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The Writing Retreat

A Novel

LIST PRICE $27.00

About The Book

THE INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

“Sex, suspense, and the supernatural fuel this propulsive debut.” —People
“Darkly satirical and action-packed....An absolutely splendid debut!” —Wendy Walker, nationally bestselling author of Don’t Look for Me

The Plot meets Please Join Us in this psychological suspense debut about a young author at an exclusive writer’s retreat that descends into a nightmare.

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 must discover the truth—or suffer the same fate.

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.

Excerpt

Chapter 1 Chapter 1
Fuck her.

These were the words that got me down the subway steps. I was going to Ursula’s book party, and if Wren was there, too, well, she could just go fuck herself.

But my fingers were shaking in the moment before I gripped the subway pole. So much for bravado. And I had to admit: this wild, frenetic energy coursing through me wasn’t rage, exactly. It was more like abject terror.

Friday night commuters filled the sweaty subway car. I stood over two seated girls who were maybe in high school, their mascara-laden eyes darting, hands pulling nervously at hair. One leaned in and said something into the other’s ear. She nodded sagely, and they regarded each other with smirks.

The interaction jabbed like a penknife in the ribs. Their shared world. Their undeniable certainty that they were a team. It reminded me of early days with Wren, holding hands as we rode out to Bushwick, wearing cheap pleather leggings, swigging from a shared plastic bottle of vodka and soda.

Stop. I curled my fist in my pocket, digging my fingernails into my palm. I couldn’t show up like this, with soft, pathetic yearning in my eyes. Wren and I were no longer best friends. Or friends at all. And that was fine. I was thirty years old. It didn’t make sense that I was still so broken up about a goddamn friendship.

The doors slid open. I followed a small stream of people out, throwing a final glance back at the teen girls. One stared directly at me, her gaze both curious and hostile.

Pete was waiting for me in the hotel lobby, a mishmash of leather couches, gleaming wood surfaces, and golden chandeliers.

“Alex, hello!” He jumped up, then stuck his hands in his pockets and grinned. “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m definitely not cool enough to be here.”

I’d been more relieved than I’d let on that Pete, my one work friend, had agreed to come to the book party. Seeing him in his smudged glasses, loose jeans, and non-ironic running shoes caused my heart rate to slow.

“Careful.” I smiled, shrugging off my heavy coat. “They can smell your fear.”

He chattered as we walked towards the basement steps and I tried to focus on his words. Pete and I had only started hanging out outside work recently, and while part of me enjoyed his unselfconsciously affable personality, another part was bereft. I could almost hear Wren’s amused voice: Really? This nerd is your new bestie?

At the top of the stairs, two women blew past us, waves of flowery perfume streaming off their fur-trimmed coats. I felt like I was in a dream as I followed Pete down the steps, studying the back of his head as he kept half turning to explain something ridiculous his boss had done that day.

At the bottom a hallway stretched in both directions. From the right came the sounds of laughter and clinking glasses, undercut by some kind of buzzing electronic music. A mirror ran down the hallway, a thin strip cutting us off below the shoulders. I looked like a disembodied ghoul: pale skin marked with red blotches from the cold, eyes teary from the wind, dark hair staticky from my hat. I tried to bend my mouth into a smile. I’d redone my makeup before leaving work, adding extra eyeliner and lipstick, but I worried it only made me look false and weird.

We strode towards the music. A marquis sign with pressed-in letters greeted us at the open doorway: URSULA’S BOOK RELEASE!! WELCOME BITCHES!!!!!

Beyond was a wall of people. It looked like a living thing, blinking and shimmering and pushing various tentacles towards the bar. My stomach plummeted. I’d never been afraid of crowds before. In fact, I’d always thrown myself in—at dance parties, sweaty basement shows, art galleries so packed that you knew someone was going to knock over a sculpture.

But now I was afraid. More than that: on the verge of a panic attack.

“Yikes.” Pete considered. “I can literally feel my social anxiety rising.”

The words made me smile. “Me too.”

“What do you think?” Pete studied me. I knew that if for whatever reason I wanted to leave, he’d take it in stride. He’d probably offer an alternative: a beer, a snack nearby.

