Books

8 takeaways from the ‘Northern Reach’ discussion with W.S. Winslow

How far away can you really ever get from your roots?

Last week, the Boston.com Book Club hosted a virtual discussion with author W.S. Winslow on her debut novel, “The Northern Reach.” Moderated by Stephanie Heinz of Print: A Bookstore, our conversation covered Maine humor, what it means to truly belong somewhere, and her favorite characters in the book.

Ahead, we share the top takeaways from the event, and you can also watch the full recording here.

The novel began as a short story collection

“The Northern Reach” is Winslow’s first novel, who comes from a background in business writing. From a craft perspective, the short story format came naturally to the author. “I got the first two done and I began to find that there was a lot of thematic repetition,” said Winslow. “I would see a character and I would want to find out what happens to their children.”

Maine has its own breed of humor

It’s dry, dark, and an integral part of the state’s culture. “It was, at times, invoked when the subject at hand got to be a little too much,” said the author. “Certainly for me and a lot of other people I know, that kind of humor is a coping mechanism. It’s a kind of deflective act. There’s an element of self protection in there as well.” Winslow believes this deflection originates from Maine’s puritanical roots and its deadpan delivery can be hard to capture in writing, but feels it’s paramount in describing the place and people of Maine.

As she wrote, Winslow grappled with how far someone can really get from their roots

The author herself left Maine for New York City, a place that’s drastically different when she felt the pull to go elsewhere in the “push-pull of place” she feels we all can experience. “The question is: Why leave?,” said Winslow, who returned to her home state after 30 years. “I think it’s not so much about the place as it is your particular situation…Everything leaves a mark on you, and so the question is about why people leave and why they pull up their roots and how far away do you really ever get?,” she said. “Because in this book and in life people are sometimes running from something that’s situational, but they’re also sometimes running from themselves.”

Winslow is interested in exploring the idea of belonging and its many layers in Maine

“Everyone experiences belonging in a different way,” said Winslow. “There were layers and layers of belonging, and those layers of belonging came from commonality. They weren’t so much a lot of differences to bridge.” The author feels Mainers are woven from the same cultural fabric, which cultivates a solid, yet often limited sense if being.

W.S. Winslow – Jeff Roberts

The novel’s characters are inspired by people she knows or observes

“Many characters are based on people I know. That’s the beginning of the character, sort of the kernel,” said Winslow. “The characters tend to go far beyond the known people and become something else entirely. They come from my family, they come from my friends, storytellers—people who can regale you for hours over a beer. Sometimes they come from standing in the checkout line at the home depot and hearing somebody say something.” The author can sometimes see or hear her characters in her mind, or perhaps she figures out a certain trait of behavior that’s the crux of their being.

Her favorite family in the book is the most disruptive

Despite how they’re framed as outcasts, Winslow finds herself most drawn to the Moody family in the book. She finds they are the only family that seems to actually like and enjoy each other’s company. “Out of all the families in this book, the Moody’s are the only ones that have any fun,” she said. They offer a welcome disruption and sense of freedom to both the setting depicted in the novel and the narrative itself.

When writing dialogue, what people don’t say is more important than what they do

The author finds that the questions characters choose to answer are just as significant as the questions they choose to avoid. To carve out an authentic, electric volley of dialogue, she will often just let the characters speak—going back through it and editing later on.

She’s already working on a second book

Winslow said it will trace the backstory of one character that appeared in “The Northern Reach” in a more call and response format, with a central focus instead of the shifting perspectives the author used previously.


Join our next virtual Book Club discussion

Join the Boston.com Book Club Wednesday, July 28 at 6 p.m. for a virtual discussion with Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival featured author Deesha Philyaw featured guest Sunny Hostin on her novel, “Summer on the Bluffs.”

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Register to join Hostin and Philyaw on Wednesday, July 28 at 6 p.m.

Buy “Summer on the Bluffs” from: Bookshop | Bunch of Grapes

Learn more about the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival here.

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