Author Q&A: Ashley Winstead
Houstonian Ashley Winstead’s sophomore thriller, The Last Housewife, comes out next Tuesday, Aug. 16. The Last Housewife is written in a combination of present-day prose and podcast interview transcripts and is the story of a woman determined to destroy a cult from which she escaped 10 years ago.
The Last Flight author Julie Clark raves that The Last Housewife is “[a} dark, twisted tale of feminism and patriarchy, Ashley Winstead has given us a gripping story about a cult and the ways in which women became psychologically bound...Timely and terrifying, The Last Housewife will haunt your dreams and change the way you view the world.” Fellow author and Houstonian Alison Wisdom says, “Ashley Winstead takes her reader into the heart of darkness – and brilliantly reveals the tender, human part hidden in those shadows. Propulsive, smart, and chilling, The Last Housewife confirms what In My Dreams I Hold a Knife promised: no one writes thrillers like Ashley Winstead.”
Ashley holds a Ph.D. in contemporary American literature from Southern Methodist University and a B.A. in English and Art History from Vanderbilt University. She lives in Houston, where she drinks red wine and dreams up novels.
Ashley answers some questions that I posed to her about The Last Housewife:
What inspired you to start writing it?
I was thinking a lot about group dynamics after writing In My Dreams I Hold a Knife, and also about why so many of us seem to be magnetically drawn to things that harm us – people, situations, ideas – even when we know better. What is happening inside our brains that draws us like moths to flame? Combine groups and harm and you’ve got cults. I became fascinated by them, and I started watching all the docs and reading all the news coverage on NXIVM and the Sarah Lawrence sex cult in particular. How, I wondered, did a woman end up embroiled in a patriarchal sex cult in 2022?
I realized that trying to tell the story of a woman who was drawn into a cult much like the SL cult, got herself out, and then went back in as part of an investigation would be an incredible way to deep dive on some of the darkest parts of the human brain, which is always what I’m interested in doing when I write thrillers. Patricia Highsmith once said, “Obsessions are the only things that matter. Perversion interests me most and is my guiding darkness.” And when I write thrillers, it’s the exact same for me. I’ve always thought the dark potential that lurks inside us is much scarier and more interesting than jump scares or murderous clowns (no offense to either).
I also wanted to write a book that explored gender dynamics and the fraught experience of being a woman right now, as our rights are being stripped away and we seem to be catapulting backwards. The core beliefs of the cult in The Last Housewife will look familiar to you if you’ve been following the news.
What comes first, the plot or the characters?
Characters, always. Actually, my writing method holds that plot must emerge from character, so once you have a firm grasp of who your characters are, especially your main character, and what they want and fear and need, then you can start spinning plot in response.
Can you share something with me about your book that is not in the blurb?
It’s also a love story. One of my most romantic, I think.
What do you hope your readers take away from your book?
I would love if readers left this book feeling like a stranger to themselves in ways that lead to productive self-exploration. In The Last Housewife, main character Shay Deroy tries to get to the bottom of why she has certain dark impulses, certain beliefs and ideas, why she takes real pleasure in certain things that seem anathema to others. Where did she come from – are these things that seem so innate and simply part of it (desire, proclivities) actually organic, or are they in fact shaped by other people, society, expectations, in ways so subtle we don’t even recognize them? If the latter and we are deeply shaped by others, how free are we, really? I would love if readers asked themselves some of these questions.
What was the highlight of writing this book?
I really got to lean into a more literary style (while keeping the propulsive action you need in a thriller!). The content is dark, but writing it was a joy: I got so immersed in the world of the book that when I think back now, it feels like I wrote it in one long day. I pulled no punches either, and wow, is there creative freedom in that. Several author friends who have read the book have actually said the same thing to me independently of one another: “I can’t believe you were allowed to write this.” I think I’m starting to figure out my voice and unique perspective, and I put it on display here.
What are you reading now?
I’m always reading multiple books at the same time. Right now it’s For Butter or Worse by Erin La Rosa (a delightful contemporary cooking show romance), Not Your Average Hot Guy by Gwenda Bond (a hilarious paranormal romance), and I Love It When You Lie by Houstonian Kristen Bird (an excellent thriller coming out in 2023).
Ashley writes both thrillers and rom-coms, and I selected her last thriller, In My Dreams I Hold a Knife, as one of my September 2021 Buzz Reads. In addition, this past spring I interviewed her for my Thoughts from a Page podcast about her first rom-com Fool Me Once, which is set in Austin.
For more book recommendations and bookish thoughts, see Cindy’s monthly Buzz Reads column, her Thoughts from a Page Podcast or follow @ThoughtsFromaPage on Instagram. Find upcoming Conversations from a Page events here.
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