I’ve been a huge fan of Sara Shepard since I read the first Pretty Little Liars novel in 2006. Since then, I have read everything she has released and just read her new book being released later this year, The Amateurs. (Review coming soon!) I was blown away again by her ability to write a book that’s impossible to put down and keep readers guessing with expertly crafted plot twists she has become known for. She is most well-known for writing The Pretty Little Liars novels which were adapted into a television series for Freeform (formerly ABC Family) that has become a monumental hit that has accrued a legion of dedicated fans. Since then she has continued to release one best-seller after another and honed her skills as one of most popular writers of Young Adult novels, as well as several novels for adults. Despite her incredibly hectic schedule, she so graciously agreed to let me ask her some questions about her books and her incredibly successful career.
Me: When did you first know you wanted to become a writer? Was it something you were always passionate about, or did something or someone inspire you?
SS: I didn’t have that epiphany moment of “I’m going to be a writer when I grow up.” All I knew was that I loved to write stories and that I’d always do it regardless of whether I actually was ever published or not. However, I did have a fourth grade teacher who told my mother that someday, she’d see my name on a book cover. This may have been because I made every writing assignment, even ones for science class, a creative writing project. (My stories about a ragtag group of creatures touring the circulatory, digestive, and lymphatic system were legendary.) I was encouraged both by reading when I was little– I loved the library– and by my mom, who was a huge reader herself. She always made reading a priority with myself and my sister, and always stressed we be creative.
Me: What is your writing process like? Do you usually begin with the story or build the story around the characters, or does it vary depending on the book?
SS: My process depends on the book. Often, with my more adult novels, it’s a character first, or a small idea of what that character could do, and everything comes after that. I wrote a book recently where the concept came first, then the characters. I usually don’t have it all figured out from the start. Things come pretty gradually to me.
Me: What inspired you to write Pretty Little Liars? Did you always want it to be a young adult series or did you ever consider writing the characters as adults?
SS: Pretty Little Liars was inspired by: 1) loving the idea of someone watching 2) wanting to explore a community that seemed perfect but really wasn’t and 3) wanting to write a story that was deeper than some of the other soapier stories that were popular at that time. I always figured it would be young adults. Most of the problems the girls go through are adolescent problems, best described when a teenager is going through them.
Me: A lot of your books explore similar themes, like secrets, lies, deception, and murder mysteries. What draws you to that particular type of story?
SS: I’ve always been drawn to secrets and lies– maybe because I used to be sort of a liar as a kid? I’m not sure. One of the things my mom always said to me was “No secrets.” That always stuck with me– a secret felt taboo, but also delicious. I like writing murder mysteries because those books feel like a puzzle– it’s fun to put together all the pieces. The Amateurs if even more of a murder mystery because the characters are actively figuring out what happened. In PLL, there is less mystery solving, more just trying to keep A from exposing their secrets.
Me: I’m a huge fan of your adult books, Everything We Ever Wanted and particularly The Visibles, which are very different than your previous and post releases. What made you delve into the adult genre, and is your process different than it is when you’re writing your mysteries?
SS: I like writing about adults, too, probably because when I was growing up adult fiction was almost entirely what I read. YA didn’t exist in the same capacity in the 1980s-1990s, when I was a young reader, so my mom would pass me things she loved– “The Joy Luck Club,” “She’s Come Undone,” “The Secret History,” to name a few. (There were many, many more.) Adult is interesting to explore because the tone varies slightly from YA. You can delve deeper, go to different places. But I like both. There’s something so rich and emotional about young adult life, it’s so enjoyable to explore through fiction.
Me: Of course, we have to talk about the Pretty Little Liars television show. What is it like to see the characters you created come to life, and how do you feel about the huge differences between the books and the show? Do you ever wish they would have stuck to the way you wrote the story in the books?
SS: It’s still crazy that PLL became a show. I’m still amazed it has all happened. I remember when I first saw the pilot, in my bedroom before the show aired: every time there was a new scene, I was like, “Oh my God. Oh my GOD!” Because some of the lines were picked up straight from the book. It was so surreal having someone call a character “Emily” or “Ali,” and that they all lived in a town called “Rosewood”– a town I invented! It’s like my little imaginary world suddenly became a reality. It’s strange, too, because my imaginary world had once been all mine…but then it was turned over to a lot of others: writers, producers, actors. Each put their own spin on the story. It’s interesting to see how PLL has grown and changed. I’m so sad it’s ending!
Me: How do you feel about the show being the phenomenon it is, and the announcement that was just made that it will be ending soon?
SS: It’s pretty incredible that the show is such a phenomenon. I’ve watched every episode, and yet I still don’t understand how they made it so rich with twists. I also have no idea how the pLL staff assembled such a social media following– it’s truly astonishing. I’m very proud to be part of the show, even in a small way. And like I said, I’m beyond sad that it’s ending. But then, I think it will end on a high note. (I have no idea how it’s going to end, though. So who knows!)
Me: Although I imagine this is a bit like asking a mother if they have a favorite child, but do you have a favorite book or character you’ve written?
