Can you imagine how a mother would feel if her only daughter went missing? How she would feel, six years later, if the child still hadn’t been found? Author Marlene Adelstein took on these questions in her debut thriller, SOPHIE LAST SEEN.
Jesse Albright is a grief-stricken, self-destructive mess. Her daughter, Sophie would be 16 now, and Jesse haunts the mall where Sophie disappeared—where for only a minute or two—she took her eyes off her daughter. The guilt is unbearable. Every scrap of discarded paper or bit of rock seems to carry a clue as to where Sophie is, to the point that she hoards trash by the boxful. Her marriage has fallen apart, but she won’t give up on her daughter.
Sophie’s best friend, Star Silverman, begins work at her father’s bookstore, where Jesse also works, and an uncomfortable alliance begins. Sophie’s disappearance haunts Star as well, and she hides her own secrets that may hold the key to Sophie’s whereabouts. Tension builds to a boiling point as these two wounded souls come together to discover the truth.
New York Times bestselling author Beth Hoffman says SOPHIE LAST SEEN is “a gripping tale of heartbreak and eternal hope.” USA Today bestselling author Alison Gaylin calls it “unique, mysterious, and thoroughly absorbing.”
The Big Thrill caught up with Adelstein to learn more about her engrossing story.
“I was inspired years ago by a real life case of a missing boy, Etan Patz, who disappeared from Soho in New York City in 1979,” Adelstein says. She’d recently moved to New York and had seen flyers with the little boy’s photo. “He was never found, and I always thought about his mother, whom you didn’t see too often in the news.”
The case became a jumping off point for this story and a mother’s grief became a major theme. “There are different kinds of grief, and when there is no body, no answer to what happened to someone, it’s even harder or more complicated for the bereaved.”
Adelstein didn’t set out to write a thriller.
“I wanted to tell the story of a mother whose daughter went missing, and how she needed to deal with her grief to move on with her life. The mystery/thriller elements grew as I developed these characters who were harboring secrets about that day. I also liked the idea of Sophie leading her mother on with clues,” she says.
“Originally, I hadn’t planned to solve the mystery of what happened to Sophie. I wanted a more open-ended feel. I had thought that would be all the more difficult for the mother character. The publisher convinced me that the readers would be unhappy reaching the end of the book without finding out what happened, and I think they were right.”
More inspiration came from missing children posters. “I wanted my missing child to not be as she appeared on the surface, from that photo. More secrets and mystery,” she says.
Adelstein imagines her stories unfolding “like a movie, scene by scene,” thanks to her background in film development and writing screenplays.
“I’m a plotter. I do a big outline, chapter by chapter,” she says. “Of course, the plot changes as I get to know the characters. The first version takes a long time. I make notes, take walks, and think how this story might unfold—the hard part, since there are so many ways a story might go. No right or wrong paths, just paths to a better story.”
Adelstein’s research took her into the many dimensions of grief and issues related to special needs and gifted children. She also researched and observed birds, Sophie’s obsessive interest in the book.
“I wanted Sophie to have some special abilities or gifts, and I wanted her issues to be hard to diagnose,” she says. “I found a wonderful book that called kids like her ‘spirited.’ I liked that for Sophie and came to think of her that way.”
This story’s voice is memorable. “Because the book is in Jesse’s and Star’s points of view, close third in alternating chapters both voices had to be right,” Adelstein says. “Jesse is brooding, angry, and sad. She carries secrets. Star’s issues are similar, but through a 16-year-old’s brain. Star was harder, since I’m not around teens very often.”
Parenting, divorce, alcoholism, hoarding, and social acceptance are other themes. “I tried to let the characters and their own situations reveal the issues. My characters voice questions I thought the reader might have.”
Adelstein hopes readers will feel for Jesse and Star, but also be surprised with the outcome.
“I want them to learn there is no time limit on grief or right or wrong way to grieve, and that making art can be therapeutic. I want them to feel like they read a good story.”
Next up for Adelstein is a story about murder in a community of mediums—people who channel the dead—as well as a humorous mystery about a woman technophobe who inherits a house from an old lady that hated her.
Meanwhile, the feedback on SOPHIE LAST SEEN has been “very positive,” she says. “People like it and find Jesse’s journey satisfying. It makes me quite happy!”
Formerly a feature film executive working for Hollywood producers, Marlene now earns her living as a freelance book editor. In her spare time she works on her own writing. She has been awarded residencies to many artist colonies including The Macdowell Colony, Yaddo, The Wurlitzer Foundation, Fundacion Valpairiso, and MacNamara Foundation. Her short stories and personal essays have appeared in a number of literary journals and blogs, most recently: Longreads.com; Manifestation.com; Rewireme.com.
To learn more about Marlene, please visit her website.