Zibby speaks to therapist, creative coach, and New York Times bestselling author Julia Bartz about The Writing Retreat, a pulse-pounding, claustrophobic, unputdownable thriller about a young author who attends an exclusive writer’s retreat that soon descends into a nightmare. Julia talks about the first iterations of this story and the changes it went through since 2014 NaNoWriMo, and then shares how her own frustrations as a writer (and dreams of attending a writing retreat!) inspired this novel. She also talks about her therapy work, being a writer alongside her sister Andrea Bartz, her love of thrillers (and the great one she is reading now), and what she is working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Julia. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Writing Retreat.

Julia Bartz: Hi. Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Could you please tell listeners what your book is about?

Julia: The Writing Retreat is about a woman named Alex who has pretty much given up on her dreams of becoming a published writer when she receives the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend a writing retreat that’s being put on by her favorite author, the horror novelist Roza Vallo. When Alex gets to the retreat, she finds out that not only is it a retreat, it’s also a contest. Roza is asking all of the attendees to write an entire book from scratch during one month’s time. It’s a lot. At the end of the month, she is going to pick her favorite and give that author a one-million-dollar book deal. Alex buckles down, is working on her book, but soon starts seeing strange things happening around Roza’s potentially haunted estate. When one of the attendees goes missing, Alex must find out what’s really happening at the writing retreat, or she may disappear too.

Zibby: That’s such a good pitch. Where did this idea come from? Have you ever tried to write a novel in a month? I mean, come on.

Julia: Funny you asked that. I actually had to go back through my files because I really couldn’t remember when exactly I started writing this book. It had been a long time. I realized that the very first iteration was actually a NaNoWriMo book. NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month. It was, man, almost ten years ago, late 2014. My sister, Andi Bartz, and another friend who’s a writer, Leah Konen, and I decided to do NaNoWriMo together. I think I was the only one that got to the word count for the month. For anyone who doesn’t know, NaNoWriMo is an annual online community where people attempt to write, I don’t think it’s an entire book, but I think it’s sixty thousand words or something around there. It’s significant. It’s a lot of writing. You’re supposed to do it every day and cheer each other on. It felt so apropos that that was the very first version of the story that I hadn’t even remembered.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. You just dug it up? Did you know that you had tried to write it at some point?

Julia: I literally went through my Google Docs and was searching for different terms. Alex has been Alex since day one. That was always her name. It was a different version. It actually verged a little on sci-fi. It was kind of a different book. Similarly, Alex had gone through this friend breakup with Wren and fled the city. She was actually the sleepwalker in the story and was waking up in strange places and having these weird dreams where Roza was coming to her in those dreams and communicating with her. Roza actually turned out to be an alien. That was a little bit different.

Zibby: A little different.

Julia: It went through a lot of changes. I do remember the idea of setting it at a writing retreat, that kind of landed on me. It was a couple years later. I had set the book aside because it wasn’t really working. Then when I had this idea of Roza being this horror novelist, setting it at her estate, that’s when everything really fell into place.

Zibby: Interesting. I like how you set it up even just with the competition among writing friends from the start, feeling like someone like Ursula was really going to make it big versus Wren. How do you know among your group of friends who’s going to make it? It’s such a crapshoot. Yet there can be predictions.

Julia: It’s always a question. People, their writing journey or publishing journey can be on a very different timeline. I think if people keep at it for years and years, eventually, you get to that point. You never know when that’ll happen.

Zibby: Have you gone to a writing retreat?

Julia: I actually have not.

Zibby: What? Even after this came out? Have you been invited or anything?

Julia: No. Maybe that’s embarrassing that I haven’t been invited yet. I think that’s one of the reasons that I set it at a writing retreat. I always had this fantasy of what a writing retreat would be like and how it would be just so incredible to be able to focus on that, on your writing, and then also be in this community of writers. Writing is so solitary. It can get a little lonely sometimes. It is really nice to have people around you. I have many friends who are writers. To have that kind of concentrated time where all you have to do is write and you’re surrounded by other people who are doing the same thing, that always seemed so fun to me. It’s hard to do sometimes. The writing retreats that are funded are extremely hard to get into. Ones where you have to pay, it can be financially difficult. If you’re working in a full-time job, which I used to, it can also be hard to take the time off. It was fun for me to just allow myself to dream up, what would my ideal writing retreat be like? Of course, in the book, it goes off the rails a bit.

Zibby: We do these retreats called Zibby Retreats. We’re doing them quarterly. You have to come and be one of the people. Then it will be its own writing retreat. You can teach a writing thing if you want, or something.

Julia: I would love that. That sounds great. Sign me up.

Zibby: Okay, I’m going to do it. Maybe next year with — we have a book coming out by Swan Huntley that is about ghostwriting and the writer relationship. We could do a whole writing thing around that. I’ll be in touch. That’ll be fun. See, now you’ll be invited. That’ll be great. I think people will be excited. So you started it in NaNoWriMo. You’ve gone through multiple versions. What is it about this topic or which part of this has grabbed your consciousness that you couldn’t let it go? Was it Alex? Which piece of it do you think was the one for you that you just couldn’t let it go?

Julia: I think the piece of it that I couldn’t let go of was this challenge that I was going through at the time of feeling very frustrated as a writer. I said a moment ago that I think if people keep at it, you’ll eventually get there. I had actually written two books before this that I tried to get published that did not work out. The first one, I wasn’t able to get an agent. The second one, I did have an agent. We worked together closely for quite some time. Then she decided to part ways with me, which I’ve found out is very common. It happens all the time. For me, it was devasting because I felt just completely back at square one. During that time, I was actually switching careers into becoming a therapist because I was like, I don’t know if this writing thing is going to work out. I had had a day job, but I had always focused on the writing. At that point, I had to figure out something else that I would feel passionate about. It was in the midst of a career change. I was in grad school.

After the second book didn’t work out, I really wasn’t sure if I was going to keep going with it or if I was going to step away from the writing, maybe forever. I decided that something about the story, it felt like it would be extremely cathartic to write it. I also decided to use it almost as an exercise of exploring my psyche. Since I was learning to become a therapist, I was doing a lot of self-diagnosing and going to those really dark places, the unconscious, the things that I’m not always aware of that are there, and particularly, shadow parts, which I was very interested in, which are parts of us that we repress, usually when we’re young because we’re told that they’re not acceptable. For women and girls, that can have a lot to do with anger, rage, shame, sexuality. Those were all things that I was interested in and thought that if I did write this book, I could use it almost as an exercise for myself and really also write it without focusing on the outcome. Is this going to get published? I knew if I did that, I just wouldn’t be able to write it.

Zibby: What did you learn after doing a deep dive into the dark side of Julia?

Julia: It was really fun, honestly. I don’t want to spoil anything, but there may be one or more psychopaths in the book. That in particular felt really fun and interesting to explore because psychopathic women are the opposite of how we usually feel. Women have to be caretakers or be polite or put themselves last. Psychopaths are the opposite. They’re so self-interested. They don’t really care about other people, except people that they can manipulate. It was fun and enjoyable. I really encourage people, clients that I see or friends or whoever, to tap into those parts of us that we are a little bit scared of. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to do anything bad, but just being aware of it can really teach us a lot about ourselves.

Zibby: Very true. Okay, psychopathic women. Maybe I’m not inviting you to this retreat. I don’t know. Maybe this is a horrible mistake. Tell me about your first two books. What were they about?

Julia: Thank you for asking. The first book was a novel in stories because I didn’t have the confidence that I could write a full book. I was trying to kind of trick myself into writing a full-length book. It was a novel in stories about three different women who disappear on purpose and exploring the idea of that. The stories were told by other characters who are close to them. You find out slowly what’s going on with each of them and where they went and why. I had a lot of fun writing that. Then the second one, funnily enough or depressingly enough, was actually a near-future novel in which Roe v. Wade has been overturned.

Zibby: No way.

Julia: Yeah. I wrote it, I think it was 2016/2017.

Zibby: Maybe it’s time to pull that one out.

Julia: I know. That was very scary. I did not think that that would actually happen anytime soon. In the book, there’s a group of women that call themselves Femme Fury. It’s kind of this new age, riot grrrl, punk rock movement that goes up against those in charge of this decision.

