Tanya Žilinskas, author of “The Winter Guests” from Volume 72.2, recounts her inspiration for her story revealing the behind-the-scenes of the setting of Mount Imola and the main character’s intentions.
Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Summer People” revolves around an aging couple, Mr. and Mrs. Allison, who decide to stay on at their country lake house after Labor Day instead of returning to their city apartment. If it doesn’t feel ominous the first time a townsperson says “nobody has ever stayed at the lake past Labor Day,” the repeated observation that summer visitors always leave the town at the advent of fall—interspersed with Mrs. Allison’s condescending and classist observations of the locals—makes it clear there is a distinct line between townspeople and tourists, and that there will be consequences to the Allisons crossing it. After they’ve been cut off from supplies, communication, and transportation, the Allisons’ fate at the end of “The Summer People” is unclear. Are they the target of malicious townspeople, as they believe, or is the underlying horror that people like the Allisons think they can play at being locals without shedding their sense of class-based superiority?
At the beginning of lockdown in the United States, there was a news item about a honeymooning South African couple in the Maldives. They were stuck in a luxury resort with a marooned staff to wait on their every need. Their continued presence necessitated the staff’s continued presence. When I read this, I was reminded of “The Summer People.” What, I wondered, was this experience like for the staff? Here was the definitive seed for “The Winter Guests,” my response to “The Summer People”—imagining the simmering resentment of a hotel staff with a stranded but luxuriating pair of guests.
I wrote “The Winter Guests” in the early stages of the pandemic, and my feelings of isolation and claustrophobia shaped the supernatural weather event that keeps my guests trapped at The Mountain Inn. Instead of a romantic couple, my guests/interlopers are an overbearing father and his teenage daughter, Rachel. Duality of self is a recurrent theme in my work, and Lillian, the young hotel manager, serves as a sort of dark ideal for Rachel, who is beginning to believe that her father is not “her kind of person,” but lacks the will and maturity to defy him. The Mountain Inn’s liminality mirrors Rachel’s phase of life as she remains mired in the pluralism of being neither fully adult nor child.
As I was preparing for copy edits for “The Winter Guests,” there was a rare snowfall on Mt. Tamalpais, the inspiration for the story’s Mount Imola. My children and I hiked up Mt. Tam from a popular camping area to see the snow. As they stopped for frequent snowball fights, I mulled over the ending of my story and the small but weighty tweaks I wanted to make. After thirty minutes of climbing, we were secluded on the trail, far from the concentration of other visitors. A local reporter caught up to us and took photos of my children, and confessed she was staying close because she was afraid to be alone. That familiar landscape, covered in snow, was now something alien. The ice storm in “The Winter Guests” similarly transformed the fictional town of Miwok Valley and shifted the power dynamic between guests and hosts.
An hour passed and my children, wet and hungry, said they wanted to go home. As we made our way back, I had a greater sense of clarity around what the ending meant for my main character, Rachel. Her desire to move forward was accelerated by her environment but hampered by her limitations. As with the ending of “The Summer People,” it was a reminder of the precarity and sometimes arrogance of human comfort and routine.