Guest host Julianna Goldman speaks to Ashley Winstead about The Last Housewife, an unputdownable new thriller about a woman’s revenge against a violent and misogynistic cult. Ashley reveals the inspiration behind the story (it involves watching too many cult documentaries and feeling angry in her job as a reproductive health policy researcher) and discusses her book’s most prominent themes: feminism, patriarchy, trauma, power, and romance. She also recommends three phenomenal books and reveals the details of her next two novels!


Julianna Goldman: Ashley Winstead, author of The Last Housewife, thank you so much for joining us.

Ashley Winstead: It is my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Julianna: The Washington Post described The Last Housewife as “Deliciously unputdownable.” I one hundred percent concur. Tell us about The Last Housewife, what it’s about.

Ashley: Thank you. I call The Last Housewife, alternately, my cult revenge book and my rage novel. I had some rage to expel, which I think probably comes through on the page. It is a book that opens with a woman named Shay Deroy. She’s newly married, newly unemployed, should be working on her first novel. Instead, she’s doing a little lounging around, presses play on the latest episode of her favorite true crime podcast and discovers that her college best friend is the victim who is at the heart of this latest episode. Her body’s been found on their old college campus. If that’s not shocking and devastating enough to Shay, she realizes quickly that the manner in which her old best friend Laurel’s body has been found almost exactly mirrors the way another woman’s body was found on their college campus eight years ago. Shay realizes that she might be the only person who’s holding a lot of keys to this puzzle of Laurel’s death, how Laurel died. She does what she once vowed she’d never do, which is go back to her old college hometown and start unraveling the threads of her friend’s life since she last saw her. It leads to darker and darker circles of hell, I guess is one way to put it. That’s it in a nutshell.

Julianna: I responded to a text while I was reading it. I feel like the way I wrote the text was kind of creepy. I was like, oh, god, I’m in deep. I need to take a step back. You said this was your book about cult revenge and to channel the rage. Tell us where that comes from and why.

Ashley: Two separate things came together for me in writing this book and figuring out what I was going to do with this second thriller of mine. The first thing was, I have wanted, for so long, to write a thriller/horror story — I think this book kind of is on the edge of those two genres — about the experience of being a woman in the world, simply. I think that that is, unfortunately, fodder for a horror story, just the kind of fear that a lot of women feel simply leaving their home at night and walking out in the world in the dark. I’ve had that idea in the back of my mind for a long time. It wasn’t until I got really in deep — talk about falling in deep into a rabbit hole — with the plethora of cult documentaries that came out a year or two, maybe two years ago, particularly about the Nxivm cult — I watched all of those, went down a rabbit hole reading and researching about Nxivm. Also, the Sarah Lawrence sex cult story really caught my eye. Though, at the time, it hadn’t received a ton of coverage the way Nxivm did.

Something about those two cults felt really modern and different to me, different from cults I was used to reading about, like a religious sect somewhere in the rural wild. These were cults operating right under the surface of society. They were sex cults. They were founded on patriarchal ideologies. Yet you had all of these women who had financial capital or social capital, heiresses and actresses in some cases with Nxivm and college students with the Sarah Lawrence case, these women handing over their power and autonomy and swallowing wholesale, these really old ideas about what it means to be a woman in the world. I was just fascinated. Why in 2022 is that still so salient and attractive to women? Those two ideas, all of a sudden, I had this lightning-bolt moment where I realized, oh, my god, there’s something about being a woman in the world, the horror of that and also the way you’re conditioned to make yourself small in so many cases, to hand over power and autonomy in really subtle and insidious ways, that maps onto the extreme experience of being in a cult and handing over power that way. Once I realized that connection, The Last Housewife just unspooled out of me, really.

Julianna: How quickly did it take you to write?

Ashley: The first draft was under three months. I was working full time at the time.

Julianna: You were working full time in what capacity?

Ashley: I worked as a communications director for a progressive political philanthropy, Arnold Ventures, if you’re familiar. Probably not. They’re based here in Texas, New York, and DC. I was doing that full time, which was very demanding timewise, and then every hour I could get free, writing.

