Paula McLain Wrote a Thriller — and This Time, It’s Personal

McLain’s latest main character is Anna Hart, a San Francisco detective who grew up in foster care and is on the run from a mysterious horrific event. She lands in Mendocino, Calif., and is drawn into the search for a girl whose disappearance gives her an unnerving sense of déjà vu. Sexual abuse is a theme; so is the hangover of a rootless childhood.

In an author’s note, McLain explains her decision to set the book in 1993, a time that was “pre-DNA, pre-cellphone, before the internet had exploded and ‘CSI’ had laypeople thinking they could solve a murder with their laptop.” But when she started digging into the research, she realized that there had been real-life abductions in California at that time — including the kidnapping of 12-year-old Polly Klaas from her Petaluma bedroom. McLain weaves Klaas’s tragic story into the novel, reminding the reader of yet another young woman who never had a chance to shine.

Eventually, McLain shared a draft of “When the Stars Go Dark” with a friend who pointed out that she was writing about her childhood. McLain admitted that this novel is “more intimate and tells the truth more than my memoir.”

That memoir was “Like Family” (2003), which described McLain’s experience growing up in other people’s houses. “In a way it’s like a hotel because nothing belongs to you,” she wrote. “It’s all being lent, like library books: the bed, the toothbrush, the bath water, the night-light under the medicine cabinet that will help you recognize your own face at 2 a.m.”

Publishers Weekly described the memoir as a “brave account, evidently cathartic for the author and occasionally difficult for the reader.” McLain’s sister Reed said reading it was “like a shot of whiskey.”

McLain remains fond of “Like Family” but now admits that she hid behind symbolism while writing the most painful chapters of her story. With “When the Stars Go Dark,” she was four drafts in before she shared the manuscript with her publisher.

She worried that her team would think she was “nuts,” she said, to jump off the historical-fiction shelf where she’d made a name for herself. Ballantine’s president Kara Cesare said in a phone interview that she believes McLains’s readers will follow her — and that her candor will pick up new readers as well.

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