By Hillary Busis
October 15, 2013 at 04:54 PM EDT

If you’re a woman of a certain age, you’re probably familiar with Alice McKinley — the strawberry-blond everygirl first introduced in 1985’s The Agony of Alice.

Though Newbery Medal-winning author Phyllis Reynolds Naylor originally envisioned the novel as a standalone story, she followed it with a sequel, Alice in Rapture, Sort of, in 1989. Fans still wanted more — so in 1991, Naylor began releasing one Alice book every year, following her creation from middle school to the summer after her high school graduation. In the early aughts, she also released a series of prequels about Alice’s life in elementary school — the perfect solution for girls not yet ready to read their older sisters’ favorite books. Over nearly three decades, the books have won legions of fans for their colorful depiction of a regular girl’s trials and tribulations, as well as their frank discussions of topics like sex — passages that frequently landed Alice among the ALA’s list of most frequently challenged books.

28 years later, Naylor is finally wrapping the series with an ambitious, 523-page volume that follows Alice from ages 18 to 60. The book, which hits shelves today, is called Now I’ll Tell You Everything — a title that’s both evocative and refreshingly straightforward, much like the Alice series as a whole.

Naylor is happy with the way her magnum opus turned out, though naturally, saying goodbye is bittersweet. “I suppose it’s like having a child go off to college,” she told EW in an interview last month. “For the last 28 years, six months of every year was dedicated to an Alice book. And suddenly, I have six whole months more to do whatever I want! So that’s exciting, but there’s still times I wish she were home.”

Read on to learn more about the series’ long-awaited conclusion. Spoiler alert: We discuss the contents of Now I’ll Tell You Everything, so read on only if you’ve already read the book… or if you’ve always wanted to know how everything turns out for Alice.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How long have you had the ending of the book in mind?

PHYLLIS REYNOLDS NAYLOR: I knew basic things. I knew she was going to marry Patrick, but I also knew that he wasn’t going to be the first person that she had sex with, because I think that would probably be pretty unrealistic. I was just waiting for her to show me what she would do next. That was always the question: What would Alice do? And sometimes, it was something very different from what I had in mind.

What were the biggest surprises?

That she would actually be engaged to someone else. Now, I knew that a few books ahead of time, but at the very beginning I didn’t at all. And I wasn’t sure always what her occupation was going to be. She talks way back about being a psychologist, and she’d also talked about being a chef. I didn’t know how long she was going to be separated from Patrick, nor did I know — the big surprise for me was how she was going to meet him again. [They reunite in an] airport, where she’s flying out and he’s flying in. She was really a homebody. She liked to stay close to Dad and [her brother] Lester. She’d spent Christmas with her aunt, and now she was going to Oklahoma to stay with a girlfriend. And he, the adventurous one, was coming home [from the Peace Corps]. So they were crossing paths as they were each exploring the other’s personality.

Did you ever flirt with the idea of having Alice not end up with Patrick?

Off and on, but I think letters from the fans were so intense: “Whatever you do, don’t let her marry someone else.” They really seemed to like him, and he was so different from Alice. And yet as he told her once — I don’t know what book it was in — she said, “Why do you like me? I don’t have the experience you have, I haven’t traveled all over the world like you have with your father.” And he said, “It’s that you are connected to home so much” — something he really never felt because they traveled so much. And being in the Peace Corps made him really, really long for that and miss Alice.

Alice and Patrick get married in their very early 20s. Did you think at all about having them wait until they were a little further out of college?

My editor did. And she said, you know, people just aren’t marrying that young. Well, the book was already getting to be very, very long, and I wondered just how much more I could drag it out. I felt that having a few more years in there and trying to [show] Alice being on her job, it would get rather boring for kids. They’re not really into career yet. I knew that they would be interested in her marriage, and in the marriages of her friends, and probably in her children. But not a long, long drawn out career.

So that was more of a practical decision.

Yes. There were a lot of things in the series that weren’t as current — I know that there is a lot about technology I didn’t even refer to, because I don’t know that much about it. But that doesn’t seem to bother fans. Some of them enjoy reading back when she didn’t have a cell phone, and all of that. So each book was written as though it were happening right now, and that seems to have worked. I didn’t have slang in the book. I very very rarely talked about fashions, because they would be outdated even by the time the book came out.

Did you want them to have a sort of timeless quality?

I did. And it seems to have worked. I’m getting letters from women in their 30s and 40s who just love it. I guess I’ve done what I wanted to do.

It seems like Alice strikes such a chord with people because she’s so essentially ordinary.

I think so. And I very much wanted that. She has really no special talents — she can’t sing, she didn’t have any exciting hobbies, really, she didn’t belong to any sports team. And she wasn’t a straight A student. I just wanted kids to identify with her, and they do.

The books are remarkable not just because the series has been around so long, but also because of how the publishing landscape has changed — there just don’t seem to be that many books about regular kids doing regular things.

