Interview by Richard Dansky:
Think “Gothic” and you might not immediately think Minnesota, but Wendy Webb is working on changing that perception. Building on a writing career that began as a journalist for a Twin Cities arts & entertainment weekly, she’s published three critically and commercially successful gothic novels set in her home state. The third, The Vanishing [ebook], was released in January 2014, and in support of the book, she’s visiting Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill on Saturday, February 1st for an early reading at 11 am [Facebook event] in one of three North Carolina events on her current tour [the others include Thursday, Jan 30 at Charlotte’s PARK ROAD BOOKS and Saturday evening at Asheville’s MALAPROPS]. Ahead of that visit, she was kind enough to take a few minutes to answer some questions. From the “Devil’s Toy Box” to the influence of Downton Abbey, here’s a few questions with Wendy Webb.
Can you tell us a little bit about The Vanishing?
All of my novels feature long-buried family secrets that bubble to the surface in big, old mansions. The Vanishing is the story of Julia, who receives an intriguing job offer when her life seems to be falling apart around her. A man, Adrian Sinclair, asks Julia to be a companion to his elderly mother, a famous horror novelist who the whole world thinks is dead. For reasons unknown, this novelist chose to vanish from public life and now lives in her magnificent estate in the middle of the wilderness. Intrigued, Julia accepts the position. But when she arrives at Havenwood, she begins to wonder whether this too-good-to-be-true job offer is exactly that.
The gothic as a genre is usually associated with windswept moors and craggy mountains. What was the inspiration for setting The Vanishing in northern Minnesota?
The inspiration for this novel was, oddly enough, Downton Abbey. Not the story line of the show, but the castle where the show is filmed. It’s Highclere Castle in England. I watch the show every week and I just cannot get enough of that house. Last year I started thinking: What if there was a house like that one in the middle of the wilderness near my own home? What sort of eccentric nobleman might have built it long ago? What kinds of strange and spooky things might have gone on there? And I had the setting for my story.
The title of The Vanishing is a break from the way you named your previous books (The Fate of Mercy Alban & The Tale of Halcyon Crane). Why the switch?
You are the first person to ask me about this and you’re absolutely right. I had originally planned to call it The Vanishing of Amaris Sinclair, but my editor thought it was too much of a mouthful and I agreed. I hope the succinct title—THE VANISHING—is so intriguing and mysterious that potential readers will be the ones to ask themselves “The Vanishing … of whom? Of what?” As a reader myself, that’s a question I’d need to buy the book to answer, and I hope other readers will feel the same way.
One of the main characters, Amaris, is a retired horror writer who may have taken a little too much interest in her subject matter. Are you a horror fan, or is your take on the genre a little closer to Ms. Sinclair’s?
I love a good, spine-tingling tale but I wouldn’t call myself a fan of the horror genre, even though my books are sometimes catagorized as horror. I scare too easily! I call my genre gothic suspense. I think that fits better.
The gothic is a venerable genre. What makes it appealing now? What are the classic traits of the gothic that endure, and do you see it evolving through your work?
The way I think of gothic — a big, old mansion where secrets lurk around every corner, a narrator recalling a nightmarish time in her life, a few spirits floating through the pages and a touch of romance. Reviewers have called my books “modern gothics” because, so far, I’ve set my tales in modern times. So my heroines have modern sensibilities. They’re strong women who face things head on.
You touch on the wendigo myth in the book. Do folklore and local ghost stories inspire a lot of your work?
I love local folklore and myth, stories people told long ago to explain the eerie and otherworldly things happening around them. I think there are grains of truth in even the strangest legends, like that of the Windigo. It’s a Native American myth about a horrible monster that lives in the wilderness where I set The Vanishing, and where we happen to have a cabin.
You mention on your blog that you do believe in ghosts. Is there anything in The Vanishing based on personal experience?
In the prologue and elsewhere in the book, there’s an item called the Devil’s Toy Box. My brother actually gave one of those to me last year. I had no idea what it was, so I Googled it. In folklore and legend, such a box is a trap for evil spirits. Now, it was probably just a pretty box and nothing more, but just in case, I destroyed it. But it gave me a very spooky idea for this story.
A big thank-you to Ms. Webb for taking the time to answer these questions. You can see her at Flyleaf on Saturday, February 1st at 11 am in support of The Vanishing, and visit her online at http://wendykwebb.com.
About the interviewer: Durham author and videogame writer Richard Dansky is the Central Clancy Writer for Ubisoft/Red Storm, with his most recent title being Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist. He has published six novels, most recently Vaporware from JournalStone, and the short story collection Snowbird Gothic. Among his upcoming projects is developing the 20th Anniversary Edition of the legendary tabletop RPG Wraith: The Oblivion, from Onyx Path. He heartily encourages people to do terrible things to his book at http://pdtttmb.tumblr.com.