As an author, here’s my “Top 4” list of worst fears—possibly every author’s worst fears:
- Realizing you accidentally plagiarized and the whole world knows it. Goodbye, career.
- Discovering another author wrote and published your story idea before you did, even though you’ve been working on it for years. Goodbye, story.
- Being accused by family or friends of modeling questionable characters after them. Goodbye, friends.
- Being sued for libel. Goodbye, savings account and reputation.
Erin Bartels’ novel The Girl Who Could Breathe Underwater tackles the third scenario.
Have you ever identified a novel character as someone you know? Chances are it’s a composite of several people, not a specific person. But we all know people “like that.” It’s even more worrisome if you know the author personally. You might find your own likeness, right there on the page for everybody to see. Especially if you’re paranoid.
Authors draw upon their own lives and experience for their fiction. Do they worry people might recognize a character or situation?
- I love a lake setting in northern Michigan. My roots and early memories are there, as well as in Minnesota’s North Woods.
- I found the premise fascinating. Especially as a novelist.
But you don’t have to be a novelist to find yourself engrossed in this story.
A caveat: If you’re a survivor of sexual abuse, this book might be a trigger for you. Proceed with caution. If you haven’t been a victim, you’ll have the opportunity to empathize by learning more about the complex emotions accompanying such abuse. It’s a weighty novel, but also full of love, hope, and healing.
Back cover copy
The best fiction simply tells the truth.
But the truth is never simple.
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.
“Truth. Has a way of working itself into any story, whether the writer means it to or not.”
— Robert, novelist in The Girl Who Could Breathe Underwater
In other words, he says, the best fiction simply tells the truth.
To clarify, “truth” in this case doesn’t mean Bible doctrine. Nor does it always mean replicating actual situations exactly the way they happened. Truth in fiction integrates what we know to be true about life and people.
Sometimes an author can shrug off a disparaging comment about her novel. Other times, the words sting, and she keeps revisiting them. Rather, they keep visiting her. Haunting her. As in Kendra Brennan’s case, in her letter from “ A Very Disappointed Reader.”
It’s not your average negative review. Plus, it came directly to her in the mail. This reader accuses her of being a “selfish opportunist,” writing without regard for others, challenging her to see that “antagonists have stories of their own.” And to consider that in someone else’s story, she might be the antagonist.
This is personal. She can’t let it go.
“But you know what it’s like when someone attacks your writing.
Criticize me about anything else—what I look like, what I drive,
what my ancestors did to your ancestors—who cares?
But my writing, your writing…that’s the real you, isn’t it? That’s what is inside you.
To have it thrown back in your face is just the worst feeling in the world.”
—Andreas to Kendra
The fact is, Kendra’s bestselling debut novel reflects a real-life incident from her teenage summers on the lake. Some of her readers suspect who the antagonist is.
Yet Kendra herself is second guessing her memories of sexual assault—that fine line between memory and reality:
“There are some things you think you’ll never forget.
They’re carved into your mind like words on stone.
Then the more you run your fingers over them, the more you rub off the hard edges,
until you can tell something was there but you can’t tell exactly what.
And still you can’t let go of it.
So you start writing about it in your journal, and that doesn’t help,
so you fictionalize it thinking that now you can end it any way you want,
that you can end it at all. And it works. For a while.
Until someone comes along and tells you you’re wrong,
and you look again and all you have is this collage of real and almost real and fabrication,
and there’s no telling for sure anymore what actually happened
and what you just imagined happening.” —Kendra
But she’s determined to find out what really happened. And hold the perpetrator responsible. Despite the fallout.
The Girl Who Could Breathe Underwater is written as a letter to Kendra’s estranged childhood friend, Cami, someone she hasn’t seen for eight years. At first it’s unclear who the recipient is, and while immersed in various scenes, I’d sometimes forget it was even a letter.
Kendra is spending the summer at her grandfather’s cabin on Hidden Lake, like many childhood summers, hoping to discover the truth and find the gumption to complete her second novel. But self-doubt and writer’s block interfere. All because of the note from Very Disappointed Reader. The one she can’t shake off.
The setting is as real as the characters. Poetic description depicts the beauty of the lake enclosed by trees and teeming with wildlife. Nature provides an immersive experience as a place of refuge, but also cradling great pain. A place for broken people like Kendra, stuck in the past yet yearning for healing. She needs the truth in order to move forward and put pen to page in her second novel.
Andreas, the German translator, catches on to the first novel’s characters and incidents that hint of Kendra’s reality, and of Tyler—Cami’s brother—as the antagonist. Kind and compassionate, Andreas provides a needed anchor as she wrestles through her angst.
So many questions are raised: who wrote the letter from “Very Disappointed Reader”? Where is Cami and why hasn’t Kendra seen her in so long? What really happened during those summers long ago? How is knowing the truth going to both hurt and help? How will it impact relationships with others around the lake?
With emotional depth, the past unfolds bit by bit, like puzzle pieces. Kendra learns how her own mother fits into the drama, and becomes privy to the roles of Cami, Cami’s adoptive parents, and even Tyler.
This moving story is not predictable, though I did correctly predict a couple of things. Periodically, I was confused about timing while going back and forth from memories to present day. However, despite some disturbing themes (including sexual assault and child sex trafficking), it’s worth wading through this one. Nothing is gratuitous. Beautifully and powerfully written, this is a sensitive portrayal of one woman’s willingness to face the truth to gain healing.
