Thriller author David Baldacci’s new children’s fantasy series began with a journal that his wife, Michelle, gave him on Christmas Day 2008. It wasn’t the first time the author found inspiration in a diary. “When I was a kid, my mother bought me a journal – just to shut me up, since I talked nonstop about everything,” he explained. “And that’s when I started writing. When I received the journal from my wife five years ago, I immediately fled to my home office, opened to the first page, and wrote the name ‘Vega Jane.’ For me, ‘Vega’ has always been a cool name, since it represents a star. And ‘Jane’ is a typical British last name. I decided to write a story from a British perspective, since I love all things Brit. And I decided it would be a fantasy. That’s all that I knew at the beginning.”

Baldacci, whose adult thrillers have more than 110 million copies in print worldwide, is venturing onto new fictional turf with The Finisher, due from Scholastic Press on March 4. The novel centers on 14-year-old Vega Jane, who fights to do what’s right after discovering that her village of Wormwood is built on dangerous lies. She is determined to uncover the truth, but the closer she gets, the more she risks her life.

After almost four years and a good deal of research, Baldacci finally found the right voice, plot, and time frame for The Finisher. “I reread some of my favorite fantasies and read books on mythology, religion, and ancient worlds,” he said. “I also researched old English and British slang. But it wasn’t until June 2012 that everything clicked for me. I suddenly knew who Vega was, and knew the story’s setting and direction. I decided to leave the time frame a little ambiguous – it could be long, long ago or it could be post-apocalypse.”

Baldacci found delving into a fantasy world freeing. “As a thriller writer, I am earthbound, and I wanted to leave behind the real world and let my imagination run,” he said. “It was very liberating to not have to adhere to strict realism. Yet with fantasy you can’t throw away all the rules. Things still have to make sense and be logical. I didn’t want to suddenly pluck special powers out of the air and give them to Vega when she needed them – she had to earn them.”

A Clandestine Proposal

Baldacci also departed from his usual modus operandi when it came to finding a publisher for The Finisher. He asked his agent, Aaron Priest of the Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency, to submit the proposal under the pseudonym Janus Pope. “I wanted an editor to consider buying the book for the story, not the name behind it, just because I’ve been successful in another arena,” said the author. “I guess it certainly surprised Rachel.”

“Rachel” is Rachel Griffiths, Scholastic Press executive editor. “I almost fell out of my chair when I found out David was the author,” says Griffiths who, as editor of Baldacci’s Day of Doom (2013), the final book of The 39 Clues: Cahills vs. Vespers series is familiar with his writing. When Priest initially phoned the editor about the book, he told her it was written by a “big author,” but refused to divulge the writer’s identity.

When she read the manuscript, Griffiths recalled, she was “immediately swept away” by the story and especially by Vega Jane, whom she called “a fascinating and fun character with such grit and determination that I couldn’t walk away from her.” But she ruled out Baldacci as author. “I was convinced that the author was British, since all the British slang, phrases, and syntax were just right.”

When Griffiths called Priest to say that Scholastic wanted to make an offer, the agent finally fessed up. “One of the things that is so exciting to me about this book is that David, one of the most beloved writers of thrillers, can put on another hat and wear it so stylishly,” she said. “This is writing no one has ever before seen from him. It’s clear that he can write fantasy with authority and depth. Yet it has trademarks of his other fiction – nonstop action, danger, and humor.”

The Finisher will have an announced first printing of 350,000 copies. Scholastic’s marketing campaign for the novel includes a promotional video series available on YouTube and social media platforms, online and mobile advertising, a retail floor display, and a national satellite TV and radio author tour.

Sony Pictures Entertainment has optioned film rights in a deal closed by Columbia Pictures production president Hannah Minghella and production v-p Lauren Abrahams, with Priest and Lucy Stille at Paradigm Talent Agency. “She [Minghella] grew up in England and really got the story, and said they’d been looking for a story like this for a long time,” Baldacci said. “To whatever extent they want me to be involved in the movie, I’d be glad to work with them and give them any help they’d like.”

Baldacci, whose dedication to The Finisher reads, “To Rachel Griffiths, thanks for taking a chance on a writer named Janus Pope,” is currently writing a sequel, and expects additional books about Vega Jane to follow.

“I haven’t been this excited about a book since my first novel,” Baldacci wrote in a note to readers in an ARC of The Finisher. Asked to elaborate, he told PW, “I’m heading into a new phase of my life, since next year my wife and I will be empty nesters. It’s almost as if I’m returning to an earlier phase. Before I wrote thrillers, I spent 10 years writing short stories. I still love writing thrillers, but fantasy is very new and fresh to me, and I find that has really ratcheted up my excitement as a writer. In many ways, that journal was the best present I’ve ever received.”

The Finisher by David Baldacci. Scholastic Press, $17.99 Mar. ISBN 978-0-545-65220-9