What a pleasure it is to be chatting with Author W.S. Winslow about her new book, The Northern Reach. Winslow is a ninth generation Mainer, descended from both Pilgrims and Puritans with odd French fur trapper thrown in, a blood and guts background if there ever there was one.
Though she was born and brought up in Maine, she spent her adult life mostly in New York, where her husband and her raised their daughters. They also lived in San Francisco for five years before returning to Maine in 2019 to settle in a small town Downeast, where it is very, very quiet.
Winslow’s MFA is from NYU, and she also has an undergraduate and graduate degrees in French from the University of Maine. The Northern Reach is her first novel.
Thank you for talking with me today about your book, W.S. Please tell me a little bit about how you came to write about these characters and the time period you chose. What is the most surprising thing you discovered while writing your story?
Thanks so much for having me!
I came to these characters from an interest in the intersection of people with place and culture, especially as these things have existed, evolved and still persist in my home state of Maine. This project was partly sparked by genealogical research – my family’s origins go back to the earliest settlers in both Plymouth and Salem. When I got into the historical records, I was struck by the unmistakable similarities between my ancestors who lived 350 years ago and some of my family members today. I was also intrigued by the cultural legacy of Puritanism in a remote and demanding place like Maine.
The book has its origins in stories about my own family and the families of my friends who are from here. I’ve been lucky to know many great raconteurs over the years, and I wanted to share those stories, or fictionalized versions of them anyway. I also wanted to write about this place over a long sweep of time, from the dawn of the 20th Century to the beginning of the 21st, but I didn’t want to write a historical novel per se. What I was interested in was telling the story of a place and its people in episodes, in much the same way a patchwork quilt is stitched together.
This is my first book, so I started with no expectations. What surprised me was the way that characters would just suddenly say or do something, completely unbidden and with no warning. I think it was because at a certain point these fictional people became so real in my mind that they set up housekeeping there and just kind of got on with their lives. Even though I’d heard authors talk about that I never expected to experience it.
You certainly have quite the cast of characters! With each of their circumstances, it must have been rather dark at times to write. Is there anything in particular that helped you set the characters’ tone?
There is darkness in the book, to be sure. Maine is isolated and cold, with a short summer and a long, dark winter. It’s always been a hard place to live and consistently ranks among the poorest states in the union. Weirdly, we also have an unusually large number of wealthy people, mostly in summer, which creates a wide gulf between the haves and the have nots. This is the reality, and it’s rough for a lot of people. Looking away doesn’t help, so I leaned in.
That said, I wanted to find the humor in these stories, because Mainers can be really funny in a dry, dark way. There’s a tendency to dismiss the painful and the difficult with humor. It’s a reflexive thing, a way of keeping darkness and pain at arm’s length. Sometimes it works.
As for the book’s tone, language is everything for me. I love accents and foreign languages, but what really tickles me is the way Maine people speak, the intonation, the rhythm, the words, the austerity and understatement. I tried to work as much of that into the text as I could, mostly because writing dialogue is one of my favorite things to do. Tonally, the setting was also important, both as a character and as a place, and I hope people see the Maine I know – the cold bay, the low gray sky, the rolling blueberry fields and round topped mountains – in summer and winter.
Can you share a snippet that isn’t in the blurb or excerpt?
“Planting Tiger” comes in the middle of the book. It’s a sort of palate cleanser in that it’s lighter than the other stories, even in its treatment of grief and death. That was my favorite episode to write, because it includes one of the rare first-person narratives in the book, a “talky” passage from Earlene Baines:
I knew we were in for it when Jessie Martin showed up at Tiger’s funeral. It had been at least ten years since I laid eyes on her, but I could see she was still rougher than the back of a ditch. I can’t say I was shocked when she walked into the church, but I never expected to see her at my house. When Jessie came limping up the driveway, with her go-go boots and that mop of red hair, and introduced herself to Tino, the look on his face was priceless. I was watching from the kitchen window. Mill told me not to interfere and I didn’t, not until Vicky started hollering. She’s half Moody after all, and I never met one who didn’t like a good fight once in a while.
How long have you been writing and what advice would you give to writers who want to write a family saga?
I’m a late bloomer in that I didn’t start writing creatively until my fifties, and I’ll be a few months shy of 60 when The Northern Reach is released. So, my first piece of advice is to just do it, no matter how old you are or how many jobs you’ve had. It’s all experience, and experience fuels imagination.
Even though I started writing relatively late in life, I have always held stories in my head, and I’ve always been a reader. What I’ve found recently is the more I learn about writing, the choosier I become as a reader. Opening a book is something of a busman’s holiday, and I get a great deal out of well written books – because they’re fun to read but also because they’re instructive at the same time.
Anyone who wants to write a family saga would be well advised to start by reading some, and with the most critical eye they can manage. For episodic narratives, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg Ohio and Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich are good places to start. For more traditional narratives, I like Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, or Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead books – so many to choose from.
Where can readers buy your book?
About the Book:
Published March 2nd 2021 by Flatiron Books
A heart-wrenching first novel about the power of place and family ties, the weight of the stories we choose to tell, and the burden of those we hide
Frozen in grief after the loss of her son at sea, Edith Baines stares across the water at a schooner, under full sail yet motionless in the winter wind and surging tide of the Northern Reach. Edith seems to be hallucinating. Or is she? Edith’s boat-watch opens The Northern Reach, set in the coastal town of Wellbridge, Maine, where townspeople squeeze a living from the perilous bay or scrape by on the largesse of the summer folk and whatever they can cobble together, salvage, or grab.
At the center of town life is the Baines family, land-rich, cash-poor descendants of town founders, along with the ne’er-do-well Moody clan, the Martins of Skunk Pond, and the dirt farming, bootlegging Edgecombs. Over the course of the twentieth century, the families intersect, interact, and intermarry, grappling with secrets and prejudices that span generations, opening new wounds and reckoning with old ghosts.
W. S. Winslow’s The Northern Reach is a breathtaking debut about the complexity of family, the cultural legacy of place, and the people and experiences that shape us.