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A Sickness Spreads, A Parent Dies, And A Mystery Unfolds In 'For Your Own Good'

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

At an elite private school, the parents are overbearing. The kids are entitled. And the teachers are locked in bitter rivalries. But when people start to get mysteriously sick and one student's parent ends up dead at a campus event, things get complicated fast. In bestselling author Samantha Downing's new thriller "For Your Own Good," everyone is hiding something. And it's going to be a very bumpy school year. She joins us now. Welcome to the program.

SAMANTHA DOWNING: Thank you so much for having me. That was an amazing intro to the book.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, there's so much there. It's hard to distill it. But I got to tell you I love books set in private schools because they are such delicious places to explore. Tell me why you invented the Belmont Academy.

DOWNING: I'm from California. So I have never gone to a school in the Northeast like this. But there's always been a bit of a mystique about them. It's one of those far-off things that I saw in movies and on TV. And I wanted to imagine what it would be like to go to such a school. So I just created one.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. And at the heart of this novel is Teddy Crutcher, who has just won teacher of the year. He teaches high school English. And he thinks rather a lot of himself.

DOWNING: He does. He does think a lot of himself and of his teaching ability. And he is very sure about what the students need to learn. And if everybody would just get out of his way, that would be great.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Indeed. He often takes a dislike to students whom he sees as sort of too popular or entitled. I mean, just to give a sense of his character, tell us about how he boasts about writing a recommendation letter for a very bright student that he intensely dislikes and the aftermath of that. I think it'll give a real sense of his character.

DOWNING: Yes, he has decided one of his students has taken a privileged route through school and through her career. So when it comes to writing a letter for her, he accuses her of cheating. And in his mind, she has cheated. She has skirted the rules to get through. And that is not OK with him. Teddy is not rich and did not go to a school like this. So he has a real problem with students that get away with these kind of things.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And he essentially sort of ruins her prospects for getting into an Ivy League school...

DOWNING: Absolutely.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Which is what everyone wants. I mean, you really capture the dynamics at play here. Let's talk about class because one of the things about these kind of microcosms in these very elite spaces is that yes, while the students are rich and the parents are rich, you know, teachers like Teddy Crutcher aren't.

DOWNING: Exactly. And it's a very strange juxtaposition for everybody involved. There are some teachers at the school who did attend Belmont Academy and go on to teach there and may have come from money. And there are some teachers that are just teachers and have all different kinds of backgrounds like Teddy. So I can only imagine what it would be like and - which is what I was trying to imagine what it would be like to be a teacher in a school like that, where the students are already so far beyond you. They have connections. They have money. They have everything going for them. And you have to teach them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And there are rivalries among the teachers, among the parents, among the students. But you're most, I think, sympathetic in this book to the students. You really show how they're under pressure from all the adults in their lives.

DOWNING: Yes. And that is really how I imagine high school. When I think about high school, I think about a time when what you're doing, really, is navigating around all the adults in your life and what they want from you. And you learn for the first time that you have to act different in front of different people. You have to act different in front of your teachers, your parents, your coaches, whatever adults are influencing you, the same way today as adults, we're different people at work than we are at home with our family. And you learn that in high school.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are a lot of twists and turns here, obviously, since it's a thriller. And I don't want to give too much away. But plant-based poisons...

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Take a starring role, along with the ubiquitous coffee pods people drink in schools.

DOWNING: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you come up with that?

DOWNING: Well, the coffee pod idea came - I was in a hotel and they had a little single-serve coffee machine with some coffee pods. And I was thinking, wow. It would be so easy for someone to do something to these pods. I don't know where they come from. I don't know who's touched them. It's a little weird. I guess that's an odd thought, perhaps, to have. But coffee pods are just a perfect way to deliver something to someone they didn't expect, I suppose.

And poison - I really liked the idea that poisons, for the most part, are used by women, by female killers. And I loved the idea of men getting involved with that - so that a man would choose that method because it's so nonviolent, and you're so removed from the effects of it. They can happen hours or days later when you're poisoning someone.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, is that the burden of being a writer, that you're at a hotel, and you're looking at coffee pods, and you're thinking, huh, that'll be a really good way to kill someone?

(LAUGHTER)

DOWNING: Absolutely. I said that. I actually said that. At the time, I was still working a regular job and said that to someone at work when I saw the coffee pods at work. And they just looked at me and said, what is wrong with you?

(LAUGHTER)

DOWNING: I don't know. I just don't know.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And this is a perfect summer book. I mean, do you get insulted by the term beach read? Does it diminish the work? Because I see this as a really good book to take with you, you know, when you're sort of wanting to be engrossed and entertained.

DOWNING: No, I think it's fine. I don't get offended by it at all. I think - I like books that I'm engrossed by. I can't help but turn the page. And I want to fly through it. And I carry it with me when I go to the bathroom because I can't stand to put it down. That's the kind of book I read. And that's the kind of book I would like to write. So whatever you call those - page-turners - I don't know. That's what I want to be.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Samantha Downing's new thriller is called "For Your Own Good." Thank you very much.

DOWNING: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.