September 08, 2020

‘I love plots where good people face bad choices.’

Behind the Book by
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Caroline B. Cooney is a beloved and award-winning author of books for children and young adults. Though she’s always written thrillers and mysteries, her latest release is her first for an adult audience. In this essay, she explains why the twisty tale of Clemmie Lakefield prompted her to make the switch.

I once wrote a book called The Face on the Milk Carton, in which a young teenager recognizes herself on a missing child poster. How can she find out her history without destroying the family who brought her up? In that book and its sequels, Janie has made none of the decisions that put her in this situation; she is stuck with the choices of others.

But suppose you are 20 when things go wrong for you. A grown-up. You make a shocking decision to live your life as a different person under a different name. Suppose you pull this off for half a century. Think of the pain and loss, danger and anxiety! You give up family and background and friendships. Why? Because you did something so awful, that’s your only escape? Or did somebody else commit some terrible act? Or is it a combination of both?

I love plots where good people face bad choices. But for whom would I write this story? My YA readers couldn’t care less what a 70-something, semiretired Latin teacher might be up to. My readers would figure that she’s dead already, or might as well be. So, I made the exciting decision to switch from YA to adult mystery. And what a good time I am having.

Luckily, I was living in just the right setting: Sun City, a retirement community. The similarity of houses is unnerving. For a long time, I could find my own house only by clicking the automatic garage door opener to see which door went up. Sun City is remarkable for its friendliness. Show up at a club, a meeting or a game and you’re part of it. Nobody cares about your background. They may ask where you’re from, but then they move on to important things: Can you be club secretary? Are you free for pinochle? Not only is your house anonymous—so are your new friends. They might summarize their entire career by saying, “I was in marketing. Listen, are you trying out for the play?” And if they do ask about your background, you could say anything. Who’s to know? You could delete part of your life or add to it. And out of 3,000 residents, at least one is bound to have a shady background. Might as well be you.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Before She Was Helen.

Your name in Sun City, and for the last 50 years, is Helen. You’re a good neighbor. Like many good neighbors here, you check on others routinely: people who may have had a fall, for example. And what if you go next door to check on your annoying and unpleasant neighbor because he is not answering the daily text you send at his request? And what if you go into that house and make an extraordinary discovery? You take a photo of it on your cell phone.

My age group loves cell phones and we use them constantly, but some of us have little grasp of what we’re doing and what our phones are capable of. So that’s our subplot: You get it wrong. And you know what? You’re cooked. Because you send this photograph to young people. After all, it’s cool and you rarely have anything cool for show or tell. You have forgotten that today’s photograph is forwarded, sometimes indefinitely.

And because what you photographed turns out to be stolen, somebody somewhere is going to notify the police. And you have left your fingerprints in that house. The fingerprints will tell the truth. You were somebody else before you were Helen.

But who?

And why?

And can you save her?

Or are you and the person you were before you became Helen going to be destroyed?

Caroline B. Cooney

Get the Book

Before She Was Helen

Before She Was Helen

By Caroline B. Cooney
Poisoned Pen Press
ISBN 9781728205120

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