WRITERS TELL ALL
"A Fortunate Accident": An Interview with the Amazing Samantha Downing, Author of MY LOVELY WIFE
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Samantha! I have to say, there are few books for me that live up to the hype, but My Lovely Wifei s one of those books. I can definitely say it’s a contender for my book of the year. Can we start with some basic questions, like how you got into writing, how many books you went through and how many drafts of this book you had to fight through before getting to this treasure of a read?
Samantha Downing: Thank you so much! I’m thrilled you enjoyed it so much. Writing really started as a hobby for me something I enjoyed doing but not something I ever though I’d get paid for. I think it was a natural extension of reading, which I love. And you have to love reading to love writing, in my opinion.
As for this novel, I wrote one draft and revised it. This is my twelfth overall novel (the first eleven are unpublished) and I don’t really write multiple drafts anymore. I write one and revise from there.
MT: There was a lot of Patricia Highsmith in this book, I thought, as well as some other really interesting “unlikable” protagonists (like in Lolitaor more recently Gone Girl). What authors and books did you continue to turn to if you ever were stumped or didn’t know what direction to take your characters? What books did you read growing up, as an adult, etc, which prepared you to write My Lovely Wife?
SD: I’ve always read thrillers. My whole family did, so these were the books that were always lying around the house when I was younger. I love all kinds of thrillers – from adventure to legal to psychological thrillers.
When I’m not sure what to do next in the story, I do one of two things: Go the gym or take a nap. I’m convinced the second one works better but the first is probably better for me.
MT: What attracts you about crime fiction, and what do you think is the greater, more wonderful role it plays in society? Women are the main readers and writers of crime fiction, and I wonder what you think of how this plays into our political climate and what the importance of crime fiction today says about where we are in the US and abroad?
SD; I think crime fiction and thrillers have always been interesting people because most of us will never be that close (thankfully) to this kind of thing. Most of us will never see a murdered body, much less investigate the crime. It’s like our collection fascination with the mob or with serial killers…these are parts of life the majority of people see only through books, movies, or TV shows.
Women have always been the biggest readers and now we have an amazing groups of crime and thriller writers as well. Mary Higgins Clark wrote what is arguably one of the first domestic suspense thrillers, and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girlcreated a whole new wave of fiction that is still popular with both readers and writers.
MT: I expected the book to fall very much into the category of one of the spouses is a serial killer. Then I was expecting the novel to just follow both spouses as serial killers. But you really pulled out all of the tricks in the most magical (and dark and bloody) way and I loved it so much. When you execute elaborate twists like in this book—especially the seemingly effortless way you wrote the ending of My Lovely Wife, what did you have in mind and how long did it take to feel, again, effortless?
SD: To be honest…the lack of any plan. I don’t plot my books or outline them. I write chapter by chapter, idea by idea. Then I have to go back and revise it. As far as it feeling effortless…I’m glad it does! I don’t know if there’s a trick to doing it or maybe it was just a fortunate accident!
MT: What was the reception like by agents, editors, publishers for My Lovely Wife, and did anyone expect the acclaim you’d receive? When you first submitted the novel to an agent, was it any different than the novel we read now? What do you feel are the most important facts for new authors to keep in mind when approaching agents and trying to get books published?
SD: I wouldn’t be published if it weren’t for a friend of mine named Rebecca. I had no intention of submitting this book, just as I hadn’t submitted the others. She took it and sent it to a friend of hers who went to school with someone who is now an agent in New York. He contacted me and said the book wasn’t for him, but he referred me to Barbara Poelle, who is now my agent. She loved the book, and how twisted it was, and she said we’d either do well with it or we’d be put in a mental institution. I’m pretty happy it’s the former!
As far as getting published, I can only advise what I did – concentrate on the writing. That’s what it’s about, or at least it was for me. So when that friend came along and sent it to an agent…I had already been writing for twenty years. I had written twelve novels. And I had no idea anyone would wantto publish my work. I didn’t think it was good enough to query.
