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Interview: February 2009

February 2009

Sara Shepard's latest book, WICKED, is the fifth installment in the popular teen series Pretty Little Liars, which follows four best friends who each have their fair share of skeletons in the closet.

In this interview with Teenreads.com's Donna Volkennant, Shepard explains how her childhood experiences in suburban Pennsylvania inspired her to write these novels and describes the traits she has in common with each of her main characters. She also shares some of her readers' responses to the timely and somewhat controversial subjects addressed in the books, discusses the possibility of a Pretty Little Liars television show, and reveals what's in store for the four PLLs in upcoming installments of the series.

Teenreads.com: Your website and the book jacket of WICKED, the fifth installment in the Pretty Little Liars series, state that the Pretty Little Liars novels were inspired by your upbringing in Philadelphia's Main Line. How did that experience inspire you to write these books?

Sara Shepard: I definitely believe that you should write what you know, and for me, that was growing up in the suburbs of Pennsylvania. I think it's an interesting backdrop for Pretty Little Liars --- a perfect-seeming community rocked by a shameful crime and a whole bunch of secrets. Main Line Pennsylvania is full of very idyllic sights --- old converted barns, beautiful green fields, gorgeous homes, a lot of old battlegrounds and tons of venerable private schools, and I liked mixing those details in with the main characters' flawed lives. The point is that everyone's lives are flawed in one way or another, no matter where you live.

TRC: Are the characters in the series based on people you have known, fictional creations, or a little bit of both? Which, if any, do you most identify with?

SS: I identify with all the main girls, and I've incorporated little pieces of myself into each of them. Like Emily, I am sentimental and sometimes even superstitious, and I swam competitively in high school. Like Spencer, I'm sometimes Type A and sensitive, and I was a good student.

Like Aria, I was artsy and bored with high school by junior year. I wish I could have taken a sabbatical to Iceland! And like Hanna, I was and still am really into fashion. I also went through eating issues in high school --- not the same ones Hanna does, but they came from the same emotional place. I like exploring that side of Hanna --- she needs to appear perfect and in control because inside, she's everything but.

The character I identify least with personally is Ali. I was never the manipulative ringleader as a teen...nor did I deliberately do things to hurt my friends. I certainly knew people like Ali, though, and draw from junior high experiences, mostly, of girls I once knew. All the guys in the books are amalgams of people I knew in high school --- although Emily's new boyfriend, Isaac, is based on my husband! (At least, that is, his looks, his kindness, and that he's in a band called Carpe Diem.) I think Mike Montgomery, Aria's brother, is my inner boy. I love writing his scenes.

TRC: WICKED touches on some contemporary and controversial issues, including lesbianism, underage drinking, substance abuse and eating disorders. What has been the reaction from readers regarding the inclusion of these topics?

SS: To my knowledge, the reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. Many readers tell me they love Emily's story the best, and perhaps that's because she's having so much difficulty figuring out who she is and what she wants. I've received letters from readers who have eating disorders and sympathize with what Hanna is suffering through. I haven't heard anything condemning about the scenes where there are references to underage drinking or substance abuse, though I try not to glorify either of those things. Typically, bad things happen when the PLLs do something they shouldn't. Hanna steals her boyfriend's father's car, for instance, and gets caught. In FLAWLESS, Hanna swipes Percocet from the burn clinic, and Kate tells her dad. When Emily and Maya are admitting their love for each other at a party in PERFECT, Emily's mom catches them and punishes Emily for drinking. I try to make the characters responsible for these types of actions and show that it's not particularly glamorous.

TRC: References to fashion, trends, culture, communications and daily life for American teenagers are very contemporary and up to date in your series. How do you keep your writing so fresh?

SS: Well, I love fashion, and spend a lot of time trolling fashion websites and magazines. I watch a lot of MTV and the CW and reality shows. But more than all of that, I try to talk to readers as much as I can.

Whether that's at book events, school visits, or on Facebook, the best way to understand what teens are doing and going through these days is to hear from them firsthand.

TRC: At the heart of the series is a mystery: Who killed Alison DiLaurentis? Can you give us any hints about when the truth behind Alison's death will be revealed?

SS: The truth to Alison's death is in little clues throughout everyPretty Little Liars novel, believe it or not. But the real story will be revealed in the last book. Books five through eight, starting with WICKED, really start to get into what truly happened to Alison...because it might just not be Ian who killed her. There's a far deeper mystery going on that has been there from the start...but certain people in Rosewood have worked very hard to keep it a secret.

TRC: When writing your novels, have any of the characters ever surprised you and taken the story in another direction?

