Zibby Owens: I’m really excited to be here today with Sara Shepard who’s the number-one, New York Times best-selling author of the Pretty Little Liars series which inspired the Freeform television series. She has also written other young adult books and adult novels including The Lying Game, also a show on Freeform, The Perfectionists and The Heiresses. Her novel The Elizas has been optioned for TV development as well. Her latest book, Reputation, came out in December of 2019. She also produced Crown Lake on Brat TV. A graduate of New York University with an MFA from Brooklyn College, she currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and children.

Welcome, Sara. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Sara Shepard: Thanks for having me. I’m so excited.

Zibby: This is Sara’s first podcast. I’m so honored.

Sara: It is! I love podcasts so much. I love this podcast, so this is a great first podcast for me.

Zibby: I’m going to go really easy on you.

Sara: Okay, please.

Zibby: It’s going to be very gentle and warm and nice podcast experience. I want to talk about so much, but let’s start with your latest book, Reputation. Tell listeners, please, what this book is about.

Sara: Reputation, I write a lot of YA, but this is a book that is more in the adult space. It is about a college enclave in the Pittsburgh area, which is where I live right now. It’s a very prestigious school. There is a hack that happens to everybody that works at the university. Whether you’re an administrator, whether you’re associated with the university hospital, whether you’re a student, your emails are seized and put on this server for everybody to see. From there, it follows a couple of different characters in different parts of this school and what they are hiding and what this hack reveals. Of course, there’s a murder because it seems like there’s a murder in all of my books.

Zibby: What’s that about, by the way?

Sara: I know. I wrote a whole essay about it. Actually, if you were lucky enough to get the copy that was for sale in the airport at Hudson News, I wrote a whole essay about why I was drawn to writing about murder so much. There really is no reason except I was always obsessed with that genre growing up. I just find plotting out murder mystery/thriller novels really interesting and a puzzle to figure out while I’m writing it. There’s a whole bunch of anecdotes in that essay. Hopefully, I’ll put it up somewhere else if you can’t get that particular copy. Anyway, the book, it follows a bunch of different people. All of the characters are women. They’re all dealing with different things. It mostly centers on this family, the Manning family, and these two sisters named Kit and Willa and their relationship and what they’re going through and things that they’re hiding and suppressing and secrets that come out. That is that in a nutshell, but there’s a lot more to it too. I’m looking at the book right now. This book is not very thick. There’s a lot packed into not very many pages.

Zibby: There is a lot, but that’s great.

Sara: Yeah, I guess. Wow. It was a fun book to put together, for sure.

Zibby: What made you write this story, especially the email hack part? Is this just a worst-nightmare scenario and you were like, let me explore it?

Sara: I always think about worst-nightmare scenarios. That does seem to be a starting place for me. What would be the worst thing I can imagine happening? Having emails exposed, I think everybody can relate to that. This particular book, I thought about and conceived the idea around the time the Sony hack happened. I read a lot about the Sony hack and how everything was dumped on the server. I sort of modeled the way that this hack works after the way that that hack worked and how some of the executives and actors and whatever, and just their personal details were exposed, things that they never thought people would find out about them, like embarrassing things, personal hygiene sort of things, silly things like that, like not even affairs and whatever, but what they’re buying on Amazon. You do so much with your email. There are so many different things that your email tracks. You don’t realize how much of your life is in there. It was an interesting thing to imagine the different ways that people can be exposed and then what can happen from that.

Zibby: And even in the trash.

Sara: Oh, for sure. For sure in the trash.

Zibby: I was reading this book. Not that I have anything to hide, but I was like, maybe I should just empty my trash at some point.

Sara: Totally. Right, because somebody, his bad deeds are discovered by emails that he threw away. I have tons of emails that I throw away. I think about emails that you dash off just kind of being snarky about somebody else maybe you work with or a friend or whatever that you’re writing to somebody else. You never think anybody else is going to see it, or just personal details. It’s hard to imagine somebody trolling around looking at all of that stuff and then using it against you, which some people do in this book.

Zibby: One time, somebody wrote me thinking they were writing someone else, but it was mean about me. Ever since that happened, which I have obviously not gotten over because I’m still talking about it many, many years later, I am so careful with my email because you just never know. I’m always like, am I writing the right person? which I also still mess up all the time in my — because we rush.

Sara: And writing on your phone too, like writing emails on your phone, I always will hit, accidentally, reply all or something. That happened to me too. It wasn’t even that mean. I think, actually, about book promotion years ago. I thought I was writing it to one person, but I was actually writing it to the publisher kind of saying, “I don’t think they’re doing enough,” or something like that. Then I felt so bad. Although, it was true. I did really feel that way. It was not intended for them. I always think about texts too. Some of my texts to certain people are not super nice about other people. It’s fine in the moment. You don’t really mean it, but you don’t want the wrong person to see what you’re writing because sometimes it is just heat-of-the-moment feelings, needing to get them out.

