An interview with Samantha Downing, author of summer read He Started It.
New Orleans-based author Samantha Downing slashed through the literary scene last year with her debut novel My Lovely Wife. The story of a married couple turned serial killers, this fresh take on a thriller became an international bestseller. It has since been acquired by Amazon Studios and Nicole Kidman’s Blossom Films for the screen.
Downing’s followup novel is a very different story—but just as original as her the first. Released July 21, He Started It is a “a twisty, sneaking tale of greed, lies and betrayal, with each character as conniving as the next and an ending that will make your heart stop,” according to fellow writer Mary Kubica.
This time, Downing’s characters are siblings on a road trip to fulfill their grandfather’s final wish and secure their inheritance. Beth, Portia and Eddie haven’t spent much time together in recent years, but a cryptic message from their grandfather before he died requires them to recreate the cross-country trip they took as kids. Each sibling is keeping secrets, and the man in the black truck who may be following them only adds to the suspense.
Downing says money is a powerful motivator for everyone, and that’s especially true for this family. She also knows long road trips can be fraught with tension, fatigue and unexpected delays. We interviewed her by email about researching the locations for this book, her own family road trips and why dysfunctional families make for such good fiction.
Erin Z. Bass: When did you start this novel, and was it difficult to follow up such a successful debut?
Samantha Downing: I started this book in December of 2018 and wrote the first draft in about three months. It was extremely difficult to write the second book! First, because I wasn’t used to being on a deadline. I’ve been writing for a long time but it’s always been on my own, so I never had to complete anything by a certain time. My Lovely Wife wasn’t out yet, and I didn’t know how it would do, so at least that pressure wasn’t there.
EZB: He Started It features a family on a cross-country road trip, an activity many people are going to be doing this summer. Did your family take road trips growing up?
SD: My family never took long road trips like the one in the book. I’m from the Bay Area, near San Francisco, and we used to drive up to Tahoe a lot. Comparatively, that’s a very short trip—maybe four hours. But when I was a kid, it felt like forever.
EZB: How did you research and choose the route and locations for this road trip?
SD: I think I did more research for the road trip than I have for anything else I’ve written. All of the locations and tourist attractions are real, only the restaurants and motels are fictional. I wanted to choose some really out of the way places, because this family wouldn’t stop anywhere normal like the Grand Canyon. Most of the research was done online, and “Roadside America” was a great help. I also had to map the trip out in terms of time and how long it would take them to get to each location. It was more extensive than I originally imagined when I started writing about a road trip.
EZB: You’ve said, “Show me a ‘functional’ family and I’ll show you a family who is very good at hiding secrets.” Why do dysfunctional families make for such thrilling fiction?
SD: I think all families are dysfunctional, whether they want to admit or not. The only difference is in degrees. That’s why I think families are so compelling to read about—we can relate to them, even if it’s in a small way. I think that’s also why families make a great basis for a thriller. You can take something small, something everyone can relate to, and expand it into something far more dramatic.
EZB: There was a debate over “likable characters” several years ago, and it’s safe to say that your characters are pretty flawed. How did middle child Beth end up becoming the narrator, and did you draw on any of your own sibling rivalry for this book?
SD: I’m not a middle child, but I wanted a middle child to be the center of this book because they have an interesting position within the family. The youngest is always the baby, the oldest always has the most responsibility. That leaves the middle child to find their own way, and I thought that would be the most interesting viewpoint for this particular story.
I never think about characters as being likable or unlikeable. What I try to create are characters that are compelling enough that you want to know what happens next. Whether or not I would be friends with them, or even want to be around them, isn’t really relevant. They are fictional, after all.
EZB: For our readers who are taking a road trip this summer, do you have any survival tips?
SD: Don’t do it with family. Go on a road trip with friends instead. You’ll have a much better time!
He Started It is one of our 2020 summer reads. View our full Summer Reading List here.