Interview with Sara Shepard

June, 2013

Sara Shepard Thanks to Sara Shepard's Pretty Little Liars series, we've become well-versed in secrets, betrayal, and that tiny pang of fear every time the initial A pops up. A master of plotting and suspense, she's kept up the crazy spiral of deceit for a dozen volumes—and this month she's back with book 13, Crushed.

We asked PLL's Goodreads fans to submit questions for Sara. Read on for her writing tips, thoughts about the show, and criminal confessions!

Etta: On the back of your book, where it gives a brief biography of you, it says you were inspired by events that happened in your hometown growing up. Did you really experience what the characters in your book are experiencing?

Sara Shepard: Not really. I didn't have a stalker, I certainly didn't witness any murders, and I didn't know a crazy girl named Alison DiLaurentis. I would say that the setting, Rosewood, was inspired by the Philadelphia suburb where I grew up—it was very beautiful and a lot of the people who lived there were quite wealthy, but it always seemed like there were secrets lurking under the surface.

From there, I started to wonder what the secrets might be for the characters I had in mind…and they were things like Aria's father having an affair with his student, Emily confused about her sexuality, Hanna shoplifting. All of those things I actually DID experience while growing up, either peripherally or myself. (I was a shoplifter.) Some of the more outrageous secrets, however, were pure imagination.

Sophiee: Did you ever get up to anything as crazy/exciting/dangerous as the Pretty Little Liars when you were in high school?

SS: Hmmm. Besides the shoplifting, not particularly. I used to let my friends who didn't have driver's licenses drive my car, though that was only around a school parking lot—ha! But no, I was just a regular teenager with regular problems—friends, boys, school, etc. I was fortunate never to get in trouble with the police, as the PLL girls are, or witness some of the crazy things they witness.

Sara Shepard on the set of the Pretty Little Liars TV show.
Gulum: I am a huge fan of both the Pretty Little Liars and the Lying Game series, and a few months ago it stuck out to me that both series had a common thread: twins! Not only that, but also the fact that one twin is dead before the series begins. So my question is: Is there a reason for the twins? If so, what is it?

SS: I find identical twins fascinating. That there's another person who looks just like you but ISN'T you…that's a topic I've always been curious about. In both books, the twins function in the same way: to act as substitutes for one another. Emma steps into Sutton's life and tries to solve her murder. Courtney steps into Ali's life because she doesn't want to go back to the mental hospital. (And later, Ali pretends to be Courtney.) What does it feel like to pretend to be someone else…and have everyone, more or less, believe it? It's such a deliciously strange thing to think about.

Victoria Gordon: You have masterfully created a convoluted tale of four girls and their quest for the truth about A in the Pretty Little Liars books. Do you have a map for the road the girls will follow and what the end of the road looks like, or do you go with the flow?

SS: I definitely have a map. Usually it starts with figuring out the arc of a certain span of books—my first book deal was for 1 through 4, which is why the first A was revealed at the end of Unbelievable.

Halfway through writing the second book I found out the publisher bought four more PLLs, taking the series to eight books, so I created a map that would pick up with book 5 and go to book 8. That map deals with endings first: What is the big cliffhanger going to be in each book? What are we going to learn about the mystery as a whole that will push us forward to read the next book in the series? Once I have that, I go into more details about the books themselves. By the time I'm done mapping, I typically have a 20- to 25-page outline, chapter by chapter, of how the book is going to look.

Nikita: How many books do you plan to write? You said that the eighth was the last one, and then you said the twelfth. How come you keep deciding to continue it?

SS: The series will finish up at book 16. I've extended the series because readers have wanted it and I wasn't ready to let go of the characters yet. But I really do think their stories and A will come to an end by that point.

Giulianna: What do you feel now that you are about to end this journey?

SS: I've "ended" the journey several times before, and I've always been sad about it. This time, after book 16, I think it will be for real, and there's definitely a bittersweet feeling…but I also think it's time to move on. And who knows? Maybe I'll do a spin-off series featuring one of the PLL characters.

Woof! It's Tubby, Sara's Doberman.
John: Do you view the series as an alternate universe with the same characters who are not only different physically from the characters in the books, but also act quite differently? If not, how do you reconcile the distinctions?

