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Q&A with Tara Laskowski - The Weekend Retreat



By Hetty Clark


We are thrilled to welcome Tara Laskowski to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release, The Weekend Retreat, released on the 26th December 2023.


Three couples. Three days. A family getaway to die for.


Every year, the illustrious Van Ness siblings—heirs to a copper fortune—gather at their luxury winery estate for a joint birthday celebration. It's a tradition they've followed nearly all their lives, and now they are back with their significant others for a much-needed weekend of rest and relaxation, away from the public spotlight.


With lavish comforts, gorgeous scenery, and indulgent drinking, the trip should be the perfect escape. But it soon becomes clear that even a remote idyllic getaway can’t keep out the problems simmering in each of their lives. As old tensions are reignited, the three couples are pushed to the edge. Will their secrets destroy them, or will they destroy each other first? And who’s been watching them from beyond the vineyard gates?


When a torrential rainstorm hits, plunging them into darkness, the answers prove all too deadly…



Hi Tara, welcome to The Reading Corner! Thank you for giving us your time to talk about your novel The Weekend Retreat. I was hooked from the start and I’m sure our members will enjoy your novel too.


Hi Hetty! Thanks so much for doing this and for reading the book!


You have written several successful thrillers, what is it about this genre that you most enjoy?


I am not a troublemaker in real life, and I don’t really take many risks, so it’s fun to write about people who are and do. It’s also the genre I love to read, so if I’m going to spend a lot of time writing, I want it to be with something that I enjoy.


In The Weekend Retreat, the characters are all ambitious types who show determination to be seen to have high status. You poke fun at this, through the characters you create. Can you tell me a bit more about your interest in this side of life and these type of characters?


I am drawn to writing about class issues. I’m not sure why this is, but in all my books there is a class divide, there are wealthy and/or powerful people who think they can get away with things the rest of us…can’t. And I find that kind of power fascinating and terrifying. In real life, people might actually get away with terrible things, so in fiction, it’s nice to have my own power to bring them down.


I think we all create our own small spaces of power and try to wield control over things we can. Sometimes this can get a little ridiculous, right? Like, a person can be obsessed with having their own fiefdom over things like coaching a middle school soccer team, or bossing around their employees, or throwing the best party in the neighbourhood. And god forbid someone tries to take that power away or challenge them. It can get really ugly.


You created an interesting contrast between the physically vast space of the house and wine estate where the book is set, and the psychologically claustrophobic relationships. Did you create this contrast intentionally as a way of building tension in the book?


Ooh, I love that you picked up on this. I love that contrast! Yes, that’s definitely the case here. Even though they are hanging out at this lush, gorgeous place, all the secrets and tensions and pressures are like walls closing in on them. It’s just another case that sometimes all the luxury and money in the world cannot keep you from the sins of the past.


The title you chose, The Weekend Retreat, is an interesting twist on the actual storyline. What inspired you to write The Weekend Retreat?


I wanted to write a locked-room-style mystery, where a bunch of people get trapped with one another somewhere and bad things start happening and no one can trust anyone else. I thought a winery would be a great place to set this type of book, because often they are kind of remote, sprawling places with little cell phone service and one way in and out. And if that road gets flooded by an incoming storm…


When you write do you have a particular roadmap for the plot from the outset, or do the characters take on a life of their own when you start writing? Can you share something about how you go about creating the plot on a structural level?


I can’t really extensively outline because that process frustrates me. It’s hard for me to “see” a whole book in my head in that way. I’m envious of folks who can write these 40-page outlines and then just stomp in all out. That’s not me. My process is more like furiously writing a whole bunch of stuff, tossing it in the air and deciding none of it works. Or yanking out one of my teeth, examining it, then deciding it probably should go back in my mouth and trying to cement it back in. Lol. I’m the messiest writer, process-wise. Maybe all writers are messy in their process and some are better at hiding it?


As I was reading The Weekend Retreat, I noticed that there seemed to be a lack of intimacy in terms of authentic connection between the siblings. What is it about sibling relationships that you are drawn to writing about?


This book’s initial premise involved a group of old friends, not a family. But something wasn’t working with that for me. They felt like they didn’t have enough shared history, shared tensions, to make the book work. I know friends can definitely have this, but my previous characters had been estranged for a long time, so those connections weren’t there. When I made the switch to a family, it began to click, because siblings have an automatic shared past that can be complicated and nuanced. So that worked well for this book. The Van Ness siblings are very self-absorbed, though, and their mother really pushed them to be competitive—in life and with one another—so I think that’s where it feels like that lack of intimacy plays in. They are so busy being defensive and on guard that they forget that they are brothers and sisters.


