Jennifer McMahon’s mesmerizing literary thriller The Winter People is the perfect seasonal read for your book club. Its desolate, snow-covered Vermont setting will transport you to a world of ghostly secrets, the suspenseful supernatural narrative will keep you turning the pages, and the spell-binding tale of love and loss will be sure to provoke a stimulating conversation. In this exclusive Q&A, we ask McMahon to talk about her inspiration behind each of these elements. Read on for a special book club discussion prompt from the author!
Reading Group Center: The Winter People alternates between the past and the present, but in both storylines the relationship between a mothers and a daughter is essential. What inspired you to explore this theme?
Jennifer McMahon: Honestly, it wasn’t a conscious decision—the characters seemed to make it happen, which is often the case in my writing. If I had to guess, I’d say that particular theme developed at least in part because I lost my own mother a few years ago, and because of the bond I have with my daughter.
In the present-day storyline, a daughter is in search of her mother, and in the past, a mother is in search of her daughter. Although in my life the level of loss has never reached the extremes it does in The Winter People, I certainly can identify with being both a daughter longing for her mother and being a mother who is almost scared by the intensity of her love for her daughter.
RGC: Early on, little Gertie asks her mother, “If snow melts down to water, does it still remember being snow” (p. 14). This question foreshadows some of the more shocking developments in the novel. Can you talk about its significance—without any big spoilers, of course!
JM: Gertie’s voice and her unique way of seeing the world was one of my favorite parts of writing this book. I feel like children her age are full of these bits of accidental insight, and I loved Sara spending time under the covers with her, listening to her and learning from her. Gertie is also the one who gives us the title of the book when she describes her visions of the “Winter People”—people stuck between this world and the next.
Her question about the snow does foreshadow what’s to come. Without giving away too much, it asks us what we might hold onto, and take with us as we transition from one form to another.
RGC: Imagine you’re part of a book club discussing The Winter People. Can you pick one passage from the novel that you’d like to discuss with the group, and tell us why you chose it.
JM: I’d go with the last bit of Katherine’s visit with the local bookseller on p. 165 in the trade paperback. The part where he says, “But think about it: if you’d lost someone you love, wouldn’t you give almost anything to have the chance to see them again?”
I think this is the question at the heart of The Winter People, and it’s a question that makes for such lively discussion with readers. If there was a way to bring someone back, would you do it, no matter what the consequences might be? I know that for me, my logical mind says, “Of course not!” But the truth is, when you lose someone who is so close to you it’s as if they are a part of you, there’s always one more thing to say, one more moment you wish you’d had. If I was drowning in that kind of grief, it’s hard to imagine I wouldn’t do anything to see that person one final time.
RGC: The Winter People takes place in the remote and eerie town of West Hall, Vermont—surrounded by spooky forests and teeming with strange folktales. How does setting function in ghost stories, and yours in particular?
JM: I think of setting as almost a character of its own, influencing the other characters in ways they’re not even aware of. So much of the success of a good ghost story rides on creating a creepy atmosphere; details of the landscape itself can help create a sense of dread. The concept of the “Haunted Place” is such a powerful part of our collective psyche—a house, a graveyard, a particular bit of a mountain trail, where your own individual goodness is secondary to the power of the place.
The decision to set the book in the winter was also an important one—I tried to use the starkness and isolation of winter in rural New England to its fullest. A lot of the action in The Winter People takes place in the woods around a rocky outcropping called The Devil’s Hand, and I really tried to turn the woods into a frightening landscape: a place where trees had branches like arms that would reach out and grab you; where ghostly voices seemed to call your name as the wind blew through the trees.
RGC: You shared a few of your favorite ghost stories with us a while back, so we know you love the genre. But what draws you to write in it? Does your next work feature elements of the supernatural?
JM: I absolutely love writing about the things that scare me, the things that keep me up at night. I don’t quite know why. Perhaps because so many things do scare me, and this is my subconscious way of trying to exercise some control over things that go bump in the night! I believe there’s more to this world than meets the eye, which can be an entertaining, or even comforting thought. Sometimes, though, it’s nightmare-inducing!
My next book, The Night Sister, does indeed have some scary—and perhaps supernatural—elements. It takes place at a roadside motel in rural Vermont. There are lots of dark family secrets, strange disappearances, and a girl who comes to believe that her supposedly perfect, beautiful sister may actually be a terrible, shape-shifting monster.