The Writing Retreat: A Novel

The Writing Retreat: A Novel

by Julia Bartz

Narrated by Gail Shalan

Unabridged — 11 hours, 30 minutes

The Writing Retreat: A Novel

The Writing Retreat: A Novel

by Julia Bartz

Narrated by Gail Shalan

Unabridged — 11 hours, 30 minutes

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“Sex, suspense, and the supernatural fuel this propulsive debut.” -People

A young author is invited to an exclusive writer's retreat that soon descends into a pulse-pounding nightmare-in the vein of The Plot and Please Join Us.

Alex has all but given up on her dreams of becoming a published author when she receives a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: attend an exclusive, month-long writing retreat at the estate of feminist horror writer Roza Vallo. Even the knowledge that Wren, her former best friend and current rival, is attending doesn't dampen her excitement.

But when the attendees arrive, Roza drops a bombshell-they must all complete an entire novel from scratch during the next month, and the author of the best one will receive a life-changing seven-figure publishing deal. Determined to win this seemingly impossible contest, Alex buckles down and tries to ignore the strange happenings at the estate, including Roza's erratic behavior, Wren's cruel mind games, and the alleged haunting of the mansion itself. But when one of the writers vanishes during a snowstorm, Alex realizes that something very sinister is afoot. With the clock running out, she must discover the truth-or suffer the same fate.

A claustrophobic and propulsive thriller that “will keep you up all night with its intriguing premise and gasp-worthy twists” (Kirthana Ramisetti, author of Dava Shastri's Last Day), The Writing Retreat expertly explores the dark side of female relationships, fame, and the desire to have our stories told.

Editorial Reviews

MARCH 2023 - AudioFile

Gail Shalan narrates this psychological suspense featuring five aspiring authors who are participating in a writing retreat held at an isolated mansion in the Adirondacks. The five attendees are all women under 30, though they seem younger. The leader of the retreat is Roza Vallo, a renowned feminist horror writer much admired by the young writers. Shalan gives Roza, who is Hungarian by birth, a voice that sometimes sounds warm and sometimes sinister. The story is told by Alex, who hopes the month-long retreat will overcome her writer's block. It does just that but in a way that is terrifying. The plot includes secret passages, underground dungeons, mind-altering drugs, odd sexual undertones, and murder. Shalan makes each writer distinctive and interesting. D.L.G. © AudioFile 2023, Portland, Maine

Publishers Weekly


Aspiring novelist Alex —the narrator of Bartz’s audacious psychological thriller debut—idolizes button-pushing feminist horror writer Roza Vallo, so she’s elated when Roza selects her to attend an exclusive, all-female writing retreat at Blackbriar, Roza’s remote Adirondacks estate. Upon arriving, Alex and the other four invitees learn they must each conceive of and complete an entirely new book in the next 28 days. Roza will eject anyone who doesn’t make their daily word count, but her editor will publish the best finished manuscript and pay its author a $1 million advance. With Roza’s encouragement, Alex begins a fictionalized account of the bizarre, unsolved deaths of Blackbriar’s builder and his occultist wife. The story flows as though channeled, but when unsettling events start happening and one of the participants disappears during a blizzard, Alex wonders if perhaps she should focus less on potential fame and more on survival. Boldly drawn characters complement Bartz’s gleefully twisted plot. Excerpts from Alex’s work-in-progress pepper her increasingly paranoid narration, underscoring her shifting mindset. Sara Gran fans, take note. Agent: Alexandra Machinist, ICM Partners. (Feb.)

Megan Collins

"NIGHT FILM meets THE SECRET HISTORY in Julia Bartz’s bold, brilliant, and genuinely scary debut. THE WRITING RETREAT masterfully delivers everything thriller readers crave: palpable atmosphere, sinister characters, full-body chills, jaw-dropping twists, and stay-up-all-night suspense. I am obsessed with this book. I never wanted it to end."

Layne Fargo

"Julia Bartz’s shrewd, suspenseful debut takes the typical writer’s anxieties and obsessions and transforms them into a pulse-pounding, impossible to put down thriller. THE WRITING RETREAT is bonkers in the best way, and it left me with a brutal case of author envy."

Ana Reyes

"In The Writing Retreat, Julia Bartz weaves horror and a sly touch of satire into an utterly addictive thriller about ambition, rivalry and the heartache of friendship breakups. I can't wait to read what she writes next!"

