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Interview: January 24, 2014

Wendy Webb’s first two books, THE TALE OF HALCYON CRANE and THE FATE OF MERCY ALBAN, were both winners of the Minnesota Book Award for genre fiction. Now she follows up these successes with THE VANISHING, a gothic horror tale about a woman who accepts a job offer that she begins to suspect is too good to be true. In this interview with’s Sarah Rachel Egelman, Webb talks about what inspired the old haunted house (including “Downton Abbey” and séances gone wrong), which itself is almost a character in the novel. She also considers why people are so intrigued by horror stories and reveals some of her own favorites. What came to you first when you were conceptualizing this story? Was it one of the characters, the old haunted house Havenwood or perhaps something like the idea of a séance gone wrong?

Wendy Webb: I start all of my novels with the setting. I love the PBS program “Downton Abbey,” and I love the house most of all. I starting thinking: What if there was a house like that in the middle of the wilderness? What sort of eccentric nobleman might have built it a century ago, and what sorts of strange things might have happened there? Then I thought: Oooh. What if a séance went wrong there a century ago, and the house is still feeling the effects of it? And I was off and running. Or, writing, as it were.

BRC: THE VANISHING has a few key secrets that are revealed to readers as the story progresses. Did you know exactly what you wanted to explore when you set out to write it, or did the secrets and mysteries reveal themselves to you as you wrote?

WW: I have a general idea of where I'm going, but I purposely don't think too far ahead and I don't outline. I like to be surprised by the twists and turns as much as my readers do. It's a lot of fun for me to just see where the developing story takes my imagination. I myself didn't know why Amaris Sinclair dropped out of public life until I was halfway through the book.

BRC: In the novel, the main character Julia Bishop is a strong woman weakened by circumstance and then challenged by the situation she finds herself in at Havenwood. As you were writing, did you feel like you were really pushing this character to the limits of what she could handle?

WW: I do tend to write strong female characters. Poor Julia was faced with some pretty intense and strange situations, but she wanted to get to the bottom of them, not run from them.

BRC: There are several interesting and enigmatic characters in this novel. Who was your favorite to write and why?

WW: I really loved writing Amaris Sinclair. When I first started the book, I intended her to be much scarier than she turned out to be. But very early on, her voice became clear --- she was comic relief from the intensity of things that were happening at Havenwood. I would chuckle to myself about her outlandish clothes and the funny things she'd say.

BRC: Both Julia and Amaris Sinclair are writers. Are there specific parts of you written into either of them, or are they wholly fictional characters?

WW: They are wholly fictional, but when I put my characters in strange and eerie situations, I always wonder how I'd handle the same thing. Would I run? Call somebody to help? Face whatever it is head on? So I do put some of myself in the reactions of the characters. And hey, if, when I'm 80, I'm like Amaris Sinclair --- an eccentric novelist living in a big, old, haunted estate with a loving family and a bunch of animals --- that would be okay with me.

BRC: Havenwood, the house Julia comes to live in, is the setting for the story, but in some ways it becomes a character as well. Can you tell us about Havenwood as a setting and as an entity in the novel? And was it inspired by an actual place?

WW: Havenwood, as I mentioned, was inspired by the house in “Downton Abbey.” I love big, old homes. They've seen so much, sometimes centuries of life --- births, deaths, marriages, divorces, every nuance of human life happening within their walls. I'm sure that kind of energy lingers.

BRC: There are lots of ghosts and spirits roaming the halls of Havenwood in THE VANISHING. Tell us a bit about Gideon, the violent and malevolent force that lives in the East Salon of the house.

WW: I have a friend who is a psychic, and she told me long ago to never use a Ouija board, never summon the dead and never try to conduct a séance, because while you may be trying to contact your dearly departed grandmother, something else entirely is going to come through. Something dark, something malevolent. And it just might not leave. Gideon is one of those things that came through during a séance and stayed. He's not exactly Casper the Friendly Ghost.

BRC: Though titled THE VANISHING, your novel is also about returning. Both ideas are examined physically and psychologically. How does the returning support the good ghost story you set out to tell?

WW: Oh, that's an interesting question. Without giving anything away, I think that, for certain characters, returning is the key to everything. 

BRC: Why do you think people so enjoy ghost stories and other scary tales? Are you a fan of ghost, supernatural or horror fiction? Do you have a favorite scary book or myth?

WW: I love a good, suspenseful tale filled with things that go bump in the night. One of my favorites recently was THE GHOST WRITER by John Harwood. It was superb. I also love Simone St. James, whose novel AN INQUIRY INTO LOVE AND DEATH I zipped through in about two days. The scariest myth I know is that of the Windigo --- a supernatural cannibal that lives in the wilderness where Havenwood happens to be.

BRC: Havenwood is home to a magnificent library with some rare and signed books shelved there. Are you a collector of books yourself? Do you have any books you particularly prize?

WW: The books that mean the most to me are the ones that I read and loved as a child --- A WRINKLE IN TIME, STORIES THAT NEVER GROW OLD and others. I don't have any rare first editions right now, but when I'm as successful as Amaris Sinclair, that's first on the list. I'd love a first edition of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. 

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

WW: By the time THE VANISHING is released, my next manuscript will be finished and in the hopper. It's the story of Kate, who is having unsettling dreams. In the dreams, Kate is another woman. She sees this woman's face as a reflection in the mirror; she's married to this woman's husband, and is basically living her life. When that very woman washes up dead on the beach in front of Kate's home, our story begins.