The Magic of Maine in W.S. Winslow’s The Northern Reach

For those who have never visited Maine, the magic that oozes from every sunset, every lake, every whoopie pie is something that can’t easily be explained. In The Northern Reach, W.S. Winslow manages to capture the magic of the state in a very quaint and relaxing novel about family secrets.

We corresponded via email to chat about the magic Maine, small towns, and what’s next for W.S. Winslow.

My father has lived in Maine for a decade now and every time I visit we joke about how he’ll never be a true Mainer. As a ninth-generation Mainer, can you describe to people who haven’t been to the state just the general magic of the state? 

There’s magic, to be sure. On the surface, it’s in the stillness, the blue-green smell of summer, the sound of loons calling to each other, even the long, low, white winter. There’s deeper magic, too, the kind that comes from long memory and a bone-deep connection to the soil and the sea, the lakes, the woods. But the magic can also be dark, especially when it’s born of Maine’s extremes – the isolation, the climate, the landscape, the sparseness of the population, and the place itself, tucked away in the far northeast corner of the country, as it is. For me, anyway, that dark magic gives rise to certain excesses: extreme go-it-aloneness, toughness that can lean toward cruelty. Even the austerity can be excessive.

During the pandemic, my husband and I joked that social distancing was nothing new, just another Tuesday in our town, and there’s some truth in that, an otherness I encounter quite often. If it’s any comfort to your dad, as far as many of my neighbors are concerned, I am as good as “from away” by virtue of having lived in other places for most of my adult life. I think it was having New York license plates on my car for all those years that did it.

Your book is set in a small fictional town in Maine… Were there any towns you drew specific information from?

On the Maine coast, there are variations of Wellbridge everywhere, not the vacation towns you hear about, but smaller ones, hardscrabble places that visitors miss. I created Wellbridge from bits and pieces of those places and a few that exist only in my mind. My forebearers were mostly farmers who lived inland, and I grew up in Portland, but I have roots all over the state, including some in Downeast Maine where I live now. One of my oldest friends, a truly gifted and incorrigible storyteller, is descended from settlers of the town of Hancock, and I drew on his stories and my time there to a great extent. 

The characters of your book are as memorable as the setting. Did the setting or the characters come first? How did the book develop as you were writing it?

In a general way, I’m interested in the interplay between place and people, the way climate and landscape, religion and culture come together to create a very specific outlook and identity. In this case I was thinking about what happens when harsh, unyielding people settle in a harsh, unyielding place like Maine. That was the genesis for many of the characters.

When I was writing the book, I started with the town, this place. It was very clear in my mind. But so were the characters; they were of a piece with the setting. As I went along, one of my MFA instructors pointed out that I wasn’t spending enough time describing the place, and I realized it was true. Because I could see and feel Wellbridge, I thought it was already on the page. What I hadn’t done was describe it in a way that would make it come alive for the reader. Once I got that going, the various stories started to come together in a deeper way. Eventually, in my mind anyway, the two, people and place, became one.

Were there any books or historical figures that influenced The Northern Reach?

In terms of form, there were several books: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, Olive Kittredge by Elizabeth Strout and Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine mainly. As for feeling, I was reading a lot of Alice Munro at the time, and I was preoccupied with the idea of white space. In her work, so much is left to the reader, there’s such trust. Her stories can be vast and intimate at the same time. I wanted that space to exist for the reader, but in more claustrophobic settings, like the woods and small towns of Maine.

I didn’t draw on known historical figures, but I did use my own family’s history. My ancestors were among the earliest Europeans to arrive in Plymouth and Salem, but they weren’t historically significant in any way. My family traces back to a lot of disreputable younger brothers. Even so, they do appear in various historical records, and as I researched, a certain strain of cussedness was entirely recognizable, even three hundred years later. As with every family, mine has its own folklore, stories going back several generations. Quite often, I took those as points of departure.

What comes next for you? More Wellbridge stories perhaps?

I’m working on two things: a second novel set in Wellbridge, but focused on a single character, Myra Moody, who was the ghost mother in “Trinity.” It’s a multi-voice narrative written as a sort of call and response. At least that’s what it is now. I’m also chipping away at a collection of short stories, many set in places outside Maine, but all dealing with obsession in its many forms. It’s a subject I know more about than I’d like.

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