By Laia Feliu.
We are very happy to welcome Ashley Winstead to The Reading Corner to discuss her upcoming thriller “The Last Housewife”, out August 16th!
While in college in upstate New York, Shay Evans and her best friends met a captivating man who seduced them with a web of lies about the way the world works, bringing them under his thrall. By senior year, Shay and her friend Laurel were the only ones who managed to escape. Now, eight years later, Shay’s built a new life in a tony Texas suburb. But when she hears the horrifying news of Laurel’s death—delivered, of all ways, by her favorite true-crime podcast crusader—she begins to suspect the past she thought she buried is still very much alive, the predators more dangerous than ever.
Recruiting the help of the podcast host, Shay goes back to the place she vowed never to return to in search of answers. As she follows the threads of her friend’s life, she’s pulled into a dark, seductive world, where wealth and privilege shield brutal philosophies that feel all too familiar. When Shay’s obsession with uncovering the truth becomes so consuming she can no longer separate her desire for justice from darker desires newly reawakened, she must confront the depths of her own complicity and conditioning. But in a world built for men to rule it—both inside the cult and outside of it—is justice even possible, and if so, how far will Shay go to get it?
Hi Ashley! Firstly, thank you so much for your time! I am not going to lie, when I finished “The Last Housewife” I found myself asking “what the heck did I just read”! It was a fantastic read with incredible plot twists and depth. I have recommended it to everyone I know!
That means the world—thank you so much! What wonderful questions—it was truly a joy to sit and think and answer these.
With everything going on in the world right now, and the situation women have been put in in many countries, I wouldn’t be surprised if an organisation like the Paters existed somewhere in the world, trying to control women in such a dark way. How much was your creation of this story, if at all, influenced by the way the patriarchy tries to govern women?
That is absolutely the heart of the book—well, I should say the heart of the book is my exploration of what it’s like to be a woman in the world right now governed by patriarchal powers both within and outside the government. I’m writing and speaking from an American perspective, and America in 2022 is a place that is in some ways freer and more empowering for women than it has been in the past and in other ways is so deeply dangerous and limiting—and literally, in terms of some legal rights, a less free place than it has been. There’s a moment in THE LAST HOUSEWIFE where one character calls the Paters a retrograde movement, and another corrects him: men and ideas like the Paters are an ever-present reality. The veneers masking them in government and business and social life just become more and less opaque throughout the years.
I started writing this book because I was fascinated by why women join cults like Nxivm or the Sarah Lawrence sex cult, voluntarily following men who not only abuse them but teach them gender essentialist myths about what being a woman means; teach them that males are inherently different and superior; that self-debasement can be a path toward enlightenment (before you scoff, it’s an important tenet in a lot of religions, too). It was hard to wrap my head around, for example, college students at Sarah Lawrence falling for these things, so I wanted to explore the psychological process of how it could happen.
But as I started writing, THE LAST HOUSEWIFE became much more than a story about a woman falling into a cult and having to claw her way back. Through Shay, my main character, I was able to explore what it’s like to grow up a cis heterosexual woman who is taught her power resides in appealing to men, who is constantly at men’s mercy, and who struggles with her imperfect reactions to these power dynamics—for example, her resolve folds sometimes when she needs it most, in other moments she actually desires her own subjugation. So with HOUSEWIFE I was trying to explore what it’s like to be a woman—a white, cis, heterosexual woman, because that’s my embodied experience—in twenty-first century America, ostensibly free and yet so contorted by patriarchy, even—especially—at the deepest level of our thoughts and feelings, things that are supposed to be uniquely ours. Shay’s experience of being both physically and mentally is what I think a lot of women have experienced for a long time.
As weird as this might sound, one of my favourite things reading your book was how hard some ideas or situations were to process. I had to step back a few times because of the intensity of some scenes, especially when Shay is narrating her story for the podcast. How did you come up with the idea of her sharing her story with the world through Jamie’s podcast?
There are a few different reasons I chose to convey Shay’s past through her podcast interviews. The first and most important is that it’s the first time Shay’s gotten to tell her own story, so I knew it needed to be in her voice. Like the fictional character Scheherazade she speaks to throughout the frame narrative, Shay’s main source of power and control in THE LAST HOUSEWIFE is the story she’s stitching together for Jamie—she gets to show him what she wants him to see about her life and obscure the parts she doesn’t. Through the podcast narrative, she’s simultaneously exploring who she is for her own purposes and fashioning a vision of herself for Jamie and the reader, for reasons that become clear later in the book.
Another reason is a practical one: there are some scenes so intense that experiencing them as they unfold is too much. You need the mediation of the podcast as a way to shield the reader from brutality. And even though it’s still hard to read, it’s less intense when you have Jamie interjecting and Shay pausing to clarify, things like that. Choosing to tell the story of Shay’s past through transcripts—i.e., dialogue only—was risky because it limited what I could do. I couldn’t write a paragraph of description to set a mood, for example, or interject some poetic observation, because that would sound very artificial as Shay’s or Jamie’s dialogue—there’s no way a person would really talk that way. So I did wrestle with whether to show the past in a straightforward Now/Then format versus the podcast dialogue, but ultimately I think having Shay be the storyteller is how this book needed to unfold.
With all that said, I think there is immense power in encountering something so visceral, so brutal, so shocking, that you have to step away. It can’t go on forever, of course, otherwise no reader would be able to get through your book (counterpoint: JUSTINE by the Marquis de Sade has been read many times, and that’s the most brutal book imaginable). But select moments can be powerful. I think we all get numb to pain and injustice and violence and tragedy as a consequence of needing to survive our daily lives—we tend to push those harsher realities away to get through the day. But books can be safe places to encounter intense feelings, sometimes even places to experiment with reopening wounds, as long as we’re taking care of ourselves.