Julianna: Two questions from that. Demanding timewise, but also, I would imagine the emotional trauma, in some ways, of writing something like that — how did you block off the writing from the professional you and the world outside of this novel?

Ashley: I don’t know that I did a very good job doing that, to be completely honest with you. I feel like both my writing world when writing this book and my day job, professional world fed each other. I joined this organization in 2016. The world was looking very different politically and scary to me. A lot of the things that I was working on were trying to restore reproductive health care access for women across the country and studying reproductive care deserts in different states and just working on the policy and research of that, among other things. The rage and fear and helplessness that I was feeling in doing that work fed The Last Housewife in a lot of ways. I was having a conversation with myself, really, in this book. If there’s no way to topple the patriarchy through policy or law or diplomacy or grassroots or all of these nice, nonviolent ways, what are you left with other than cutting off the head? Sorry, no spoilers.

Julianna: We’re talking about this in a post-Roe world. You wrote it —

Ashley: — Pre-Roe, while Roe was still the law of the land.

Julianna: How do you see this book in that context?

Ashley: It’s so interesting to me because I actually remember having — again, I’ll try to do a delicate dance around spoilers. There’s a moment in The Last Housewife where the true scope of this underground society of men is revealed, and how high their membership and tentacles reach. Part of it is into the political world. I remember my editor kicked the manuscript back to me with a note. “Do you think this is really plausible? Do you think that it could really go this high or this would be allowable?” I remember having to defend myself and feeling really secure in it because of my work in my day job and saying, “Yes, yes.” Here we are a year later or so from this conversation. Already, Roe v. Wade is overturned. It’s the supreme court. You can make speculations about certain members possible participation in a group. I know that’s a salty thing to say. Really, I’ve had this horrific experience of watching real life creep closer and closer to this world that I set up in the book.

Julianna: I don’t think it’s unfair to say that if you look at the last five years or so, we’ve all lived through a lot that none of us expected to see in our lifetime, no matter where you are on the political spectrum.

Ashley: I completely agree.

Julianna: You’ve mentioned the word power a lot. I really think that was such a fascinating theme that you explored throughout the book, the power of beauty, the power dynamics within a marriage, within a relationship, within society. I want to touch on each of those. First, let’s talk about the power in beauty. Shay, the main character, is former Miss Texas. Can you talk a bit about that theme and how you explored it in the book?

Ashley: That’s always been something that I’m really, really interested in that has really occupied a lot of my time just because I am so interested in women and exploring and dissecting women intimately in my books. Beauty is a thing that is such a power or is felt as such a power for women. Growing up, I remember thinking, if only I can be beautiful, that’ll be a thing that I can fall back on. Beauty is a thing that you’re taught is a power that you can hold onto when you walk into the room. I think beauty is particularly attractive as a power to people who don’t have other means of power. For example, growing up — I come from a sincerely working-class family. We did not have much of anything. I was the first person in my family to go to college. I remember so many times feeling like, if nothing else, I belong in this room with these people who have so much more than me because maybe I’ve dressed well and put my makeup on well today. I can pass with beauty as a power.

I really wanted to explore with Shay — she is extremely beautiful, the way that I imagined her. She also has grown up without money, without a supportive family infrastructure around her, without a lot of support from teachers or other mentors. She quickly finds that beauty is the thing that she can rely on. It’s maybe the only power she has. Of course, the insidious thing about that is it’s a double-edged sword. It’s a power and a danger because the same attention that she attracts for being beautiful, principally from men in her small Texas hometown, is the same thing that — the attention makes her vulnerable. It requires her giving something over to them and being at their command. That’s something that she wrestles with as she grows older. It’s this dynamic that actually makes her vulnerable and prey to Don later.