But I had to do this. True, I hadn’t seen Wren since that awful day—her birthday, nearly a year ago now. Sure, I’d stalked her social media, watching as her beauty editor job had earned her a blue check mark. I’d seen her style change, her dark bangs go blunt instead of choppy, her growing proclivity for designer jackets. I couldn’t comprehend seeing her in person; it’d be like confronting a ghost who’d come back to life.

“Let’s make for the bar.” I said it grimly and Pete laughed.

“Here we go!” We plunged into the crowd. Pete slithered up to the bar, leaving me a few steps behind. It was sweltering and loud, guests shout-talking to be heard over the music, slurping drinks like it was 2:00 a.m. instead of early evening. I glanced surreptitiously around. My breath caught in my throat as I saw the back of her sleek dark bob. But she turned and no—it wasn’t her. I forced myself to take a deep breath. Maybe she wouldn’t come; maybe she was out of town or something. Wouldn’t that be hilarious, all that panic for nothing?

“Jesus.” Pete returned with two beers. “These cost twelve dollars each! I thought that was the whole point of book parties—free booze!”

“Thanks. I’ll Venmo you.” I took the glass gratefully and gulped.

“Hmm.” Pete squinted at the crowd like a shipman searching the horizon. “Maybe let’s go over there where it’s more chill.” I followed him into the main room with the stage. We made it to the back wall and both leaned against it with relief. The tightness in my chest eased.

“That’s Ursula, right?” Pete gestured with his glass.

“That’s her.” She stood near the stage, holding court with a semicircle of admirers.

“How’d you meet her again?”

“A writing group. A long time ago.” Seeing her in the flesh—tortoiseshell glasses and animal-print dress against pale tattooed skin and hot-pink hair—made me relax further. It was a bit sad that the fear of seeing Wren had made me forget about the point of this whole event: to celebrate Ursula’s success.

I’d met Ursula through Wren, actually, shortly after meeting Wren at work. An image reared up: Wren in her signature vintage black rabbit fur coat and red lipstick. She’d been assigned to train me as an assistant, though she’d been working at the educational publishing company only a few months longer than me. That first morning with Wren, I’d known—instantly—what becoming friends meant: secret dance parties in abandoned warehouses, madcap dates ending with kisses in forlorn alleys, boozy brunches laughing over the night before. It was as clear as if someone had whispered it into my ear. Wren was a ticket into the life I’d envisioned in my fantasies, staring out of the window of Mom’s broken-down hatchback as we raced over gray plains to get far away from her last disastrous boyfriend. Wren was the tornado that could pick me up and put me down in the midst of a luscious, Technicolor dreamworld.

But first I had to impress her. In an uncharacteristic burst of luck, it had happened before I could even make a plan. Leaning over my desk to help me log in, she’d seen the book I’d set down: Polar Star, the most recent Roza Vallo. I’d already read it, of course, having put a hold on it at the library before it had even come out. But the past few months of job hunting had been demoralizing, and I’d splurged on the gorgeous hardcover during a particularly low day.

“You like Roza Vallo?” Wren stared askance. I knew her skepticism stemmed from my uncool professional outfit: slacks and a pale blue button-up shirt. She loomed over me, a tall girl who wore platforms because she didn’t give a fuck about towering over everyone else.

“She’s my favorite author.” I calculated and continued: “She’s a big inspiration for me. For my writing, I mean.”

Wren’s ruby lips curved. “Me too.” She leaned in, eyes narrowing. “I kind of love your eyebrows. Where do you get them done?”

I fought not to touch them self-consciously. Was she referring to my inexpert plucking? “I do them myself.”

“Nice.” She yawned. “Lord, I’m hungover. Let’s get lunch.”

Though it was barely eleven, we’d soon found ourselves slurping spicy noodles while talking nonstop about our current writing projects. We were both working on novels, and both extremely serious about them. That afternoon I sent my first email to her, containing a link to a Roza Vallo article that explored the feminist themes underpinning her novels’ use of period blood. I also boldly joked about my boss’s cleavage. She responded almost immediately, and we started a spate of witty exchanges that I spent much more time and energy on than my actual job.

Two months later Wren had asked me to join her writing group, since their third person had dropped out. There I’d met Ursula. She was nearly ten years older than us and had a calm self-confidence that I could only dream of. At this point I’d been blatantly copying Wren—which meant spending whole days at Goodwill, looking for clothes she might admire. But Ursula was her own person. She had her own neon-colored, clashing style and wrote intensely personal pieces about being Chinese American, queer, and a fat activist. She was so different from Wren and yet was the one person Wren ever seemed in awe of.