Zibby: Wow. After you parted ways with the agent and you wrote this draft, how did you get your agent this time? Tell me about this whole publication. It must have felt really great after all that.

Julia: It did. Another thing that I also focus on with this book was the plot. I love horror. I love thrillers. I wanted to make this book as suspenseful and page-turning as possible. I think that really helped me. When I completed the book, I had some friends read it. I went back and edited. Then I remember I was going to Santa Fe with a friend. It was about two years ago now. I remember sending out my first batch of agent queries. What you do is you send an email out to people. There’s a format where you share what your book is about and who you are. I sent those out before getting on the plane. Over that trip, one person reached out to me. We met up when I was back in New York. She was wonderful. That led to me letting the other agents know that she made an offer, and so a couple other people wanted to speak with me as well. At the end of the day, I ended up going with Alexandra Machinist, who is incredible. She’s actually my sister’s agent as well. That was kind of a funny, nice thing that happened. She’s been great. I couldn’t ask for a better agent.

Zibby: Then what about selling the book to publishers and all that?

Julia: That process was fairly quick and smooth as well. We had a couple offers. I spoke with a few editors. I decided to go with Emily Bestler at Atria at Simon & Schuster. She’s a very cool person. Also, I felt that some other people were hesitating a little bit on the violence in the book. Emily was completely like, “Yes, let’s do it. I’m all for it.” She fully supported everything crazy that happens in the book. I felt like she was definitely the right person to work with.

Zibby: Fellow dark side, shadow sister.

Julia: She was the editor for You too. That felt like, okay, she knows how to edit dark books.

Zibby: What is it like having another writer in the family? Tell me about that whole dynamic.

Julia: Andi and I have always been writers from childhood. We would write stories together. We would write stories on our own. She became a magazine journalist and a travel journalist and at a certain point, wrote her first book. I’m trying to think what year that was. I think it was 2018 when she got the offer. She was ahead of me by a couple of years, so that was actually really helpful because I saw her process going through the different publishing stages. She has been extremely helpful for me during this time too. I can always call her, text her with any questions or issues that I’m having. She knows exactly what to do.

Zibby: That’s really convenient. Built-in support network, that’s great. What types of books do you like to read? Are you drawn to dark fiction as well?

Julia: Yes. I love thrillers. I love horror. I love anything that just keeps me invested and trying to figure out what’s going on. That’s been for a long time. I would say early influences were Shirley Jackson; of course, Stephen King; Margaret Atwood; people, also, who were able to combine very intriguing stories with characters that you really cared about.

Zibby: Interesting. What’s the latest great horror or thriller you’ve read?

Julia: I’m currently reading The Spite House by Johnny Compton. It’s fantastic. I hadn’t even heard of what spite houses were. It’s such an interesting concept. They’re basically houses that people build to piss other people off. This house in the book is up on a hill overlooking other buildings, including an orphanage. Every time you look up at the sky, this really ugly house is looking down on you. It’s such a brilliant concept. Of course, in the book, it’s haunted.

Zibby: Of course. What are you working on for your next book?

Julia: I am deep into my next book. I’m feeling very excited about it. I’m not sharing too much yet. I would say that if you like The Writing Retreat, you’ll probably like this book as well. It focuses around the idea of how affected we are by our community and the people around us, sometimes to a horrifying degree.

Zibby: Horrifying degree, okay. Interesting. What do your parents make of all this? What do they make of you and your sister? What’s it like at a family gathering?

Julia: That’s such a good question. They are both in the Midwest. Andi and I see them at different points during the year. They’re very proud. It’s funny because my mom is a huge reader. She was the one that really encouraged Andi and I to read a lot as children too. She’s all about it. She loves all of our books and is very supportive. My dad is also very supportive. Although, he’s not a huge reader and definitely not a reader of horror and thriller books. I think he doesn’t know where this all came from. It is funny. Certain family members, I say, I’m not sure if you need to read this. Fair warning, there’s sex and violence, just so you know.

Zibby: That’s funny. You can all just trade your books around the table and freak each other out. It’s great.

