From the fish in her Wellesley dorm room to her current pets — a tortoise, a dog, a small flock of pigeons and a group of 15 fish — pets have always been important to the life of E.B. Bartels ’10, who published her debut book Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here and Hereafter in Aug. 2022. On Nov. 14, Bartels spoke about her book at a public Wellesley event sponsored by the English Department and Writing Program and moderated by Ann Zhao ’24. Bartels organized the event in coordination with Professor Jeannine Johnson, director of the Writing Program, who has hosted Bartels as a visiting speaker in Wellesley writing courses almost every year since 2018.
“Writing is hard and lonely … I honestly feel like I wouldn’t have been able to write a book without all the support I’ve gotten from Wellesley professors, staff, alums and even current students excited about my book,” Bartels said.
Her book is a nonfiction exploration of people’s love for pets in life and different ways of loving and mourning pets when they die. Bartels first began exploring this topic while completing her MFA program at Columbia University. When she was not working on her thesis, Bartels wrote personal essays about her past pets and her experiences of grief when these pets died. As a child, she felt like her pets were close companions, especially as her older siblings grew up and spent more time away from home.
“My pets were really like my best friends and my companions,” Bartels said. “I loved animals. I felt like I could be my weird self around them and they wouldn’t judge me.”
She remembers her classmates showing interest in her stories and sharing their own experiences with pets and mourning. Bartels was fascinated by her research on the significance of pets and traditions for mourning them. She sold the book in 2019, and her own relationship with pets shifted as she wrote it.
“I think that writing this book … made me a little less anxious about all the ways pets can die and made me feel more appreciative of just thinking about now and appreciating the time we have together, even if it’s short,” Bartels said.
She was interested in writing from a young age and first fell in love with nonfiction in high school when asked to write a collection of vignettes based on her life. Towards the end of high school, Bartels took a Wellesley summer course on creative nonfiction and decided that she would continue studying the genre.
“I totally fell in love with writing and nonfiction and felt like [nonfiction] was a way that I could express myself … in a way as creative and artful as fiction but with tools that I was better equipped with,” Bartels said, who always felt that nonfiction writing came more naturally to her.
Bartels gained confidence in her writing at Wellesley, where she was a staff writer for Counterpoint and wrote a monthly column about her experiences studying abroad in Russia. She recalls her faculty advisor supporting her work by sending her email responses about her column.
Throughout her career, Bartels has gained experience through freelance writing and teaching writing, and in 2021, she joined the Wellesley Office of Communications & Public Affairs staff. Presenting her book at Wellesley, she hoped to continue to share her writing experience with students and others who love pets or are interested in writing. Although Zhao has not had many pets in her life, she found the book moving.
“Good Grief is a really great book,” Zhao said. “I remember really enjoying it and really feeling a lot of emotions about pets and what happens when they’re alive and what happens when they die.”
During the event, Bartels read passages of her book and answered questions from Zhao and members of the audience. According to Zhao, Bartels invited her to moderate the event after their many conversations about writing. Zhao’s upcoming book Dear Wendy is set to be released in 2024, and she meets with Bartels occasionally to talk about writing and publishing.
“It’s been really nice talking together about books,” Zhao said.
Bartels shared that she enjoys connecting with other writers through Wellesley events and alum networks.
“My one piece of advice to any Wellesley student who is interested in writing is to definitely reach out to Wellesley alums,” Bartels said. “The Wellesley community has just been so supportive of me as a writer,” she added.