Julianna: Also, the way in which Don tries to strip her of that power, there was a scene — it’s not a spoiler — where he says to her, you’d look really beautiful with blond hair. Then the next time she sees him, she has blond hair. He doesn’t say anything. She noticed that he doesn’t say anything. It brought me back to something with a former boss where they made some comment on my appearance. I was not even twenty at the time. I went and I changed it. It wasn’t recognized, and thinking, oh, what does this mean? It was so relatable and also haunting in how relatable it was. Especially post-Me Too, we’ve looked back at interactions, times in our life where we just sort of accepted ways that we were talked to or treated. That’s been flipped on its head now.

Ashley: I love that you say that because I couldn’t agree more. Thank you for sharing that. So much of this book has been inspired by me looking back with a new lens at my life and thinking, oh, my god, look how much of me has been shaped in ways that I didn’t even realize by these dynamics.

Julianna: Totally. I don’t blame us for not knowing. I hope that women growing up today, or young girls, will see the world in a different way and that we’ll be teaching them to see it in a different way. Let’s talk marriage. The power dynamic that you explored with marriage is also so interesting, and the thread that Shay has in her relationships that actually ultimately connect Don and her husband, Cal.

Ashley: I am newly married, when I started writing this book. I was older when I got married and had spent quite a lot of time on my own and simply was doing a lot of reflecting about all of the power and autonomy that you maybe give up without even thinking about it simply by being married, and especially for women. As someone who’s always considered myself a feminist and fiercely independent, I had this moment when I realized post-marriage that my husband, I had let him make all the financial spreadsheets and be in charge of all the finances and know the inner workings of all of that. I told myself that it was just me offloading work onto this person. I had this moment where I was like, oh, my god, what have I done? I’ve put myself in this — I love my husband; I trust him, but still — in this precarious position.

Julianna: Very vulnerable.

Ashley: Yeah, vulnerable. That’s the thing. There are probably a subset of people to whom this might sound sad, but I don’t think that women have the luxury of doing that, of resting comfortably in saying, I’ll let him take care of it. That’s just not something that I feel comfortable with. I started thinking about, it’s a slippery slope. I let certain things happen. I let him be in charge of certain things. Maybe I could see next year, a little bit more and then a little bit more. The more I started to think about that, to me, it was the same sort of seductive dance that a cult member might perform with someone that he was — it’s always a he — that he was slowly luring in. Give me just a little bit of your trust and your power. Tomorrow, I’ll take a little bit more. You’re safe in handing it over to me. This is the kind of dance that Don performs. I really wanted to marry the society, which is this cult in the book, to put them on a spectrum with traditional heterosexual marriage and think about the ways that patriarchal values very clearly underpinned the society but also really are uncomfortably close to a lot of dynamics that people and women, I’ve witnessed, are comfortable operating with within the confines of their own marriage. Maybe this is my Texas coming out. Not to besmirch Texans. I’ve just looked at so many friends and acquaintances and looked at their marriages — again, I confess, my own — and just thought, huh, men are really leading here, in a way.

Julianna: The thought that you just articulated that you put into conceptualizing this and putting it down into words is one of the reasons why it’s such a haunting read and why it just sits with you. In a glass-half-full kind of view, you also say that this is a romantic novel. Tell us why.

Ashley: First of all, no one will accuse me of making all men bad, nor do I believe that at all by any means. We have this wonderful character, Jamie Knight, appropriately named, in this book. Jamie is Shay’s childhood best friend. He is the host of this true crime podcast that she loves listening to. He’s the one who uncovers and is fascinated by the circumstances of Laurel’s death because he knows that Laurel has a connection to Shay, this friend he’s been estranged from. He is the one who agrees to help Shay with this project of investigating. I call this a romantic book because over the course of Jamie interviewing Shay for his podcast, it’s not only an arc of horror, a horrific revelation of Shay’s past and what she’s experienced, but I hope that the reader can see the revelation of Jamie and Shay’s long-buried, repressed feelings for one another coming to the surface. I think Jamie is one of the most romantic men that I’ve written so far. I write romance novels too. Still, he kind of takes the cake. To me, it’s because he — I’ll just give this spoiler away. He loves Shay, not in a perfect way, no one’s perfect, but so profoundly despite and with all of her trauma and her flaws. She strips down to her most naked self and shows it to him. He accepts her and values her and is right by her side and lets her lead, always, always taking her lead. To me, that is the most romantic version of a partner I can imagine. You have this here as a counterweight to the darkness.

