We all know publishing is a tough business. But if I’ve learned one thing from writing this column, it’s that the people working in it have an unmatched capacity for taking chances and expecting surprises—which is my segue to Samantha Downing’s debut novel, My Lovely Wife, about an unusual serial killer couple living and operating in Florida.
Downing ignored the business side of writing and just wrote her novels—12 in 20 years—but never submitted them. Jen Monroe had been an assistant editor at Berkley for only seven months when she preempted My Lovely Wife, her first major acquisition; and Barbara Poelle, Downing’s agent at Irene Goodman, took a chance on a very young editor and gave her an exclusive.
Until now, Downing tells me, she always thought of her writing as a hobby. Her job (which she plans to keep) is as a corporate secretary for a manufacturing company. The perk is that it involves travel, and she loves to write in airports.
Downing says she always wrote novels, in all genres—some she finished and some she didn’t. Early on, she attended a writing conference in New Orleans (where she lives now, a transplant from the Bay Area). It was, she says, “a lot about the publishing industry; that just made me give up.”
But two years ago, Downing joined a local writing group that was very encouraging. The group was especially taken with Downing’s Millicent character, a suburban wife and mother who harbors and indulges some extremely terrifying impulses. The inspiration? “I saw this documentary about a couple who kidnapped a woman and held her captive for years,” Downing says. “Ultimately, the wife let her go and ended up testifying against her husband.”
This got Downing thinking about gender reversal. “It’s always the men who are the instigators in these crimes,” she says. “What if the woman was the instigator? And if it were a woman, who would that woman be?”
She’d be Millicent, married 15 years, the mother of two teenage children, a boy and a girl. Her husband, the unnamed narrator, is clearly complicit in the crimes and is also clearly a follower with his own set of skills. Early in the book, we meet him seducing a victim while masquerading as a deaf man named Tobias.
One passage that gives a sense of his and Millicent’s relationship: after telling her they have to wait before taking their next victim, he narrates, “I want to ask her if she understands but I know she does. She just doesn’t like it. She is upset Lindsey has been found now, right when we were planning another. It’s like she has become addicted. She is not the only one.”
My Lovely Wife is a knockout. It’s not just a novel about serial killers. It’s family drama, about a marriage, about kids out of control, about infidelity, and about the news media; and it’s also about the folks next door. It’s an effortless page-turner, which is exactly why Monroe, after getting the manuscript on a Wednesday afternoon, stayed up all night reading.
Monroe is 25 years old and had been on the business side at HarperCollins for two years when she heard about an opening at Berkley. “Print editorial was the dream, and Berkley does the kind of books I want to do, ” she says. And at Berkley, she knew everyone had the opportunity to buy a book—but as a newbie, she also knew that the challenge was getting an agent to send her a manuscript.
Then, at a BookExpo party last year, Monroe met Poelle, who was impressed enough with her that when Monroe followed up, Poelle invited her to the Irene Goodman agency offices for coffee and to meet everyone. “The coffee turned into wine, and all the agents adored her,” Poelle says. “Publishing is so subjective. When you find someone who shares your taste, it’s special.”
So when My Lovely Wife came across Poelle’s desk in summer 2017, she remembered Monroe and their connection. “I thought I would give her a shot, a head start, and sent the manuscript to her with a 48-hour exclusive,” Poelle says. “Monroe ran it up the flagpole. I couldn’t believe the hustle on this woman. My style is 99% passion, 1% intelligence, and I chose the feeling I had with Jen.”
Monroe says she was “blown away” by My Lovely Wife and sent it to her boss, Amanda Bergeron. She asked Bergeron, “Am I crazy or is this really this good?” Bergeron thought it was, and Monroe went back to Poelle and asked to speak with Downing (“We vibed immediately,” Monroe tells me) and take the next steps. She got the weekend added to her exclusive, and the book was preempted the following Monday, in July 2017, in a two-book six-figure deal.
Berkley took world rights, which Poelle says she doesn’t usually do, but she wanted the house to have the chance to sell the rights. So far, My Lovely Wife has sold in three territories: in the U.K./Commonwealth to Penguin UK’s Michael Joseph imprint; in Germany to Random House Germany’s Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag; and in Hungary to Agave Konyvek.
“The group I work with is so supportive,” says Monroe of the deal. The book was a team project and in line with Berkley’s vision of investing in authors. It went through a few rounds of revisions and was done in December 2017.
The one thing Downing was emphatic about was that Millicent not have a tragic history or sympathetic backstory to explain her murderous compulsions. “I just wanted her to be this way,” the author says.
The route the manuscript took to Poelle was not so direct; Poelle calls it “beautifully organic.” She was walking out of an event with Farley Chase, an agent and a friend, and he told her about a manuscript from a friend of his, Dave Hart, whom he knew from school. Hart got the manuscript from one of his friends, who was in Downing’s writing group and one of the early fans.
“Farley thought it might be something more suited for me,” Poelle says. “It was a domestic thriller; he focuses more on nonfiction. It all happened in such a wonderful way. We all wanted the manuscript to have the best chance, to find an advocate; no one was hoarding.”
Downing had finished her original manuscript in April 2017. “I wrote one draft, revised it, and sent it off,” she says. Chase received it in June 2017.
Downing and Chase spoke a few times, and Chase explained that it wasn’t for him but that she should send it to Poelle. “The manuscript had just turned up in his email,” Downing laughs. “He suggested that I ‘might add a cover letter.’ ”
When Poelle called Downing about the manuscript, they had a great first conversation. “She asked me where I got the idea, and I told her I was sick and disturbed, and that was it,” Downing says. “We really clicked.”
And the excitement continues. My Lovely Wife pubs Mar. 26, 2019, with a first printing of 75,000 copies. Early publicity plans include a tour and appearances at regional trade shows. Downing says she will seem like the classic overnight success—“the writer everyone hates,” as her friend put it (translation: a writer with a book contract). Meanwhile, Downing says, “It’s been 20 years. I just kept plugging away”.
After 11 years as an agent, Poelle says she has “the greatest job on the planet.”
And Monroe? “When I got the deal, I ran laps around the office—like Rocky Balboa. The high of negotiating, talking to the author... I understand gambling addiction.”