Julia Bartz’s debut novel The Writing Retreat is a kind of psychological thriller meets horror story meets boot camp for writers. At its centre are ideas about writers and writing – where writers get their inspiration from, what inspires them to write or prevents them from writing. In this way it builds on a tradition that includes a diverse range of books including Louise May Alcott’s Little Women, Stephen King’s Misery, Michael Chabon’s The Wonder Boys and Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot. To its credit, The Writing Retreat contains elements of many of these but emerges as its own, strange, melange.
Alex wants to be a writer but is struggling with a writer’s block that has persisted since a messy break-up with her best friend Wren a year before. But Alex and Wren are both selected to be part of an elite month long writing retreat at the remote estate of their literary hero Roza Vallo with four other young women. The task is simple – they must write 3000 words a day for a month or be kicked out. The winning manuscript will be championed by Roza and published. But right from the start the tension is high, particularly for Alex – Roza keeps the women on edge, there is a ghost story associated with the house, and she has to deal with her damaged relationship with Wren. But then Roza spikes their drinks and things get even weirder and more dangerous.
The Writing Retreat has everything readers might expect from a horror story – drug addled dreams, jump scares, hidden passages – all set in a snowed-in mansion cut off from the world. But Bartz has something else in mind. She uses horror tropes, and her characters’ awareness of them, against both the characters and the reader. At the same time, she charts Alex’s finding of her writing mojo despite the precariousness of her situation through the novel within a novel, which is supposed to be historical but picks its cues from on Alex’s situation.
It is not worth spending too much time thinking about how the plot is playing out in The Writing Retreat. It is designed to be read quickly so readers ride over the plot holes rather than falling in them. And, unlike many thrillers, it does have something to say about originality, inspiration and the craft, or perhaps the slog, of writing.