The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz – extract

The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz was published by Magpie on 2 March 2023.

Today I have an extract to share.

The next few minutes passed in a blur. We introduced ourselves as Roza
listened in a queenly way, sipping her wine and completely ignoring the
steaming plate of food before her.
I ended up going last, and I stumbled through my little spiel. Name,
where I’m from, what I’m doing when I’m not writing (ha). After, there
came a pause.
“Where’s your necklace?” Roza’s brow furrowed.
“Oh.” My face warmed. “I was rushing to get ready and I totally
forgot to wear it.”
“You forgot to wear it?” She said it lightly, but her expression was
suddenly grim.
“I’m sorry.” I glanced around the table. Poppy, Wren, and Taylor
stared down at their plates while Ian and Keira watched Roza. “I mean . . .
I didn’t know we were supposed to.”
“You come to my home.” Roza suddenly leaned forward, her accent
growing stronger as she said the words slowly, empathically. “And you
receive my gift. And you don’t stop to think that perhaps it would be a
good idea to show your appreciation by wearing it?”
My mouth opened and closed. I felt stricken. Was this actually happening?
“Nothing?” She narrowed her eyes, then sighed and looked down.
“Well, Alex dear. I think we know exactly how seriously you’re taking
this opportunity.” She picked up a brussels sprout with her fingers and
popped it into her mouth. “You can leave,” she said, chewing.
“What?” I gawped stupidly.
“Goodbye.” She waved a hand.
I thought suddenly of the book festival, how the mood in the church
had shifted so rapidly. The atmosphere in the dining room, so light a
seccond ago, was now heavy with shock and dread.
“Roza.” Ian smiled, appeasing. “Come on, love. You don’t really mean
that.”
She stared not at him but at me, her green eyes blazing. I wanted to
crawl under the table or flee upstairs to my room, where I could lock out
whatever this brutal punishment was.
But I forced myself to stare back at her. There were tears gathering
behind my eyes but I refused to let them well up.
The silence stretched out, interminable. I stopped breathing and my
heart thundered.
Then Roza threw her head back and laughed. The mood pitched
again, this time to confusion and relief. Uneasy smiles formed on Taylor’s and Poppy’s faces. Ian groaned and rubbed his temples. Wren continued to gaze at her plate while Keira stared at Roza, her face filled
with distrust.
“My darling!” Roza wiped at her eyes. “You’re so serious!” She finally calmed down and exhaled with an Ohhhh. “You really think I would
kick you out for not wearing a stupid necklace? Jesus. You must think
I’m an absolute monster.”
“Um, no.” My voice was shaking and I steeled myself. “Of course
not.”
Ian raised his hands. “Ladies, I should’ve warned you all. Roza likes
to play little tricks sometimes. You really can’t take half the things she
says seriously.” He shook his finger at her. “These beautiful, talented
women don’t know you yet, dear. You’re going to make them want to
run off before the damn retreat begins.”
“Ian, shut up.” As if my humiliation had revved her appetite, she
picked up her knife and fork and dug into her steak. “They’re not children.” She looked up at me, chewing and considering. “Alex, darling.
Can you forgive me? Maybe I was too cruel.”
“No, it’s totally fine.” I managed a chuckle. The relief was like cool
water down a parched throat. But it also left me feeling unsettled and
upset. How could she do that: treat me like a dog she raised her hand
to, just to see if it would flinch? Keira caught my eye, her forehead lined
with concern.
“By the way.” Roza motioned to me with her fork. “Alex, I absolutely
loved your story. I almost missed a flight reading it. You’re incredibly
talented and I’m so delighted you’re here.”
The words warmed me and I tried to force myself to relax as Roza
and Ian started bantering about Roza devastating a potential suitor Ian
had sent her way in Rome. Maybe I was overreacting. Roza was known
for being unpredictable, and most definitely not for being a kindly, caring, Mother Goose–type mentor.
Roza Vallo wasn’t nice. And that’s how she’d gotten where she was.
Maybe I could learn something from her.
When Roza pushed her half-eaten plate away, Yana was immediately
there to collect it.
“So.” Roza pulled something out of her pocket: a mother-of-pearl
inlaid cigarette case. She popped it open and brought out a thin, handrolled cigarette. “Let’s talk.”
An air of expectation arose as Chitra appeared, setting down small,
delicate cups of espresso and trays of truffles and fruit.
“I know I was being a bitch before, but I really am glad you liked the
necklaces.” Roza jutted out her chin as she lit her cigarette with a silver
lighter. “They’re twenty-two-karat, so be gentle with them.”
“They’re beautiful,” Poppy said earnestly.
“Where’d you get them?” Wren asked, touching hers.
“India.” Roza blew out a thin stream of smoke. The scent of weed,
piney and pungent, suffused the dining room. She handed the joint to
Poppy, who took it uncertainly. “A long time ago. I knew I’d need them
someday. And the set of five worked out perfectly.”
“How’d you choose who got which animal?” Taylor studied her
charm, holding it up in the candlelight.
Roza shrugged. “I just had a feeling.”
“Really?” Taylor smiled, flirting. “A rabbit? Is this a commentary on
