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Interview: January 2010

January 2010's Donna Volkenannt recently spoke with author Sara Shepard about her latest book, HEARTLESS --- the seventh installment in her bestselling series, Pretty Little Liars.

In this interview, Shepard brings us up to speed on where this new novel finds her four protagonists, and discusses the difficulties of planning out storylines, character arcs and plot twists over the course of several books. She also talks about her family's positive influence on her work, names a few of her favorite literary characters and shares details about a new series she's writing called The Lying Game. In HEARTLESS, the seventh book in the Pretty Little Liars series, the media has dubbed Emily, Aria, Spencer and Hanna as the “Pretty Little Liars,” which causes them varying degrees of embarrassment and distress. How did you come up with that title for your bestselling series?

Sara Shepard: I have to give my editors credit on this one --- I’m never great with titles. We knew we wanted “liar,” but they came up with the “pretty little” part. I was thrilled when I could use the series name as the girls’ “nickname” in HEARTLESS. I didn’t plan that from the beginning, but it gives the title a lot of purpose.

TRC: Emily, Aria, Spencer and Hanna are rescued from a fire in the woods behind Spencer’s house in HEARTLESS. During the blaze, the girls believe they saw Ali in the woods. Without giving away too much of the plot, what can you tell us about the major events in the novel?

SS: HEARTLESS focuses on what they really saw that night. Emily is sure they saw Ali, and she goes all the way to Amish country on a tip from A to prove Ali is still alive. Aria wonders if it was a ghost, and she reaches out to psychics to converse with the dead. Spencer isn’t sure what she saw, but A sends her messages that make her suspect someone in her family…and she finds out a secret even more twisted than she’d ever imagined. And A sends poor Hanna to a mental hospital because of her post-traumatic stress episodes. There, she meets someone who has clues to the girl they saw in the woods. At the end of the book, the police catch Ali’s killer…who’s also A. But is that really the end of the mystery?

TRC: With all the characters and twists and turns in the series, it’s obvious that you've had to plan ahead and keep a detailed outline of where the series is going. How do you manage to keep the story fresh and engaging while having a set plan for the eventual conclusion?

SS: A lot of work! I’ve known what will happen at the end of the series for a long time, and each book works toward that. Usually I plan it out so that each girl has a “front” story --- the fun/naughty thing they’re involved in --- and then a darker back story that has more to do with the mystery. Each girl also has to have a flashback that ties in to the prologue at the beginning of the book, which serves as a vital clue. Each book is like a puzzle, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

TRC: Families and family members play important roles in the series, and I noticed that HEARTLESS is dedicated to your grandmother and late uncle. Can you please share a bit about how your family has influenced your writing?

SS: My uncle was only a couple years older than I am, so we grew up spending a lot of time together. He died while I was writing HEARTLESS. My whole family has been very valuable in my writing life, but my parents and sister were the most influential. I was encouraged to read, write and do other creative things at an early age. My sister is creative, too, and she and I used to spend hours sitting at the coffee table drawing pictures and writing stories. We made up all kinds of alternate universes and characters and created board games, video game plots, fashion lines, family dramas, clay-mation movies, web sites and art projects dedicated to them. It’s kind of crazy, but my sister and I still talk about one particular “world” (mostly consisting of creatures with square heads and bug-eyed pelicans) we created today, 23 years later!

I luckily didn’t have parents nearly as crazy as those in the PLL books. I’ve always been an observer of how families work, though --- sibling rivalry, tension between parents, abandonment and disappointment. Even in a perfect family, I don’t think anyone escapes from feeling some of those things from time to time. Even if I haven’t experienced everything the PLLs do, I try to put myself in their place so I can accurately convey their emotions.

TRC: The covers of all seven books in the series are colorful and appealing. What can you tell us about the role you played in selecting these designs?

SS: Like the title, I can’t take credit for the covers. But I do know that someone actually created a doll based on each Pretty Little Liar. I’ve even seen them --- they’re Barbie-sized and a little scary! (Then again, dolls often scare me --- I think I’ve watched too many old "Twilight Zone" episodes and Child’s Play movies.) I love how bright each cover is, too. They really stand out on my bookshelf.

TRC: In your last interview, you mentioned a television series based on Pretty Little Liars. Any updates on how those plans are progressing? 

SS: ABC Family made a pilot episode of the show with amazing actors and a great script. It hardly varies from the first book at all, though it’s crazy to see the story played out on screen. At present, we’re waiting to see whether or not the show has been picked up. If ABC Family does pick it up, they’ll go and shoot the rest of the episodes. I’ll keep everyone posted as soon as I know more!

TRC: What advice can you give young adults who want to become writers?

SS: Write as much as you can, even it’s just in a journal or a blog. (I re-read my old journals from high school all the time --- they’re totally invaluable to understand the kinds of emotions I was going through back then.) Read as much as you can --- good writing sinks into you and subtly makes you a better writer, too. Show your work to someone you trust --- but also someone who will give you honest feedback. Take a creative writing class, if one’s available. Participate in writing contests. For those who get stuck with writer’s block, I would suggest doing something like NaNoWriMo, a contest to write a novel in a month. I’ve never done it myself, but probably would have as a teenager. It would’ve really gotten me going!

TRC: Who are some of your favorite characters from literature?

SS: Like everyone else in the world, I love Holden Caulfield. I love Liesl from THE BOOK THIEF. Anastasia Krupnik from the Anastasia books. Stephanie from JUST AS LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER by Judy Blume. Emma Bovary. Oskar Schell from EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE by Jonathan Safran Foer. Dolores Price from SHE'S COME UNDONE by Wally Lamb. There are so many others. There are so many wonderfully talented writers out there who make me feel extremely humbled.

TRC: Writing and media events must keep you busy, but I’m curious: What hobbies do you have, and what do you do in your spare time?

SS: I’m a big runner --- I used to run marathons, but now I just run every day with my dog. I knit, which is totally an old-lady hobby, but now I’m obsessed and can’t stop. I like to cook. I like to drink wine. My husband and I play guitar together. I’m getting back into surfing --- I used to do it in my late teens/early twenties. A friend and I are going to surf camp in Barbados in April.

TRC: The Internet and technology have revolutionized the way we communicate and how authors connect with readers. In addition to, what ways have you found to connect with your readers? What is the best way for readers to contact you?

SS: I love how the Internet allows me to reach out to readers. I wish it would’ve been around when I was growing up! The best way to get in touch with me is Twitter --- @sarabooks --- or Facebook,

TRC: What are you working on now, and what happens next with the Pretty Little Liars?

SS: WANTED is the conclusion of the series. The burning questions will be answered, and a lot of really stunning things happen. I’m sad that the series will be ending, but I think it ends in a good place. Next, I’m writing a new series called The Lying Game. It’s about two identical twin sisters who were separated at birth. One twin, Emma, sets out to find her sister, Sutton, only to discover that Sutton mysteriously took off and wants Emma to take over her life for her for a while. Emma has to quickly “become” Sutton…and find out the mysteries of their past. It’s another thriller. I’m working on the first one right now!