This interview was taken by Bailey Tulloch and appears in the 2016 Edition of R2.
Sara Shepard is the author of the hit young-adult-series-turned-television phenomena Pretty Little Liars and The Lying Game. Shepard graduated from Brooklyn College with an MFA in Creative Writing. She is also the author of the young adult series The Heiresses and The Perfectionists, and the adult novels The Visibles and Everything We Ever Wanted. Shepard currently lives in Pennsylvania with her family.
What has it been like watching your work move from page to screen, and, in a way, handing your characters over to other writers? Has there been anything in particular about the Pretty Little Liars television series that surprised you?
I had written seven books of the Pretty Little Liars series before ABC Family developed the pilot. At the time, I thought I had one more book to go. I had rounded out the characters and the world, and I knew them pretty well. When Marlene King and her writers wrote the series, they had a lot of material to draw from—and it shows. The TV characters closely resemble the book characters. The premise is the same, and so is the world. Sure, they’ve taken some creative liberties, but you have to for TV. I wasn’t very sensitive about handing over my characters to TV’s writers—I was thrilled! You can’t look a gift horse in the mouth—how could I have ever predicted I’d get a series on TV period? The show has brought so many new readers to my books and, for an author, that’s an opportunity of a lifetime. As for the second part of the question, I’m sure I’ve been surprised about certain elements of the show—like who A is!—but I’ve enjoyed the twists and turns the series has taken. And nowadays, I watch the show like a regular old viewer, excited for what’s coming next.
A lot of Rice students often tend to let their creative writing fall to the wayside amidst the craziness of college life. Were you able to find time to write creatively while in college, and how did you balance it among academics/ social life/etc.?
Even before college, I kept journals—I had this fear of losing important memories and felt the need to write everything down. (And remember, this was before camera phones, Instagram, etc., when I could have just taken a picture to document so much.) Often, I wrote what happened to me or what I was worried about like little pieces of short fiction, and this continued into college. I took some creative writing classes as well, but for the most part it was just in journals—though, unfortunately, I’ve lost quite a few of them, either to computer crashes or leaving them in bars. Websites and blogs were becoming popular when I was in college, too, and my sister and I made this fictitious online newspaper based on a strange, square-headed world we invented as kids, so I guess that was creative, too, although most of the stories talked about uprising pelicans, counterfeit doctors, and doppelgängers. My sister and I were odd kids for sure.
Many Rice students are really passionate about writing and would love to pursue a career in that field but tend to feel pressure to stick with paths that are more “financially predictable.” What advice do you have for these students, and what influenced your decision to get an MFA in Creative Writing?
To be honest, I got an MFA in Creative Writing post-9/11—I had a sort of “life is short” epiphany, and I’d always wanted to get an MFA, so I decided to go for it. I had no preconceived notions of ever building a career with my MFA, unless you counted teaching. During that time, though, I started ghostwriting for Alloy Entertainment, which got my foot in the publishing door. After that, I guess I was just dogged. I badgered my contacts for work. I worked quickly. I worked around the clock. I think that’s what people forget about being a writer—you do work a lot. Sure, there are times when I have weeks off, between deadlines, but for the most part, I’m always thinking about what I’m working on, even when I’m not at the computer. And the thing about making writing your career these days is that, at least in my opinion, there are a lot more options now than there were before. Yes, there’s traditional publishing, or working for a newspaper or a magazine, but there’s also self-publishing, which is making a lot of strides in the market, and there are so many new online venues to tap into—and so many of them are respectable. I also know a lot of people who support themselves by blogging—something unheard of not so long ago! It seems that if you’re creative, and if you have an interesting idea, and if you persevere, you can at least get your work out there. If you want to go the traditional route and get, say, a novel published, agents are so much more accessible these days, either through online contacts or through writing conventions, like SCBWI, which are popping up everywhere. At writing conventions, you can meet with an agent of your choice, pitch your idea, and get honest, constructive feedback—and sometimes the agent will ask to read more. I had no clue of such means of getting my work reviewed back when I was starting out.
Most of the protagonists in your books are young females. How do these age and gender preferences interact for you? Why are they interesting to you?
I feel like adolescence and young adulthood are such fertile, tumultuous times—everything is new, your emotions are swirling, you don’t quite know how to handle yourself. Plus, people don’t treat you as an adult yet, no matter how hard you try, so you’re in this curious limbo of worlds where you want to be taken seriously and you don’t even realize that’s probably not going to happen for a few more years. At least that’s the way it was with me. I enjoy writing about women because it’s interesting to share the female experience, and I try to create strong, interesting, non-stereotypical female characters. However, in the new series I’m writing, The Amateurs, there are a couple of male protagonists in the mix, and it was fun trying to tap into the male perspective. What have you found is the biggest difference between writing for an adult audience and writing for a young adult audience? I used to feel that with adult you could be a little more experimental, though I think YA fiction has come a tremendously long way since I started out. With adult, your plot can move a little slower, and you can develop your characters a bit more, and obviously your subject matter is different. But again, these were lessons more when I was staring out ten years ago—nowadays, I feel like the lines between YA and adult have blurred. And a good story is a good story—you always have to keep that in mind. I do as much intense plotting for my adult novels as I do for my YA ones. And these days, I make no assumptions about my audience—all my readers are smart, and all of them want a good, engaging book, no matter their age.