SS: Alternate universe is a good way to think about it. Or maybe parallel universe or PLL books I never wrote. I think the show is in line with the overarching theme of the books; they've just gone more into depth or explored different avenues. And actually, I'm not sure the characters act that differently from the books—maybe they're a little more toned down, but I think they're pretty true to the characters I created. As far as the girls looking differently on the show, I'm OK with that, too—again, because I think they behave like my characters, which means a lot more than how they look.

Amy P.: How do you feel you have influenced the queer community with Emily's character, especially with the fact that she has become a queer cult favorite on the television show?

SS: I think it's great that gay and lesbian teens, especially, can see a character on TV who struggled with her sexuality, dealt with family backlash, and has now gotten through it and is living her life. I also know that the PLL staff did a video for the It Gets Better campaign for LGBT kids and bullying. When I started writing the books, I always knew I wanted a gay character who was just coming into her own—I just had no idea how many people her story would reach. I just hope seeing a healthy, confident girl will help a lot of struggling teens out there.

Luz: How do you come up with such brilliant ideas for conflict? I mean, the way the plot goes is just never what you expected it to be, you never know what might happen next!

SS: It's definitely tough—especially after so many books. Usually, these days, I just think about what each character wants, generally, and their conflict spawns from that. For instance, in the later books Spencer is gung ho about getting into a Princeton Eating Club, a special society for students. But she does something to upset the head of the Eating Club, who bars her from joining. Spencer is devastated, but she still finds a way to redeem herself...but of course it leads to disaster. This story wouldn't work for Emily or Aria, though, because they aren't Spencer and they don't want the same things. So at least that makes it a little easier.

Krissi Bryant: What are some of your favorite authors and book genres?

SS: I generally read just basic fiction, usually for adults. I really like reading Jeffrey Eugenides, Tom Wolfe, Nicole Krauss, Jodi Picoult, Meg Wolitzer, Stephen King…there are too many to count. I mostly just like stories about people's lives, though a good thriller is always fun to read, too.


Katharina: Who was the first character you ever created/invented?

SS: My sister and I created characters when we were very little, including a family of girls, square-headed aliens, and a woolly mammoth who spends all his time at the local pub. I think the very first character I/we created was called BeeBee, after my sister's security blanket. When I would draw BeeBee, she would have a flower-shaped head and a triangle body. She was very friendly. I was probably about four.


Ingrid Fykse: I was wondering how old you were when you first decided you wanted to become an author and how old you were when you wrote your first book?

SS: Well, I always knew I liked to write, but I never thought I'd actually *become* an author. So it's hard to say. I first started writing when I was about eight, though—my sister and I would sit at the coffee table and write/draw for hours. Then I wrote stories on my family's computer, though I usually couldn't get past Chapter One. I wrote my first book—it was really just a short story—when I was ten. It was called Quizzles and it was about little yellow people that lived in a girl's garden. It won a prize at the local library, was bound into book form, and is still on the shelves there.


Anosha: Is there an underlying message you wish to relay about basic human nature through your characters?

SS: We all keep secrets. Secrets are human nature. It's better to be yourself than to try to be someone else. Also, I think I try to emphasize the importance of friendship—good, real, true friendship—in the books. Ali was a terrible friend, but throughout the series, the girls find each other.


mkc120/Haley: Um, yeah, I have a question for Sara Shepard: How do you write the kissing and stuff knowing that people you know will read it? Is it hard?

SS: I do find the kissing stuff a little squeamish to write about—and you might notice that I never get explicit with sex scenes. Often, I cut just before the kissing even starts. Some people are more comfortable with describing it than others, and if you're not, I think that's OK. That's just the kind of writer you are.


Antonia: Do you like banana-flavored gum?

SS: You know, I'm not sure I've ever had banana gum! I used to be a huge gum fan, but lately not so much. I'm also a really loud gum chewer, and it's gotten to the point where I even annoy myself.