SS: I love all my books, but I would say that I especially love the firsts of many of my series: Pretty Little Liars, The Lying Game, and The Amateurs. With each of these, it took a long time to get the feel, the voice, the setting, and the characters just right. I also loved writing The Visibles. It’s a very personal book. I’ve considered writing a screenplay for it, but I can’t figure out the way in. If anyone has any suggestions…!
Me: I’m sure you get this question a lot, but what advice can you give to aspiring writers? Is there one particular lesson that you’ve learned now that you’ve become such a fixture in Young Adult fiction?
SS: My advice to aspiring writers would be is that it seems even easier to get yourself out there with digital / self-publishing. It seems like the traditional publishing models are changing, which allows room for a lot more writers/ stories. There are also so many ways to reach out to existing writers for advice– I try to respond to aspiring writers all the time! I wouldn’t advise pushing your work on existing writers– most of the time, writers are too busy– but there are great conferences seemingly year-round where you can get some uninterrupted time with agents and publishers. But beyond all that, I would say pretty basic stuff: read a lot, write a lot. Show your work. Because it’s going to do you no good if you’re hiding it on your computer, too afraid to let the world see it. People might critique you– everyone’s a critic– but that’s what makes you a stronger and better writer.
Me: You’ve produced a lot of books in a short amount of time, and you have had cross releases of books from different series come out around the same time. Do you ever have to check yourself and make sure you’re not mixing up characters or stories?
SS: I tend not to mix up characters/ stories. I’m not sure why. Though I will say, in that period where I was publishing Lying Game and PLL simultaneously, there are a lot of work days I don’t remember! I’m sure I fell off the social media grid/ YA scene/ bookstore circuit big time during those years. But oh well!
Me: As I mentioned previously, you’ve written a lot in a short amount of time. Do you ever get writer’s block or just get stuck and find yourself not knowing where you want to take the story? How do you combat that, and where do you draw inspiration from when you need it?
SS: I get writer’s block like everyone else, especially when starting a new project. It’s hard to hit on an idea that actually has legs. I’m also not a huge fan of extensive research (I wish I was), so some of the ideas I hit on are so far out of my comfort zone I’m not sure I’d be able to do them justice writing about them. Usually I go running if I’m stuck. Often when I’m running I’ll come up with a solution to a problem I’m struggling with. Then I write it down in “notes” on my phone so I don’t lose the idea. You won’t believe how many times I think of something good but don’t write it down and then when I’m ready to write, the idea is gone.
Me: If you could only read 3 books for the rest of your life, which three would you choose? You’re allowed to pick your own if you’d like, of course.
SS: I would probably pick books from my three favorite authors: Donna Tartt, Anne Tyler, and Curtis Sittenfeld. I love reading them– they’re almost soothing, like therapy. but there are so many good books out there. It would be hard to only have three.
Me: You’ve already had two of your series turned into TV shows, The Lying Game and Pretty Little Liars. Are there any others that you’d love to see adapted for TV or movies, or already have plans to adapt?
SS: Well, I’d love to adapt The Visibles. It’s a story about a girl whose father suffers from depression, and she has to choose between following her dreams or staying and looking after him. (In a nutshell.) I feel like the book is even more timely these days than it was when it was published, so it would be fun to adapt. Who knows? I also think The Heiresses would be fun to adapt. Such great characters, so much soap! The Perfectionists is in development at Freeform– and I’ve read the pilot, which is quite good! But that doesn’t mean, necessarily, it will become a show. Fingers crossed, though!
Me: Despite being a best-selling author yourself, are there any authors you fangirl over?
SS: Like I already said, I love three living authors, and recently Curtis Sittenfeld replied to me on twitter and I got all fluttery and excited. Judy Blume also replied on twitter and the same thing happened. Mostly I adore authors I’ve loved since a teen. (Well, in Curtis Sittenfeld’s case, I was probably about 25.) I would also lose my mind if I ever had any interaction with Stephen King.
Me: To finish off with something totally unrelated to books, what is your favorite type of music to listen to and who are some of your favorite artists?
SS: I would say I mostly listen to alternative/ folky sorts of stuff, though my kids love pop. I love women singer songwriters who are edgy and strange like Regina Spektor and Joanna Newsom. I also love Sufjan Stevens. Probably a little too much. I never tweet about music– probably because I used to be soooo into the music scene but now feel like I know nothing– but when his album came out last year I just had to post how much I loved it.
A huge thanks to the amazing Sara Shepard, I’m incredibly grateful to her for taking the time to do this interview for my humble little (hopefully for not much longer!) blog. I hope you guys enjoy her answers to my questions as much as I did, and I will be posting my review of her new book The Amateurs tomorrow! There will also be some big changes coming for my blog, and I can’t wait to share the exciting things coming up with you guys!
For more information about Sara Shepard and her books, visit her website here, follow her on Twitter @sarabooks, or visit her Facebook page. Find out more about her newest book The Amateurs and pre-order it here!
Happy reading! Follow me on Twitter for more info and updates: @etoland16