By Leah Wingenroth.
We are thrilled to welcome Julia Bartz to The Reading Corner to discuss her upcoming release The Writing Retreat, out February 21st!
Alex has all but given up on her dreams of becoming a published author when she receives a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: attend an exclusive, month-long writing retreat at the estate of feminist horror writer Roza Vallo. Even the knowledge that Wren, her former best friend and current rival, is attending doesn’t dampen her excitement.
But when the attendees arrive, Roza drops a bombshell—they must all complete an entire novel from scratch during the next month, and the author of the best one will receive a life-changing seven-figure publishing deal. Determined to win this seemingly impossible contest, Alex buckles down and tries to ignore the strange happenings at the estate, including Roza’s erratic behavior, Wren’s cruel mind games, and the alleged haunting of the mansion itself. But when one of the writers vanishes during a snowstorm, Alex realizes that something very sinister is afoot. With the clock running out, she’s desperate to discover the truth and save herself.
A claustrophobic and propulsive thriller exploring the dark side of female relationships and fame, The Writing Retreat is the unputdownable debut novel from a compelling new talent.
Hi Julia! Thanks so much for chatting with me – it was such a pleasure to get my hands on your new release. I couldn’t put it down! Have you ever attended a writer’s retreat yourself? Did it turn out anything like this one?
Thanks so much for saying that, Leah! I’ve actually never been on an official writing retreat. I always daydreamed about it, because having the opportunity to focus solely on my writing and commune with like-minded writers felt like such a delicious prospect. But for many years, I was working at a 9-to-5 and every aspect of a retreat felt prohibitive—from the time-consuming research and application phase, to the use of limited vacation days, to the cost (according to Booklist.com, most week-long retreats cost $2500 on average). When I was working on The Writing Retreat, I was able to fantasize about what my ideal retreat would look and feel like: namely, spending a whole month with my favorite author at their historic mansion. Though in the book, of course, things don’t turn out so well for the participants.
One common thread throughout the novel that weaves these very different people together is the process, the act of writing. What does your writing process look like? Did you work on a similar “diamonds are made under pressure” type of schedule?
When writing my last two (unpublished) books, I did put pressure on myself to write a certain amount every day, meet self-imposed deadlines for drafts, etc. The trouble is that when the books didn’t ultimately find representation, it felt like such a letdown. After pushing myself so hard, I felt like I was back at square one. When I had the idea for my third book, I knew I needed to think about this project in a different way—otherwise I would not have the energy to complete it, especially since I was in the midst of a career change to become a therapist. I decided I wanted to focus on the joy of the writing process itself, without any expectations for what would happen with it after. And though it wasn’t always a delightful experience day-to-day, lessening the pressure really helped it feel more manageable and allowed me keep going with it. In general, my writing schedule is to write first thing in the morning—otherwise there will be too many other distractions during the day. I also allow myself to take breaks to focus on the plotting, or to let my unconscious work on issues that I can’t consciously figure out.
Through their stressful, perilous experience, the strength of female friendships really empowered the writers to persevere within these hellish circumstances. Where do you find camaraderie that empowers your creative work?
I moved to New York in late 2008 with my sister Andrea Bartz (who’s also an author). We got an apartment and fell in with this group of creatives, many of whom were writers. Though many have since moved, I’m lucky enough to be in close contact with many of these people today. If I didn’t have their support, I honestly don’t know if I would’ve continued writing after I had to shelve my first two books. But these friends were absolutely convinced that I would find an audience at some point. Also, at this stage, it’s incredibly helpful to have friends—old and new—who have been through the publishing process. There’s a lot to learn, so I really appreciate being able to text my writer friends with any questions.
I just hate to love Roza! Her personality is larger than life (in a few different ways) and so magnetic. She seems to live entirely within her own mythology. Did you have a feminist writer of yore in mind that helped you to shape this character?
I’ve admired a lot of feminist authors over the years (Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison, etc.) but in terms of feeling connected to one, I always think of Natalie Goldberg, who I first read around age twelve. Living in the Midwest suburbs, I was so struck by her books, which are ostensibly about writing but also explore how to live an authentic and fulfilling life. As a teen, I envied her freedom living as a queer Zen Buddhist writer in New Mexico, and I also took her writing practice advice very seriously. Many years later I interviewed her for my blog BookStalker and it was so strange to talk to this woman who I’d make into this mythical mentor figure in my mind. She was friendly and casual, but of course she was human, too. In The Writing Retreat I wanted to explore the idea of author worship and mentorship, although in a darker way. In more recent years, I found myself intrigued by the idea of a trickster mentor who can push you to great heights, but who may destroy you in the process—such as Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs, Terence Fletcher in Whiplash, or even Annie Wilkes in Misery.