Janice Hallett

"THE WRITING RETREAT by Julia Bartz is a wild ride from page one. I’ve been on a good few writing retreats myself and thought I’d seen it all - I was wrong. Blending themes of friendship, ambition, creativity and courage, this thrill-packed story brims with secrets, intrigue and murder. Bartz wrangles tension of the highest order, and executes a fiercely original story with vigour and style. A five-star read that’s intelligent, accomplished and exciting. I dare you to put it down."

Wendy Walker

Darkly satirical and action-packed, The Writing Retreat brings a breath of fresh air to the locked room mystery. . . . The writing is flawless and the plot adeptly woven. An absolutely splendid debut!

Sarah Langan

"THE WRITING RETREAT is a sexy, thrilling, compulsive mediation on art and competition amongst women who ought to be sisters, only something malignant gets in the way. I couldn't put it down."

Kirthana Ramisetti

"THE WRITING RETREAT will keep you up all night with its intriguing premise and gasp-worthy twists. A suspenseful story of ambition and envy, friendship and survival, this novel asks how high a price will one pay to achieve their dreams. THE WRITING RETREAT is the very definition of a page turner, and a remarkable debut from a gifted writer."

Jennifer Fawcett

"A wild ride into the pressures of publishing that is equal parts nightmare and erotic fantasy as five would-be writers are pulled deeper into the secrets of Blackbriar and its inhabitants. In THE WRITING RETREAT, Julia Bartz captures the hunger to have our stories told and the desperate measures some will take to cut through the noise."

Booklist (starred review)

Stomach-clenchingly thrilling from beginning to end . . . Highly recommended for fans of authors like Ruth Ware and Riley Sager.

nationally bestselling author Wendy Walker

Darkly satirical and action-packed…An absolutely splendid debut!”

MARCH 2023 - AudioFile

Gail Shalan narrates this psychological suspense featuring five aspiring authors who are participating in a writing retreat held at an isolated mansion in the Adirondacks. The five attendees are all women under 30, though they seem younger. The leader of the retreat is Roza Vallo, a renowned feminist horror writer much admired by the young writers. Shalan gives Roza, who is Hungarian by birth, a voice that sometimes sounds warm and sometimes sinister. The story is told by Alex, who hopes the month-long retreat will overcome her writer's block. It does just that but in a way that is terrifying. The plot includes secret passages, underground dungeons, mind-altering drugs, odd sexual undertones, and murder. Shalan makes each writer distinctive and interesting. D.L.G. © AudioFile 2023, Portland, Maine

Kirkus Reviews

★ 2022-12-14
Five writers, four weeks, and a $1 million book deal for the lucky winner. Unless they disappear first….

Having just turned 30, Alex has to face up to some hard truths: She hates her job; she’s been miserable since breaking up with her best friend; and she’s mired in writer’s block, which makes it pretty hard to be discovered and published. Then, a call from the blue: A writer friend has finagled her a space at an elite writers retreat at the estate of the mysterious, glamorous novelist Roza Vallo. From the very first night at Blackbriar, though, it’s clear that this is no warm and fuzzy workshop, and Roza is no gentle mentor. Each writer must craft a proposal for a full-length novel, then crank out 3,000 words a day to be critiqued. Despite the trappings of luxury—food and wine and an unparalleled library—there’s no ignoring the fact that the writers are trapped; there’s no Wi-Fi or cell service to be found. For Alex, the sense of disquiet grows as her research deepens; with Roza’s urging, she has decided to write a novel about the original inhabitants of the house, a wealthy tycoon and his waitress-turned-medium wife who were both found dead after the wife apparently channeled a demoness named Lamia. When one of the other writers disappears, Alex can’t help but wonder whether occult history is repeating itself. Or is there a much more sinister (and human) plot behind this writing retreat? Despite Alex’s somewhat whiny nature, the book's pacing—a slow roll of dread and horror, especially in the first half—is exceptional. Bartz hits all the gothic highlights, but, far from feeling stale, they work.

A perfect winter night's haunting.

Product Details

BN ID: 2940174913189
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 02/21/2023
Edition description: Unabridged
Sales rank: 585,870

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1 Fuck her.

These were the words that got me down the subway steps. I was going to Ursula’s book party, and if Wren was there, too, well, she could just go fuck herself.

But my fingers were shaking in the moment before I gripped the subway pole. So much for bravado. And I had to admit: this wild, frenetic energy coursing through me wasn’t rage, exactly. It was more like abject terror.

