Novelist Gina Wohlsdorf and the Art of the Thrill

Gina Wohlsdorf is the author of Blood Highway.
Gina Wohlsdorf is the author of Blood Highway. Courtesy of the author
Colorado hasn’t always been home for novelist Gina Wohlsdorf, but Wohlsdorf is used to being a newcomer. She was born in North Dakota, attended both Tulane and the University of Virginia, and later lived and worked in Florida, Minnesota, even France. Now she’s a Coloradan, and making a place for herself as one of the next big names in literary thrillers.

Wohlsdorf has two upcoming local appearances scheduled to promote her latest book, Blood Highway: The first is a team-up with University of Colorado Denver professor and author Joanna Luloff (Remind Me Again What Happened) at the Boulder Bookstore (7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 25) and the second a solo at Tattered Cover Aspen Grove (7 p.m.Tuesday, August 7). In advance of those appearances, Wohlsdorf talked with us about criticism, the value of place, the nature of writing, and how it all comes together in powerful — and, yes, thrilling — story.

Westword: You’re relatively new to Colorado. What brought you to Denver? What makes you stay?

Gina Wohlsdorf:
After I’d finished my MFA and was coming to the end of my time in Virginia, I wasn’t sure where to go next. I had a friend here in Denver, and she said I could stay with her until I got my feet under me. I’m still here because I’ve made more great friends, and I love the city’s energy.

So as a writer and a resident of so many locations, what role do you think place plays in your fiction? Does a writer's greater sense of the world give their characters a little more maneuverability?

I’m of two minds about it. Some astonishing writing has come from authors who never left their home towns. But my meandering lifestyle has definitely exposed me to a real gamut of regional attitudes, accents, speech patterns, idioms, styles of driving, strategies for arguing. Places are characters in themselves. They all have their rules and, more important, their fears — just like individuals do, and individuals within a place, of course, manifest the values of where they come from differently.

Transplants and tourists behave in really interesting ways, depending where they’re from. I’m sensitive to that, since I’ve transplanted myself so many times. Most New Yorkers spending a weekend in Bismarck, North Dakota, will essentially think they’ve died and gone to hell. A lot of Los Angeles natives love Denver. Live in New Orleans for a few years, and the thought of actual winter is terrifying; that climate will thin your blood like no other. I do think I’ve gotten quicker at deciphering that stuff, and I hope it arrives on the page.

In Blood Highway, Rainy’s the consummate Midwesterner — hard worker, skilled denier, afraid of being different. Yet she craves escape to Los Angeles, because she wants to be anonymous, invisible. No better place to do that than a city where everyone’s fighting to be seen.

What's the most vital thing you learned from your time getting your MFA? And is there anything from all that advice that you reject now, actually working and publishing in the field? What would you say to a younger you, just applying to the master's program at the University of Virginia?

Oh, goodness. Buckle up for this answer. The thing I learned from my time in an MFA program is this: The most vociferous and destructive critic of your work is the writer who doubts their own. There was a scary insularity at UVA, as well as a rampantly sexually harassing professor, as well as an all-but-required conviction that in order for a piece of writing to be considered good, it had to be boring. I rejected this then, and I reject it now. I refused to write anything I didn’t think was fun to read, and I got barbecued for it.

If I could give my pre-MFA self some advice, I’d say, “Go to Oregon.” I got in there, too, and Irvine, but I was waitlisted at both. I picked UVA because they took me outright, and part of me wishes I could know what might have been if I hadn’t. But the irony is, if UVA hadn’t been such an unmitigated hell for me, I might not have made it as an author. It provoked my inner contrarian.

Nowadays, I’ll listen with all ears for constructive criticism that’s intended to help me improve as a writer, but there is not a reviewer alive who can make me doubt the value of my fiction. Get barbecued enough and your skin becomes too thick to singe.

Your first book, Security, was named an Amazon Best Book of 2016. Is that just a designation born of sales numbers (not that there's anything wrong with that), or is there more to it? 

It’s not sales. Security’s numbers were good, but not one of Amazon’s top hundred sellers of the year. I’m pretty sure their Best 100 is just the reviewers at Amazon sitting around a table and saying what they like. I’d love to know who snuck my little horror novel in there so I could send them one of those fruit baskets shaped like flowers or a Wine of the Month membership.

Speaking of Amazon, do you read the reader reviews?

I did read Security’s Amazon reviews, and I found it’s easy to become addicted to the ego boost you get from the positive ones. I’m so incredibly grateful to anyone who gives my book a chance and meets me halfway and lets themselves get swept up in the journey.

For an author, though, the ego is a wonderful slave but a terrible master. Meaning, reading reviews for an ego boost is very dangerous. Either the boosts aren’t enough and you begin to pander, or they are enough and you start to believe your own hype. The day a writer, or an artist of any kind, buys into the glowing things people say about him or her is the day that artist begins to degrade in quality. I really do think this is true. There’s a quote by Simone de Beauvoir where she basically defines genius as infinite patience combined with never being content.
Always, always trying to get better. Never, ever saying "good enough.” Because the moment you say "good enough,” you’ve peaked.

