Elisabeth de Mariaffi's experience at a scenic retreat inspired her latest thriller, The Retreat
This interview originally aired on Sept. 18, 2021.
Elisabeth de Mariaffi is a writer based in St. John's. Her debut collection of stories, How to Get Along with Women, was longlisted for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Her other books include the thrillers Hysteria and The Devil You Know.
Her latest novel is The Retreat, a thriller that tells the story of a former principal dancer, Maeve Martin, who arrives at a snowy mountain retreat called High Water Center for the Arts. Maeve's plans to start her own dance company are derailed after an avalanche traps everyone inside and guests start dropping one by one.
The plot is loosely based on de Mariaffi's experience at Alberta's Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, where she spent one winter working on her writing.
She spoke with Shelagh Rogers how The Retreat came to be.
"In The Retreat, a professional dancer goes to a mountain retreat. Winter comes in early and there is a freak avalanche. She gets trapped, and then people begin dying.
"I have not had anything quite close to that experience, but I did go to Banff in 2009. Like Maeve in my book, I was newly divorced. I was a single mother. I felt the stakes were very high for my career. I was also around her age, 33 or 34. At the time, I thought a lot about the pressure and the ambition that come together in a place like that.
"Some of the things that happen in the book really did happen. Winter did come in early. It was October when I was there. I carried a lot of those experiences back away with me.
Like Maeve in my book, I was newly divorced. I was a single mother. I felt the stakes were very high for my career.
"At the time. I was working on short stories. I started a short story about a woman who was trapped by a freak storm. For whatever reason, that short story didn't take off, and I put it away in a file. But the idea never left me.
"In terms of my own inspiration, I love Agatha Christie. I was thinking a lot about Murder on the Orient Express and these fantastic, tight little mysteries. And I started to want to write one like that."
"I don't have a dance background at all. But I am a long-distance runner. There's a dichotomy or a partnership between what you need to do to make your body and mind feel good and the damage that is being done to your body at the same time. I've spent a lot of time thinking about my knees, spine and hips because I can't stop running — because it's very grounding for me.
There's a dichotomy or a partnership between what you need to do to make your body and mind feel good and the damage that is being done to your body at the same time.
"There are a few scenes where Maeve considers her body — considers how it moves, how it works, especially when she first gets up in the morning. She is so aware of the damage. She is constantly working against the damage to try and buy herself a little bit more time."
"We often relegate things like dance or gymnastics as graceful. We think of them as graceful arts, and Maeve continually refers to herself as an athlete in the book. Because if you actually watch what a dancer has to do, it is an athleticism of the highest degree.
I enjoyed taking somebody who is viewed by society as a pretty thing to look at, and putting her in a situation where she was going to use her dance skills in a survival way.
"I grew up in Toronto. I did not grow up going to a cottage or summer camp or anything like that. I'm fascinated by the idea of living outdoors and what that would be like.
"So it made sense to take somebody who was so physically attuned and put her in a situation where she would have to physically survive and run and climb things. I enjoyed taking somebody who is viewed by society as a pretty thing to look at, and putting her in a situation where she was now going to use all the skills she has from dance — but in a survival way."
Elisabeth de Mariaffi's comments have been edited for length and clarity.