Skip to main content

Interview: September 10, 2020

Caroline B. Cooney is the author of more than 90 suspense, mystery and romance novels for teens, including THE FACE ON THE MILK CARTON, which has sold over three million copies and was made into a television movie starring Kellie Martin. Her latest thriller, BEFORE SHE WAS HELEN (which is aimed primarily at adults), brings decades-old secrets to life and explores what happens when the lie you've been living falls apart and you're forced to confront the truth.

In this interview, conducted by reviewer Rebecca Munro, Cooney explains her inspiration for writing the book and why she set it in a gated retirement community; offers some insight into her protagonist Clemmie, a tiny but spunky senior citizen who has managed to pull off a hidden identity for over 50 years; and reveals what she is working on next. Cooney is keeping herself quite busy these days, which is sure to please her countless fans! You've written more than 90 books, most of them aimed at young adults, though your career started in adult fiction. What made you choose to return to writing for adults now?

Caroline B. Cooney: When I moved to a retirement community, it was so fascinating to me that I knew I had to write books set here, about people like me --- in their 70s and 80s. It was time. I was more than a half-century older than my YA readers.

BRC: Was there something in particular that drew you to write BEFORE SHE WAS HELEN?

CBC: Don’t you ever wonder what it would be like to vanish from one’s life and take up a new one? How would you pull it off? Who would you be? Clemmie not only becomes a different person --- she pulls off a hidden identity for over 50 years. She deserves a medal in identity change!

BRC: The novel is set in a gated retirement community where everyone knows everyone else --- or at least plays cards with them --- but your characters rarely talk about their pasts, leaving large swaths of their lives unknown by their neighbors. Can you talk about your book’s setting and what drew you to it?

CBC: I live here! Right in Sun City. Only a few blocks from Clemmie’s house. I play cards and mah jong and do pottery in the same club house she does. The setting was irresistible. I just hope all my Sun City friends are okay with it.

BRC: We know from the title and description alone that your main character, Clementine, has not always been who she says she is now. What can you tell us about the Clemmie we meet at the start of the book and what challenges she is facing at this point in her life?

CBC: Clemmie does not perceive a single challenge in her life. She has her ducks all in a row. She lives in a marvelous place, has loads of activities and friends, a job she loves, a home she’s proud of. But she makes a mistake. She succumbs to curiosity --- and the challenges begin to mount.

BRC: Clemmie is a tiny senior citizen who loves walks and playing cards with her best friends, but she is not the cookie-cutter "old lady" character readers might initially expect. How do you flesh out your characters to keep them fully realized and developed, especially after so many years of writing?

CBC: The people in my books are real to me, and they already have flesh. They are individuals who occupy my mind and my house, and I have the privilege of writing about them. If you think of the people in your story as fictional --- as characters --- you will never flesh them out.

BRC: At the beginning of the novel, Clemmie discovers a gorgeous glass sculpture in her neighbor's home that she eventually realizes is a piece of drug paraphernalia. Her discovery sends her reeling and also highlights the seedier parts of her community. What made you choose this particular element for your book? I learned a lot from your descriptions of the marijuana trade. How did you do your research?

CBC: My son is a glass artist. He uses a technique called lamp work or flamework. He makes beautiful beads, urns, vases and pipes. So I didn’t research a thing. I asked my son.

BRC: At the same time that Clemmie's community is becoming involved in a murder investigation, a decades-old cold case is being reopened, and you reveal her involvement in that case in alternating passages. What made you choose to format the book this way?

CBC: A story involving the passage of many years necessarily involves flashbacks. They’re difficult to write, but your main goal is not to make them difficult to read. It takes a lot of work to set up a story so the chronology is suspenseful and clear in both plots.

BRC: As Clemmie recalls her childhood and the dark secrets of her past, she often remarks on how it was "back then," back when people were trusting and didn't rely on cell phones for everything. But she also notes the progress we've made since then, particularly when it comes to consent and believing victims. What do you hope your readers will take away from these comparisons?

CBC: I often read books written by younger authors (which is to say, practically all of them by now!) in which they wrongly assume that people of previous generations felt, acted, believed, sacrificed and hoped for the same things that they do. But a mere half-century can present a vast chasm in thought and deed. I wanted to make clear some of the huge differences between my upbringing and thought and that of my younger readers.

BRC: When she is not investigating murders and drug rings or playing cards, Clemmie fosters her lifelong love of Latin by teaching at a local school. You write about her feelings for the language with such passion and warmth. Is this also an interest of yours? If not, what made it feel right for Clemmie?

CBC: I loved high school Latin, and when I turned 50 and thought What have I not yet done? I decided to go back to school and relearn Latin. I took courses at four colleges over a decade’s span, and also took ancient Greek, which I foolishly thought would be easy. I was not particularly good at either language, but I loved them and loved English vocabulary even more for knowing roots and derivations.

BRC: We don't often see senior citizens leading the charge of mystery and suspense fiction. Clemmie is vibrant and witty, but she also uses her age to her advantage by faking "senior moments" when she needs some time to think and evaluate her options. Was it fun writing a senior citizen as a main character? Did you find the experience freeing or challenging?

CBC: You don’t need to fake senior moments at my age! What you need is a bunch of senior friends with whom you share these ridiculous and scary moments. That’s one of the benefits of living here in Sun City. We giggle all the time about our senior moments. Or senior hours, as the case may be.

BRC: With so much mystery and intrigue, it seems hard to believe, but BEFORE SHE WAS HELEN is full of humor, too. Clemmie herself has a very funny way of looking at life, but you also seem to poke fun at her well-meaning but often nosy neighbors. Was it difficult to infuse humor into a book about murder? Do you and Clemmie share a similar sense of humor?

CBC: I’m hoping my Sun City friends also think it’s funny. This book is entirely made up. It is not based on a single real person, and it refers to no real events, but some readers don’t accept that --- they believe a story must be based on somebody real. It’s actually a compliment. Your reader is so sure the book is real that they see themselves.

BRC: Will you continue writing for adults with your next book? Can you tell us anything about what you are working on now?

CBC: My next book is TRAPPING FREDDY. It will come out in 2021. It is not about Helen, but I am in fact finishing up another Helen. I couldn’t resist her. I’m hoping to write lots of adult mysteries. I have a fourth that’s shaping up on the side. I think you can tell I absolutely love to write. I am hoping to hear from you all when you’ve read BEFORE SHE WAS HELEN.