Many years ago, I was walking through La Guardia Airport. The concourse was plastered with copies of a homemade missing child poster. Each poster had a little black and white photo of a very small child who had been missing for 15 years. All I could think of were those parents. They got up that morning, with their homemade posters and their rolls of scotch tape and drove into LaGuardia - still hoping, after 15 years, that of the tens of thousands of people who would walk by, one would recognize the picture of their little girl and tell the parents where she is now.
But of course that cannot happen. No one can recognize a child in her teens from her toddler picture. Those parents would never find their daughter. I got on the plane weeping for them when I thought: Actually, there is one person who would recognize the picture - the little girl herself.
The writer in me took over.
What a chilling exciting plot! You recognize yourself on a missing child picture. But what if you have a great family, and you love them? If you accuse your mother and father of being your kidnappers, your family will be destroyed by the courts and the media. But if you don't tell, what about that other family, still out there worrying?
This became The Face on the Milk Carton.
It was a stand-alone book, about a girl named Janie, whose happy life comes to a wrenching stop when she picks up a tiny milk carton in the school cafeteria and sees herself featured as the missing child. Face on the Milk Carton does not end tidily, because I wanted to keep the reader worrying, just the way that real life family had to keep worrying.
I never meant to write about Janie again, but every two or three years, I would think of another suspense plot involving Janie, and her boyfriend Reeve, and so I'd write a sequel. When I had written four books: The Face on the Milk Carton, Whatever Happened to Janie?, The Voice on the Radio and What Janie Found, Janie's story was over.
Last year, my Random House editor Beverly Horowitz, said, "What are Janie and Reeve doing now? They're adults. How did they turn out? What are they doing with their lives?"
I was swept back into the lives of all my Face on the Milk Carton kids - the brothers and sisters, the friends and classmates. Move them up several years, and now who were they? They were in college or had their first jobs. Had they turned out to be good people? Had some of them taken a wrong turn? Were they still friends?
It was like having a second chance to be a good parent - the way, in fact, all four of Janie's parents have chances, and do not always choose well. Janie and Reeve leaped out of the pages I was writing as if they had been waiting for me, all of us having a wonderful time.
My readers had been demanding two plot lines for years: they wanted Janie and Reeve to get married. They wanted the kidnapper to get hers.
Well, who doesn't love a wedding? I definitely wanted to write about a wedding. But should it be Janie's to Reeve?
As for the kidnapper, the woman was offstage in the first four because what mattered was how her victims survived her vicious criminal act. In book four, What Janie Found, I skated close to a confrontation between Janie and the kidnapper, when Janie discovers a shocking piece of information about her "kidnap" father, and I couldn't use that plot line again.
How much scarier then, if the kidnapper, bitter and desperate after staying in hiding so many years, decides to find Janie instead, and finish what she started when Janie was three - wrecking a life and two families.
Janie Face to Face is definitely the final Janie book. People ask what it is like to say good-bye to characters with whom I've lived for so long. But it isn't good-bye.
I've written 91 novels. That's a lot of characters. Most of them vanish from my thoughts when the book is complete. But some stay alive, occupying a mysterious layer of the heart and mind. They may lie quietly, almost out of sight, or they may trundle along, having dialogues and conflicts and pizza. My mind is populated with nonexistent teenagers. I used to worry about it, but I'm used to it now, and I seem to present a normal façade to others.
Writing a fifth Janie book meant that everyone in her life leaped up in my mind, little resurrected teenagers racing around telling me what they'd been doing all this time, and how college was, and what they hoped would happen in their lives. It was like a family reunion.
I think my readers will feel the same.