Friday night commuters filled the sweaty subway car. I stood over two seated girls who were maybe in high school, their mascara-laden eyes darting, hands pulling nervously at hair. One leaned in and said something into the other’s ear. She nodded sagely, and they regarded each other with smirks.

The interaction jabbed like a penknife in the ribs. Their shared world. Their undeniable certainty that they were a team. It reminded me of early days with Wren, holding hands as we rode out to Bushwick, wearing cheap pleather leggings, swigging from a shared plastic bottle of vodka and soda.

Stop. I curled my fist in my pocket, digging my fingernails into my palm. I couldn’t show up like this, with soft, pathetic yearning in my eyes. Wren and I were no longer best friends. Or friends at all. And that was fine. I was thirty years old. It didn’t make sense that I was still so broken up about a goddamn friendship.

The doors slid open. I followed a small stream of people out, throwing a final glance back at the teen girls. One stared directly at me, her gaze both curious and hostile.

Pete was waiting for me in the hotel lobby, a mishmash of leather couches, gleaming wood surfaces, and golden chandeliers.

“Alex, hello!” He jumped up, then stuck his hands in his pockets and grinned. “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m definitely not cool enough to be here.”

I’d been more relieved than I’d let on that Pete, my one work friend, had agreed to come to the book party. Seeing him in his smudged glasses, loose jeans, and non-ironic running shoes caused my heart rate to slow.

“Careful.” I smiled, shrugging off my heavy coat. “They can smell your fear.”

He chattered as we walked towards the basement steps and I tried to focus on his words. Pete and I had only started hanging out outside work recently, and while part of me enjoyed his unselfconsciously affable personality, another part was bereft. I could almost hear Wren’s amused voice: Really? This nerd is your new bestie?

At the top of the stairs, two women blew past us, waves of flowery perfume streaming off their fur-trimmed coats. I felt like I was in a dream as I followed Pete down the steps, studying the back of his head as he kept half turning to explain something ridiculous his boss had done that day.

At the bottom a hallway stretched in both directions. From the right came the sounds of laughter and clinking glasses, undercut by some kind of buzzing electronic music. A mirror ran down the hallway, a thin strip cutting us off below the shoulders. I looked like a disembodied ghoul: pale skin marked with red blotches from the cold, eyes teary from the wind, dark hair staticky from my hat. I tried to bend my mouth into a smile. I’d redone my makeup before leaving work, adding extra eyeliner and lipstick, but I worried it only made me look false and weird.

We strode towards the music. A marquee sign with pressed-in letters greeted us at the open doorway: URSULA’S BOOK RELEASE!! WELCOME BITCHES!!!!!

Beyond was a wall of people. It looked like a living thing, blinking and shimmering and pushing various tentacles towards the bar. My stomach plummeted. I’d never been afraid of crowds before. In fact, I’d always thrown myself in—at dance parties, sweaty basement shows, art galleries so packed that you knew someone was going to knock over a sculpture.

But now I was afraid. More than that: on the verge of a panic attack.

“Yikes.” Pete considered. “I can literally feel my social anxiety rising.”

The words made me smile. “Me too.”

“What do you think?” Pete studied me. I knew that if for whatever reason I wanted to leave, he’d take it in stride. He’d probably offer an alternative: a beer, a snack nearby.

But I had to do this. True, I hadn’t seen Wren since that awful day—her birthday, nearly a year ago now. Sure, I’d stalked her social media, watching as her beauty editor job had earned her a blue check mark. I’d seen her style change, her dark bangs go blunt instead of choppy, her growing proclivity for designer jackets. I couldn’t comprehend seeing her in person; it’d be like confronting a ghost who’d come back to life.

“Let’s make for the bar.” I said it grimly and Pete laughed.

“Here we go!” We plunged into the crowd. Pete slithered up to the bar, leaving me a few steps behind. It was sweltering and loud, guests shout-talking to be heard over the music, slurping drinks like it was 2:00 a.m. instead of early evening. I glanced surreptitiously around. My breath caught in my throat as I saw the back of her sleek dark bob. But she turned and no—it wasn’t her. I forced myself to take a deep breath. Maybe she wouldn’t come; maybe she was out of town or something. Wouldn’t that be hilarious, all that panic for nothing?

“Jesus.” Pete returned with two beers. “These cost twelve dollars each! I thought that was the whole point of book parties—free booze!”

“Thanks. I’ll Venmo you.” I took the glass gratefully and gulped.