my sex life?”
“Regeneration,” Roza said playfully. “Like a phoenix, my dear, only
cuter.”
“And the pig?” Poppy held back a cough and handed the joint to
Taylor.
“Pigs are a sign of luck,” Roza said.
“Snake?” Wren asked.
“Knowledge, of course.” Roza stared at me. “What was yours?”
I cleared my throat. “A spider.”
“Resourcefulness,” she said sagely.
“Are you making this up?” Ian asked.
“Of course!” she cried, and we all laughed.
Roza took a sip of her espresso and set it down on the saucer with
a jangle. “Okay, let’s get down to business. Before I’m too stoned to
think.”
Keira passed the joint to Ian without taking any.
“That’s strong,” Taylor remarked, her eyes pink.
“It’s time for me to tell you what we’re really doing here,” Roza
said.
Taylor and Keira caught eyes. Poppy propped her chin on her hand
expectantly. I managed not to look at Wren but could feel her shift uncomfortably in her seat.
“This isn’t going to be an easy-breezy, hang-out, write-wheneveryou-feel-like-it kind of retreat.” Roza picked up a truffle from one of
the trays, chewed it, and swallowed. “This is going to be a little more
intense.”
“I like intense,” Taylor said, still flirting.
“Good.” Roza leaned back in her seat, pulling in a knee and setting
her heel on the end of her chair. Her jeans had a large tear and skin
showed through like a bone poking through flesh.
Ian held the joint out to me. Sitting with my enemy and my idol,
my brain spewing morbid nonsense: the perfect time to get high! I pretended to inhale, then passed it to Wren. She kept her eyes on it as she
took it. Her nails were bare and her cuticles were ragged. This, more
than anything so far that night, took me aback. Wren loved her nails and
was never without a fresh manicure.
“Question: How do we all feel about the publishing industry?” Roza
asked.
“It sucks!” Taylor called through cupped palms.
“It does suck.” Roza took the joint from Wren, who I was almost
certain had taken a faux puff like me. “I got lucky, I published in the
seventies. They were open to radical stuff from nobodies back then. You
could push the boundaries and they’d take a chance on you. Now you
basically have to be running your own brand before they give you the
time of day.”
The weed really was strong; even with the small amount I’d accidentally inhaled, I could feel it.
“You have to be so slick these days,” Roza mused. “Not just with all
that social media nonsense. But also a highly sellable manuscript that
will appeal to the masses.” She rolled her eyes. “It’s absolutely disgusting. Right, Ian, darling?”
He shrugged, watching her with amusement.
“So. Because I was lucky, I want to pass some of that luck along
to you.” She gazed solemnly at each of us in turn. “I believe that you
are the most talented young female writers in America. And because
of that, this isn’t going to be a normal retreat. You’re not going to fool
around with the first chapter of something that you’ve been working on
for three years. No, we’re going to start fresh.”
“What does that mean?” Poppy asked.
“What it means, darling, is that during this month of February, over
twenty-eight days, you are going to write a completely new novel.”
“What?” Taylor snorted. “That’s not possible.”
“Oh, no?” Roza’s voice sharpened. “Are you that lazy, dear? In a
month when you have absolutely nothing to do but write?”
I’d stiffened, hunching over my plate. Terror tornadoed in my chest.
I’d already been nervous about writing, period. Now I was going to have
to write an entire fucking novel?
“So.” Roza smiled. “I’m sure you have questions. Ask away.”
“How long?” Keira asked. Her face was perfectly neutral. “I mean,
what’s the word length you’re expecting?”
“Good question, dear. This new work will have to be at least eightyone thousand words. So that means you will need to write at least three
thousand new words every day. Twelve double-spaced pages. You can do
that in a day, easy. And you even get today off to settle in.”
“How will you know?” Taylor was now leaning forward, her arms on
the table. “I mean, that we make it to three thousand”
“This is how.” Roza used her fingers to mimic legs walking downward. “Every day, you will take your laptop, and you will go down to the
study, and you will print out your work from that day. Then you will walk
back up”—here the fingers rose—“and you will slip the pages underneath my door. No later than midnight, please.” The hand dropped and
she cleared her throat. “Every morning by eight a.m. there will be copies
of the excerpts in the dining room. You will read your colleagues’ works
by two p.m., when we will meet in the library to discuss during a twohour seminar. Please have notes on the others’ works to share.”
The new realization was settling in: not only would we have to write
a book.
We’d have to help edit four others.
“Every day at four p.m., I will meet with one of you to go more
in depth; I’ll share the order tomorrow at our first group meeting.
Let’s see . . .” She held a finger to her chin. “Oh, yes. We will meet
for cocktails in the parlor every evening at six thirty, with dinner to
follow at seven thirty. Please be prompt; lateness will not be tolerated. She considered. “Breakfast and lunch will be a buffet laid out
for you in the dining room; you can eat when you please. And you
are also welcome to visit the kitchen at any time, day or night. More
questions?”
“What if we want to—or need to—edit what we’ve already written?”
