Faze had a chance to chat with Pretty Little Liars’ author Sara Shepard, about her latest book Wicked (check out our review in the latest issue of the magazine).
Faze: I read that you were considering quite a number of different professions when you were a teenager—from a writer to a claymation artist. Where do you think all these different talents came from? Did your experiences as a teen help shape you creatively?
Sara Shepard: I was very creative as a child and as a teenager, and I’m guessing that’s where all these career possibilities came from. From a young age, my sister and I were (among other things) writing multi-chaptered stories, making up alternate universes and creatures, putting together ideas for video games, and cranking out newspapers with our toy printing press. But the thing that always stood out for me was writing. I wrote chapter stories of my own from about fourth grade on and I kept very detailed journals from about seventh grade to my senior year in college. I have a lot of teachers to thank for encouraging me to write—my 10th, 11th, and 12th grade English teachers used to read all of my stories, and my 11th grade English teacher even went so far to say that I no longer had to write themes; I could work on a novel for the whole year. Stupidly, I declined her offer. I think the prospect of writing a novel terrified me!
But although I always enjoyed writing, I never knew it would come to any fruition—especially creatively. Which is why I’m thrilled to be writing the Pretty Little Liars series and other novels. I try never to take this opportunity for granted.
Faze: Do you think teens today are different then when you were a teen?
Sara Shepard: I think teens now have more access to things—information, networking, YA authors, but I think my experience as a teenager is similar to that of what teens are going through today. It all boils down to emotional turmoil—crushes and heartbreak, pressure and feuds, fitting in or opting out, “breaking up” with friends and trying to assimilate into a new group—I was going through all that, and I think teens today are going through it in almost identical ways. Some of the technology and labels might change, but the big things teens are dealing with aren’t. If I didn’t believe that I was still pretty familiar with what was going on in today’s teen’s minds, I probably wouldn’t feel very confident about the characters in Pretty Little Liars. But I feel like they’re both modern and emotionally grounded. Hopefully readers agree!
Faze: Do any of the characters stem from anyone you know or knew?
Sara Shepard: Each of the main characters have a bit of me in them. Like Spencer, I was and still am somewhat Type A. I am very good about deadlines, for instance. But unlike Spencer, I am not organized. Like Emily, I used to be a swimmer. Like Aria, I was so over my high school by junior year, and I was disgusted by the way everyone was so pigeon-holed, much like Aria bemoans about the “Typical Rosewood” boys and girls. And like Hanna, I was and still am a little label-obsessed. I also used to struggle with eating issues, something Hanna is working through. I wanted to write about a character working through this and explore the complex emotions that come with it. Hanna tries to keep her binging and purging a secret, as she’s mortified by it, but it’s also something she can’t quite stop. When I was going through my eating issues, it was a blend of very obsessive dieting mixed with a crazy amount of running. I didn’t want anyone to know exactly how much of my mind it had taken over. It was a lonely, sad time, and I had no one to talk to. I’ve had Hanna reach out to several people about her difficulties in the books, which has really helped to heal her. That would be my advice to readers going through this problem, too—find someone you can talk to about it. Talking definitely helps.
Faze: What is the best way that you have found, to stay current and up-to-date on what teens are wearing, talking about etc., in order to use it as material for your books?
Sara Shepard: MTV, definitely. Shows like Gossip Girl, etc. Observing people at the mall, at the gym, at the bus stop. Talking to fans on MySpace and at book events. I also try, literally, to stay young. I don’t take myself very seriously. I try to remain silly.
Faze: There is a lot of mention of high-end labels in your books—from Louis Vuitton to Chanel to Tiffany. Why do you think these labels are important to your characters and to teens in general? What do you think they get from these names and brands?
Sara Shepard: To be honest, I’ve tried to pare down on the label use as best I can—I don’t think it’s the point of the story. However, the book is set in a rich area outside Philadelphia, thus the girls are definitely surrounded and motivated by pretty, luxurious things. The book is also about a seemingly perfect place having a dark, ugly side, so I think the labels help to really demonstrate that. Hanna has a Tiffany bracelet, for instance—only she’s secretly stolen it. And then she gets caught. “A” gives Hanna a luxurious dress to wear to Mona’s birthday party, but the dress rips and the night ends in turmoil. I try not to equate brand-name labels with princess-like endings. It’s not the way life is, especially not in Rosewood!
Faze: Out of the four main friends in the book, which character is most like you?
Sara Shepard: I would say I was most like Aria in high school—I was artsy and a bit of an outsider. I didn’t, however, have an affair with an English teacher! But as I said, I’m a lot like all of the girls. I try very hard to emotionally connect with all of them. The character I am least like is probably Alison DiLaurentis, the beautiful dead girl of Rosewood Day. As we find out, Alison is sinister and manipulative and sometimes downright mean. I was never the mean ringleader in a group of friends. I think I was always the peacekeeper.
Faze: What was your favourite subject in high school? Would you have considered yourself a good student?
Sara Shepard: Yes, I was a good student. In fact, I was pretty nerdy! My favourite subjects were English, Art, and Biology. I wanted to have a career in all three. I liked drawing and ceramics, I loved reading and writing papers, and I really liked genetics. After my junior year, I even went to a summer program at Brown University to do basic genetic experimentation. See? Super nerd.