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Comments (showing 1-26 of 26) (26 new)

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message 1: by Caitlin (new)

Caitlin :) Nice interview :)


message 2: by Awesome A (new)

Awesome A Nice! Do you think that the tv series Pretty Little Liars has told the story quiet well, which is based on your books?


message 3: by Erin (new)

Erin I love Sara Shepard and I think it's sad how poorly edited this interview was. There are several obvious mistakes, not least of which is the fact that Aria's dad had an affair with his STUDENT, not his teacher. Step it up, Goodreads.


message 4: by Gulum (new)

Gulum they featured my question omg i think i'm gonna cry


message 5: by Christine (new)

Christine Erin wrote: "I love Sara Shepard and I think it's sad how poorly edited this interview was. There are several obvious mistakes, not least of which is the fact that Aria's dad had an affair with his STUDENT, not..."

lol I noticed that too. But Ms. Sara Shepard thanks for writing such fantastic books. Both the PLL and TLG series are guilty pleasures of mine:D


message 6: by jade (new)

jade Erin wrote: "I love Sara Shepard and I think it's sad how poorly edited this interview was. There are several obvious mistakes, not least of which is the fact that Aria's dad had an affair with his STUDENT, not..."

Thanks for the catch, Erin! If you see any other errors, please feel free to point them out.


message 7: by Maddie (new)

Maddie Fisher So, Is Toby really only pretending to be A for spencer?


message 8: by Zach (new)

Zach Christine wrote: "Erin wrote: "I love Sara Shepard and I think it's sad how poorly edited this interview was. There are several obvious mistakes, not least of which is the fact that Aria's dad had an affair with his..."

I am with Erin as well... and that is NOT a dachshund.


message 9: by Christina (new)

Christina that is a good interview


message 10: by cece (new)

cece Maddie wrote: "So, Is Toby really only pretending to be A for spencer?"
The books and the tv show are quite different. In the books, Mona is out of the picture. In the tv series, she is a recurring character. It varies.


message 11: by jade (new)

jade Zach wrote: "Christine wrote: "Erin wrote: "I love Sara Shepard and I think it's sad how poorly edited this interview was. There are several obvious mistakes, not least of which is the fact that Aria's dad had ..."

You're right Zach, turns out Tubby's a Doberman! Thanks for the catch.


message 12: by Hazel (new)

Hazel 16 books? Good there's still 3 more!!!


message 13: by Britt☮ (new)

Britt☮ "I've extended the series because readers have wanted it"

I find that hard to believe. Nearly every review I have read (even the positive ones) of the later books includes some form of begging for her to finally end this series.


message 14: by Christine (new)

Christine Britt☮ wrote: ""I've extended the series because readers have wanted it"

I find that hard to believe. Nearly every review I have read (even the positive ones) of the later books includes some form of begging for..."


I thought she continued them so it would correlate better with the t.v series


message 15: by purplepuppy29 (new)

purplepuppy29 I can't wait for the last few books to come out, sad it's got to end though but I enjoyed it


message 16: by Chloe (new)

Chloe nice!!!!! but i'm sad my questions weren't there :(


message 17: by Preetisha (new)

Preetisha S Awesome interview but my questions weren't there.


message 18: by Chloe (new)

Chloe lol yeah that's what happened to me too


message 19: by fae (new)

fae i love this interview but my question wasn't there :(


message 20: by Piko (new)

Piko Aplo ki1023lou@gmail.com


message 21: by John (new)

John I'm just psyched Ms. Shepard answered my question. I don't recommend reading the first seven books in the series while watching Season One on DVD. It gets very confusing when certain characters are killed off in the book and not on the show (or vice versa.)


message 22: by Hannah (new)

Hannah Great interview :)


message 23: by Daniela (new)

Daniela S jade wrote: "Erin wrote: "I love Sara Shepard and I think it's sad how poorly edited this interview was. There are several obvious mistakes, not least of which is the fact that Aria's dad had an affair with his..."
Stephen King is spelled wrong... Or maybe I'm being ignorant about another author with a similar name. If so, please forgive me!


message 24: by Sabin (new)

Sabin Bhandari Please end this series for god sake ....it's fucking killing me.


message 25: by Awesome A (new)

Awesome A Aww!


message 26: by Denise (new)

Denise Palmieri i'm curious when will the pretty little liars end i love the show but it's getting a little confusing about now does ali have a twin and who the heck in in the coffin.


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