The music switched off, and Pete’s next question rang too loud in my ear. “How long have you known her?”

I blinked before realizing he was talking about Ursula, not Wren. “I guess about eight years?” The crowd from the bar oozed into the main room.

“Huh. Back before she was famous.”

“Yep.” Even back then I’d known Ursula would find success. I’d always thought her essays were good enough to be published in the New York Times, so it wasn’t a surprise when one actually was. After her Modern Love piece came out, she got snatched up by an agent and editor who fast-tracked her first book of essays. That had been three years ago; she was now publishing her second.

“You recognize anyone?” Pete scanned the crowd.

I forced myself to look. Hordes of hip people, many of them young, early twenties, purposefully plain with severely shorn hair and no makeup. That level of confidence—at such a young age!—amazed me. I couldn’t leave my apartment without a full face of makeup.

“Not really,” I was saying, but then I heard it—a familiar laugh. About ten feet away stood Ridhi, one of Wren’s choice friends. I shifted so that I was partially hidden by Pete.

“Hi, everyone!” a female voice crackled over a loudspeaker. “We’re going to start!” The crowd shuffled and I saw with relief that Ridhi and her group were moving ahead. My stomach dropped as I recognized several others with her, including another of Wren’s good friends, Craig. He wore a slim olive suit and was murmuring into Ridhi’s ear with a wide grin.

“Welcome, everyone.” Ursula’s agent, Melody, had a commanding voice and everyone quieted down immediately. As she introduced Ursula, I kept an eye on the crew. Watching them gave me an unexpectedly powerful ache. The friend breakup with Wren hadn’t just been between the two of us; I’d lost all our mutual friends too.

I should’ve known; it was unthinkable now that I hadn’t. After all, the night of Wren’s birthday had ended in arcs of blood, splattering black in the moonlight.

People were applauding. I shook myself and clapped along as Ursula strode across the stage in iridescent platform boots. “Guys, seriously, thank you so much for being here.” Her low voice was often sardonic, but now it was resonant with sincerity. “You are all amazing people and sometimes I have to pinch myself that I have such an incredible support network.” As Ursula continued speaking, I took another gulp of beer, realizing it was almost gone. I hadn’t eaten since lunch, and the alcohol was making me woozy in the overheated room.

“Okay!” Ursula raised her glass. “I know at book parties you’re supposed to read an excerpt and blah blah blah, but why don’t we skip that boring part tonight and just party?” She laughed at the ensuing wolf whistles. “Awesome. Let’s go ahead and mingle, then! Oh, and buy a book or three!” Amidst cheers, Ursula left the stage and the crowd dispersed, many making for the bar. I watched Wren’s crew join the signing line, still oblivious to my presence. If Wren was here, she’d be with them. So she wasn’t here. She must be traveling, at a photo shoot, doing something she was probably already posting about. And, no, I wasn’t going to immediately check. The confirmation made me relieved but also unexpectedly disappointed.

“This is wild,” I told Pete, attempting to distract myself as we joined the back of the signing line. “Ursula’s last reading was in the basement of a bookstore in Greenpoint with bottles of Two-Buck Chuck.”

“At least they had free alcohol.” Pete held up his own empty glass. “Want another IPA?”

“Sure.” Finally, I could relax. This called for at least another drink, maybe more.

Ursula’s publicist strode down the line with a stack of books. I bought two copies, one for Pete. The smooth, weighty hardcover showed a picture of Ursula on a vintage red-velvet couch. She sat cross-legged in ripped denim overalls, gazing unabashedly into the camera. A hungry, wolfish feeling reared up in my gut. What would it feel like to hold your own book in your hands for the first time? For it to be a physical object, a thing that people paid for?

I glanced up, feeling eyes on me. The crew was staring at me, surprised and faintly disgusted, like I was a racoon that had wandered into their living room. Only Craig was looking at someone else—

Wren. He was looking at Wren.

The world blurred, and for a moment it was just me and her. There was something glinting in her eyes, a reflection of the pain and loss that I so keenly felt. A sob rose up in my throat at the realization that she felt it, too, that she did miss me, that she, too, wanted nothing more than for us to grasp each other in a tight, desperate hug, pulled back together like two powerful magnets.