On your website, you claim that of all the people living or passed, your uncontested choice of the person you'd most want to have dinner with is Courtney Love. There has to be a backstory there.

The morning my parents told me they were getting a divorce, I went out to my mom’s car, started it up and went for a drive. (Note: this was probably not a good idea, as I was crying hysterically.) I’d forgotten I had Live Through This in the CD player. First thing I heard when I turned it on was “Violet”: "Go on, take everything, take everything, I want you to."

Courtney Love’s young life was a nightmare of rejection and abandonment. So what she did, she bit into that nightmare, tore it apart with her teeth, chewed it to a pulp, and spat it back out as something so ugly it transcended its own nature and became beautiful. I wore out my copy of Celebrity Skin in college. I’ve bought every album she’s released since, even when I had to couch-dive for loose change to do it. She gave me an idea of what I wanted to be that went beyond pretty or approachable or pleasant or all those other characteristics girls are supposed to emulate. She showed me you can be brilliant. She showed me you can be a woman and a damn genius. It’s a dream of mine to thank her for it one day.


Your new novel, Blood Highway, brings together a lot of story: There's an element of road novels here, there are fathers and daughters, there's the testing of loyalties, there's violence and sexual awakening and a seventeen-year-old narrator. What was the experience like in bringing all this together? Was it tricky, given the relative youth of the narrator?

It took me fifteen years. I’m 37. I finished the first draft of Blood Highway when I was 22. Even in first-draft form, it contained all those elements and many more. To put it mildly, it was beyond my skill level to manage so much content. But I kept coming back to it. And back to it, and back to it. I am telling the absolute truth when I say I have no idea how many drafts this book has been through. No clue. I broke so many styles on it: stripping all the fat out à la Hemingway, running on every other sentence like Faulkner, etcetera, ad nauseam. The mind-blowing part for anybody who reads it: It used to be in third person. Dual third person, back and forth between Rainy and Blaine. My agent read it, called me and said (it was a soul-crusher to hear this; I’d pulled my hair out for the draft I gave her), “Try first person. Just Rainy. See what happens.” What happened was, the novel finally worked.

And, yes, for sure, it’s brutally difficult to write a seventeen-year-old girl when you’re starting to battle chronic hip pain. But once I got out of the way, Rainy took care of it.

How did you come to write thrillers?  You've talked in other venues about how your dad was a big Stephen King admirer, which makes sense. Who are the other horror or thriller writers that inspired or still inspire you? 

I’m going to be a bit of a rebel here: I think any book that’s worth its salt should try to thrill. Ergo, I think any book that manages to thrill is a thriller. I understand why labels like “romance” and “mystery” and “horror” and “thriller” exist. It’s very human to want to categorize things; it makes it easier to categorize ourselves. But I’m always throwing three or four genres in a blender with a stick of dynamite to see what a gorgeous mess I can make. It’s the dynamite, I’m sure, that gets me classified as a thriller writer — a SWAT team storming a hotel’s hedge maze with laughable results, a car wreck that leaves a guy with his eyelid flapping like a flag of surrender — but I’m fine with that. I’m having a ball. If the writer’s not having fun, there’s no chance whatsoever the reader will. (Fortunately, there are masochistic readers for masochistic writers, so everybody’s covered.)

As for my heroes, Shirley Jackson was a badass. Daphne du Maurier, too. I wish the three of us could get breakfast and just cackle together. I’ve recently discovered Tana French, and she’s so gifted it’s crazy. Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies and Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories were two of the best things I read this year. I had a Grisham and Patterson phase in college when I was supposed to be reading, y’know, textbooks. Lee Child is a clinic in consistency while being consistently surprising. Elmore Leonard skipped all the dull parts. I loved the twist in [Gillian] Flynn’s Gone Girl, the bait-and-switch in [Ian] McEwan’s Atonement, the word music of Savages, by Don Winslow. I’ll stop, or we’ll be here all day.

Now that you've come out with your second novel, what's the next thing you want to tackle?  Another thriller?  And could Courtney Love be a major character?

I just turned in a short-story collection to my agent, so we’ll see what she thinks of it. A Courtney Love lyric is the epigraph! I’m two-thirds through another novel. It's a thriller, but the structure takes a handful of different plot intrigues and tosses them in the air to juggle; I’m determined to pull it off. And then I’ve got another idea that’s just about ready, but I need to spend at least a week in Portland. I’ve never been there, and it’s set there, and if I get Portland wrong, the locals will burn me in effigy. I have a series planned, but that’s going to be a marathon. I don’t want to start it until I can see a nice, long, smooth stretch of road ahead.

Gina Wohlsdorf with Joanna Luloff, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 25, Boulder Bookstore, 1107 Pearl Street; solo, at 7 p.m. Tuesday, August 7, at the Aspen Grove Tattered Cover, 7301 South Santa Fe Drive.
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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen