"Anonymous" No Longer
With Buzzed-About Novel’s Release Today, Terp Expands Literary Success
Sarah Pekkanen ’90 wrote her first book when she was 10 years old, in careful cursive on three-ring binder paper. She mailed her handwritten manuscript for “The Lost Gold” to top New York City publishers, and when the mystery novel wasn’t picked up, she remained undeterred.
Decades later, after building a successful career as a solo author of eight novels geared toward women, Pekkanen has expanded her repertoire to include psychological thrillers written with her former editor turned co-author, Greer Hendricks. Their highly anticipated second thriller, “An Anonymous Girl,” was released today, and Entertainment One has already bought the rights to turn the novel, about a young woman involved in a psychological study, into a TV series; the co-authors are serving as executive producers on the project.
“The Wife Between Us,” their debut novel, was released in January 2018 and spent three months on The New York Times’ bestseller list. It was optioned for film by Steven Spielberg’s production company, with Pekkanen and Hendricks writing the screenplay.
Long before the movie deals and bestseller, however, Pekkanen earned her degree at the University of Maryland in journalism, which she says prepared her for success as a novelist. Professor Carl Sessions Stepp, who she called “the most supportive, wonderful, encouraging professor,” assigned readings on narrative storytelling by Professor Emeritus and Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Franklin. “That class helped me realize I could combine writing with an actual paying job, utilizing the storytelling techniques I first learned at UMD,” Pekkanen said. “Franklin’s work provided me with a bridge into journalism and back to writing novels.”
After graduating, Pekkanen worked at newspapers and wire services, writing everything from police blotter notes to feature-length investigative pieces. She also covered Capitol Hill before having her first child and becoming a freelancer. With the arrival of her second of three boys, Pekkanen left journalism, although she found herself missing the act of writing. “I felt like my best friend had moved away,” she said.
One night, she sat down and began typing what would become her first novel, “The Opposite of Me.” “There’s a lot of freedom in writing novels,” said Pekkanen. “It all develops within your mind, so it feels almost like different parts of the brain are activated. With journalism, you’re so concerned about the facts and the accuracy and writing tightly.”
She’s told the stories of twin sisters, old college friends, high school sweethearts and roommates in the big city—the stories of women of all ages and the lives they lead. Many of the novels became international bestsellers in countries such as China, Australia, Spain and Russia.
It was the partnership with Hendricks that solidified her leap from women’s fiction to suspenseful thrillers. Both women have a deep interest in psychology and studied the subject extensively during their college careers. “It was something that gripped us both, and that’s the avenue we want to continue in,” Pekkanen said.
Because they live in different cities (Pekkanen is outside D.C., and Hendricks lives in New York City), the women write in a shared document while bouncing ideas off each other on the phone—a contemporary leap from her youthful writing with a pencil and paper. Through their collaborative process, they’ve developed a deep friendship. “I absolutely love writing with her,” said Pekkanen. “We are partners for life.”
“Sarah is an amazing writing partner for so many reasons,” Hendricks said. “She’s a great writer and we have a magical synergy to our work. She makes me feel safe creatively—I never worry that any of my ideas are too crazy.”
“An Anonymous Girl,” in advance of its publication, has already been listed as People magazine’s “Book of the Week,” Marie Claire’s “Best Women’s Fiction of 2019 (So Far)” and Amazon’s “Best of January: Mysteries & Thrillers.” Library Journal gave it a starred review, saying, “For those who relished the creepy stalking in Hendricks and Pekkanen’s ‘The Wife Between Us,’ this unnerving tale will have them rethinking what secrets are safe to share and if morals and ethics really matter when protecting the ones you love.”
Despite commitments to a book tour and movie and television deals, the two women are already working on their third novel for St. Martin’s Press.