Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The accidental YA writer

by April Henry

After publishing five novels for adults, I didn’t really set out to write books for teens. I just had an idea for a great book, but the main character needed to be a teen, because it was about an evil overseas boot camp. I’d read Nathan’s Run - which features a 12-year-old - and that was a book for adults. I figured the book that eventually became Shock Point would be another book for adults that featured a character who wasn’t quite one yet.

I hadn’t even noticed that YA lit was exploding in popularity and quality. So when Shock Point - my sixth book - was published as a YA, I ended up with a foot in both worlds:  writing for both adults and teens.

Real life inspires a story
Today, my 12th book, The Night She Disappeared, is publishing.  It’s also my fourth book for teens.  It was inspired by a real case. About thirty years ago, a pizza delivery girl disappeared. Her car was found with the keys still in the ignition and her purse on the seat. Scattered around the car were pizza boxes. The girl was nowhere to be found.

At some point, it came out that the killer had originally asked for a different girl, a girl who drove an orange Volkswagen. Told that she wasn’t working that night, he took the girl who was making deliveries.

I always wondered what it would be like to be the girl who drove the orange Volkswagen. How would it feel to know that you had been marked for death, that it was just chance that you were still walking around and your co-worker wasn’t?

When I started playing around with the idea, I looked at the old case. It had been covered on that old TV show, Unsolved Mysteries.  I even bought a VHS tape from e-Bay. It was Unsolved Mysteries, Psychics. They hired the same actress to play the victim as well as the girl the psychic supposedly saw in his visions about the case.  (When he was brought to the place where they found her car, he solemnly intoned that he could sense that something bad had happened there. Well, duh. The cops told you that at that spot her car was found abandoned with pizza boxes scattered on the ground.)

There’s a bizarre twist involving the psychic that actually happened in the real case.  I can’t say what it is without giving away some of the plot.

Adding my own take
Of course, the real case and the book differ dramatically.  It was just the springboard for my imagination.

Like the three main characters - Gabie, Drew and Kayla - I worked at a pizza parlor during high school, which is how I know that behind the scenes the sausage is called “Alpo.”  The green peppers were dehydrated and mixed with water, which as you can imagine did not result in anything that resembled real green peppers.  And in the book and in real life, when a worker once found a piece of glass in a giant can of mushrooms, rather than throwing them out, the manager offered a bonus to anyone who volunteered to paw through them looking for more pieces of glass.

Drew, one of the main characters in the book, relies on a longboard for transportation.  My daughter was a skater until 8th grade, when she broke her wrist dropping in.

I wanted the book to have kind a true-crime feel to it, though, so I made it like a collage.  There’s a transcript of a police interrogation, a missing poster, the pizza order that started it all, and even a note written in blood.  I critiqued an earlier version of the bloody note and the graphic artist made some changes to make it look more real (although she passed on my idea that I could prick my finger and write the note myself).


  1. wow - this sounds fantastic, April! Congrats! I, too, wonder what went through the mind of the girl in the orange Volkswagon, and how often she still thinks of how close she came to a killer.

  2. April, such a clever premise! though you may have ruined pizza for all of us...off to tweet this happy release day!

  3. April, great post. Makes me want to read it NOW. Order pizza? Maybe less so. When I met my husband he was working at one of the country's first Dominoes. I always told him it was the smell of pizza that made me fall in love. Anyway, I'm eager to read it..and will perhaps buy it for my daughter headed on Spring Break...

  4. Wishing you the very best on pub day and those to come. This sounds like an intriguing story and one that will resonate with readers because of the two main ingredients: an iconic car and America's favorite food. Yum!

    1. The car ended up getting changed to a Mini Cooper - iconic in another way. And probably just as cute as a Volkswagen was 30 years ago.

  5. Happy pub day, April. One day late. Both sound amazing.

  6. Until you hit "evil overseas boot camp," this could be me, April!