SS: For these novels, I don't write by the seat of my pants...I have a chapter-by-chapter outline I write beforehand that takes me through each character's arc. So I know where they're going in each book before I start it. But I'm never outright surprised by where their stories go --- I think it usually makes sense to who they are. For instance, Spencer pushes Melissa down the stairs in PERFECT --- she'd been wanting to do that for years, not that she ever thought she would. Spencer turning to Andrew Campbell makes a lot of sense, too; they spent so many years competing to be the best in the class, but they share so much in common that it makes sense that they're together. I've had an idea of who each PLL will end up with from the very start of the series, and as of now, most of the characters are on track. The only one who's come out of left field is Isaac, Emily's new boyfriend...but even he makes sense. It helps Emily to realize that for her, it's not someone's gender that draws her to them, it's the person himself.

And that said, I've known from the start where the series was going, too --- from the identity of the first "A" to Ali's true killer. I don't think this series would be possible without that kind of planning. I have some fantastic editors who have helped shape this series, too, and I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to them.

TRC: Most authors are also great readers. What books or writers influenced you growing up, and who are your favorites now?

SS: I read a lot as a kid and a teenager, from Judy Blume to Salinger to Shakespeare to Dickens to Edith Wharton to Madeleine L'Engle to Roald Dahl. There are a lot of misleads in Pretty Little Liars, and as we dig deeper into KILLER and HEARTLESS, readers may wonder if the PLLs themselves aren't quite telling the truth. So, when preparing for the series, I read a lot of books that feature unreliable narrators --- meaning the person who is telling you the story might be lying to you or not telling the whole truth, you don't find out what really happens until the very end. Some books I read include THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt, which is about a group of college students who all share a shameful secret, and THE BASIC EIGHT, which is a fantastic book by Daniel Handler that's also about an exclusive group of friends whose partying ways go wrong. Two more great books featuring unreliable narrators are THE DOUBLE BIND by Chris Bohjalian and PALE FIRE by Vladamir Nabokov. As for current YA novels, I most recently enjoyed 13 REASONS WHY by Jay Asher --- again, it's a book in which we don't get the entire picture until the very last page. A real page-turner!

TRC: How did you progress from being an MFA graduate to a bestselling author? What advice do you have for readers who would like to become writers?

SS: It's been a bit of a meteoric rise, to be honest --- hard work mixed with being in the right place at the right time. Back in 2005, I was freelancing with Alloy Entertainment, who packages the PLL books, developing a few series projects. As I was at Brooklyn College getting an MFA in fiction, they asked me if I had any thoughts for a series of my own. I told them about growing up in Main Line Pennsylvania and that it would be interesting to write a series about a perfect-seeming suburb embroiled in some ugly, dirty secrets. (Some people compared it to "Desperate Housewives" at the time, although admittedly, I have NEVER seen an episode!) We developed the series, I wrote eight initial chapters, and Harper bought it. Although I've always been a writer, I never expected to be making a living off of writing stories. Not to sound cheesy, but it's a dream come true.

TRC: Please tell us about your writing process and schedule. Which comes first: character or plot? Do you outline or plunge ahead? Do you write every day? How many hours a week?

SS: I write every day if I'm under a deadline. If I'm not, I often write every day anyway...I have an adult novel, THE VISIBLES, coming out in May, and I just wrote the first draft of another adult novel. What comes first in the Pretty Little Liars books is the plot --- I need to figure out what we will learn about the overarching mystery by the end of the book. Then I think about how each girl can contribute a piece to solving the mystery; this is particularly apparent in KILLER, as Emily, Aria, Spencer and Hanna all have separate revelations that, when put together, lead them to a chilling conclusion. This always ties in with the introduction --- each prologue is a memory from the girls' past, often one that involves Ali.

Each girl takes away something slightly different from the prologue memory, however, and it needs to thread its way through the books and become significant to the mystery.

After all THAT, then I get to work on the girls' stories, and what makes the most sense for their characters. That said, I established each character very early on, when writing the very first Pretty Little Liars. It's probably why I can spend a lot of time plotting --- I already know them really well and don't have to think too deeply about what they might do. It's practically ingrained in me by now! Anyway, it's a big process to plot and write each of these books, but also a very rewarding one.

TRC: Can you share any details about plans for a television series pilot?

SS: All I know is that ABC Family bought the rights to the series and has hired someone to write a script. It's hard to know where it will go from there. From what I hear, lots of properties are bought for development, but so few actually make it on TV. I'm keeping my fingers crossed, though!!

TRC: The next book in the series, KILLER, is slated to be released this summer. What can you tell us about it? Will the identity of the "new A" be revealed?

SS: KILLER starts out with a scary twist that readers won't see coming.

Through the novel, the girls get closer and closer to Ali's possible murderer...but it's someone right under their noses. As for their separate stories, Spencer goes searching for her birth mother, Aria hooks up with the guy of her dreams, Hanna finds a new boyfriend, too --- someone readers might not expect --- and Emily and Isaac's relationship progresses until Isaac's mother steps in the way. The novel ends with a real shocker. I can't wait to hear readers' reactions!!