But then a wall came down. The pain shifted into something else, something darker: revulsion.

Don’t touch me. I’d been drunk that night but could still remember her voice with perfect clarity. How she’d hissed the words from between clenched teeth. How literally moments later she’d been lying in a spreading pool of blood.

I felt frozen, unable to look away. Wren turned and said something to Craig. He laughed and looked relieved. The others moved inward towards her, though Ridhi glowered at me a few seconds longer.

The beer gurgled in my stomach. I turned and raced towards the bathroom, making it to a stall just in time. Yellow liquid frothed in the bowl. I sat on my knees and wiped my mouth. I was still clutching the books.

Slowly, I stood and flushed the toilet. At the sink a pretty girl washed her hands and avoided looking at me. She must have heard my retches. I wanted to burst into tears but I kept them firmly down.

What had I expected? For Wren to smile and ask if I wanted to be friends again?

We were over. Forever. I knew that now.

A text pinged. Hey where are you? Can’t find you. Pete. Leaning against the sink, I wrote back with shaky fingers. I just saw someone I didn’t want to run into. Mind if we leave?

Sure! came the instant reply. Sounds like we need to get you another drink.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Writing Retreat includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Julia Bartz. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

The Plot meets Please Join Us in this psychological suspense debut about a young author at an exclusive writer’s retreat that descends into a nightmare.

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 must discover the truth—or suffer the same fate.

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.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. At the start of the novel, Alex sees a pair of high school friends on the subway. Viewing them makes her feel the loss of her friendship with Wren like “a penknife in the ribs,” and she feels sad at seeing the high schoolers’ “shared world. Their undeniable certainty that they were a team” (3). How do Alex’s feelings of loss influence much of the resulting action in the novel?

2. Competition is central to the plot and the cause of so many of the events that unfold. In what ways do the young women allow competition to rule their lives at the retreat, and where do you see them rebelling against toxic comparisons?

3. What characteristics make Roza such a terrifying and successful adversary?

4. Compare and contrast Roza’s personality with Alex’s. How are they alike? How are they different? Does this change over the course of the novel?

5. Describe Blackbriar estate. In what ways is the mansion a character, too?

6. Alex and Wren have a complicated history, all of which comes into play when they are forced together at the writing retreat. Were you surprised by any elements of their relationship? How did their relationship change under these extreme circumstances?

7. Consider the parallels between the writers and the subjects or themes of their novels. How do these ties enhance your understanding of the women?

8. What twist shocked you the most? What about it was so surprising and effective?

9. In the last scene from The Great Commission, Daphne chooses a new name, Elizabeth. “She was leaving her old self behind” (299). Consider who at the writing retreat is trying to leave their old selves behind and why. Does anyone do so successfully? If so, at what cost?

10. While tense and atmospheric, the novel’s tone is also quite funny and satirical. What lines made you laugh the most?

11. Daphne Wolfe is loosely based on Hilma af Klint, a Swedish painter born in 1862 who many consider the true inventor of abstract art. She was also a spiritualist and formed a group with other women to contact spirits. When one spirit asked Hilma to channel a “great commission,” she accepted and painted some of her most famous works. Why do you think the author included elements of af Klint and female spiritualists? How is writing fiction a form of channeling?

12. Who would you cast in a film adaptation of The Writing Retreat? What scenes or details would you especially want to make sure made it from book to screen?

13. How does Alex learn about her queerness through her interactions with other characters in the book, including Wren, Roza, and Taylor? Why might it have taken her until her thirties to realize she’s bisexual? Have you heard of other stories of women coming out after 30? How do you see them framed?

14. How do issues of consent and power arise in this book? How did you feel reading about Wren and Alex’s sexual encounter in their apartment? Would you have felt differently about it if Wren were a man? How about the encounter between Alex and Taylor in the basement? What are other ways that this book explores themes of power and domination?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. There are many page-turning thrillers and suspense novels about writers, including Misery by Stephen King, The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths, The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz, and A Slow Burning Fire by Paula Hawkins . Pick one as a group and read it together, comparing and contrasting the way the two authors portray the writing life.

2. Choose a key scene to reimagine through the point of view of another one of the attendees. How would she react to events? How would she feel? What would change about the moment?