Julia: I do get emails from family members. Sometimes I’m a little surprised, even, by the family members who have read the books and enjoyed them. That’s a nice thing too.

Zibby: That is a nice thing. What do you do when you’re not writing?

Julia: I am a therapist and a creative coach as well. It’s nice that I can make my own schedule and see clients where I want to. I love being a therapist. The creative coaching is a little bit newer but kind of the perfect marriage of the therapy and the writing background. The coaching is more about helping people bring their works into the world. If they’re having certain challenges that are coming up for them creatively, I can help them with that.

Zibby: So less in the manuscript and more in your head?

Julia: Exactly, yes. I don’t edit, but I am here to talk about anything because it can be frustrating, to go back to that word, and challenging at really any stage of the writing or publishing process. There can be things coming up. Some people appreciate having someone to talk to about it.

Zibby: Do you help with people getting bad reviews, how to cope with that feeling?

Julia: Oh, my goodness. I haven’t yet for clients. That is something that I talk about with writer friends who are going through that, and myself included. If you go to my Goodreads, you will see a lot of good reviews and a lot of bad reviews. It is a practice to not really take it personally.

Zibby: It’s hard.

Julia: It is. I think writers usually are very sensitive people. It can be a little hurtful if someone tanks you on Instagram or something. I do kind of stay away from Goodreads now after the bad reviews started coming in. Most authors will tell you to do that. I see them here and there. Ultimately, people are totally welcome to their opinion. My book is out there. Of course, you can have any feedback or reaction that you want, but I don’t always need to see it.

Zibby: Do you feel that people who get “writer’s block” or just are blocked creatively — is there something that is a shared thing among that audience? Not audience. That issue, where is that coming from?

Julia: That is something I talk about with people a lot. As in therapy, resistance comes up. There’s something that’s stopping you from doing what you want to do, which is writing a book or a story or whatever. There are definitely themes around that. I think the most common ones are either self-criticism or fear of what other people will think.

Zibby: When I started the memoir, the eight millionth version that ended up becoming my memoir, I put in all caps and bold at the top, no one will read this but you. I literally couldn’t start until I had that. Then I was like, okay, fine. I’ll trick myself into writing it.

Julia: I just got goosebumps. I think that’s such a good idea even for fiction too, just telling yourself that no one will read it. Just do whatever you want, but especially for memoir. I have such respect for memoir writers because I think that can be an opportunity for even more fears to come up.

Zibby: You’re welcome to steal my idea here for your clients. Even having a second document where you’re like, this is the one no one’s going to see. That’s the one, it ended up being a whole book. I don’t think you need tips. This is your job.

Julia: It’s helpful. With the new book that I’m writing, I haven’t written a first draft of something new in so long. As I’m writing, I’m like, I am such a terrible writer. This is so bad. I have to remind myself that this is just how it is on the first draft. You can allow it to be as bad as you want it to be. That’s a good reminder. No one’s going to see this first draft except for me. I need to just let myself write it.

Zibby: As long as you have something down there, you can make it much better. Yes, very common. It’s so easy for us to get in our own ways, not just in writing, but in so many things, but particularly where we’re trying to be creative and try something new and do it alone with you and the page. It’s almost a perfect recipe for anxiety, really. Take what’s in your brain, and then show it to the entire world. Okay, go. Good luck. Have fun.

Julia: It’s so true. That’s why I think it’s really important to have a community around you of people that you’re close to who love you no matter what, but then also people who are doing the same thing that you’re doing who get it. I think the most helpful thing for me has been having Andi and other friends who have been through this and know how strange and — it feels very exposed. It feels very vulnerable. It’s good to just have people you can talk to about that.

Zibby: For sure. It’s so true. Maybe you’ll meet more friends at our writing retreat. There you go. Thank you so much, Julia, for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for your book and for sharing all of this great information. I will look forward to seeing you soon.

Julia: Thank you so much. I had such a good time.

Zibby: Good. I’m so glad. Have a great day.

Julia: Thanks. You too. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.


Purchase your copy on Bookshop!

Share, rate, & review the podcast, and follow Zibby on Instagram @zibbyowens