Chilling and intensely gripping, Only She Came Back, the exciting new novel from Margot Harrison, is the perfect read for fans of true crime and those intrigued by societies fascination with it. Fast paced and peppered with curveballs that will have you on the edge of your seat, Only She Came Back is a fabulous addition to the YA thriller pool and we were lucky enough to get to chat to Margot all about it.
Hi Margot! I’m so excited to get to talk to you today to celebrate the release of your new YA thriller, Only She Came Back. For readers who may not be familiar with its premise, how would you best describe the book to them?
Thanks so much, I’m excited to talk to you, too! The short version of my premise is “true crime meets unhinged woman.” The main character is a true crime fan, Sam, who finds out that a girl she knew slightly in high school, Kiri, is the prime suspect in the case everybody’s suddenly obsessed with—the disappearance of a survival influencer in the desert. Sam essentially stalks Kiri and worms her way into her life, hoping to learn all her secrets and use them to give herself viral clout. But things get complicated when Sam starts to sympathize with this possible killer.
Can you tell us a little about your inspirations behind the story?
I’m a true crime fan myself, but I have complicated feelings about it. This story was influenced by two very different viral crime stories that both have young, white blond women at their center: the 2021 murder of Gabby Petito by her boyfriend on their cross-country trip and the 2017 conviction of Michelle Carter for encouraging her boyfriend’s suicide via text messages.
One of these women was a victim and the other was a perpetrator, but both of them fascinated the public. And both stories were steeped in online culture (texts, Instagram posts, YouTube videos) in ways that made true crime fans feel closer to the events than they really were.
I found myself wondering: What if a troubled influencer couple went on a road trip and the woman was the one who came back alone? What if the public saw her as an ice queen, a villain, despite some evidence that her older boyfriend had been abusive and controlling? How much sympathy would people have toward such a complicated female figure? That was the seed of this story.
How did you go about writing Only She Came Back? Did you always know how it would conclude or is that something that came to you as you progressed with the story?
I wrote the first 90 pages quickly and then took a break from it for several months while we submitted it to my editor. At that point, I did think the story would end differently. I had a very gruesome midpoint twist planned! (Hint: If you read the book, there is mention of the historical discovery of a treasure hunter’s headless body. My twist would have echoed that.)
But the thing was, while that twist would have been disturbing and taken the book in a more horror direction, it would also have been fairly predictable. When I returned to my outline, I decided I needed more surprising twists, more red herrings, more dead ends. I was happy with how those changes turned out, because they gave me a chance to bring an antagonist character onto the page who was great fun to write!
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Society’s fascination with true crime seems to be continually growing. What do you think it is about this topic that draws people in in the way it does?
The popularity of true crime has exploded thanks to podcasts and online video, but I think the fascination has been with us for a long, long time. In past centuries, before even newspapers became a thing, people would commemorate shocking crimes in “murder ballads.”
A lot of people, especially women, say their true crime fixation is a coping mechanism, a way to deal with their own fears of becoming a victim of violence. For me, and for Sam in my book, that anxiety is definitely a factor. The more I know about worst-case scenarios, the more I have an illusion of being prepared for them (I say “illusion” because I doubt you can ever be truly prepared!).
But I think there’s a second factor: We tend to be fascinated by people who live outside the rules of society, and murderers and other criminals obviously fit the bill. When true crime starts glamorizing people like serial killers, poring over details of their lives and dissecting their motivations, I get really uncomfortable with it. These people aren’t heroes, and their reasons for hurting other people are rarely interesting.
In the book, Sam, the protagonist, previously hosted her own true crime podcast. If you were to start up a podcast of your own, what would it cover?
That’s a great question! I love podcasts, but I don’t think I would start a true crime podcast, because to do it responsibly you have to do a ton of research, more than I have time for. You have to approach it like a journalist (which is my job when I’m not writing novels). Something I do just for fun is review YA books from the 1970s on TikTok, so I think that’s what my podcast would be about. It would be all about wallowing in feel-good nostalgia!
For readers who have loved your books and are looking for more YA thriller reads, are there any 2023 releases you think need a place on their TBR’s?
Speaking of nostalgia, if you remember The Silence of the Lambs, you definitely need to read Some Shall Break by Ellie Marney, the recently released sequel to her None Shall Sleep! These are serial killer procedural thrillers set in the early 1980s, and they’ll keep you awake at night. And speaking of podcasts, April Henry has a new book out, Girl Forgotten, that is all about a high schooler starting her own podcast to solve a cold case. I loved it! I’m also looking forward to And Don’t Look Back by Rebecca Barrow—it sounds like exactly the type of intense psychological thriller I love.
Finally, are you currently working on anything new and if so, is there anything you can tell us about it?
For years I’ve been wanting to write a book set in a fictionalized version of a creepy Vermont landmark called Wilson Castle. It’s a huge, elaborately decorated Victorian mansion—think Shirley Jackson’s Hill House—that I have explored with ghost hunters. (YouTube has videos about paranormal activity there!) I’m drafting a YA horror about some high schoolers who “punish” a guy by luring him into the basement of a similiar house and locking him in the room where two people died decades ago. When they return in the morning, he’s gone—and then worse things happen!
Get your copy of Only She Came Back by Margot Harrison here.