Keira asked.
“You’ll have to just keep going.” Roza shrugged. “So unless you’re
a gambler, you’ll probably want to have some kind of outline. You’ll be
able to go back and edit at your leisure after the retreat. Well, except for
the winner. That person will just have a month or two, if we want to get
it out by fall.”
“ ‘Winner’?” Poppy repeated as Keira echoed: “ ‘Get it out’?”
“Oh, yes.” Roza’s eyes danced. “Did I forget that? Whichever novel
is the best, Ian here will publish it. I’ll write a nice introduction. And
you’ll also get an advance. I believe it was”—Roza glanced at Ian—“one
million, wasn’t it?”
Taylor whistled.
Ian nodded, smug. “And the book tour.”
“Right. And we’ll go on tour together.” Roza sighed. “I’m finishing
up my own blasted book, so I’ll be working right along with you.”
Wren, silent up until now, let out a sudden laugh.
“Yes, dear,” Roza said patiently, as if she’d raised her hand.
“I’m sorry, I just . . .” Wren’s eyes flashed. “I’m just processing this.
And wondering . . .”
“Yes, dear,” Roza said again.
“Well, okay.” Wren straightened. “I’m wondering why. It feels like
we’re being forced to compete against each other, like a reality show or
something.”
“Oh!” Roza turned to Ian, eyebrows raised. “What an interesting
way to see it. Here I thought we were being so generous.”
“I don’t want to seem ungrateful.” Wren shook her head. “I guess . . .
I don’t know. I just wish we could all work together. Instead of having
winners and losers. It’s just what we’ve been dealing with forever.”
Wow. Wren didn’t take shit from anyone—that was a core personality trait, one I’d envied since the first day I’d met her and overheard her
talking back to her supervisor. But I still wouldn’t have expected her to
question Roza.
Even though . . . she definitely had a point.
Roza was gazing at her with a frown. We held our collective breath.
But then Roza smiled. “Here’s the reason I’m not giving all of you a
personal grant, darling. It’s because I’m not in the business of dispensing handouts.”
Wren watched her, giving a slow nod.
“And there’s another reason too,” Roza went on. “I’ve found that the
best work comes when the stakes are raised. When there’s an element of
stress. That’s when the survival instinct kicks in. And that makes for the
most raw and vivid work.”
“Okay.” Wren said it woodenly.
“After all”—Roza fiddled with her lighter—“I’m not running a spa,
darling. You didn’t think a retreat with me was going to be a nice, relaxing time, did you?”
Wren blinked. “Well, no, but—”
“You knew this was a writing retreat,” Roza pointed out. “That writing would be involved. Just think of this as an added bonus. A one-in five chance to win a million dollars.” She raised her hands. “And even if
you don’t win, you’ll have a novel! One that a group of brilliant writers
will have helped you create. It will be your best work yet. And, of course,
you’ll have me as your champion.” Roza tapped the lighter twice. “I
don’t plan on leaving anyone out in the cold. Unless you leave first. I
can’t support someone who gives up so easily. Understood?”
Wren bobbed her head, chastened. “I do.”
“What if we fall behind?” Taylor asked suddenly.
Roza widened her eyes. “Don’t fall behind. If you fail to make your
daily word count”—she shrugged—“then you’ll be asked to leave the
next day.”
The table was silent. We stared at Roza, waiting for her to burst out
laughing. You’re all so serious!
“Anything else?” she asked instead.
“Any restrictions regarding the content?” Keira’s tone verged on casual.
“Up to you.” Roza pushed back her chair. “Of course, you know what
I like, based on what got you here. But if you want to try sci-fi or whatever, that’s up to you. I lied about the day off; please come up with a
one-paragraph proposal by our first meeting tomorrow. No need to share
beyond the midpoint unless you’d like to. Print out copies for everyone;
we’ll discuss them at two.”
“Oh god.” Poppy looked stricken. “That’s fast.”
“That’s the game, darling.” Roza stood, picking up her glass.
“What if you don’t like it?” I asked. “The story idea.”
Roza studied me. “Then you’ll have to come up with something
else.”
Being the focus of her gaze was like nothing else I’d ever experienced: like being pinned down as she cracked open my skull, staring
impassively, considering the slimy things inside.
Then she grinned and it was friendly, almost jaunty. The switch
jarred me.
“So, my dear.” Her voice was light. “Make it something I like.”

About the Book

A book deal to die for.

Five attendees are selected for a month-long writing retreat at the remote estate of Roza Vallo, the controversial high priestess of feminist horror. Alex, a struggling writer, is thrilled.

Upon arrival, they discover they must complete an entire novel from scratch, and the best one will receive a seven-figure publishing deal. Alex’s long-extinguished dream now seems within reach.

But then the women begin to die.

Trapped, terrified yet still desperately writing, it is clear there is more than a publishing deal at stake at Blackbriar Estate. Alex must confront her own demons – and finish her novel – to save herself.

You can buy a copy of the book here.

(This is an affiliate link so I may make a small amount should you purchase through it. You can also buy a copy of The Writing Retreat from your local independent bookshop.)

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