Skip to main content

Author Talk: March 2010

Though Kat Bishop --- the protagonist of the newly released HEIST SOCIETY --- leads a pretty atypical life compared to your average teenager, she still struggles with the same issues that people her age face, including finding a sense of self, learning how and who to trust, and discovering the true meaning of family.

In this interview, bestselling author Ally Carter discusses how these themes arose naturally in her story about a 15-year-old art thief, and describes some of the similarities she shares with her characters, based on her own childhood in the family business. She also reveals some surprising information she learned in her research on real-life heists, explains what she likes best about writing for teens, and provides fairly basic but profound pieces of advice to aspiring authors about the craft of writing.

Question: Like your Gallagher Girls series, HEIST SOCIETY shows savvy teens who must learn to navigate the world independently, without much help from adults. Was this a conscious decision on your part, or did it happen organically as the story unfolded?

Ally Carter: I think young-adult fiction is to some extent always about teens making their way on their own, because that’s just part of being a teenager --- carving out your own path with your own friends and figuring out where you fit in the world. So, as a result, that’s something that I do consciously think about when structuring a new novel. Who will the parents be? What kind of relationship will the main characters have with the adults in their lives? And, of course, how can I tell a story about teenagers so that the teens get to be the heroes and heroines and aren’t always being saved by Mom or Dad?

For HEIST SOCIETY, this was a major part of the story very early on. I knew that Kat had been raised in that world and that she has had as much experience as some thieves twice her age, but to her family she’s still a little girl. And by the end of the story, hopefully, everyone agrees that Kat is still very much a girl…but she’s the girl who has earned her place at Uncle Eddie’s kitchen table.

Q: As you became immersed in researching criminal families (and art heists), did you encounter any particularly unusual or surprising revelations that you chose to include in the book?

AC: From the research I did, two major things struck me about real-life art thieves and con men. The first was that family can be incredibly important in that world, but it is a family you choose --- not a family you’re born into. That became a major theme in the book, because that’s something that I think most people --- especially teens --- can really understand. In fact, I think we’re all going through life trying to surround ourselves with the people who know and love us best.

The second thing that really struck me is that very few real art crimes are as high-tech and flashy as they make them out to be in the movies (and this book). The painting The Scream, for instance, was stolen using a hammer and a tall ladder. That was something I tried to work into the background of Kat’s world, but I knew the job her crew would have to undertake would need to be as exceptional as the kids trying to pull it off.

Q: The issue of trust manifests itself throughout HEIST SOCIETY. What inspired you to use this as a major theme throughout the novel?

AC: When I’m writing, I rarely think about themes. I start with characters and conflict, and somewhere along the way themes just seem to appear in the story. And when you’re writing a story about people who tell lies for a living, then trust is bound to come seeping in. Also, I think it’s bound to be a major theme when writing about teenagers, because, let’s face it, figuring out who you can trust is a big lesson we all have to learn --- especially for a character like Kat who has been telling lies and running cons for so long that she no longer even trusts herself.

Q: Aspiring writers are often told to write what they know; have you followed that sage advice?

AC: Well, I’m neither a spy nor a thief, but in a way I think, yes, I have. One of the things I realized when working on this book is that I keep writing about girls who have grown up in family businesses and are struggling to follow in their parents’ footsteps. I grew up on a family farm and was always very involved in the operation, knowing that it was important for me to learn as much as possible from my parents.

Another thing that all farm girls know is what it’s like to grow up in a male-dominated industry, so that’s another thing that I share with Kat --- we both know what it feels like to be the only girl in the room, and all of the advantages and disadvantages that can come with it.

Q: In HEIST SOCIETY, Kat’s family’s business is crime. Did your personal experience of contributing to your family’s business influence the way you developed Kat’s family in the novel?

AC: The crime part, no. The pros and cons of working with people you’re related to and have known your entire life, absolutely! Family businesses are just…different than regular businesses, because it’s one thing to have a bad fight with your boss, but it’s another when your boss is someone you’re going to have to sit beside at Thanksgiving dinner.

People who go to work with strangers have the luxury of leaving work at the office a lot more easily than people who conduct their businesses around the kitchen table. In fact, that was why Uncle Eddie’s kitchen played such a pivotal role in the book. I’ve been in that kitchen. It’s where you eat, where you work --- all within reach of baking bread and simmering soups. That, in particular, is a place I know well.

Q: What’s the best part of writing for teens?

AC: In my (probably biased) opinion, teens are the smartest people in the world. They’re savvy and funny and willing to lose themselves in their imaginations, and I don’t want to write for anyone who isn’t able to do exactly that. Plus, teens are so incredibly loyal to the people and things that they love. I can think of no better ambassadors to help a book find its place.

Q: What advice can you give to aspiring writers?

AC: There are two very simple pieces of advice that I think all aspiring writers can and should follow: read a lot; write a lot. Learning to write is really as simple as that. Unfortunately, a lot of aspiring writers spend far more time thinking and talking about “being a writer” than they spend actually writing. Write the book first. Write a lot of books. And then read and study and learn all you can about the industry. But until you’ve really perfected the craft, there’s no need to waste time worrying about the business.

Q: What influences your writing?

AC: I was a reluctant reader growing up, so my first influences were probably movies --- especially classic movies with stars like Audrey Hepburn. I’m also a huge television junkie, and I think that’s one of the reasons I’m far more drawn to writing series than stand-alone books. It just feels unnatural to leave a character or a world after one episode. I want stories that unfold and grow, and characters that are in search of goals on a variety of levels. Some can be obtained within a month or an hour or a day. Some they may have to work toward for years.

Another thing that influences me is my readers themselves. It’s been so interesting to watch the thirteen-year-old girls who read I’D TELL YOU I LOVE YOU BUT THEN I’D HAVE TO KILL YOU when it was released three years ago turn sixteen this year. They’re growing up. And that was certainly one of the reasons why I think, in many ways, Kat is far older than fifteen.