In 2014, Samantha Bailey was led into a small, gritty prison cell of whitewashed brick and stainless steel bars. A dank toilet sat near a musty, uncomfortable bed. An officer threw shut the heavy door, its echoing clang lasting a few seconds, while Bailey observed her surroundings. The moment terrified her more than she thought it would. She assumed she’d be there a while, but being claustrophobic, she couldn’t last more than 20 seconds. She banged on the door – and the officer let her out.
“It felt like I was there for an hour,” the author says over coffee in the lobby of Toronto’s busy reference library on a chilly November afternoon. The holding cell visit was organized by a friend of hers, a Toronto cop, who also picked her up in a squad car, fingerprinted her and treated her like a suspect for a day.
It was all part of her research strategy for her debut thriller, Woman on the Edge, published this month by Simon & Schuster.
The book’s premise is simple: the narrator sees a woman standing on the edge of a subway platform in Chicago. The stranger turns around, hands the narrator her baby, inexplicably whispers the narrator’s name and jumps in front of an oncoming train.
The idea came to Bailey in 2013 during an afternoon commute in Toronto, when she saw a new mother looking ragged on the yellow warning line of a subway station platform. She recalls wondering what the woman was thinking, and suddenly imagined being handed the baby out of desperation and depression.
Bailey then spent years writing and rewriting the novel based on friends’ suggestions, before pitching it to agents and rewriting it again. She felt the story was stronger than the chick-lit novels she self-published years before and was confident someone would be interested – and she was right.
Bailey began writing creatively at the age of 10. Her mother was a book publicist and her father is Rabbi Michael Stroh, the founding rabbi of Temple Har Zion in Thornhill, Ont. Between the two of them, “I grew up surrounded by books,” she says. “They let me read anything I wanted.” Woman on the Edge is dedicated to them both.
At age 10, she wrote a short story that her mother offered to help her pitch to a publisher. They wrote a letter and mailed it off, earning Bailey, weeks later, her first official letter of rejection. But the process sparked something within her. She recalls thinking, as a child, “I want this so much, and I’ll never give up.”
Throughout her teen years, she wrote dark stories in her bedroom inspired by her own fears. “My fear of something happening, to me or to somebody I love, makes me want to acquire all the information I can get,” she says.
That’s how she found herself, decades later, willingly locked up in a holding cell, freaking out after 20 seconds of captivity. Woman on the Edge may be a thriller, but at its core, it encapsulates Bailey’s thoughts, feelings and anxieties about the pressure of being a modern mother.
“It does deal with postpartum depression,” she says. “It deals with feminism, it deals with friendship and love and all these things that women experience.”