over and over, never knowing the chaos they cause down the line.
Q: What do you hope readers will gain from reading your novel?
A: First and foremost, I hope they will feel they've just been part of a great story that swept them up and won't quite let go even when they finish the book.
Secondly, I hope readers come away with a lot more empathy for others. I'm not talking about in terms of people who look different from them, though that's part of it. I know that even in the process of writing this book I developed a lot more empathy than I ever had for people who make bad choices, because much of the time those choices seem like the only ones they have. We never know what someone else has been through, and we could all stand to be a bit more patient and understanding toward each other.
Finally, I hope they gain perspective. Problems do not arise in a vacuum. They come from people who choose to behave in particular ways. We combat our problems by examining our own preconceived notions and prejudices and then choosing to act a different way. We can't change other people. We can only change ourselves. And while we can't change the past, we are, all of us, all the time, molding the future. What kind of future do we want?
Thanks so much for stopping by, Erin. Your debut book, as well as your answers, certainly gives readers a lot to think about. I'm sure my readers will enjoy learning more about your new release.
The Lafayette Coney Island was not a comfortable place to be early. It wasn’t a comfortable place, period. It was cramped and dingy and packed, and seat saving, such as I was attempting at the lunch rush, was not appreciated.
Thankfully, at precisely noon as promised, an older black gentleman in a baggy Detroit Lions jersey shuffled through the door, ratty leather bag slung over one drooped shoulder.
“Mr. Rich?” I called over the din.
He slid into the chair across from me. I’d fought hard for that chair. Hopefully this meeting would be worth the effort.
“How’d you know it was me?” he said.
“You said you’d be wearing a Lions jersey.”
“Oh yes. I did, didn’t I? My son gave me this.”
“You ready to order? I only have twenty minutes.”
Mr. Rich was looking back toward the door. “Well, I was hoping that . . . Oh! Here we go.”
The door swung open and a tall, well-built man sporting a slick suit and a head of short black dreads walked in. He looked vaguely familiar.
“Denny! We’re just about to order.” Mr. Rich set the leather bag on his lap and slid over in his seat to accommodate the newcomer.
The man sat on the eight inches of chair Mr. Rich had managed to unearth from his own backside, but most of him spilled out into the already narrow aisle.
“This is my son, Linden.”
Something clicked and my eyes flew to one of the many photos on the wall of famous people who’d eaten here over the years. There he was, between Eminem and Drew Barrymore, towering over the smiling staff.
I sat a little straighter. “The Linden Rich who kicks for the Lions?”
“Yeah,” he said. “And you are . . . ?”
“This is Elizabeth Balsam,” Mr. Rich supplied, “the lady who writes all those scandal stories in the Free Press about corruption and land grabbing and those ten thousand—eleven thousand?—untested rape kits they found awhile back and such. She covered the Kilpatrick trial.”
I offered up a little smile, one I’d practiced in the mirror every morning since college, one I hoped made me look equal parts approachable and intelligent.
“Oh, yeah, okay,” Linden said. “I see the resemblance. In the eyes.”
“I told you,” Mr. Rich said.
“I’m sorry,” I broke in, “what resemblance?”
A waiter in a filthy white T-shirt balancing ten plates on one arm came up to the table just then and said, “Denny! Whaddayawant?”
We ordered our coney dogs—coney sauce and onions for me, everything they had in the kitchen for Linden, and just coney sauce for Mr. Rich, who explained, “I can’t eat onions no more.”
“And I need silverware,” I added in an undertone.
When the waiter shouted the order to the old man at the grill, Linden was already talking. “You are not giving her that camera.”
“You said the photos—the photos should stay for now,” Mr. Rich said. “Why shouldn’t I give her the camera? It ain’t yours, Denny.”
“It ain’t hers either.”
“No, she’s going to give it to Nora.”
Linden took a deep breath and looked off to the side. Though probably anyone else would have been embarrassed to be so obviously talked about as if she wasn’t even there, years of cutthroat journalism had largely squelched that entirely natural impulse in my brain.
I jumped on the dead air to start my own line of questioning. “On the phone you said you’d been given a few things that were found in a police evidence locker—that belonged to a relative of yours?”
“No, they belong to a relative of yours. Maybe I should just start from the beginning.”
Wow! What a powerful, eye-opening story. It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel. Bartels weaves together three POVs/three timelines, which isn’t an easy task, and she pulls it all together masterfully. The characters, particularly the three heroines, are multilayered and realistic. They demonstrate strength and love and are courageous. The story lines tackle the harsh reality of racial issues, spanning from the Civil War to the 1960s to present day. Through it all, there is an overwhelming feel of hope, and the reminder that we are all the same in God’s eye is subtly tied in.
I was immediately pulled into this novel, and I hated to put the book down (though I did have to do something else, on occasion!). Historical and present-day events are highly detailed and equally developed, which isn’t always the case in books with multiple timelines. The prose is beautiful and engaging. There were historical components I’d learned little about, especially in relation to the racial tensions in Detroit in the 1960s. It was easy to feel a connection to the characters in this emotional read with themes of pain, loss, love, and hope. This is one book that will likely stay with the reader long after the final page is turned.
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy, but I wasn’t required to leave a positive review.
Erin Bartels has been a publishing professional for more than fifteen years. Her short "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 a 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.
Where you can find Erin online...
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