Years ago, when I taught high school art, I wanted students to embrace the process of creating art and enjoy the journey. That’s why I graded their steps along the way, not just the end-product.
My motto was: Creating a Product without the Process is like having the Sizzle without the Steak.
I liken the Sizzle to the finished work of art—the Product. That’s what the kids—and sometimes the parents—cared about the most. But I consider the Process as the Steak—the substance, the thing that nourishes us. It’s the learning and problem-solving while creating. Read more here.
While some students wanted to rush through the process to get to the finished product, other students balked at the idea of creating a pre-defined product as stipulated by the teacher. They were compelled to follow their muse in different directions but had to toe the line so they could meet requirements and get a decent grade.
I could feel their pain.
Have you ever been in a quandary over creating something from the heart versus creating what’s expected? Whether it’s a drawing, a song, or a novel? Has anyone ever dictated the outcome when all you wanted was to enjoy the process and make something that best reflected your identity and message?
It’s a whole push-pull over art versus product.
That’s a part of what musicians Michael Sullivan and Natalie Wheeler are dealing with in Everything is Just Beginning by Erin Bartels. It’s about music rather than visual art, and it’s in 1990 near Detroit, but it’s the same dilemma.
Do I create from the heart or do I fit into the straight jacket of rules people expect me to follow? Fulfillment is rarely found in others’ approval, especially in the arts, but there’s a tradeoff for following the muse wherever it leads.
My high school and college years were in the 1970s, so I enjoyed the novel’s references to 1970s and ’80s music. Also, I’m married to a man who has listened to all manner of 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s music on his turntable for decades—until three months ago when he gave it all to our son who will continue the tradition.
We had over 400 albums, all vinyl, from Billy Joel, James Taylor, and the Eagles (and later Don Henley) to Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Paul Simon, Phil Collins . . . the list goes on.
Whether or not you know the music in this story doesn’t matter. The characters, themes, and dilemmas still ring true and hit home in various ways.
Erin wrote her own music and lyrics for this novel. After reading the book, you’ll find a QR code at the end so you can hear it yourself.
Erin has been my guest before:
An Immersive Story of Music, Struggle, and Starting Over from an Award-Winning Author
Michael Sullivan is a talented lyricist and a decent guitarist, but since he was kicked out of his band (and his apartment), he’s not sure he’ll ever get a record deal. Living with his loser uncle in a beat-up trailer and working a dead-end job, Michael has little reason to hope for a better future. Until the invitation for a swanky New Year’s Eve party shows up in the mailbox. It’s for his uncle, with whom he shares his name, but his uncle is going out of town . . .
On the effervescent night of December 31, 1989–as the Berlin Wall is coming down, the Soviet Union is inching toward democracy, and anything seems possible–Michael will cross paths with the accomplished and enigmatic young heir to a fading musical dynasty, forever altering both of their futures.
Award-winning novelist Erin Bartels enchants with this story of two lonely souls who have exactly what the other one needs–if they could simply turn their focus from what is ending to what is just beginning.
Music is a thread that weaves through this book, tying it together, but if you’re not a fan of 1970s and ’80s music, fear not. There’s more to this story. At the heart of it are themes of forgiveness, family, second chances, healing, moving on, letting go . . . and the nature of art and creating.
If you do love music, particularly from that era, you’re in for a treat. You’ll appreciate the details about certain songs or musicians. You’ll love the Listening Room, which is like entering holy ground. There’s a right way to listen to music—to really listen. And these people know how.
The narrator, guitarist Michael Sullivan, pulled me in immediately, with his unique voice. He’s had a rough time—raised by a single mom, with a father who stepped out of his life. He was recently kicked out of his band and apartment, but he has big dreams.
Ironically, he’s working so hard to not be like his loser uncle—his namesake—yet in the very first chapter he does something sneaky.
Down on his luck, Michael is living in a trailer with Uncle Mike, but it’s across the street from the musically renowned Wheeler family—which could be the best piece of luck he’s had in a long time. It starts on New Year’s Eve when for once in his life, Michael is glad to share the same name as his no-good uncle. He goes to the party Uncle Mike was invited to. Too bad Mike’s out of town.
I didn’t always agree with Michael’s decisions and assessments, but I never doubted him. He was authentic and transparent. It was easy to identify with him and his struggles, his thinking process, his aspirations, and his fears.
Natalie Wheeler has an attitude. Sassy and no-nonsense, she says what she wants. She takes charge of a situation, kind of like a benevolent dictator, definitely not needing anyone’s approval. And her mother is dying from cancer, daily taking its toll on Natalie. Over time, Michael gets the chance to know the whole person.
Natalie’s parents are Dusty and Deb Wheeler. Rough around the edges, Dusty is a respected music producer, while humble and gracious Deb was a famous singer years ago. Though she’s fading away from cancer, she stands stark against the darkness and leaves a big imprint.
