Q&A: Novelist Cooney on Switching Between YA and Adult and Writing Real Characters

“I always set out to write [characters] as people, not paper dolls. They’re always real to me,” Cooney continues. “This is the first in what I hope will be a long stretch of adult mysteries."

Caroline CooneyThe first thing to fall into place when author Caroline B. Cooney began writing her novel, Before She Was Helen (Poisoned Pen: Sourcebooks, Sept.) was setting. A Connecticut native who now lives in a retirement community in South Carolina, Cooney simply had to look around her to find the perfect locale. 

“For years I could only find my house by pressing my garage opener,” she says, adding, “The Sun City in the book is the same as where I live.” Sun City’s fanciful street names and identical houses are straight out of real life, but the characters are “100 percent fiction,” Cooney says. “I’m hoping I can still live here when the book comes out.” 

As she began considering her community for a setting, the author wondered if the residents could be as anonymous as the houses of Sun City. “There’s over 4,000 people here—somebody’s got to have a shady background,” she says. Her protagonist isn’t shady, but she is living under an assumed name. 

Before She Was HelenClemmie has been hiding out ever since the man who raped and stalked her was murdered more than 50 years ago. The story moves between past and present, when Clemmie mistakenly attracts the attention of an angry drug dealer who was robbed, tries to locate a missing neighbor, and learns that the long-ago murder case is being reopened.

Cooney started her career with two adult mysteries, but found her footing when she switched to YA (The Face on the Milk Carton). “I’m on another threshold,” she says about her move back to writing for—and about—adults after penning more than 90 teen novels. Her new characters are as compelling as her teen protagonists,  reveling in trenchant, often amusing observations about society back in the day as opposed to how things are now. Nowadays, everybody loves their cell phones almost like pets; now nobody is as trusting as they were in the past. Then, nobody would believe a teenager if she accused the beloved basketball coach of rape. Cooney says she had many more observations like that in her first draft, but her daughter, who’s her “lifelong first reader,” counseled her to “give it a rest, so I cut a lot.”

Clemmie, her neighbors, and her friends are not your typical cutesy old dears, nor are they bad-ass grannies and granddads. “Clemmie isn’t brave or strong, but when she gets into [a] catastrophe she gets out of it. She’s a very ladylike, good person,” Cooney says.

“I always set out to write [characters] as people, not paper dolls. They’re always real to me,” Cooney continues. “This is the first in what I hope will be a long stretch of adult mysteries. I finished another mystery, not about Clemmie, for Sourcebooks, and I’m considering another book about her—this area is still intriguing to me.” Unlike the same houses in her neighborhood, Cooney’s mysteries differ from each other, which is fortunate for her fans who have grown up reading her books—and for new readers as well.

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