3. Host a (more fun, less intense) writing retreat of your own! Have everyone bring a short piece of writing they’ve worked on and kindly critique it. Once you’ve had time to revise, collect all the pieces together and print it out as a keepsake of your book club.

A Conversation with Julia Bartz

Q: Where did the idea for this book come from?

A: I had to go back through my files to figure out when I first started this book, and I was surprised to see that I wrote the first iteration during NaNoWriMo in 2014! (NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, in which an online community attempts to write 50,000 words of a new piece in a single month.) In that early draft, Alex fled New York after her friend breakup with Wren, but she ended up in Montana. She started sleepwalking, and Roza came to her in her dreams—but in this version, she was actually an alien deciding whether or not to save mankind. The idea was fun, but didn’t totally gel for me. Several years later, I was sitting outside on my lunchbreak from my office job, and the idea of writing about a writing retreat landed on me. It felt like a download: I grabbed my phone and scribbled down notes. The characters from my original draft shifted into place. I knew this would make a great story.

Around this time, I was working with an agent on another book: a “dystopian” novel in which Roe v. Wade was overturned. (It was depressing to realize how quickly my nightmarish tale would turn into reality.) After working closely together on several new drafts, she decided to part ways with me. Later, I found out that this isn’t all that uncommon, but at the time it felt devastating. I’d written two novels that hadn’t found representation. Did I want to start the process over a third time? Writing a novel takes so much time and energy, and I didn’t want to be disappointed yet again. However, the story felt urgent, like it wanted to be told.

Ultimately, I decided if I was going to write this book, I needed to focus on the process instead of the outcome. I wanted to use it as an opportunity to explore my feelings around being a stuck and disillusioned writer. And I also wanted to enjoy creating a book that I would want to read: complex, suspenseful, and disturbing. I’m glad I did finish it, because this was the book that ended up being picked up by an agent and publisher.

Q: What was it like writing novels-within-a-novel?

A: Writing about books within the book was really a character exercise: what would Wren write about? Or Keira? Or Taylor? It was fun to play around with different ideas and see what felt right for them. It was a similar process with Roza, figuring out what stories she would be interested in sharing with the world. With Alex’s book, I wanted to more deeply show the process of writing and how it feels: sometimes a vivid image (such as the ghost standing over young Daphne’s bed) can jump-start your imagination. I also wanted to demonstrate how writers are affected by what’s happening in their own lives. For example, after Alex is betrayed by Roza and Taylor, she writes about how Daphne’s friend Abigail deceived her. Finally, I wanted to explore the idea of channeling; oftentimes writing fiction does feel like that, when you see scenes in your head and hurry to capture them on the page. Sometimes, a character will even do something that startles you. It’s both eerie and exhilarating.

Q: How did your career as a therapist influence your novel?

A: I decided to become a therapist after the writing didn’t seem to be working out, at least career-wise. I started therapy myself around this time, and I found it so helpful that I became excited at the idea of providing this space for other people. Interestingly, I found that becoming a therapist helped to deepen my writing. It allowed me to more clearly define the dynamics between people (for example, Alex and Wren’s codependent relationship), as well as understand the characters’ motivations, which are affected by their past, their family, and various forms of trauma, including societal and generational trauma.

I also found my therapy background helpful because I was able to use the book to explore my own shadow parts. These are parts of ourselves that we repress early on when we’re told they’re not “acceptable.” For women, these parts can often include anger, jealousy, aggression, and sexuality. It was fun to write Roza because she’s so fully in touch with her shadow parts—although to a dangerous degree.

Q: What were the themes or messages that you’d most like people to take away from THE WRITING RETREAT?

A: There was a lot I wanted to include in this book—possibly too much! But the major backbone of the book was the question: What does it mean to be a writer? Part of this question involved exploring the idea of social conditioning and how it affects writers’ identities and motivations. In the US, there is such a focus on becoming rich and famous—those are two ideals that are pushed on us all the time. But the fact is that it’s really difficult to be a paid artist in a society that doesn’t always support its creatives—especially those who are BIPOC, queer, trans, or otherwise marginalized. And yet there’s this false narrative of: Just follow your dreams and you’ll succeed! We need to be aware of the realities and the toll that constant hustling can take. I put so much pressure on myself to succeed that when my first two books didn’t get published, I became depressed. It was helpful to decide to try to find fulfillment in other areas of my life, including changing careers. This outlook also lowered the pressure of becoming a published author, which was really out of my control.