Zibby: I’m going to do everything I can to stay on your good side so you’re not sending all these nasty texts about me after you leave here.

Sara: Oh, she was terrible.

Zibby: That was awful. Worst podcast ever.

Sara: Oh, my gosh, what a terrible experience.

Zibby: I wanted to do this thing. It might not work. It might not be funny at all. I know the question, when I even brought it up, was totally confusing. You have a scene in the beginning which I really enjoyed between Kit, who is married; Patrick, we don’t know at the time anything about him, really, but we find out later. He says to her in this bar when they’re both on a work trip, “Answer my questions the way you would want your life to be,” not anything true. This is all just made up, but about your life in general. And so they have this whole conversation where he answers, where would you want to live? Then he’ll say — not Morocco, or someplace far away. She said something. I wanted to ask you a few questions, but you can only answer, not the truth, but the way you would want it to be. Let’s see how it goes.

Sara: Let’s see how it goes.

Zibby: If it’s terrible, I’ll delete it. Where do you live?

Sara: I live in a beautiful house in Los Angeles.

Zibby: Ooh. What do you do for a living?

Sara: You know what? Honestly, I can’t even lie about this. I love what I’m doing for a living. I can’t even say I’m doing something else. I had all these funny things that I wanted to do when I was a kid. They were totally out there, like be on a soap opera. I am honestly doing what I want to be doing. I mean, maybe I am also writing movies. I’m also taking over the world and have a podcast and have all these things. That would be maybe me embellishing it. I’ve written over thirty books.

Zibby: It’s pretty awesome.

Sara: I’m a writer. That’s all I could say.

Zibby: That’s great. That’s the best answer. How nice to just —

Sara: — Yeah, I’m very fortunate. It’s a great life. It’s hard. There are many hard things about it, but it’s also, I can’t imagine doing something else.

Zibby: What are some of the hardest things? You can vent now.

Sara: The hard things are, it’s not a steady job where you go into an office and you get a paycheck. You always have to be thinking, what is my next thing? What’s my next book going to be? What’s my next project going to be? I sometimes get a little bit panicked if I don’t have a good idea, or if I’m in the middle of a book. I’m actually just finishing a book. When I was in the middle of it, I was like, I don’t know what this is. I don’t even know if this is good. What am I going to do? You have all these panic scenarios. I worked through it. Writing the middle of a book is terrible anyway. There’s a lot of self-doubt. Then you have to deal with Instagram, or not Instagram, Amazon reviews and Goodreads reviews. You develop a thick skin. Regardless, it’s a great thing to be doing. It feels like a hobby, but it’s also a job. I’m very happy about it.

Zibby: How did you get into publishing your work to begin with?

Sara: I was living in New York. I was working at Time Inc. However, I was not working for People or Time or anything like that. I was working in their advertising. We did magazines for companies. I did a magazine — not me, but within this department, we did a magazine for the New York Stock Exchange. I did magazines for cars. If you drove a Ford, I would make your magazine, so like Ford Driver. I was sort of writing. I was sort of editing, but it really was not what I wanted to do. My sister who still lives in New York was interning at the time at this company called — at the time, they were called something else, but they turned into Alloy Entertainment, the book packager. One day, I was sort of whining because New York is expensive. I was like, I need some sort of freelance job that is not journalism because I realized I was not a good journalist. I sort of made up details. They had to print corrections for me all the time. I was like, I need a freelance job where I can just make up stuff. I can write fiction. My sister’s like, “You realize my company, they do that. They sometimes hire ghostwriters.” I was like, oh, I need that job. So I crashed their Christmas party with the intern. She was the lowest person there. I’m like, “I’m coming to your party.” I came to their party and was like, “You need to hire me.”

I was really obnoxious, but they did give me a shot. They had me do some sample chapters. They’re like, oh, you actually can write. I started as a ghostwriter for them. I wrote all kinds of books, for children mostly, about all kinds of crazy things. I wrote about this Japanese girl who was a samurai fighter, which I knew nothing about. I had to read all these samurai books. I wrote about this ghost story about, I think it was Randall’s Island or some sort of workhouse at the turn of the century. It was about this little boy. I had to read about early nineteen-hundreds New York. That was fun. I don’t even remember what else I did. Then I started doing a couple of YA books. They said to me, “Would you like to try to develop your own series?” I was like, yeah, okay. I thought about what I wanted to do. Pretty Little Liars came out of that. I had no idea that it was going to blow up to be the thing that it was going to be. I just wanted to write my own thing. I was really excited to do that. That was my introduction. It was doing all this ghostwriting and kind of meeting the right people. This is back in 2005, before actually 2005, where it felt more important to live in New York as a writer. I don’t think that’s true anymore. Getting to know a bunch of people in publishing was a good thing for me.