Julianna: It works beautifully.

Ashley: Thank you.

Julianna: Also, the way that you write those scenes where you change the narrator so it is Shay talking in first person as though it were the podcast, it makes this for an even more dynamic read. As a reader, have you always gravitated toward crime fiction? Is that what’s on your nightstand right now?

Ashley: I read everything. Everything under the sun, I devour. I am such a voracious reader and always have been. It’s crime fiction. It’s romance. It’s lit fic. It’s nonfiction. It’s everything that piques my interest, which probably explains why, as a writer, I genre-hop so much too.

Julianna: What are three great books that you’ve recently read?

Ashley: Oh, my gosh, this is my favorite thing to do, is talk about other people’s amazing work. I am truly obsessed with May Cobb’s My Summer Darlings that came out this summer. It is her crime fiction take on The Witches of Eastwick, the premise of a dark and mysterious man coming to town to unsettle the lives of these three women. It is juicy and sexy and dark. I just absolutely loved it. To switch genres, I loved The Very Irregular Society of Witches, or it’s The Secret Society of Very Irregular Witches. The title is escaping me. It’s the most heartwarming, lightly romantic story of witches. It’s just so charming. What else have I loved recently? Oh, my gosh, this isn’t out until March. I usually read a lot of things that aren’t out yet for blurb purposes and things like that. I Love It When You Lie by Kristen Bird is somewhere in between a family drama and a murder mystery. It’s set in Tennessee, this Southern family. It opens with these three proper Southern women standing over a grave shoveling dirt into it. Then it spools back quickly to figure out who it is and how they got there. It’s fantastic.

Julianna: These all sound great. I love that they’re all about women and exploring relationships there.

Ashley: Always.

Julianna: What about you? What’s next for you?

Ashley: I have two books coming out next year.

Julianna: Oh, my god, you are a machine.

Ashley: I don’t know why I do this to myself, but I just can’t stop. I can’t put a stopper on my brain. I have a contemporary romance novel coming out in spring of next year. Then my next thriller will be out in fall of next year. The romance is called The Boyfriend Candidate. It’s a companion novel to my first contemporary rom-com. It follows the younger sister of the main character of that book. It is a fake dating romantic comedy set in the world of Texas politics, like the first romance. I love that. It’s about as tender and soft as The Last Housewife is dark. I wrote it right after Housewife, so I needed the switch for my brain. Then Midnight is the Darkest Hour is my thriller coming out in the fall. It is a magical, romantic, dark thriller set in a small-town Louisiana bayou setting.

Julianna: Do you take time off in between writing?

Ashley: I don’t. It is just pure production schedules. It is bouncing from one right into the other.

Julianna: Wow. Do you start to think about the next one as you’re finishing up the last?

Ashley: Absolutely. It’s hard to wrangle my brain, actually. My brain will already start going into the next book. I have to constantly yank it back to the current project.

Julianna: How do you decompress? How do you clear the headspace?

Ashley: I decompress a lot consuming other people’s art. It’s both decompressing and inspiring to me. I’ll finish a book and think, oh, man, I need a few day. Then I’ll watch some incredible movie or read someone’s incredible novel. I’ll just think to myself, oh, no, I’m full of so many ideas. Let’s get right back to work. That’s usually how it works for me. I actually think the genre switch-up that I do between every work — I never write two books in the same genre in a row. That does a lot of work decompressing for me.

Julianna: Ashley Winstead, author of The Last Housewife, thank you for this. It’s a fascinating, unputdownable read, to quote The Washington Post. It sticks with you. Thank you.

Ashley: Thank you so much. I appreciate that.

Julianna: You bet.


THE LAST HOUSEWIFE by Ashley Winstead

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