Reviews > Published on February 20th, 2023

"The Writing Retreat" by Julia Bartz

What would you do to make your dreams come true? Would you step over your friends on your path to fame and success? How far would you go? 

These are some of the questions at the center of Julia Bartz’sThe Writing Retreat (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster). The narrative follows Alex, an aspiring horror author who gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: she’s accepted into a month-long writing workshop at the isolated estate of her favorite writer, the legendary and reclusive Roza Vallo. There are just two problems: for the past year, Alex has been suffering from a nasty case of writer’s block, and her ex-best friend Wren — with whom she had an explosive falling out that caused the aforementioned cessation of all her creativity — will also be in attendance, alongside three other women. As if that weren’t bad enough, upon their arrival Roza reveals that Alex and the other attendees will have to write a brand new novel over the course of thirty days, and on top of that, they’re in competition with one another for a top prize, million-dollar book deal. 

[The book] is superbly plotted with a flawed, engaging protagonist and captivating characters, and Bartz is particularly adept at generating suspense.

Alex quickly learns, however, that the presence of her frenemy, writer’s block, and a tight deadline are the least of her worries. Strange dreams and stranger occurrences inside the mansion begin to plague her, and dark mysteries crop up. Moreover, are Roza’s teaching methods merely the result of an eccentric mind, or is she up to something ominous? Are there supernatural forces at play, or is paranoia only setting in, a symptom of the remote, wintertime setting? (If you’re thinking The Shining at this point, you’re not wrong — Bartz even makes a sly reference to it about halfway through the book — but things take a turn toward a different King narrative that shall go unnamed here.) It’s a little cliché, but it’s also one hundred percent true in this case: just when you think you know what’s going to happen, you don’t. 

There is much to love about The Writing Retreat if you’re just a casual reader or fan of horror fiction. It is superbly plotted with a flawed, engaging protagonist and captivating characters, and Bartz is particularly adept at generating suspense. If you’re a writer, Bartz’s meta-narrative perfectly captures the simultaneous torture and the pure joy of putting words to the page. Given that the novel takes place over the course of an intense writing retreat (an understatement), there’s even a lot of solid writerly advice snuck into the story, like making yourself take big risks around the midpoint (which Alex does, and Bartz does too). But especially if you’re a woman trading in fiction, Bartz’s tale will no doubt strike a chord. She explores the rivalry, backstabbing, and cut-throat nature of the publishing world imposed upon women, who are forced to fight for book deal scraps in a field dominated by men. This undeniable fact makes everything that transpires in The Writing Retreat relatable, funny, and frightening.

But perhaps the most impressive thing about this book is that it’s Bartz’s debut. It feels like the author has been at this for years, maybe even decades. Within the novel, Roza opines that perhaps writers only have one true masterpiece in their system, but that seems doubtful in Bartz’s case. One suspects there will be nothing but great things from this first-time novelist. 

Get The Writing Retreat at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Christopher Shultz writes plays and fiction. His works have appeared at The Inkwell Theatre's Playwrights' Night, and in Pseudopod, Unnerving Magazine, Apex Magazine, freeze frame flash fiction and Grievous Angel, among other places. He has also contributed columns on books and film at LitReactor, The Cinematropolis, and Tor.com. Christopher currently lives in Oklahoma City. More info at christophershultz.com

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