Faze: What is your best high school memory?
Sara Shepard: I grew up in Philly, and the drive to the New Jersey shore was only about an hour and a half. My dad, my sister, and I all loved to surf, so we’d get up at about 3 a.m., drive to the beach, and surf for hours before the lifeguards got there. Then we’d go have a giant stack of pancakes.
Faze: I also saw you and your sister’s claymation on YouTube. Are you still close with your sister? Were you close as children?
Sara Shepard: Yes, my sister and I are still very close. (That claymation was only created about three years ago.) We were close as children, too. I think we’ve only had one fight, which consisted of me shoving her into a closet. I’m sure we made up moments later. Her name is Alison—just like the dead best friend in Pretty Little Liars! But fear not, she’s nothing like the character. Nowadays, she still reads all of my work, often before it’s published. She read the eight-chapter proposal of Pretty Little Liars that went to publishers. She’s read tons of my short stories. She’s a great writer herself, so I always trust her advice.
Faze: What experiences as a child and/or teen have shaped the experiences of the characters in the book Wicked and the whole series?
Sara Shepard: Tons of little things shape not only Wicked but the whole series. To start, I’ve always liked eerie stories where you don’t entirely know what’s happening. When I was younger, I was very addicted to the TV series Twin Peaks, and today I really enjoy Lost. I’m a huge reader, but I think these shows more than any book exemplify what I’m trying to do with Pretty Little Liars—weave the past into the present, and thread the mystery slowly through, throwing out hints here and there. But there are little things that are torn straight from my life. For instance, in Wicked, Emily meets a boy who’s in a band called Carpe Diem, which was the name of my husband’s high school band. I used to go to a catholic church when I was young and I based the priest on a man I knew. Emily and Isaac go sledding later behind the chemistry building at Hollis College, which is based on an old sledding hill my father, sister, and I went to behind Penn State University, where we lived for four years. I could probably go through every chapter of every book and give you references like that. I can’t help but pull details straight from my life and memory—I bet most writers do.
Faze: What kind of environment (alone in a cabin, your favourite comfy chair at home, etc.) do you need to have to get your best writing done? What motivates you to keep writing?
Sara Shepard: Well, deadlines are a big motivator, but getting the story right is another one. Also, I simply love to write. I am not one of those people who sits and stares at the screen, waiting for inspiration. I can write and write, even if the first pass is dreadful. Probably my only environment specification is a room with a door, so that I can shut it. I spent some time at a writing colony in Vermont a few years ago, writing alone in a cabin for days on end. That was nice, too.
Faze: There is a lot of focus in the book on the death of one character, Ali. Some teens have had to deal with the death of a parent, family member or friend—what advice would you offer them? Do you think any of Ali’s friends dealt with her death in a positive way?
Sara Shepard: I think the characters have gone through a healthy range of emotions when it comes to Ali’s death, including remembering all the things they didn’t like about her. I’ve never dealt with the death of a close friend, but I’ve dealt with deaths of family members, and I suppose the only advice I can give teens is that it’s all right to have that emotional range and they definitely shouldn’t keep things bottled up!
The girls are also very haunted by Ali. They have dreams about her, they think they see her everywhere—she pops into their minds all the time and I understand that, too. It’s hard to let go of someone after they’ve died. I can’t even fathom what it must be like with a death like Ali’s, where the media is constantly obsessed with her story. It would be hard to escape something like that.
Faze: There is a rumour going around about a film based on your books—can you confirm this for all your excited fans? Any word on what actors might play what characters? How much involvement would you like to have with the film production/promotion etc.?
Sara Shepard: As far as I know, the books won’t be a film, but it might be a TV show. ABC Family here in the states optioned it for development and I think they’re getting a script together right now. I’d love to have a little involvement if it does indeed become a show—this story and these characters are very dear to me and I’d hate for them to be drastically changed. I guess we’ll have to see!
Faze: Out of all you’ve ever written, is this series what you’re most proud of?
Sara Shepard: I am very proud of Pretty Little Liars, yes. I’m also very proud of The Visibles, which is my upcoming novel for adults. It will be published by Free Press (Simon & Schuster) in May, 2009. It follows a young character, too, and is about family choices, mental illness, science, happiness, and love. How’s that in a nutshell?
Faze: Which character’s storyline is the most fun for you to write about?
Sara Shepard: I love writing all of them, I’m happy to say because all of their stories take crazy twists and turns. I do enjoy writing Hanna’s character because she has a lot of funny lines. And Spencer is so painfully OCD at times. And I love writing the A notes and weaving in the back story. Really, piecing together an entire Pretty Little Liars novel is the best part—trying to make the book funny and soapy, scary and intriguing, mysterious and tense all at once. And throw in a creepy A character and a bunch of suspicious Rosewood citizens? It’s super tough.
Faze: Can you give us any little hints about what to expect with the next book? A title maybe? When to expect it?
Sara Shepard: The next book is called Killer, and it will be released this summer. And… let’s see. Well, Emily escalates things with Isaac, her new boyfriend. Spencer searches for her biological mother. Hanna finds a new love and you won’t believe who it is. Aria has a bit of love intrigue, too—with someone she’s only dreamed of knowing.