“Hmm.” Pete squinted at the crowd like a shipman searching the horizon. “Maybe let’s go over there where it’s more chill.” I followed him into the main room with the stage. We made it to the back wall and both leaned against it with relief. The tightness in my chest eased.

“That’s Ursula, right?” Pete gestured with his glass.

“That’s her.” She stood near the stage, holding court with a semicircle of admirers.

“How’d you meet her again?”

“A writing group. A long time ago.” Seeing her in the flesh—tortoiseshell glasses and animal-print dress against pale tattooed skin and hot-pink hair—made me relax further. It was a bit sad that the fear of seeing Wren had made me forget about the point of this whole event: to celebrate Ursula’s success.

I’d met Ursula through Wren, actually, shortly after meeting Wren at work. An image reared up: Wren in her signature vintage black rabbit fur coat and red lipstick. She’d been assigned to train me as an assistant, though she’d been working at the educational publishing company only a few months longer than me. That first morning with Wren, I’d known—instantly—what becoming friends meant: secret dance parties in abandoned warehouses, madcap dates ending with kisses in forlorn alleys, boozy brunches laughing over the night before. It was as clear as if someone had whispered it into my ear. Wren was a ticket into the life I’d envisioned in my fantasies, staring out of the window of Mom’s broken-down hatchback as we raced over gray plains to get far away from her last disastrous boyfriend. Wren was the tornado that could pick me up and put me down in the midst of a luscious, Technicolor dreamworld.

But first I had to impress her. In an uncharacteristic burst of luck, it had happened before I could even make a plan. Leaning over my desk to help me log in, she’d seen the book I’d set down: Polar Star, the most recent Roza Vallo. I’d already read it, of course, having put a hold on it at the library before it had even come out. But the past few months of job hunting had been demoralizing, and I’d splurged on the gorgeous hardcover during a particularly low day.

“You like Roza Vallo?” Wren stared askance. I knew her skepticism stemmed from my uncool professional outfit: slacks and a pale blue button-up shirt. She loomed over me, a tall girl who wore platforms because she didn’t give a fuck about towering over everyone else.

“She’s my favorite author.” I calculated and continued: “She’s a big inspiration for me. For my writing, I mean.”

Wren’s ruby lips curved. “Me too.” She leaned in, eyes narrowing. “I kind of love your eyebrows. Where do you get them done?”

I fought not to touch them self-consciously. Was she referring to my inexpert plucking? “I do them myself.”

“Nice.” She yawned. “Lord, I’m hungover. Let’s get lunch.”

Though it was barely eleven, we’d soon found ourselves slurping spicy noodles while talking nonstop about our current writing projects. We were both working on novels, and both extremely serious about them. That afternoon I sent my first email to her, containing a link to a Roza Vallo article that explored the feminist themes underpinning her novels’ use of period blood. I also boldly joked about my boss’s cleavage. She responded almost immediately, and we started a spate of witty exchanges that I spent much more time and energy on than my actual job.

Two months later Wren had asked me to join her writing group, since their third person had dropped out. There I’d met Ursula. She was nearly ten years older than us and had a calm self-confidence that I could only dream of. At this point I’d been blatantly copying Wren—which meant spending whole days at Goodwill, looking for clothes she might admire. But Ursula was her own person. She had her own neon-colored, clashing style and wrote intensely personal pieces about being Chinese American, queer, and a fat activist. She was so different from Wren and yet was the one person Wren ever seemed in awe of.

The music switched off, and Pete’s next question rang too loud in my ear. “How long have you known her?”

I blinked before realizing he was talking about Ursula, not Wren. “I guess about eight years?” The crowd from the bar oozed into the main room.

“Huh. Back before she was famous.”

“Yep.” Even back then I’d known Ursula would find success. I’d always thought her essays were good enough to be published in the New York Times, so it wasn’t a surprise when one actually was. After her Modern Love piece came out, she got snatched up by an agent and editor who fast-tracked her first book of essays. That had been three years ago; she was now publishing her second.

“You recognize anyone?” Pete scanned the crowd.

I forced myself to look. Hordes of hip people, many of them young, early twenties, purposefully plain with severely shorn hair and no makeup. That level of confidence—at such a young age!—amazed me. I couldn’t leave my apartment without a full face of makeup.

“Not really,” I was saying, but then I heard it—a familiar laugh. About ten feet away stood Ridhi, one of Wren’s choice friends. I shifted so that I was partially hidden by Pete.

