The Words Between Us: A Conversation with Erin Bartels

Erin Bartels

Life is story. You know that’s a key theme around here. But, more than that, life is stories. Life is an anthology collection of happenings each influenced and informed by the stories before and around. And stories can influence life. The words between us—us and an author, us and a friend, us and a lover—can either make or break that relationship. They dictate the direction of that story.

Recently, Josh Olds had the privilege of sitting down with Erin Bartels to discuss her love for literature, independent bookstores, poetry, and how that all played out in her new book The Words Between Us, which is story about the power of words—said and unsaid—and the beauty of literature to connect two human souls.

An excerpt:

Josh Olds: The title of this book is just incredible and fits the story so well. So let me ask the chicken-or-egg question. Which came first, the storyline or the title?

Erin Bartels: Well, so it had a working title, which was a different title for quite some time. And then when it went to the publisher, they discussed whether or not to use the working title. And usually publishers don’t…they sent a few things my way that I wasn’t thrilled with. I was really hoping to get something that was a little more evocative, as you say.

And at some point, I came up with The Words Between Us. I don’t recall if it was an actual line already in the book, but it is now! One of the big conceits of this book is that this woman, Robin, is getting all of these books in the mail day after day after day: these books from her past, books that she shared with somebody in her past. And so, there are literally these words between them, these books that they shared, the little notes that they made in the margins—there’s poetry, things like that. But also the things that they said to each other, the things they didn’t say, things they regret saying. And I think that a lot of people connect with that, because we all have things that we regret saying, or not saying to someone, whether we did it out loud, or we wrote it in a letter or an email or whatever. So yeah, I really liked that we landed on this title.

I think that one of the reasons a lot of people grow up not liking reading is because they're assigned classic books before they're really ready to read them. Because they're about things that they don't have the experience to understand. Why is this significant? Why does anybody care? And then you reread them as adults and you’re “Oh, I get it now.” – Erin Bartels

The Book

The Words Between Us full Erin BartelsRobin Windsor has spent most of her life under an assumed name, running from her family’s ignominious past. She thought she’d finally found sanctuary in her rather unremarkable used bookstore just up the street from the marina in River City, Michigan. But the store is struggling and the past is hot on her heels.

When she receives an eerily familiar book in the mail on the morning of her father’s scheduled execution, Robin is thrown back to the long-lost summer she met Peter Flynt, the perfect boy who ruined everything. That book–a first edition Catcher in the Rye–is soon followed by the other books she shared with Peter nearly twenty years ago, with one arriving in the mail each day. But why would Peter be making contact after all these years? And why does she have a sinking feeling that she’s about to be exposed all over again?

With evocative prose that recalls the classic novels we love, Erin Bartels pens a story that shows that words—the ones we say, the ones we read, and the ones we write—have more power than we imagine.

The Author

Erin BartelsErin Bartels is the author of We Hope for Better Things and 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 and current director of the annual WFWA Writers Retreat in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Erin lives in the beautiful, water-defined state of Michigan where she is never more than a ninety minute drive from one of the Great Lakes or six miles from an inland lake, river, or stream. She grew up in the Bay City area waiting for freighters and sailboats at drawbridges and watching the best 4th of July fireworks displays in the nation. She spent her college and young married years in Grand Rapids feeling decidedly not-Dutch. She currently lives with her husband and son in Lansing, nestled somewhere between angry protesters on the Capitol lawn and couch-burning frat boys at Michigan State University. And yet, she claims it is really quite peaceful.

Erin is represented by Nephele Tempest of The Knight Agency. Find her on Facebook @ErinBartelsAuthor, on Twitter @ErinLBartels, or on Instagram @erinbartelswrites.