Erin Bartels is the award-winning author of All That We Carried, 2020 Christy Award finalist The Words between Us, and We Hope for Better Things, a 2020 Michigan Notable Book, 2020 WFWA Star Award winner, and 2019 Christy Award finalist. A publishing professional for twenty years, she is the current director of WFWA’s annual writers retreat in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

In this interview Erin talks with us about her latest book, The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water.

FF: In your new novel, The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water, you explore some sensitive topics including broken friendships, abuse, and forgiveness. How do you address these topics with both candor and sensitivity?
I think the key to writing about sensitive topics is experience and empathy. If you haven’t experienced them yourself, you need to employ radical empathy and truly put yourself in the position of your characters in order to imagine things from their perspective.

But in the case of The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water, I am writing largely from experience. I have had tumultuous friendships that ended on unfinished notes. I experienced sexual harassment and abuse as a child. I have had to grapple with the question of forgiveness and holding people accountable. So I come to these topics from an honest place that recognizes and expresses the fear, confusion, shame, secrecy, misunderstandings, ambiguity, and unforeseen consequences that those experiences breed.

Life is a messy business. In my writing I seek to acknowledge that messiness and explore how we humans move forward despite it. That means you won’t find a lot of “good guys” and “bad guys” in my books. No heroes. No villains. We’re all good and we’re all bad at different times and in different measure. Simul justus et peccator—simultaneously saint and sinner.

FF: You also address how our memories may not be exactly as we remember. Can you expound upon what this means?
It is well-known that if you ask multiple eyewitnesses to explain what they saw, you will get multiple angles on a story. You may get conflicting information. And certainly you will get the story from a particular person’s point of view, which will always be colored by their own unique past experiences. Our memory of an event—even when we think we are sure about what we saw—is not 100 percent accurate, and it’s never 100 percent of the story.

Add in the passage of time and things can get murkier still. Even the number of times we’ve told the story can affect what it becomes, because every time we recount an event to someone else, we have the potential to add or change details. As we repeat those additions and changes, they become the memory in our minds—even if they can be proven false by physical evidence—simply because that’s how our brains work.

In The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water, the main character is grappling with this reality as she tries to separate fact from fiction and attempts to see the events of her past from someone else’s point of view. It doesn’t mean her memory is especially unreliable or that she’s wrong about what she experienced. It just means that she may not see the whole picture.

FF: Your new novel explores several complicated relationships. Can you provide a brief synopsis of these relationships?
Gosh, it sure does! The fatherless child. The mother-daughter relationship. Adoptive children and parents. Friends that sometimes act like enemies. Abuser and victim. Unexpected houseguest and reluctant host. Not a lot of neat and tidy relationships! But I think those complex relationships can make for some rich storytelling possibilities, especially when they are between people who don’t communicate all that well.

FF: What do you hope readers will gain from reading The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water?
Simply put, I hope readers can come away with a bit more patience, compassion, and empathy for the people who make their lives difficult.

Whenever something bad happens to us, we tend to ask why—more to the point, we ask, Why me? Why did this person do that to me or say that to me? I spent a lot of time focused on that question in my own life as I wrestled with my own experience of abuse. And it’s not terribly productive when it comes to healing and moving on. I even asked my abuser years later, “Why did you do those things to me?” He had no good answer. He said, “I don’t know.”

When I told my own personal story to my sister, who is a former Child Protective Services and Adult Protective Services worker, and my childhood best friend, who is one of the most compassionate people I have ever met, both of them said the exact same thing: “I wonder what happened to him.” It had never occurred to me to ask that. Once I did, I could see the person who abused me as someone who may also have suffered abuse. And while that didn’t excuse him, it helped me forgive him after nearly thirty years.

When someone wrongs us, even if it’s as small as being rude to us at the grocery store or cutting us off in traffic, we can react in anger because we didn’t “deserve” to be treated that way. Or we can react the way my sister and my friend did and say to ourselves, “I wonder what’s going on in that person’s life that makes them act that way.” Further, maybe that would prompt us to respond with a gentle answer, a quiet prayer, a helping hand. Imagine how much better a world we would live in if we traded some of our righteous anger for a little empathy, a little turning of the other cheek.

One enormous caveat, of course: in cases of ongoing physical or emotional abuse, seek help and, where appropriate, seek justice through the legal system.

FF: Each of your books is very different, yet they all include a redemptive thread. What motivates you to include this element in your novels?
Theologically, I’m a Calvinist. Mentally, I’m a cynic. Despite the good that individual people manage to do, I think that humankind as a collective, left to our own devices, will always veer toward self-interest.

But I also believe that God is sovereign, and if He is after you, He will catch you. From the very first humans and their very first sin (which was all about self-interest, wasn’t it?), God has been unfolding His plan for redemption, which is not just about individuals being redeemed but about all of creation being redeemed. Nothing and no one—no one—is beyond hope. The people we write off? God is still writing their story. It’s not over until He says it is. So we better be in the business of redemption. Redeeming the time, tending the earth, mending broken relationships, restoring broken people. I want my writing to reflect that tension—that yes, we are royally screwing up down here, but thank God He’s not done with us yet.

FF: What are you working on next?
My fifth novel is a story about two musicians in their twenties, set just as the calendar turns over to 1990. It explores questions of where we find our sense of self-worth, how we value our own artistic contributions to the world, what makes something worth doing, and more. As the daughter of a mother with a gorgeous singing voice and a father with a passion for high-end stereo equipment, I have really enjoyed finding ways to express just how meaningful music is to me. And perhaps the most fun is that developing this story has allowed me to explore a new outlet for my own creativity: songwriting.

Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water
Erin Bartels
Genres: Contemporary, Mystery/Suspense, Romance
Release Date: January 4, 2022

ISBN-10: ‎ 0800738373
ISBN-13: ‎ 978-0800738372

Watch the book trailer:

Book Summary:
When novelist Kendra Brennan moves into her grandfather’s old cabin on Hidden Lake, she has a problem and a plan. The problem? An inflammatory letter from A Very Disappointed Reader. The plan? To confront Tyler, her childhood best friend’s brother–and the man who inspired the antagonist in her first book. If she can prove that she told the truth about what happened during those long-ago summers, perhaps she can put the letter’s claims to rest and meet the swiftly approaching deadline for her next book.

But what she discovers as she delves into the murky past is not what she expected. While facing Tyler isn’t easy, facing the consequences of her failed friendship with his sister, Cami, may be the hardest thing she’s ever had to do.

Plumb the depths of the human heart with this emotional exploration of how a friendship dies, how we can face the unforgivable, and how even those who have been hurt can learn to love with abandon.


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About The Author

Erin Bartels has been a publishing professional for more than 15 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.