I really loved how you blended the psychosis and mind games with reality, causing even the reader with an outside perspective to question what is and isn’t actually happening in the novel. What did you enjoy writing the most – the progression of events in real time or the underlying hauntings and horror stories?
I love that question! I think I see them as being completely intertwined and happening simultaneously, both on the surface and underneath the surface. I found it especially fun to write towards the end of the book when the below-the-surface or unconscious elements started breaking into the conscious reality of the story. As a therapist, I’ve been trained to hold both the conscious and unconscious in mind, so I think that helped me balance both elements. For example, in a therapy session, there are the conscious, practical elements of what the client is sharing and wants to work on. At the same time, the therapist should also be aware of more unconscious elements: what’s being avoided, or maybe that the client won’t make eye contact when talking about a certain topic. Or, the therapist and client may actively go into the unconscious together, whether that’s exploring dreams, fantasies, memories, or somatic experiences. This is all to say that all of us experience both, even if we’re not fully aware of it, and it was fun to focus on this in the book.
Blackbriar Mansion was almost akin to Ramsay’s summer house in Woolf’s To The Lighthouse in that it had its own story to tell. What inspired you to choose the House of Leaves-esque estate to house both Daphne’s and Alex’s parallel stories?
Great references! House of Leaves really creeped me out. I love haunted house stories in general; some of my favorites include Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Stephen King’s The Shining, and Tananarive Due’s The Good House. They’re so useful for multiple reasons: to show the unconscious or shadow elements underpinning the story, to echo the mental state of the characters, and also to trap the characters inside to rachet up the tension.
How did you choose which writer was going to write which novel?
Coming up with the novel ideas was really a character exercise, in figuring out what themes and plotlines each character would be interested in exploring. I also wanted their novels to give clues about what they might potentially do later in the book. For example, one character wants to write about betrayal, which is something to note (unless it’s a red herring??). For Roza’s stories, there was an additional layer to consider about the genesis of the stories which made it even more complex. So it did take quite a bit of reflection and retooling, but it was also an enjoyable part of the process! As for figuring out the titles of Roza’s novels, I was able to find a shortcut in noticing the delicate and slightly eerie names of roses in the Brooklyn Botanic garden (Lion’s Rose, Maiden Pink, Polar Star, etc.).
If you were in Roza’s place, whose novel would you have picked for the publishing deal?
That is such a good question, and so hard for me to say! I think Roza could have chosen any one of them, honestly. She invited all five women because she knew they’d been inspired by her and wanted to write about topics that she too would find interesting.
There are many different kinds of lessons and paradigm shifts contained within the novel. What is the biggest takeaway you want your readers to come away with?
This may sound strange with such a disturbing story, but I really want readers to come away feeling less shame and more compassion towards themselves—whether that means accepting the very normal parts of all of us that feel too dark or inappropriate, or reframing failure and rejection as being more systemic and cultural realities rather than personal shortcomings. After my second book didn’t “make it,” I felt like a failed writer, and it led to a depression that caused me to seek therapy for the first time (which ironically helped me find a new and more fulfilling career). But the truth is, it’s difficult to be a paid artist in a society that often doesn’t support its creatives—even more so if those people are from marginalized communities. In addition to fighting the inequality underpinning that, and figuring out how to societally value our artists more, I think we also need to reframe our idea of success and figure out how to enjoy our lives in ways that are within our control. I’m currently reading Tricia Hersey’s Rest is Resistance, which has been blowing my mind because it holds out this slower way of living as opposed to the grind and hustle/productivity culture that many of us grew up with and adhere to, including in the creative realm. This idea that I have an inherent right to rest and enjoy myself is new to me, and something I’m exploring further in my next book.
And finally, where and when can readers get their hands on your new release?
People can get THE WRITING RETREAT wherever they get their books, including Bookshop, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. Thanks so much for reading and for these thought-provoking questions!
Julia Bartz is a Brooklyn-based writer and practicing therapist. Her fiction writing has appeared in The South Dakota Review, InDigest Magazine, and more. The Writing Retreat is her first novel. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaBartz and Instagram at @JuliaBartz.
Julia’s Instagram: @JuliaBartz
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