In the book, Alex goes through a similar process: feeling deeply envious of her friend Ursula, becoming depressed and unfulfilled, and losing joy in writing to the point where she gets writer’s block. In a way, Roza helps Alex become excited about writing again. At the same time, Roza uses the attendees by dangling exactly what they’ve been told to want over their heads: a huge book deal and instant celebrity. She also pits them against each other. In the end, the ones that survive do get that fame and fortune, but not necessarily because of their talent. For Alex, though, this doesn’t matter. She knows that whatever happens, she’s a writer, and she’s able to find fulfillment in the work—once she finally gets her next idea.

Q: Are there any authors that you idolize? Do you think it’s dangerous to hold someone in such high regard as Alex did with Roza?

A: One of my earliest heroes was Natalie Goldberg. I picked up one of her books about writing (WILD MIND) as a pre-teen and became instantly in awe of her. She really felt like a mentor to me. Many years later, I was running the book blog BookStalker and I got the opportunity to interview her. I remember being nervous about our call, but it was somewhat anti-climactic. She was eating and just acting so casual that it brought her back down to earth for me. It was still a cool experience, but it reminded me that writers are just people. And oftentimes they don’t realize the level of connection people feel towards them via their books. There were times in the past where I tried to connect with authors at events; sometimes they were game and other times they didn’t seem interested. And that is totally fair: they were probably exhausted from being interviewed and from signing dozens of books! So I think it’s important to remember that all authors are imperfect, human, and often quite busy.

Q: What’s your writing process? Do you have any tips for writers?

A: I was a “pantser” (someone who writes by the seat of their pants) for my first two books. But with THE WRITING RETREAT, I became a firm plotter. I think if you want to write a page turner, you have to know the three-act structure; it’s embedded in our psyche and so it feels really satisfying to hit all the points. I highly recommend the book SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL, which breaks down the structure. It’s not to say I figure everything out at the beginning–I might just plot the first act or the first half. But I have a giant bulletin board and I literally write scenes on notecards and pin them up to try to figure out the structure.

In terms of when I write, I try to write first thing in the morning. If I push it to later, so many other things come up and it might not happen. Typically I’ll write around an hour or two, depending on my schedule. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but you’d be amazed how much you can get done if your brain knows that you only have that amount of time available. I’m also flexible on frequency. I think it’s good to work every weekday if you can, but if you need to stop and think, or maybe research, I think it’s fine to follow your intuition. Sometimes it’s helpful to take a few weeks off and let your unconscious work on the story, especially if you feel stuck. Freewriting—meaning writing whatever comes to mind—can also be a good way to get ideas flowing.

Q: Did you attend writing groups or a writing retreat before you wrote your novel? What were your experiences like?

A: I did not! I always felt a little bewildered about how to go about it. The well-known retreats and residencies were so competitive, and the others seemed to require too much research, time, and money. I did go on other retreats, though, mainly affordable yoga and meditation retreats that I’d hear about at my yoga studio. Since I usually went alone, I often found the experience a little destabilizing, to be dropped in a group of people I didn’t know. It takes a little time to figure out the dynamics: who might be an ally or friend, and who might not. I traveled to a yoga teacher training in 2016 and there were five of us, and the other four paired off immediately. We all ended up becoming friends, but that initial feeling of alienation definitely fed Alex’s experience.

Q: What books and other media inspired THE WRITING RETREAT?

A: There were a lot of books that inspired THE WRITING RETREAT. I wanted Blackbriar to feel like a haunted house because of my love of the genre, particularly: Shirley Jackson’s THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, which provides such great symbolism about the mental state of the main character; THE SHINING, which explores a writer’s breakdown; Daphne du Maurier’s REBECCA, which contains a near-constant feeling of dread; and Tananarive Due’s GOOD HOUSE, which brilliantly explores generational and racial trauma. I was also inspired by books that focus on the act of writing in the midst of disturbing circumstances, particularly MISERY by Stephen King and THE PLOT by Jean Hanff Korelitz.