This is what the kids tell me. They’ve said they’re tired of reading books about rich girls going shopping. [laughs] They said, ‘We don’t really talk like them, and we don’t really do the things they do. They’re fun to read about, but they’re not us.’ But you know, I didn’t really think a lot about that. I just thought about who she was and what made me laugh, and what made me cry. And when [Alice’s friend] Mark died, that was very hard for me. I knew that somebody would die. When I decided that it would be mark, it was hard to be his executioner. I really cried a lot about that. When I have a sad scene, I really, really cry. I figure if I’m not crying, then it’s not going to mean that much to the reader. Maybe I was identifying with his parents: He was their only child, and they had given so much of themselves to entertaining [his friends] coming over all the time, cleaning up after them. I just felt their loneliness, I guess.

Which other scenes would you pick out as the hardest ones to write throughout the series?

The death of her father. Another one that really made me cry was [Alice] asking her father how long her mother was sick, or if she had seen her in the hospital. He described his taking her to see the mother, shortly before she died. And Alice starts remembering sitting on her mother’s lap, and feeling that it wasn’t like her mother — the knees were too bony, the legs were too bony. And then her mother — I’m going to probably weep telling you this! Her mother put her lips to her ear, and hummed her bedtime song. And then she realized, “That really is my mother,” and she snuggled against her. That was a really difficult scene to write. But these were all important scenes.

The books contain sex, teenage pregnancy, a suicide at one point — as you wrote them, were there issues that you felt like you had a responsibility to cover?

No, not responsibility. I just thought, in the life of a high school girl, what would she most likely face? I think that few of us get through high school without hearing about the death of a friend, in an accident or something. I just tried to think, what would she generally encounter in high school? And I think we all knew somebody who was pregnant. We all heard of a suicide. We all met somebody that we assumed was gay. I just tried to think, what would Alice meet? Now, I didn’t have her on drugs. There were so many people I knew, and my sons, who — that just wasn’t in their landscape. I asked them once — somebody had said that [at] the school they went to, [it] was easy to get drugs. I asked them and they said, “There are people you can go to if you want them, Mom. But it’s not like they’re standing at the door, passing them out.” That wasn’t part of their growing up, and it wasn’t part of mine, and it wasn’t part of any kid that I knew. And I thought, that I can just drop, because even though it’s rampant in some communities, I mean, she doesn’t have to experience everything.

Do you have a favorite Alice book, or do they all sort of blend together?

They all go together; there are just scenes that I love. I’m not even sure what book it is — [in] one of the prequels, she’s at a sleepover and the girls have one of these books about menstruation, and they read that the egg has to have a sperm to be fertilized. And they’re wondering how the sperm gets up there. So they assign Alice to find out. And of course Alice goes home and asks at the dinner table. Lester keeps interfering — at the end, Alice says, “Sounds messy to me. Where do they do it?” And Lester says, “Out in the backyard, and they hose themselves down afterwards.” It’s one of my favorite scenes because their father is doing his best — he’s not really ready for this, and Alice is all ears for any bit of information she can take back to her girlfriends.

I also wanted to ask you about the movie version of the books.

Yes, that came out a number of years ago.

Did you like it?

I liked it as a standalone film. I think it was well-acted, directed, all the rest. But girls are disappointed because they changed major characters, and you just can’t tamper with the major characters. They made Elizabeth African-American — not the shy Catholic girl with the ivory skin that the girls had envisioned. I can tell what they wanted to do — they wanted to make it as all-inclusive as possible. But they probably hadn’t read the future books, didn’t know that Gwen [another friend of Alice, who is black] comes into the picture. And so they changed a number of things, and the girls that saw it were just enraged. I think possibly the producers had an idea that they would see how it went and then make a whole series. But once you’ve changed the characters like that, you can’t continue a series. So I wish that they had consulted with me more. [On] Shiloh, they let me read the screenplay before it became final, and I was able to change some very important things. I love Shiloh. I thought they did an excellent job. But you know, you can’t have everything, and that was the way they wanted to do it.

At this point, do you really feel done with the story, or are you still tempted to enter Alice’s world again?

No, I don’t think so. There’s so many more books I want to write about other things, and I will never live long enough to write them all — they’re like pots on the stove that are simmering. Which one is going to boil over next? That’s the one I’ll go with. I’ve already got two books that I’m working on and really excited about.

Can you say anything about them?

One I can’t. But it’s a more serious book. And the other one, I’m going to do a sequel to Roxie and the Hooligans, which came out a number of years ago. It’s for a younger group. So coming home from this national book tour that I’m going on in October, I’m going to take Amtrak and just spend that wonderful three days and three nights thinking about this sequel, which will just be so much fun.

You’ll be just like Alice, Pamela and Elizabeth on the train [in Alice In-Between]!

[laughs] Yes! Their experiences on the train were very much mine, and things that had happened to my sister once too. Another thing that happened to Alice, when she falls down the stairs in high school — she’s so embarrassed, and she wets her pants. That happened to my mother in 1914, on her first day of high school. I’m thinking, you know, the situations are slightly different, but feelings are the same from decade to decade, century to century.

That’s so funny — I also fell down the stairs in front of everybody in 9th grade.

Really? Isn’t that interesting! Hm, what is there about 9th grade, I wonder!

I guess too many girls are looking down.

I don’t know! That’s probably it. Oh, how humiliating!