When Downton Abbey meets things that (might) go bump in the night

vanishingIf gothic suspense—“one part mystery, one part ghost story, one part love story and one part thriller”—is your cup of tea, you won’t want to miss this latest tale from the practiced pen of Wendy Webb.

A Midwest indie bookstore darling, Webb’s previous two books, The Fate of Mercy Alban and The Tale of Halcyon Crane, were both chosen as IndieNext and Midwest Connection picks. Her third novel, The Vanishing (published this January by Hyperion), offers readers a chance to go from the normal to the paranormal via a mansion in the Minnesota wilderness that might contain much more than drafty halls, with a heroine who might be getting glimpses into the past, and twists and turns that will keep readers guessing until the end.

In reviews of The Vanishing, Booklist raved that Webb “expert builds suspense and offers a thought-provoking tease in the final pages,” while Publishers Weekly called it “an effective contemporary supernatural thriller.”

A conversation with Wendy Webb about The Vanishing, courtesy of Hyperion.

1. What inspired you to write The Vanishing?

The setting starts my imagination on fire, and it’s usually a place I have visited or seen. My first novel, The Tale of Halcyon Crane, was inspired by a trip I took to Mackinac Island. My second, The Fate of Mercy Alban, bubbled to the surface when I took my current and former mothers-in-law — who were at my house at the same time for my son’s high school graduation — on a tour of Glensheen Mansion in Wendy WebbDuluth, Minnesota. And I must admit that The Vanishing was inspired by my addiction to Downton Abbey. I love everything about that program, but mostly the house. It leaves me breathless every time I see it. And I started thinking: What if there were a house like that in the middle of the Minnesota wilderness? What sort of eccentric nobleman might have built that house, and what sorts of strange things would happen there during a blizzard? All of a sudden, I had the seed of a story. And I was off!

2. In all the books you’ve written, which are your favorite characters?

That’s like asking who are my favorite children, but if I had to choose, I’d most like to spend time with Amaris Sinclair and Drew McCullough. I just loved Amaris and I would laugh almost every time I wrote any line of dialogue for her to say. I had great fun with her wardrobe, also. She came alive for me like no other character I’ve written — its almost as if she was whispering in my ear. And Drew… who wouldn’t fall in love with him?

3. How much of you is in your main characters, Halcyon, Grace and Julia?

My friends say they see a lot of me in those characters. I think that’s because, when I’m putting my lead characters in situations that are frightening or strange, I always ask myself how I’d react in those situations. I want to make the scenarios seem as real and true to life as possible, even though I’m dealing with oftentimes very unreal and ghostly things. So, if Julia gets a phone call from her dead husband, I ask myself how I’d react to that and what I’d ask him. And then I put myself in the position of the dead husband on the other end of the line — okay, I’ve got three minutes to talk to her. What would I say from beyond the grave?

3. Which do you prefer, writing the books or promoting them on a book tour?

I love them both, but they are two completely different skill sets. Writing a novel, you need to love living in your own imagination. You need to love solitude, with only the characters you’ve created for company. But promoting a novel, authors need to turn on a dime and become extroverts, speaking in front of people, answering questions, being charming in interviews live on T.V and on the radio. So, in answer to the question, I love writing, but I also love getting out into the world and talking to people about what I’ve written. I consider it an honor that anyone would spend time reading my books, and it’s a privilege — and also really fun — to talk to people about them. I love nothing better than reading my own words aloud to a packed house in a bookstore, complete with wine and hors d’oeuvres. It’s the best party I can imagine, every time, and I am so grateful to the bookstores that have hosted me, and to the people who have come out to see me.

4. In addition to being an author, you’re also the editor of Duluth~Superior Magazine, a lifestyle monthly. How do you do it all?

With a lot of help, and with the magic of the internet. I have a great staff and a fabulous publisher at DSM, and I have the ability to do magazine work online from wherever I am on my book tour. So that’s not a problem. Finding time to write novels is a bit trickier because my days are so busy. But I get it done!

5. What’s your writing process?

Readers often ask me if I outline my books, and the answer is an emphatic “no.” I know that technique works for lots of other writers, and I tried it once. But then when I sat down to write the book I had outlined, it felt like I was writing a term paper. No fun. Instead, I start with a setting and a general idea of where I’m going, and then I’m off, experiencing all of the twists and turns right along with the reader. If I’m surprised and delighted at a turn of events, I think my readers will be, too. Sometimes that means I’ll write myself into a corner and not know where to go next. That’s when I close the computer, leash up Molly, my Alaskan malamute, and go for a walk to let ideas percolate in my imagination.

6. Speaking of malamutes, they play a big role in The Vanishing. Why did you include them?

The dogs in this story, Tundra, Tika and Molly, are my dogs. Walking through the world with these magnificent animals has strengthened me, changed me, and made me a better person. I think any dog lover — or animal lover for that matter — knows how intuitive, sensitive and even psychic animals are. There are countless stories about animals sensing spirits or ghosts. I know my dogs would stand between me and anything — human or spirit — that tried to harm me. They have.

7. You’ve been quoted as saying that your books are not traditional ghost stories, but instead novels of gothic suspense that may or may not include hauntings. Can you explain that?

When I sit down to write a story, it’s not going to be a traditional things-that-go-bump in the night tale. Meaning, the ghost story isn’t the central idea that my plots revolve around. I love those, and I’m not saying I’ll never write one, but so far, my story ideas tend to revolve around long-buried family secrets that bubble to the surface, and someone having to get to the bottom of something from the past that just won’t stay quiet. My books are one part mystery, one part ghost story, one part love story and one part thriller. Mix it all together and you get gothic suspense. What really interests me is the idea of trying to get to the truth behind a lifelong secret, and maybe getting a little help along the way from a departed loved one, or being a little scared along the way by something a bit darker than that.

8. Do you believe in ghosts?

I get asked this question at every one of my readings. My answer is: If I didn’t believe before I wrote my first novel and went on my first book tour, I certainly do now. No matter where in the country I am, at a huge mega-bookstore or a little independent, in a big city or a small town, without fail, at every single one of my readings, somebody comes up to me and tells me their ghost story. This is a universal phenomenon, and I’ve heard so many stories from so many people, that now, I’m a believer. Some of the stories are frightening, but most often, they’re tales about what happened just after a loved one has passed away. They’re beautiful stories and I’m honored that people will share them with me.

9. Is there anything in your novels that your readers won’t get but friends and family will?

Yes. I name some characters after my friends and family. Julia was my grandmother’s sister’s name; Herrala was her family name. In Halcyon Crane, Amelia was named after a friend from high school. In Mercy, Sarah was named for my friend who lives in Chicago. Lots of things exist like that. I usually don’t tell the people I’ve named characters after them — I just let them find out when they’re reading. But I don’t write about or fictionalize any real-life situations that have happened to friends and family. That, to me, is an invasion of privacy and I’d never do it.

10. Are you working on a new book?

Yes! And it’s almost done. Stay tuned!

 

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