You were able to create a fascinating horror story and a romance at the same time. How did Shay and Jamie’s story develop? Did it evolve as you wrote the novel, or was that always part of your vision for The Last Housewife?
Thank you! Shay and Jamie’s story might be one of the most romantic I’ve ever written, which is probably strange in that it’s part of such a dark book. It was always in my head from the beginning. First, to cite the frame story of Scheherazade again, in which Scheherazade essentially makes a king fall in love with her over the course of one thousand nights of telling him stories, there is something seductive at the heart of storytelling, of hooking and luring someone in, especially if you’re telling someone a story as intimate as the story of your life, things no one else has ever heard, the way Shay is with Jamie. What an extraordinary show of vulnerability and intimacy. So I think that set-up is inherently romantic and seductive.
Shay, for her part, very much understands what she is doing with the podcast as a form of seduction, and so the second thing the story gets with the inclusion of Shay and Jamie’s love story is a red herring—you’re so focused on Shay and Jamie you don’t pay attention to who Shay’s really trying to seduce.
Lastly, I think it’s important to tell stories that weave light and dark together. I think we as humans seek hope and softness, kindness and pleasure even when—maybe especially when—we are in our darkest and most trying moments. So it felt like Shay and Jamie’s romance was the counterbalance the story needed. And of course Jamie would feel the way he does about Shay. It’s an inevitability, part of the magic she can’t turn off, beautiful or tragic depending on who you ask.
Shay managed to create a new life for herself before the events of The Last Housewife. She has a new husband, who is controlling and paranoid. Did you ever toy with the idea of him making an appearance in one of the Paters events as one of them?
No, I never thought about that because I always wanted Cal to embody ordinary, quotidian misogyny—not the extreme and rare version of it we encounter with the Paters. It was actually important that Cal not have anything to do with the Paters because he is the bridge that connects these outrageous cult members to “regular guys”: the kinds of men readers might be likely to meet in their everyday lives.
And I want readers to understand that misogyny exists on a spectrum from the Dons of the world to the Cals, because accepting that means accepting men like Don and Cal play by the same rules, operate according to the same logic, even if someone like Cal would denounce the actions of a man like Don in polite company. The realization that Don and Cal are connected in values rather than by any social or group connection is an early understanding Shay has that is really important for her awakening.
The lucky readers who were able to get their hands on your book before publication have been raving about it, giving you amazing reviews and talking about it on social media. Were you worried about how the public would receive your novel, bearing in mind it has pretty much every single trigger readers could possibly imagine?
This is such a good question. When you write an intense book like The Last Housewife, you know it’s probably not destined to be a book club book or a beach book or a book your grandpa recommends to his gardening club (unless you have a badass grandpa). So the hopes I had for my first two books about finding a wide readership and appealing to book clubs kind of immediately went out the window from the moment I conceived of HOUSEWIFE. I ended up just accepting my readership would look different with this book because it was so important to me to write this story. As a writer, you always pay a price to write a book that goes out into the world, and this is HOUSEWIFE’s price.
I’m therefore very grateful to see early readers taking a chance on it—because this book is so personal and so important to me, and because I took what I felt was a risk to my career, each positive response means more than I can express.
The Last housewife is a propulsive, unputdownable thriller with a dark, beating heart. It chilled me to the bone, and I am not easily scared. Did you ever have to take a break from writing because of the intensity of a scene?
I don’t know what this says about me, but the most intense scenes are the ones I can’t walk away from. I take my writing breaks during the lighter scenes.
Sometimes I do step back and read what I’ve written and think, “huh, that might be a little intense?” But I never trust my own judgment, so I’ll wait to read it to someone else and see what they think. Responses to THE LAST HOUSEWIFE from my husband, agent, and editor (the first readers) were…let’s say dramatic. I still smile remembering my agent’s email back to me after reading the first draft of HOUSEWIFE. It just said “What the f*&k?” I had to inquire in a follow up whether that was a good or bad wtf. (It was good.)
Are there any books within the genre, or with similar messages to “The Last Housewife” you could recommend?
Absolutely. Recommending books is my love language.
Great books where women take things into their own hands with men who have wronged them (or other women): THEY NEVER LEARN by Layne Fargo, NEVER SAW ME COMING by Vera Kurian, THE CHANGE by Kirsten Miller, and forthcoming THE LAST INVITATION by Darby Kane.
Great books that explore complicated power dynamics with sex at the center: YES, DADDY by Jonathan Parks-Ramage, LUSTER by Raven Leilani, MY DARK VANESSA by Kate Elizabeth Russell.
And, of course, this is the year of the cult book, so if readers are into that aspect, I highly recommend THE BURNING SEASON by Alison Wisdom and I’LL BE YOU by Janelle Brown.
And last but not least, where can everyone get their hands on this incredible thriller?
Anywhere books are sold! Talk Shop Live is offering signed copies here: https://www.talkshop.live/watch/Hh7ryUdfMDC8
And Houston indie bookstore Murder By The Book is offering signed copies here (I’m happy to personalize it to you—just leave a note!): https://www.murderbooks.com/book/9781728229911
Ashley Winstead holds a Ph.D. in contemporary American literature from Southern Methodist University and a B.A. in English and Art History from Vanderbilt University. She lives in Houston, TX, where she drinks red wine and dreams up novels.
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