As I wrote on my previous post about All That We Carried, Erin Bartels does not write “Christian fiction.” Instead, she is a Christian author writing a good story. You won’t necessarily find Christian characters who pray, attend church, study Scripture, and read devotions. But you’ll find poignancy, depth, raw honesty, and complexity.
Don’t miss the author notes at the end. They provide her personal connection to the story. This novel lends itself to great book club discussion.
Join me for some Q & A with Erin Bartels.
Questions regarding The Girl Who Could Breathe Underwater:
Has Kendra’s situation as a novelist ever happened to you? Do you worry that people might recognize a character or situation? And how did you come up with this scenario as a premise?
Erin: I have never personally run into this situation, probably because I don’t generally base characters on real people or plot elements on real situations (unless it’s something I’ve done).
So many of the worst traits that a given character has are from my own misdeeds, mistakes, and misunderstandings. If someone else sees themselves in a character, it’s probably because as human beings we deal with a lot of the same things. We make bad choices, we regret rash words, we wish we could reconcile and be forgiven.
There’s also the terror of Kendra finally dealing with Tyler’s abuse years ago. What prompted you to delve into this challenging situation?
Erin: I have my own story of harassment and abuse from childhood, and that kind of experience never actually leaves you. The way you deal with it changes over the years, but it’s never completely gone because in some way it played a part in the person you are today.
In discussing this book with readers, I know that many others have similar stories, and even 60 years later, they still think of it. Even when you confront and/or forgive your abuser, as I have been able to do, abuse is always part of you.
The very first novel I wrote (but did not publish) dealt with these same themes, though not as effectively (hence remaining unpublished). It’s clearly something I had to write about. And now that I’ve told this particular story of The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water, it feels like I’ve come up for air after a long submergence. You don’t get that release by ignoring the pain of the past. It only comes from dealing with it.
In the story, the novelist Robert says the point of being a novelist is to “tell the truth.” Can you expound on this with regard to your own writing, and how you want this story to resonate with your reader?
Erin: I know that many readers like the escapism that fiction promises—the ability to inhabit another world, be another person, learn about another culture, live in another time. I like all of that too.
But for me, when I read fiction I also want to come away with a greater understanding of humankind, a greater empathy for people I am otherwise likely to judge too quickly, a deeper appreciation for virtue, a greater aversion to vice, and a kinder outlook toward myself.
I like my fiction to be a mirror, showing all the ugly and all the beauty. I want my reading to make me a better person. And that doesn’t mean I want moralistic stories. Far from it. I want truthful stories that point me toward the kind of self-examination that leads to personal growth because it’s helped me come to my own conclusions about life and humanity and God and what we owe one another while we walk this earth. And because that’s what I like to read, that’s what I try to write.
Is Hidden Lake based on a real place in Michigan?
Erin: In my mind, Hidden Lake looks a lot like Thumb Lake in the northern Lower Peninsula. Lake culture is so ingrained in the life of Michiganders. If you don’t live on a lake, you’ve vacationed on one. I spent many carefree days on Lake Huron on family vacations or with my childhood best friend at her lakefront cottage. There are very particular sights, smells, and sounds you encounter at a lake, and it was a joy to bring the setting to life.
How well did you know Kendra at the outset? How much did her character evolve as you wrote?
Erin: I don’t think I’ve written a single main character that I didn’t already know intimately before beginning the first draft. Because they all, in some way, represent an aspect of my own personality.
They all have different stories and histories and challenges and likes and dislikes, but when I start to write a novel, it’s always to explore some question I need to answer for myself. So I know the kind person they are to begin with, and who I hope they will be at the end.
You’ve said you don’t outline. But what key elements did you want in the story from the get-go? Did you encounter any surprises along the way?
Erin: I already knew the setting intimately, the characters that would populate it, and the themes I wanted to explore (friendship, family, sexual abuse, truth and fiction, self-centeredness and self-examination, jealousy, etc.).
The exact order of events or even what those events would be? That evolves as I write. But I don’t know that I could say anything surprised me. When the story has been developing inside of you for as long as this one has, everything feels inevitable.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you enjoy North Woods and lake settings (as in The Girl Who Could Breathe Underwater), you might enjoy my pre-published novel Summer People, set in northern Minnesota (1983). The family is still reeling from losing a son and brother in a hunting accident five years prior, with a killer who cannot be found.
For another lake setting, you might also enjoy my split-time historical fiction, Fifteen Minutes with Mr. Baum. Set near Holland, Lake Michigan, and Lake Macatawa, this novel alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s. It highlights The Wonderful Wizard of Oz author, L. Frank Baum. I’m currently gathering a launch team for my historical fiction. Read more and watch the book trailer here.
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Erin Bartels Bio
Erin Bartels is the award-winning author of We Hope for Better Things, The Words between Us, All That We Carried, and The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water. Her short story “This Elegant Ruin” was a finalist in The Saturday Evening Post 2014 Great American Fiction Contest and her poetry has been published by The Lyric. She lives in the capital city of a state that is 40% water, 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. Find her on Instagram @erinbartelswrites, Facebook @ErinBartelsAuthor, and her website.
Join me next time for a visit with Rebecca Duvall Scott.
Meanwhile, have you read The Girl Who Could Breathe Underwater? Do you have a favorite lake you love to visit? Or a favorite lake memory? Answer in the comments below.