Twisted Plots, Twisted Characters:
The Ground Opens Up
By Neil Nyren
“This is what living with Millicent has always been like. Life goes along like it’s supposed to…And then suddenly the ground opens up into a chasm wide enough to swallow everything.”
This is the story of an extraordinary woman—and of the three women behind her: an author who wrote 12 books in 20 years and never submitted any of them; an assistant editor just seven months on the job; and an agent willing to take a chance on the editor and give her an exclusive. The ground opened up for all of them, in a good way.
MY LOVELY WIFE begins one night when a deaf man named Tobias, an accountant, picks up a woman named Petra at a bar, goes to her place, and sleeps with her. Then he goes home to his wife, Millicent, who says, “Well?” He replies, “No, she isn’t right.”
His name is not Tobias, he is not an accountant, he’s not deaf. He and Millicent are looking for someone to murder. They’ve done it before. It excites her. It excites him that it excites her. And they have a plan.
“If we do this right,” she says, “the police will never even think to look for a couple. We’ll be free to do whatever we want.”
But they’re keeping secrets from one another. Small lies that have built to big lies. The question, really, is not if something will crack open, but when, and what comes after. And when it does happen…it’s in a way neither of them would ever have guessed.
They’re not the only ones keeping secrets. Not by a long shot.
Seductive, hypnotic, written with a fast pace, sharp prose, and wickedly dry humor, MY LOVELY WIFE draws you in immediately, and never lets you go throughout its many twists and turns. Just like Millicent and her husband, the reader never knows for sure what will happen next—all the way up to the very last line.
On her website, Samantha Downing writes, “I never studied writing. It’s just a hobby that grew into a passion. MY LOVELY WIFE is not the first one I wrote, it’s the first one I submitted (trust me, the other 11 are terrible).
“When I was a kid, my mom brought me to the library every two weeks. I checked out a stack of new books and new worlds. The best thing was becoming so absorbed in a book I couldn’t put it down. I walked around with it in front of my face, I took it to the bathroom, the kitchen, the book came with me wherever I went. I tripped, ran into walls, and stubbed my toes because I never watched where I was going.
“This is why I write. I want to tell stories that make people walk into walls.”
The idea for MY LOVELY WIFE “came from a true story about a couple who kidnapped a woman and held her hostage.” This was the “girl in a box,” Colleen Stan, who was abducted while hitchhiking in 1977. Stan was lured into a false sense of safety because her abductor had his wife and child in the car.
“The husband had convinced his wife to be an accomplice. My first reaction was, what kind of woman would do that? My second reaction was, what if had been the other way around? What if the wife had convinced the husband to be her accomplice?”
Downing thought: Women never do this to other women. But what if they did? And what would she be like?
“I didn’t want to write characters who did horrible things due to some kind of abuse or trauma from the past. I didn’t want any kind of reason for who they are or what they do, because sometimes there isn’t one. Some people are born sociopaths or psychopaths. It’s how their brain is wired. This story is about two of them finding each other, and how far they will go for one another.
“I didn’t try to make people root for, or even like, Millicent and her husband. It wasn’t a conscious thought. I don’t think characters have to be likeable and I don’t have to root for them. To me, it’s more important to create characters that are compelling. I may not want to be friends with them, or even in the same room, but I want to know what happens to them.”
She admits, though, that “yes, I think there’s a part of me in every character. Two stand out the most. The first is their son, Rory. He is so sarcastic. I’m the same way; most of the time it’s difficult for me to keep my mouth shut even when I should. The other is Millicent. She is such a control freak about everything, every facet of her life is controlled. I’m not quite that bad, but…yes, I admit I’m a control freak.”
The control extends to the people Millicent and her husband target to kill: “The victims are women for a few reasons. First, because it began with a woman, that’s how their pattern begins. Second, for logistical reasons. It’s possible, but not typical, that an average-sized woman would be able to move or drag an average-sized man. If he was unconscious or dead, it would be almost impossible. The way the story unfolds, and the things Millicent does, just aren’t possible with male victims. Not unless they were children, and that isn’t the story I wanted to tell.”
The same control both does and does not feature in Downing’s writing process: “I don’t plan the book or plot it out. It begins with a character, a voice, and then a first chapter. The first chapter of MY LOVELY WIFE is almost the same as I first wrote it. I write in order, chapter by chapter, and each idea leads to the next. The overall plot becomes clear as I write, so I constantly go back and revise even as I’m writing forward. I write it all in one big Word document.
“At the same time, I keep a list of what I call threads. They are clues, characters, plot points—hints or ideas that I plant and want to pick up on later in the book. That’s my second Word document. I keep one for the book and one for the threads. Nothing fancy here!”
When asked how she found her agent and publisher, she circles back. “I’ve been writing for over 20 years now, and I’ve written a dozen books and countless half-books. It was always my hobby, something I did because I enjoyed it, not because I ever thought I’d be published or make any money. The odds of that were so small, I didn’t consider it a real option.
“A couple of years ago, I joined a critique group. One of the members, Rebecca Vonier, liked MY LOVELY WIFE so much she offered to give it to a friend of hers, who had gone to school with someone who became an agent in New York. The ultimate friend-of-my-friend-of-my-friend situation! The agent, Farley Chase, contacted me and said the book wasn’t his type of thing, and he told me to contact Barbara Poelle at the Irene Goodman Agency. I did, and we mutually bonded about how twisted we both are.”
Poelle did the same with a 25-year-old assistant editor named Jen Monroe that she met at a party and invited to come for coffee with the rest of the people at the agency. “The coffee turned into wine, and all the agents adored her,” Poelle told Publishers Weekly. So when Poelle got Downing’s manuscript, “I thought I would give her a shot, a head start, and sent the manuscript to her with a 48-hour exclusive. My style is 99 percent passion, one percent intelligence, and I chose the feeling I had with Jen.”
“I ended up with a two-book deal,” says Downing. “It was, and still is, incredibly exciting that this has happened to me. Many, many people were involved in making this book happen. Writing may be a solitary activity, but publishing is not. I would not be answering these questions if not for my writing critique partners, or my warrior-slash-agent and my amazing editor, not to mention the marketing and publicity team. This has been a life-altering experience filled with many wonderful people.”
Her next book: “Another thriller, of course. I hope it’s as disturbing as MY LOVELY WIFE.”
Given the virtuosity of her first book and her self-described “twisted” nature, I doubt that’s going to be a problem. One of Downing’s favorite writers, Liv Constantine, said of MY LOVELY WIFE, “You’ll never look at your neighbors the same,” and if you read the book, you’ll soon see why.
Welcome to the neighborhood, Samantha.
Neil Nyren retired at the end of 2017 as the Executive VP, associate publisher and editor in chief of G. P. Putnam’s Sons. He is the winner of the 2017 Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Among his authors of crime and suspense were Clive Cussler, Ken Follett, C. J. Box, John Sandford, Robert Crais, Jack Higgins, W. E. B. Griffin, Frederick Forsyth, Randy Wayne White, Alex Berenson, Ace Atkins, and Carol O’Connell. He also worked with such writers as Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell, Daniel Silva, Martha Grimes, Ed McBain, Carl Hiaasen, and Jonathan Kellerman.
He is currently writing a monthly publishing column for the MWA newsletter The Third Degree, as well as a regular ITW-sponsored series on debut thriller authors for BookTrib.com, and is an editor at large for CrimeReads.
This column originally ran on Booktrib, where writers and readers meet:
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