I liked the vibe between Michael and Natalie with their love for music and their respective insecurities. The story builds slowly to a particular concert with much at stake. Along the way are several surprises.
In this character-driven story of family dynamics and developing friendship, the tension increases not only because of the events, but because the author deftly makes us care for these people.
Join me for some Q & A with author Erin Bartels.
Questions about Everything is Just Beginning:
What was your inspiration for writing Everything is Just Beginning? What’s your personal connection to the situation and setting—particularly the 1990 time period and the music?
I think it was inevitable that I would write about music and musicians at some point.
I grew up in a house where there was nearly always music playing. My dad is an audiophile, meaning his hobby is high-end stereo systems. Every day when he came home from work he changed his clothes, made a drink, and sat down to listen to music at high volume on great equipment. Usually it was on vinyl, though sometimes on the reel-to-reel and later on CD. In my parents’ current home, there are speakers and controls in the walls in every room and outside. There is simply always great music playing.
So I grew up appreciating music in a way not a lot of people do anymore. We sat down and listened to an album like you might sit down and watch a TV show. Now most people listen to low quality digital recordings on pretty crappy headphones or bluetooth speakers. It’s usually background noise rather than the main event. And usually it’s a playlist that an algorithm has chosen rather than an album that an artist put together.
On top of that, my mother was always singing—in the car, in the kitchen, at church, on stage. And I dated and later married a guy who had his own radio show, played bass in a couple bands, took me to concerts, and wrote me love songs on his acoustic guitar.
The choice to set the story right at the time when the 1980s were ending was very purposeful. I remember that time as one where people were really hopeful. There were all these geopolitical things happening that seemed impossible, like the Berlin Wall coming down and the Soviet Union breaking up. Most people were doing better socioeconomically. Women were making great strides on many fronts. Things just felt like they were always going to get bigger and better. And so I plopped a pretty hopeless guy into a hopeful time to see what would happen.
How did you create Michael and Natalie and their backstories?
I had been thinking about writing a story about a kind of aimless young male musician who meets a young female musician who really challenges him for a while. In fact, I had started another story years ago with that kind of set up. But at the time I don’t think I had something really pressing to say about it, so the story didn’t even get it’s legs under it before I abandoned it.
Then at some point that idea about musicians attached itself to pressures I was feeling in my writing life. You see, publishers like authors who write basically the same thing again and again because it’s far easier to market. This author writes Amish romance, that author writes romantic suspense that features ex-military, etc. It’s just easier to find and keep readers that way. But I have no desire to write the same kind of story over and over.
So I was thinking a lot about what would be smart career-wise (do the thing that sells, treat writing as a product only) versus what felt life-giving and enjoyable to me (write the thing that is on your heart and mind right now, the thing you are passionate about, regardless of what the market is expecting).
Michael has the first attitude—he wants to fit into a particular mold of what is popular now so that he can reach for fame and fortune. Natalie has the second—create work that you love and enjoy, regardless of what the industry says it wants. And their characters grew out of those fundamental attitudes. Give the people what they think they want versus show the people something they didn’t even know they wanted.
In my writing life, I want to be Natalie.
Why did you choose to write from Michael’s point of view? What challenges did that create? Do you prefer writing from a man’s or a woman’s perspective?
I never considered writing this story from a female perspective. I guess it may be because I didn’t want to tell a story about the unique challenges a young woman would face in the music industry in 1990. I wanted it to focus less on gender and more on the fundamental artist’s struggle—is it art or a product, or both? So in a sense, I chose the easier perspective to write from. A guy’s point of view, in this case, is less complicated.
I loved writing Michael. I knew his voice immediately. I found it effortless. There were only one or two places in the narrative when I had my husband read it where he said, “I don’t think a guy would say this.” So in those few spots I made adjustments. But other than that, it was very natural.
Even though I love wearing dresses, I grew up a tomboy and have always preferred the company of most men to most women. And I think because I started dating my husband when I was 15, we were engaged when I was 18, and I was married before I turned 21, the guys I’ve gone to school with or worked with or gone to church with never saw me as a romantic prospect, which I think meant they were more themselves around me. I was just kind of one of the guys. As a writer, that’s the kind of access you need. You sit back and absorb the way people talk and the things they talk about.
And I wouldn’t say I prefer one gender’s POV over another. It all depends on the story you’re trying tell.
Did Michael hijack the story or did you have full rein? What would Michael and/or Natalie have to say about you?
I know a lot of authors who talk about their characters taking over, but that doesn’t really happen to me. Perhaps it’s because I don’t do much planning or plotting ahead of time, so there is nothing in particular from which a character might deviate. I develop the story and the characters together, as I write.
My view is that, in any given situation the writer throws at her characters, there are a finite number of choices the character can make within the story world that is being built. And generally the most interesting choice, the choice that will make for the most entertaining story and the most satisfying character arc, is the one that will get that character further into trouble. So that’s a conscious choice I make again and again. What will make things harder on this character and what will make this character grow, whether they want to or not?