Many of the characters have a past they are trying to cover up, not just the outsider girlfriend, Lauren, and her small-town roots. What is it about the imposter syndrome that you are interested in?


I’m very interested in the way that social media, technology, being online, allows us to create versions of ourselves that aren’t really the reality. I think that we can hide behind the perfect selfie or curated posts about our daily comings and goings and erase or edit out the stuff we don’t want people to know or see. Much of that is our insecurities, our fears, our feelings of inadequacy. So a lot of time it’s not even about having a past or a deadly secret to cover up, but just about trying to beat back those voices in our heads that say we aren’t good enough.

 

We all know a character like Elle, the people pleaser. Her efforts to make everything seem perfect were laughable as they were exhausting. I almost found myself revelling in the moment when her perfect cake was ruined by Harper! Tell us a bit about how you managed to have fun with the character flaws to make it such an entertaining read?


Poor Elle. She’s really just trying to make everyone happy, and in that over-pleasing, she kind of irritates everyone. I think there’s a bit of Elle in a lot of us. She was fun to write, because she fixates on the unimportant details and totally misses the stuff that actually matters. And yet, despite all that, she’s the one in the family that really is holding everyone together, who really does care about those relationships. She does a lot of the thankless tasks, the invisible work [whispers: like a lot of women] and does not get the credit for it. So it simmers inside her and makes her lash out about silly things like party menus and cakes and who’s sitting where at the dinner table. But I feel for her. Because without the Elles in the world, we’d all be eating take-out every night and using mismatched napkins.


For me the novel had some sinister moments, such as when Lauren was lost in the woods. I also found the games that they play in memory of their controlling mother quite bizarre! Can you tell us a bit about the ghost of the controlling, ever present matriarch in the book?


Yes, so Katrina Van Ness was definitely a commanding presence and had a profound effect on her children - and not always a positive one. She was always testing them, making them prove that they were strong enough, brave enough, smart enough. She wanted them to succeed, but she didn’t always know how to show love. Now that she’s gone - she died almost a year before the weekend retreat of the book takes place - her adult children are trying to figure out what the legacy is that she’s left them and what they are going to do with it. It’s almost as if they don’t know how to be without her telling them, but they also desperately want to pull away from her grasp. So she’s a very controlling presence, as you say. In fact, in an earlier draft, she was still alive, and I had to kill her off because she was taking over the book!


Your narrative has great pace, and I became easily immersed in the plot. For any aspiring writers amongst us, have you any advice as to how best create pace and tension in a book?


Get a good editor. My editor is fantastic at pointing out when my pacing is off.


No, seriously, I think it’s all about the little moments. You can create amazing tension with the smallest of details. It doesn’t have to be a long car chase or a series of stabbings or a wild argument to grip a reader. One small tease of a twist of the truth, a few details withheld, a cryptic conversation, an unexplained noise in a dark room can do it. There’s a power in the small moments, and I think writers can really capitalize on that to make their books “unputdownable.”




Tara Laskowski is the author of the suspense novels The Weekend Retreat, The Mother Next Door, which was called a “polished and entertaining read” by The New York Times Book Review, and One Night Gone, which won the Agatha Award, Macavity Award, and the Anthony Award and was a finalist for the Lefty, the Simon and Schuster Mary Higgins Clark, the Strand Critics, and the Library of VA Literary awards. She has also written two short story collections, Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons and Bystanders. She has had stories published in numerous magazines and anthologies such as Mid-American Review, Barcelona Review, and the Norton anthologies Flash Fiction International and New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction, among others. Her Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine story, “The Case of the Vanishing Professor,” won the 2019 Agatha Award and her Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine story, “The Long-Term Tenant,” won the 2020 Thriller Award. Tara was the winner of the 2010 Santa Fe Writers Project’s Literary Awards Prize, was the longtime editor of the popular online flash fiction journal SmokeLong Quarterly, and is a member of International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime, where she served as vice-president of her local chapter. She occasionally reviews books at the Washington Independent Review of Books and was a former columnist there. She earned a BA in English with a minor in writing from Susquehanna University and an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University. Tara grew up in Pennsylvania and lives in Virginia with her husband, fellow mystery writer Art Taylor, and their son Dashiell. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @TaraLWrites.

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