“Hi, everyone!” a female voice crackled over a loudspeaker. “We’re going to start!” The crowd shuffled and I saw with relief that Ridhi and her group were moving ahead. My stomach dropped as I recognized several others with her, including another of Wren’s good friends, Craig. He wore a slim olive suit and was murmuring into Ridhi’s ear with a wide grin.

“Welcome, everyone.” Ursula’s agent, Melody, had a commanding voice and everyone quieted down immediately. As she introduced Ursula, I kept an eye on the crew. Watching them gave me an unexpectedly powerful ache. The friend breakup with Wren hadn’t just been between the two of us; I’d lost all our mutual friends too.

I should’ve known; it was unthinkable now that I hadn’t. After all, the night of Wren’s birthday had ended in arcs of blood, splattering black in the moonlight.

People were applauding. I shook myself and clapped along as Ursula strode across the stage in iridescent platform boots. “Guys, seriously, thank you so much for being here.” Her low voice was often sardonic, but now it was resonant with sincerity. “You are all amazing people and sometimes I have to pinch myself that I have such an incredible support network.” As Ursula continued speaking, I took another gulp of beer, realizing it was almost gone. I hadn’t eaten since lunch, and the alcohol was making me woozy in the overheated room.

“Okay!” Ursula raised her glass. “I know at book parties you’re supposed to read an excerpt and blah blah blah, but why don’t we skip that boring part tonight and just party?” She laughed at the ensuing wolf whistles. “Awesome. Let’s go ahead and mingle, then! Oh, and buy a book or three!” Amidst cheers, Ursula left the stage and the crowd dispersed, many making for the bar. I watched Wren’s crew join the signing line, still oblivious to my presence. If Wren was here, she’d be with them. So she wasn’t here. She must be traveling, at a photo shoot, doing something she was probably already posting about. And, no, I wasn’t going to immediately check. The confirmation made me relieved but also unexpectedly disappointed.

“This is wild,” I told Pete, attempting to distract myself as we joined the back of the signing line. “Ursula’s last reading was in the basement of a bookstore in Greenpoint with bottles of Two-Buck Chuck.”

“At least they had free alcohol.” Pete held up his own empty glass. “Want another IPA?”

“Sure.” Finally, I could relax. This called for at least another drink, maybe more.

Ursula’s publicist strode down the line with a stack of books. I bought two copies, one for Pete. The smooth, weighty hardcover showed a picture of Ursula on a vintage red-velvet couch. She sat cross-legged in ripped denim overalls, gazing unabashedly into the camera. A hungry, wolfish feeling reared up in my gut. What would it feel like to hold your own book in your hands for the first time? For it to be a physical object, a thing that people paid for?

I glanced up, feeling eyes on me. The crew was staring at me, surprised and faintly disgusted, like I was a racoon that had wandered into their living room. Only Craig was looking at someone else—

Wren. He was looking at Wren.

The world blurred, and for a moment it was just me and her. There was something glinting in her eyes, a reflection of the pain and loss that I so keenly felt. A sob rose up in my throat at the realization that she felt it, too, that she did miss me, that she, too, wanted nothing more than for us to grasp each other in a tight, desperate hug, pulled back together like two powerful magnets.

But then a wall came down. The pain shifted into something else, something darker: revulsion.

Don’t touch me. I’d been drunk that night but could still remember her voice with perfect clarity. How she’d hissed the words from between clenched teeth. How literally moments later she’d been lying in a spreading pool of blood.

I felt frozen, unable to look away. Wren turned and said something to Craig. He laughed and looked relieved. The others moved inward towards her, though Ridhi glowered at me a few seconds longer.

The beer gurgled in my stomach. I turned and raced towards the bathroom, making it to a stall just in time. Yellow liquid frothed in the bowl. I sat on my knees and wiped my mouth. I was still clutching the books.

Slowly, I stood and flushed the toilet. At the sink a pretty girl washed her hands and avoided looking at me. She must have heard my retches. I wanted to burst into tears but I kept them firmly down.

What had I expected? For Wren to smile and ask if I wanted to be friends again?

We were over. Forever. I knew that now.

A text pinged. Hey where are you? Can’t find you. Pete. Leaning against the sink, I wrote back with shaky fingers. I just saw someone I didn’t want to run into. Mind if we leave?

Sure! came the instant reply. Sounds like we need to get you another drink.

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