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Elly Summers’ first novel, This Never Happened, is full of appalling denials and even worse truths. It begins with a man, accountant Richard Hayes, unable to sleep, remembering the bogeymen that haunted his sister Claire’s bedroom when they were children. Hayes explains his insomnia simply: “The following day I was to give my statement in preparation for Claire’s trial for the murder of her husband.” To help her, Hayes must revisit his youth—while protecting the family from shame and scandal—to corroborate or deny her ramblings about a violent, sexually abusive father and drug-dulled mother. The journey, folded into the present as Claire’s case heads for trial and Richard wrestles with his own crumbling life, isn’t pretty.

Summers, who lives in Frederick, began the book with a dark episode from her own life. “I’ll tell you something,” she teases gently. “The narrative hook, the surface conflict, of This Never Happened is Claire shooting her husband. Well, I was going through a very traumatic divorce at the time, and I’d been in a workshop with [novelist] Tim O’Brien, where I learned that the best way to write fiction is take a real situation and then break off from it. Instead of describing what really happened, ask ‘What if?’ and go from there. So my ‘What if?’ was ‘What if I killed my husband?’”

The novelist got a master’s degree in writing from Johns Hopkins University, where she teaches part-time. She began writing seriously when she was 30. She also attended the lofty Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference for several summers. She wrote two novels and sent them out. They weren’t published. “But with those rejected books,” she explains, “I built up a file of agents who were interested in my work, who in their rejection letters said, ‘You’re a really good writer. I don’t think I can sell this book, but please get in touch with me when you finish another.’” Summers then wrote This Never Happened, and her agent, taken by its psychology of violence and theme of recurring evil, sold the book in four days.

Summers is currently finishing her next novel, Sonny Maxwell Wants Her Babies Back, about a woman who kills her two children. She is, above all, enjoying the best kind of revenge after years of struggle: success. “My ex-husband was in a bookstore—I live in a small town and I heard this from a friend who saw him in the Encore bookstore—and he picked up my book, looked at it, and the sales clerk asked him if he wanted to buy it,” she says. “‘No,’ he replied, ‘I don’t think I’ll get it.’ And there’s this silence, and then he adds, ‘I’m killed on Page 2.’” Summers laughs a laugh that is only a little bit sinister.—Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa