Samantha Downing discusses the twisty sibling dysfunction of He Started It
Warning: This article contains spoilers about Samantha Downing's new novel He Started It.
Imagine a two-week road trip across the United States to visit some of the nation's most bizarre roadside attractions with your adult siblings and the ashes of your abusive grandfather.
If you think that sounds hellacious, you'd be right. But it's also perfect fodder for a thriller — namely, Samantha Downing's He Started It. The author's second novel follows the blazing success of her debut, My Lovely Wife (which has already been optioned by Nicole Kidman and Amazon Studios for a film adaptation), and possesses the same unsettling view into the twisted dynamics of a seriously dysfunctional family.
Beth, the middle sister, takes readers along for a cross-country trip with her siblings, Eddie and Portia (and their respective spouses). They must complete the journey to secure their grandfather's not insubstantial inheritance… if they don't kill each other or get murdered first. With the DNA of a Gillian Flynn thriller, He Started It is a darkly humorous and engrossing tale of tragedy, trauma, and family secrets.
In honor of the book's Tuesday release, we called up Downing to dig into where she gets the ideas for her thrillers, why she's so fascinated by sibling relationships, why she threw away the entirety of her sophomore novel, and if she's really ever been to any of the bizarre roadside attractions she details with perverse glee.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This book is about one very twisted road trip, which is recreating a trip the protagonist and her siblings took as children. Where did this idea first come from? Please tell me your road trips are better than this.
SAMANTHA DOWNING: [Laughs] I've actually never been on a real long road trip with my family. The original idea for this was a friend of mine was telling me about a road trip she did where a bunch of things went wrong: They had a flat tire and somebody got sick and they had to stop at an urgent care. It just dawned on me that was a perfect setup for a thriller because so many things can happen and you can interact with so many people along the way, so I started thinking about that and came around to the idea of a siblings. I'm really fascinated by the sibling relationship because it's something you can't ever recreate at any other time in life. These are people you're with during your formative years, and they've been through the exact same experiences together. Even if you're married for 40 years, it's still not during the formative years, so it's a totally different kind of relationship. I just put the two together and came up with this.
I was going to say sibling relationships are complicated, but this is next-level. Do you have siblings? Were you inspired by them?
I have a brother who is two years older than me, and to this day, when we get together we are 12 years old all over again. What I wanted to get into in the book is that the relationships you have with your siblings stay the same no matter what age you are. So if you have a relationship where you tease each other a lot, chances are you're going to continue to tease each other. We go to a restaurant, and my brother will get up and go to the restroom, and I steal something from his plate, whether it's his sunglasses or something else, whatever he leaves laying around, I steal it and then it's a whole game of how long it's going to take him to notice it's gone. What I wanted to get into in the book was that the longer they went on that road trip, the more and more they reverted to their childhood selves.
They visit some pretty wild places, like the Bonnie and Clyde Ambush Museum, Cadillac Ranch, the Barbed Wire Museum. Have you really been to all these places, or how did you choose them?
No, I actually did a lot of research online for it. I have not been on this road trip myself, but I have driven across the country before and made some weird stops, but not all of these places. I knew that this family would not go anywhere normal; they wouldn't be hanging out at the Grand Canyon. Roadside America was a great resource, as well as a couple other websites just to find places that I thought Grandpa would take them on the first trip and then they had to do again on the second trip. There's some really bizarre roadside attractions out there. It's really incredible that there's so much to see and to visit and some of it is so odd. But then I had to map the trip out to make sure they could make the distance in the right amount of time during the day, and I wasn't saying anything outrageous like they were crossing three states in one day or anything.
You play with the idea of what a heroine is and who she is in this book. Do you have a definitive answer to who the heroine is here?
No. It was more of a what I lay out in the very first paragraph of the book: the standard definitions of what we think a heroine is. And those are what are acceptable in pop culture generally. I was more challenging that because by the end of the book there's no one that fits that description. Is there a heroine, or is there not? Is it is it impossible to have a heroine that doesn't fit the stereotype? The example I always use because everybody knows it is Don Draper in Mad Men. He was a horrible person. If you tried to pitch that TV show with a female lead, it would have never gotten in the room. A woman that cheats on her husband all the time, is terrible to her kids, is terrible to her employees, nobody would put it on the air.
This has perhaps the greatest diary fake-out since Gone Girl. Where did you get the idea for that twist? And how do you master writing this ambiguous diary, which is a very different voice from the rest of the book?
My original idea was that it was going to be Nikki's diary. I don't plot my books. I write them organically. When I write, I may have one idea in the first 20 percent of the book that I completely change in the next 60 percent of the book. Things change a lot as I write. Originally I started writing a diary that was Nikki, and it was going to be a diary that Beth had with her. After rereading it, I decided this would be so much better if she were so crazy she was writing a fake diary. That's where that came from. It was just trying to think outside the box. There has to be misdirection in thrillers, otherwise you never get away with the twist. Otherwise you're just telegraphing the twist the whole time.
Beth does something utterly shocking about 75 percent of the way through. Given your more organic writing style, did you know she was going to do that, or did it shock you?
I didn't know that happened. I had in my mind a very vague idea of the ending, I knew it would end in the desert, and I knew there was going to be mass bloodshed in the desert. That's all I knew. I didn't know who would be left standing. I didn't know how it was going to happen. All I saw was like massacre in the desert in my head. After My Lovely Wife I had to write my second book, and I had to submit a synopsis for the book to my editor. I had never written a synopsis before. I did it, and I came up with an idea. My editor and I fine-tuned it a little, and then I wrote the book and it was terrible. We literally threw the entire book out. I wrote a book in between this and My Lovely Wife that we threw out. It turns out when I plot books, I telegraph them. It was completely predictable, and it clearly did not work out. I wrote this one instead. What I like about not plotting is not knowing what comes next. I discover the story the same way a reader will discover the story. I get up each day and I write first thing in the morning, and I discover at that point what happens next.
So you had this hazy image of a desert for the ending. Did you ever plan anything more or less definitive than what is there in the final version?
Yes. The very first chapter of the book Beth was talking to Krista, and Beth says, "When the killing starts, she goes first." It all ties back to that in the end, that Krista was the problem the whole time. Beth didn't know it at the time, she was just saying it because she was annoyed. There was that intended misdirection of when she leaves Eddie and leaves the road trip and you're supposed to think Eddie killed her. But at that point I knew she was coming back and she was, at the very least, in on it, and then I just decided these siblings are all evil and they're all going to die. So I killed them all. I thought the ending was very clear that Beth dies. Of course she dies — the woman had just shot her husband and Portia. So yes, she shoots Beth. The story was about the siblings, and when all three siblings are dead, the story's over. What happens to Krista is irrelevant. A lot of the reviewers or book bloggers that have talked about it have all said they thought Nikki was going to come back, but Nikki was that eternal thing you're searching for in life that you don't ever get. Like in The Great Gatsby, where he was looking across the water and seeing the light. It was that thing you think you can't live without and you think you're chasing, but it turns out she was a ghost the whole time.
I'll be honest, this ending surprised me so much I almost threw the book across the room. Does hearing that sort of thing delight you?
Absolutely. As a writer, if I can evoke an emotion at all, hopefully not hatred, but if I can write in way that evokes something, that's great. That's a very difficult thing to achieve as a writer, to make someone laugh or shock someone or thrill someone. I have heard from several people that they screamed or threw the book across the room. I know the ending will be polarizing, and I know it will be a love-or-hate thing, and I'm okay with that.