Interview With Erin Bartels, Christian Author

Box Office Revolution: “What inspired you to first write Christian books?”

Erin Bartels: “I have never been inspired to write specifically Christian books or write for a specifically Christian audience. I aim to write thoughtful stories about people dealing with the tough things in life, irrespective of the faith of my potential readers. My stories come from and express my own worldview, which is informed by my faith, but the reason they are categorized as Christian fiction is because company that publishes them is a Christian publishing company. They could just as easily be categorized as book club fiction, general fiction, women’s fiction, historical fiction, contemporary fiction, family saga. I just want to write good stories. They won’t all have a specifically Christian message—just as a Christian carpenter does not build specifically Christian shelves but rather builds shelves to the glory of God. As to what actually inspired me to start writing? Reading. Thinking. Observing. And, at some point, realizing I had something to say.”

BOR: “What do you feel is your underlying philosophy of writing?”

EB: “Honesty. Truth through fiction. I want to tell the truth about people and life, even if it’s not popular or politick. I never want to write or edit from a sense of fear of what people will say. I don’t want to hedge my bets. I want be authentic and write stories that feel real-to-life. I want the characters to feel like real people (even if that makes them “unlikeable”). I want the setting to feel visceral. I want readers to feel real emotions and wrestle with real problems. I’m interested in this world and the people in it and our problems and our mistakes and our triumphs, and I want everyone else to be interested too!”

BOR: “What do you think is the hardest part of writing a good Christian book?”

EB: “I think the hardest part of writing a good novel, irrespective of genre, is getting the story from the writer’s head to the page in such a way that readers experiences in their minds and hearts what the writer experienced in her mind and heart. To write in such a way that we take readers on the journey we mean for them to have. That means plot, character, pacing, etc. all need to be working together to allow readers to immerse themselves in the story and truly feel what the characters are feeling. It feels magical and effortless to read that kind of book, but to write it is always an enormous challenge.”

BOR: “What do you think we need to see more of in Christian novels?”

EB: “I’d like to see a whole lot more of the world represented in Christian fiction. More characters of color, more authors of color, a wider swath of the vast and varied Christian tradition than just white Evangelical America. I’d also like to see more honest representations of human nature which allows for characters to make real mistakes with real consequences that real people make. Perhaps more realism and less idealism. Because real life is messy and our deepest problems are not easily solved. Yes, we have an incredible hope, we have victory in Christ, but we also we live in a fallen world with fallen people and I think if we’re to have a strong witness in this world we have to be honest about our challenges and not gloss over the hard stuff. Christian artists should be in the business not of putting rose-colored glasses on the world, but of holding a mirror up to society—without flinching—and shining the light of truth on it.”

BOR: “What do you think needs to be improved about Christian books as a whole?”

EB: “For a lot of readers, the “Christian” in Christian fiction means “clean.” No swearing, no sex, no characters will be portrayed smoking or drinking alcohol. No one will do anything too awfully bad and what happens to them will rarely be the result of their own bad or morally suspect choices. Characters will be put upon, misunderstood, falsely accused, but we’ll be cheering for them the whole way because we know that they’re actually really good people at heart. So, what “Christian” comes to mean for many readers is unrealistic, trite, formulaic, moralistic, didactic, and insincere. I’d like to see the general impression of the genre change for the better, and that means we need to write and publish not just “clean” stories but the best stories. Readers come to fiction not to learn a lesson but to experience a great story, to see themselves and their struggles reflected in characters, warts and all. I’d like to see stories that stretch the limits because those are the stories that stretch us as readers.”

BOR: “How do you feel about Christian novel writing as being a collaborative effort rather than a ‘lone ranger’ creation?”

EB :”Publishing a great book is absolutely a team effort. I know, because I’ve been part of that team for the eighteen years I’ve worked in the marketing department of a Christian publishing company! Yet when it comes to entertainment, be it books, music, movies, or TV series, I’m someone who nearly always prefers the work of an auteur over art by committee. I love it when you can tell that what you’re experiencing is an artist’s vision coming to life. And you can nearly always tell when there were too many cooks in the kitchen. Lowest common denominator entertainment lacks teeth. It’s never going to shift a paradigm or cut a new path or even raise the bar. An author’s publishing team—her agent, her editor, her publicist, early readers she trusts for feedback—should be committed to helping her tell the story she longs to tell in the clearest and most effective way possible, not to change that story to fit reader expectations or placate the most conservative sales channels.”

BOR: “How have Christian books improved during the time you’ve been involved in writing?”

EB: “In my eighteen years in the Christian publishing industry, I’ve read a lot of Christian fiction and been privileged to work with many fine writers who are interested in telling compelling stories. Some of the writing I have enjoyed most are those books that don’t fit neatly into the typical Christian fiction subgenres (meaning they are not historical romance, romantic suspense, or set in closed religious societies, like the Amish). It’s been great to read more literary and upmarket books in the past few years that deal with complex issues and themes in creative ways. I’d love to see more of that.”

BOR: “Is working with Christian publishing companies any better or worse than working with ‘secular’ publishing companies?”

EB: “I don’t know. My work in publishing has been entirely for a Christian company and I currently publish with a Christian company. My experience has been, on the whole, positive.”

BOR: “What are your future plans for new novels? Can you tease any specific upcoming projects?”

EB: “My third novel, All That We Carried, comes out January 2021. Here’s the description: Ten years ago, sisters Olivia and Melanie Greene were on a backcountry hiking trip when their parents were in a fatal car accident. Over the years, they grew apart, each coping with the loss in her own way. Olivia plunged herself into law school, work, and a materialist view of the world—what you see is what you get, and that’s all you get. Melanie dropped out of college and developed an online life-coaching business around her cafeteria-style spirituality—a little of this, a little of that, whatever makes you happy. Now, at Melanie’s insistence (and against Olivia’s better judgment), they are embarking on a hike in the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In this remote wilderness they’ll face their deepest fears, question their most dearly held beliefs, and begin to see that perhaps the best way to move forward is the one way they had never considered.

EB: “Thanks so much for the opportunity to share my work and my thoughts!”

BOR: “Thank you for your time and input Ms. Bartels! We value your perspective and can’t wait to read your upcoming novel!”

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