MT: You’re writing about serial killers and sometimes vicious murders, but also infidelity and heartbreak. I know this goes back to some of my earlier questions, but how do you feel My Lovely Wifeplays into the idea that all books are crime books, whether taken literally or not, and what do you think is the truly human aspect at the heart of your novel?
SD: Ultimately, this book is about marriage and it’s about family. That’s how I see it. The book is about a couple that goes to extreme measures to keep their marriage exciting and fresh. Family is important to them, so are the kids and their community. Well, mostly.
MT: I won’t say My Lovely Wifeis entirely new (although it is entirely brilliant), but it certainly does push a lot of boundaries within the genre. How nervous were you when presenting this novel so different from what is popular in the genre, and what are your views on unlikable characters and protagonists, and why are they so appealing today?
SD; I have to admit I disagree with the idea of “unlikeable” characters stopping someone from liking or reading a book. There are unlikeable characters in every genre, in literary fiction, and they exist throughout history. Characters don’t have to be likeable, they have to be compelling. You have to want to turn the page and find out what happens next. That’s what I look for in a thriller, and I think it’s what most people look for.
I think of all characters as both good and bad – because all good or all bad is boring. And I think they are appealing because they are more realistic. I know lots of people who are good and bad. I don’t know anyone who is all good.
MT: So many novels fall into this whole “She had a perfect life, perfect job, perfect man, perfect dog! And then everything went wrong.” In a way, you could argue that this does fit into My Lovely Wifein one way or another, but you really turn expectations on their head and we see this new examination of a trend in crime fiction that feels so old. How do you feel My Lovely Wifecomments on this trend—this genre within a genre—and what do you think the novel and you wanted to say?
SD: Genres can have a wide scope, I think. I’d rather push the boundaries and see how far it can be stretched. That can only be good for readers and writers!
I’m not sure I was trying to say anything in a “big message” way. The book has a lot of social commentary about communities, the media, and marriage in general, but there isn’t one overarching idea I wanted to convey. It’s more like observations. Everything I write has a lot of small observations.
MT: Assuming you had to recommend three authors of any genre to a reader, who would they be? How about three authors from any time in the crime genre to readers? What do you think makes them so special and important? What books do you respect from them most?
SD: In the crime/thriller genre, I would first sayRebeccaby Daphne du Maurier, because it’s so creepy and brilliantly done. The next one I would recommend is The First Deadly Sinby Lawrence Sanders, because it’s such a great detective novel with a relatable, flawed detective who solves his crimes with old-fashioned police work instead of with a brilliant, deductive mind like Sherlock Holmes. The last one is The Murder of Roger Ackroydby Agatha Christie because of that brilliant, infuriating twist. She set the bar high.
MT: What are you working on now? What can we expect from you next, and how long do you think we will have to wait? Do you want to go into any further detail about your writing process?
SD: Another thriller! Hopefully even more disturbing, but that’s all I can say right now.
MT: There are so many authors who write both series (with private investigators, police procedurals, etc) and those who only write series and those who only write standalones. Where do you think you stand? Would you ever write a series? And even if you wouldn’t, what would your series protagonist be like? How hard in general do you think it is for us to keep from letting our own personalities and views of the world seep over into our writing?
SD: Right now, I’m writing another standalone. I’m not against a series, it’s just not something I’m doing at the moment.
MT: Samantha, it was such a pleasure getting to read your debut novel, My Lovely Wife. I’m sure it’s already a major success but I do recommend it to all of our readers, a book destined to be a classic and a model for debut novels in all sorts of literature classes and MFA workshops. Thank you so much for speaking with us and please feel free to leave us with any thoughts or any other ideas you want to part with. I look forward to hopefully speaking with you again.
SD: Thank you so much for having me! This has been a lot of fun and you’ve asked some great questions. I look forward to doing it again when the next book comes out.