W. S. Winslow was born and raised in Maine but spent her working life in Boston, New York, and San Francisco. A ninth-generation Mainer, she now lives in a small town Downeast most of the year. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in French from the University of Maine, and an MFA from NYU. Her fiction has been published in Yemassee Journal and Bird's Thumb. The Northern Reach is her first novel and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for The Northern Reach?
I drew on lots of stories—from my family and from my friends in Maine. I also worked from language: the Downeast accent and cadence, phrases, snippets of conversation, jokes. But my primary inspirations were Mainers and the state itself, the land, the sea, the harshness of life in this part of the world.
Are any of the characters in the novel inspired by or based on members of your family?
Of course, but I’ll never say which, since most of them are still alive. What I can say is that real people are just my point of departure, the skeleton of a character. The color, the flesh, and sinew; these come from imagination.
Are you from a large and/or extended family?
Yes, a large and complicated family. My people tend to be long-lived, so there are lots of us, though we are scattered all over the place now. I miss the clamor.
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
Because I wrote with no real plan in mind, and no outline, the narrative came together piecemeal. It was a multi-step process: first, drafting the episodes, then thinking about how they related, and finally, stitching them all together in much the same way a quilt is made. Once the pieces were complete and assembled, I could “see” the larger story in my mind and edited until it came together.
I finished the final chapter early on, but by the time the other stories were done, it didn’t work anymore, so I threw it out and started over. That’s how "Requiem" came to be. I may resurrect that old story in another form one day.
Your biography states that you were born and raised in Maine, moved to more metropolitan areas for a number of years, and then returned to Maine. You must prefer Maine to the other places you have lived, what is it about the area that drew you back after living in New York and California?
I wouldn’t say I prefer living in Maine; being here year-round is more a result of the pandemic than a choice. When my husband and I left San Francisco in 2019, the plan was to be in Maine most of the year and spend winters away. It was working out beautifully until COVID hit. We were in Rome at the time and had to beat a very hasty retreat. We’ve been here for a year now, the longest unbroken stretch I’ve spent in Maine since the 80s, which has been interesting in terms of my perspective on my home state. Louise Erdrich summed it up best: “Here I am, where I ought to be. A writer must have a place where he or she feels this, a place to love and be irritated with.”
Do you believe in ghosts?
I do actually. I’m a big believer that there is more to life than the mortal mind can comprehend, and besides, I’ve lived in old houses my whole life. Things do go bump in the night, you know.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
I just finished Kerri Arsenault’s book, Mill Town, about the environmental rape of Maine by the paper industry and the history of the French-speaking Acadians who came here to work those mills and paid so dearly for it. Brilliant non-fiction. I’m just starting The Lowering Days by Gregory Brown. It’s his first novel and so far it is breathtaking. I always keep at least one short story collection on hand to dip into. Right now it’s Susan Minot’s Why I Don’t Write. Because I’m a slow reader, the “to be read” stack grows taller by the day. It’s really getting out of hand.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
There are so many; these are not all. I love Eudora Welty’s writing for that Delta sound, the sense of place and the off-kilter characters. You can hear her voice in every word. In Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett’s detective stories, I love the economy and the grit. Deborah Eisenberg’s short stories are always amazing, as are Helen Ellis’s, and I love James Joyce for, well, everything.
As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?
Quite simply, that it can be done. Find an agent who understands your work and will tell you the truth. Once you sell your book, get ready. It’s a process—18 months from the time you ink the deal until publication, and then all the promotional stuff that goes along with marketing it. To writers, I’d say: ask questions, make your deadlines, and be early whenever possible.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
I don’t remember much of what I read as a child, though I recall reading a lot, and I know I loved Harriet The Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. At the time it was the most hilarious thing I’d ever read, and I loved Harriet for being so fearlessly herself, even in the face of pressure to conform. Ramona The Pest was another favorite, which I probably loved for the same reasons I loved Harriet. To this day, characters like these two are the ones I identify with most strongly and seek out most often.
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
Not really. I did, however, use to sneak my Grammie Sue’s romance novels. They were quite tame, but there was something illicit about them—the covers probably. All those heaving bosoms and brawny bad boys.
What is a book you've faked reading?
Proust, most of it anyway. I was a French major, and it was just too much, so I skimmed the text and improvised the papers. Thank you, I feel better now.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
Maria Dahvana Headley’s new translation of Beowulf. The cover first pulled me in, then the writing grabbed me by the throat. Both are gorgeous. I devoured it in one sitting and suggest you do the same.
Is there a book that changed your life?
There are many, but the first one that comes to mind is Waiting by Ha Jin. A friend gave it to me as a birthday gift years ago when it first came out. At the time, I’d been in a years-long reading slump —my daughter was little and all I had the bandwidth to read were murder mysteries. Brain candy. But I opened that book and was hooked from page one. It was so moving, so hypnotic. It was like someone punched the reset button in my brain and the fiction world opened back up again.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
Rabih Alameddine’s The Angel of History is one of my favorite books ever. In it, a sardonic, urbane Satan struggles with Death in all his blasé world weariness for control of the poet Jacob, currently waiting for admission to a psych ward after crumbling beneath the unbearable burden of his losses during the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. The book is at once profound and hilarious, heartbreaking and uplifting, and the writing is sublime.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
This is probably an unusual choice, but since I’m being honest I’d have to say The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse. The humor is so sharp, the language so clever and the characters so endearing that I return to it (and many other Bertie and Jeeves stories) over and over. During the pandemic, these books have been my go-to for comfort and escape.
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, TV, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
It’s been a while, I’m sorry to say. Michelangelo’s Pietà at St Peter’s in Rome always moves me to tears. Just thinking of it chokes me up. It’s so exquisite, so perfect in its depiction of the most agonizing loss imaginable. A mother holding the corpse of her grown son, tenderly as if he were still a baby, which to her he always will be. It’s shattering.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
Having been locked down in the country for a year, any city looks good to me right now. A perfect day would be a springtime walk around Dublin with my two oldest friends, stopping in at a pub to eavesdrop on the locals over lunch and a pint, followed by more walking and dinner with a few more pints. Just swapping stories, reminiscing, and shooting the breeze. I miss chatting face to face. And being in a crowd.
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
Question: “May I introduce you to Michael Whitehall?”
Answer: “I’d LOVE it. Where’s Winston?”
What are you working on now?
I’ve started a second novel, in the same setting as the first one, with a few of the same faces, but it’s a more traditional narrative with one main character. It’s a call and response format, which is fun to play with, and there’s a reckoning. I love a good reckoning.