As for what Michael or Natalie would say about me…I think they would find me a kindred spirit. After all, I created them. 😊
How well did you know the plot and other key characters (Dusty, Deb, Uncle Mike) when you started out? How did they evolve?
In some ways, not at all. In other ways, very well. How’s that for a non-answer? Let me try again…
I don’t plot out my books. I start with a character or two, give them some challenges, and then see what unfolds as I write. But that doesn’t mean I go in blind. I have some idea of the kind of emotional resonance or pathos I want the book to have, the kinds of struggles the characters will go through. But it will be in a more philosophical sense than any concrete plan when I’ve started out on the first draft.
Like in the case of this story, I wanted to talk about the trouble with creating art to fit someone else’s expectations vs. the joy of creating art primarily for yourself, something that helps you express your true self in the most honest way possible.
Regarding supporting characters, I don’t do character inventories or interviews or figure out what personality type they have or where they fall on the Enneagram. I just create people who feel real to me, and, whether consciously or not, I draw on my own experiences with people over the course of my life to make my characters feel like living, breathing human beings.
There is a lot of my own parents in Dusty and Deb. Dusty’s listening room, his laid-back attitude, his penchant for cigars. Deb’s beautiful voice and thousand-watt smile. But I didn’t consciously model them after my parents.
Uncle Mike represents for Michael what failure looks like, so what better way to motivate him than to have him live with the worst version of his future self? But Mike’s not based on any particular real person. Whether they’d be impolite enough to say it, everyone knows someone who seems like a born loser, for whom nothing seems to work out, but who can’t see how their own choices have impacted their life negatively so they always blame some outside source or person. Everyone knows a Mike.
Once I had the ideas and the names for these characters, I knew exactly who they were, and they did not veer off course during the writing.
Your story references music of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. How did you decide which songs to include? Do you have personal memories attached to some of the songs? Can you share a couple?
I chose songs that I felt fit the particular moment of the story and the themes I was developing, and also songs that grounded the reader in that time. I grew up listening to all types of music from each of those decades, and I love hearing from readers how much they enjoyed remembering that time through the music they listened to.
GenXers like myself connect with Michael’s music choices. Boomers connect with what Dusty and Deb have in the listening room. Younger readers…I’m not sure. I hope the book sends them to Spotify or iTunes or wherever they get their music to listen to some great artists they may never had heard of. Maybe some of them will buy a turntable and start their own record collection. That would be cool.
As for my own attachments, I have Michael and Natalie play a couple songs for each other that I enjoy playing—”Don’t Think Twice” by Bob Dylan and “Landslide” by Stevie Nicks—and they listen to artists I grew up listening to, either with my parents or on my own—like Billie Holiday, Dire Straits, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Miles Davis, the Indigo Girls, Def Leppard, Guns N’ Roses, and tons more.
What did you have to research to make this story authentic? What’s the strangest or most interesting thing you had to do or look up to create this story?
I actually didn’t have to do a lot of research for this story. I interviewed a young friend who has been in various bands for the past ten years, asking him about his goals and struggles and hopes for the future.
I had another friend who was active in the 1980s and 1990s music scene in Detroit read over an early draft to make sure my representation of a particular concert venue was accurate. And I read an enlightening book just for some background information on the music scene in Dusty and Deb’s heyday—that was Detroit Rock City: The Uncensored History of Rock’n’Roll in America’s Loudest City by Steve Miller.
But probably the most interesting thing I did was to write and record original songs for the book—my young musician friend even helped me out on some of that, providing some vocals and guitar work. Some of those can be found on a secret webpage that can only be accessed with a QR code found at the end of the book and a password that is drawn from the book. It sparked a more general interest in songwriting in me, and I’m happy to add that hobby to my ever-growing collection.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you like stories set in Michigan in previous decades, you might enjoy my dual timeline novel, Fifteen Minutes with Mr. Baum. This story spotlights L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Set in Holland, Michigan, this pre-published novel alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s. Read more and watch the book trailer here.
If you like stories about family dynamics and secrets—particularly Southern fiction—you might enjoy my re-launched novel All That Is Hidden. Set near North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains in 1968, the story spotlights the bond of family and the connections of a tight-knit community. Northern exploitation threatens as a father’s hidden past catches up to him and tests family ties. Learn more and watch the trailer here.
All That Is Hidden awards:
- Winner of the Artisan Book Reviews Book Excellence Award
- Semifinalist in Serious Writer’s Book of the Decade contest
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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. A two-time Christy finalist and winner of two 2020 WFWA Star Awards and the 2020 Michigan Notable Book Award, Erin has been a publishing professional for more than twenty years. 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 author Mollie Rushmeyer.
Meanwhile, have you read Everything is Just Beginning or any others by Erin Bartels? Have you read any music-themed novels? Answer in the comments below.
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