Another inspiration was works that explore mentorships and relationships with those who are at the very least sociopathic, including the movies Silence of the Lambs, Whiplash, and Basic Instinct, and the show Killing Eve. These relationships can be toxic, but they’re always fascinating, and sometimes (in the case of Silence of the Lambs) even helpful.

And finally, this might be more subtle, but I wanted to pay tribute to the fun, campy YA novels I used to read as a pre-teen and teen, particularly those by Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine. Those books were so great at suspense, even if the chapter cliffhangers didn’t always pan out in a satisfying way. They had some pretty memorable villains, too!

Q: What is your dream writing retreat?

A: I love the idea of the cabin-in-the-woods type of retreat, but I think at this point I’d just love to hit a spa. Preferably one with world-class dining. Treatment, write, eat, chat, repeat. I can’t think of a better experience than that!

Q: What are you working on next?

A: I’m working on a new novel. I can’t say too much about it yet, but if you enjoyed THE WRITING RETREAT, then I think you’ll definitely like this one, too!

Aww, love this!

About The Author

Photograph by Savannah Lauren

Julia Bartz is the New York Times bestselling author of The Writing Retreat and a practicing therapist. Her fiction writing has appeared in The South Dakota Review, InDigest Magazine, and more. She lives in Brooklyn. Connect with her on social media @JuliaBartz.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books (February 21, 2023)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982199456

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Raves and Reviews

“Darkly satirical and action-packed, The Writing Retreat brings a breath of fresh air to the locked room mystery. . . . The writing is flawless and the plot adeptly woven. An absolutely splendid debut!”

– Wendy Walker, nationally bestselling author of DON'T LOOK FOR ME

"The book's pacing—a slow roll of dread and horror—is exceptional . . . A perfect winter night's haunting."

– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"An audacious psychological thriller debut...Boldly drawn characters complement Bartz’s gleefully twisted plot....Sara Gran fans, take note."

– Publishers Weekly

“Stomach-clenchingly thrilling from beginning to end . . . Highly recommended for fans of authors like Ruth Ware and Riley Sager.”

– Booklist (starred review)

"Julia Bartz’s shrewd, suspenseful debut takes the typical writer’s anxieties and obsessions and transforms them into a pulse-pounding, impossible to put down thriller. THE WRITING RETREAT is bonkers in the best way, and it left me with a brutal case of author envy."

– Layne Fargo, author of THEY NEVER LEARN

"A wild ride into the pressures of publishing that is equal parts nightmare and erotic fantasy as five would-be writers are pulled deeper into the secrets of Blackbriar and its inhabitants. In THE WRITING RETREAT, Julia Bartz captures the hunger to have our stories told and the desperate measures some will take to cut through the noise."

– Jennifer Fawcett, author of BENEATH THE STAIRS

"THE WRITING RETREAT is a sexy, thrilling, compulsive mediation on art and competition amongst women who ought to be sisters, only something malignant gets in the way. I couldn't put it down."

– Sarah Langan, award-winning author of GOOD NEIGHBORS

"THE WRITING RETREAT will keep you up all night with its intriguing premise and gasp-worthy twists. A suspenseful story of ambition and envy, friendship and survival, this novel asks how high a price will one pay to achieve their dreams. THE WRITING RETREAT  is the very definition of a page turner, and a remarkable debut from a gifted writer."

– Kirthana Ramisetti, author of GMA Book Club pick DAVA SHASTRI'S LAST DAY

"NIGHT FILM meets THE SECRET HISTORY in Julia Bartz’s bold, brilliant, and genuinely scary debut. THE WRITING RETREAT masterfully delivers everything thriller readers crave: palpable atmosphere, sinister characters, full-body chills, jaw-dropping twists, and stay-up-all-night suspense. I am obsessed with this book. I never wanted it to end."

– Megan Collins, author of THE FAMILY PLOT

"THE WRITING RETREAT by Julia Bartz is a wild ride from page one. I’ve been on a good few writing retreats myself and thought I’d seen it all - I was wrong. Blending themes of friendship, ambition, creativity and courage, this thrill-packed story brims with secrets, intrigue and murder. Bartz wrangles tension of the highest order, and executes a fiercely original story with vigour and style. A five-star read that’s intelligent, accomplished and exciting. I dare you to put it down."

– Janice Hallett, internationally bestselling author of THE TWYFORD CODE

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