I am pleased as punch to welcome bestselling Minnesota author Wendy Webb to our literary community today. Ms. Webb pens novels of gothic suspense set in mystical locales where buried family secrets bubble to the surface, seamlessly weaving the past with the present.
L.L.: Wendy, thank you for being with us today. I just completed THE TALE OF HALCYON CRANE, your debut into fiction and loved it. The beginning of the book completely tugged at me, urging me to read more. In fact one of the first few lines reads like this, “I was called to a tiny island in the middle of the Great Lakes by a dead woman.” What, in your opinion is so important about the first page of a novel?
W.W.: For me, the first page of a novel, even the first paragraphs, are crucial. When I’m in a bookstore browsing, especially when I’m looking at books by an author whose work I’m unfamiliar with, I usually know within the first pages whether I’m going to like it or not. So I put a lot of care into those first few pages of my books. You know what they say — you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
L.L.: Speaking of first lines, your entrée into the world of fiction was Madeline L’Engle’s A WRINKLE IN TIME (mine, too I must admit). Do you believe there’s a certain time or influence in a young person’s life in which books—and the written word—make a strong impact, leading them to a career in writing? (i.e., are writers born with the craft pulsing beneath, or is it a ‘suggestion’ from others?).
W.W.: I can’t speak for anybody else, but it happened like that for me. I loved books when I was a kid. My grandma read to me constantly. I loved The Secret Garden and the Little House books and Little Women (I thought I was Jo March) and when I read A Wrinkle In Time, I was a goner. That was it. I closed that book and knew I had to be a writer for the rest of my life. I started by writing short stories when I was in grade school and haven’t looked back since. I did a reading recently at the wonderful Dragonfly Books in Decorah, IA, and a little girl came to see me. Grace. She was 11 years old and asked if I wrote short stories when I was her age. I told her I did, and she was glad to hear it, because she writes stories — mysterious ones, she informed me — and she wants to grow up to write books like mine someday. I have a feeling she will do just that.
L.L.: Before you wrote novels, you wrote magazine and newspaper articles. What, in your opinion are the challenges and benefits of switching from nonfiction to fiction?
W.W.: It was much more difficult than I expected. As a journalist, you tell a story. As a novelist, you need to show it. Show, don’t tell. I’d think: What does that even mean? I’m a storyteller, why can’t I just tell it? And then another author shared her showing vs. telling trick with me. She said: “When you’re writing a scene, pretend you’re the director of a movie. Visualize everything in the scene, from what people are wearing to what they are doing, and use language to bring that scene to life on the page.” And then she told me the thing that finally made the light bulb come on above my head. “In a movie,” she said, “you wouldn’t hear the words: ‘Jane is angry.’ You’d see Jane throw her coffee cup down and stomp out of the room, and you’d know she was angry. That’s showing, not telling.” Aha.
The benefit of spending my career as a journalist — I’m used to writing a lot, every day. So the idea of writing a 100,000-word novel wasn’t daunting.
L.L.: In THE TALE OF HALCYON CRANE, there is a strong element of magical realism/witchcraft lite. What kind of research did you do to successfully carry this out?
W.W.: I’ve always been interested in the paranormal. Whether it was watching old Twilight Zone episodes with my brothers when I was a kid, or reading books like A Wrinkle In Time by Madeline L’Engle or The House of Spirits by Isabelle Allende and countless others, I’ve loved magical realism for a long time. The idea that, while doing something utterly ordinary like pushing a cart through the grocery store, you can turn a corner and run into something strange and otherworldly, that it’s hovering around us all the time.
L.L.: Ghosts in literature aren’t exactly a “new” thing. But they are lovely and delightful reads—sometimes scary. In fact, many readers find gothic tales fascinating and haunting. What do you feel sets HALCYON CRANE apart?
W.W.: Well, I seem to have invented a genre. I didn’t intend to do it. I just wrote the books I’d like to read, and I set them in the part of the country I know best — the northern Great Lakes. So Halcyon and my other two books, The Fate of Mercy Alban and The Vanishing are being called Northern Gothics. Interestingly enough, I have a lot of readers down south who identify with the Southern Gothic genre and love that my books are set in remote locations where they’ve never been — northern Lake Superior, Mackinac Island, and elsewhere. And the other thing is, my books are not straight ghost stories. They’re tales of family mysteries and secrets that bubble to the surface at inconvenient times, and they may have a spirit or two bedeviling things.
L.L.: Could it be that we all have metaphorical ghosts lurking in our past?
W.W.: As we say in Minnesota, you bet. I think that’s why my books resonate with so many people.
L.L.: You have a relentless touring schedule. How do you manage to fit writing time into your busy life?
W.W.: Actually, now it’s easier. My first three books were written while touring and holding down a full-time job. I was the editor-in-chief of a lifestyle monthly magazine until very recently. But now I can focus on my career as a novelist full time. I love it all — the solitude and imagination of writing the story, and the extroversion necessary to get out there, meet readers, speak to groups, do interviews, visit bookstores and bookclubs and generally promote the book. It’s such a privilege and an honor to spend my life this way.
L.L.: What are you working on now? Any new books brewing?
W.W.: I’m about half-way through my next book, and I’m really excited about it. It’s set in Bayfield, Wisconsin at an old tuberculosis sanatorium that has been renovated into a retreat for writers. Although it has since been torn down, the TB sanatorium in Bayfield was a real place — my grandfather was a patient there, and my great-aunt died there when she was just a girl. Because there was very little medical science could do for TB at the time, they called these sanatoriums “waiting rooms for death.” A good place to set a ghost story, don’t you think?
L.L.: Anything I forgot to ask that I should have?
W.W.: Because I write ghostly tales, people always ask me if I believe in ghosts. My answer is always the same: If I didn’t before, I sure do now. That’s because, at every reading I’ve ever done for my three novels, no matter where in the country I am, somebody comes up to me and tells me a ghostly experience that has happened to them. Many times, they’re “things that go bump in the night” stories, but most often, they’re experiences they’ve had after a loved one passes on. Oftentimes, they’ll preface the story with: “I haven’t told this to many people…” I’m honored to be among those they tell.
Thank you, Wendy!
Thank you, Leslie.
Great interview, Leslie. I am really curious about this book. There was much that I could relate to in her interest in telling ghost stories (or tales of the haunted). I have often thought of my stories as Midwestern Gothic tales, so it was encouraging to hear Wendy’s books referred to as Northern Gothic.
What really got me in this post was the movie scene analogy to explain how to show rather than tell when writing. I think that was my lightbulb moment!
Yes, based on what I’ve read of your work, Chris I’d still call it Midwestern Gothic…but I don’t know…this Northern Gothic thing is definitely something to look into. Tales of the haunted…ooh, how fantastic, right? So glad to be part of your “lightbulb.”