Zibby: Then what was it like for you when Pretty Little Liars took off? What was that whole experience like?

Sara: It was crazy. There were seven books that I had written in the series before I found out that there was a pilot and that ABC Family liked the pilot. I had a following of readers, which was great. This was back in the day of MySpace. I would post some teasers of the next book on MySpace. I just was really happy that I had gotten to write seven books. I had just sold a new series called The Lying Game. I was like, this is great. I was really happy. It was a complete surprise when they called me. Also, when you option your work, you don’t really have much to do with the Hollywood side of it. I really didn’t know what was going on. When they called me, I was very surprised, saying, “We have a pilot. ABC Family, they’re going to shoot it. We’re going to cast soon.” Wait, what? Then it was a whirlwind. They sent me over pictures of people they were casting. I was kind of like, oh, these don’t look like the girls in my book. Then I watched the pilot. It was amazing to watch the pilot because they used lines from the first book. I was like, this is weird. Then I met the cast. Then they started shooting the whole series. Then it became this — it was a crazy experience. It was really fun. It was really great that people liked the show. Then that brought new readers in. That was really fun. The whole thing was kind of hard to imagine that it actually happened. It was great to see this silly thing that I had in my head come to life. Buildings at the Warner lot were named after the Rosewood High School and whatever. Oh, my god, it’s crazy. It really is. Even telling it now, and this was like ten years ago when this all happened, it’s still like, did that happen? But it did. It was really fun.

Zibby: That series was sort of based, partially, on your Main Line, Philly, growing up experience?

Sara: Yeah, definitely the locations, definitely the characters. I certainly never had a stalker or knew anybody who had a stalker. Nothing traumatic like that ever really happened when I was growing up. That’s where you just imagine. A lot of the other situations did sort of happen, the more grounded things that happen to the characters. That was a lot of fun to explore a lot of the things. All of the characters were going through different things, whether it’s identity or sexual awakening or stuff with parents or who I am and what do I want? It was fun. Especially as a first novel, to use so much of where I grew up and what I went through was a really fun experience.

Zibby: I feel like people have such a special place in their heart for your books the way I have for Sweet Valley High. Did you read those?

Sara: I was not allowed to read Sweet Valley High.

Zibby: What?

Sara: I was not. My mom was, she still is, she’s a big reader, huge reader. Most of my book recommendations I get from her. Growing up, once I was old enough to read chapter books and beyond, she just was like, “You’re reading adult fiction,” which had a lot of pretty adult situations in it. Yet I was not allowed to read Sweet Valley High. I think she just found it trashy. Now I go back and read that, I’m like, they weren’t. Instead, I was reading The Joy Luck Club and The Prince of Tides and whatever was popular around when I was growing up, which I loved. It’s okay, I think, that I missed out on Sweet Valley High because I read a lot of — I was allowed to read Judy Blume. That was more of my formative, young adult reading experience.

Zibby: From Judy Blume to Amy Tan.

Sara: Yeah. Then I just jumped to that. I’m a little sad that I didn’t get to read Sweet Valley High.

Zibby: It’s not too late.

Sara: It’s not too late. I have read a few since then. I don’t remember which ones.

Zibby: Speaking of being grounded, you had this really funny quote which made me feel like I knew you. It probably is not true at all. Willa is talking to her sister Kit. She tells her sister that she lives in LA, in Venice specifically because she loves to surf, and that surfing grounds her. Then Kit replies, “I never know what people mean when they say something grounds them,” which I felt like you were poking fun at.

Sara: I was poking fun at that lifestyle of LA where everybody’s spiritual and has their healing stones and whatever. Kit is much more cynical and practical. These are two sisters who are very close. Then one of them took off and basically doesn’t really see her family so much anymore. The older sister Kit, who remained back where they grew up and is looking after their father and taking over at the college and all these things, is a little bit resentful in a way that she took off and is also confused by Willa’s life because she’s not married. She’s not following the same track that Kit is following and doesn’t have the same priorities. They’re very different. It was fun to poke at their differences, but also come back together. Do I know what that means?

Zibby: Do you feel like things ground you?

Sara: Do things ground me?

Zibby: Or at least keep you calmer? What do you go to when you’re feeling totally stressed out?

Sara: When I’m feeling totally stressed — I’m a runner, so I do run a lot. That’s very helpful. I would say just being outside. I do sort of understand the surfing and the waves and the cold water and the getting out there and paddling. I used to surf too, not well. I do understand that. I would say either running, for sure reading, just relaxing, just laying in bed and reading or taking a bath and reading, a lot of things with reading. Even when I’m running, I’m listening to a book. I would say for sure books are the thing that make me feel calm and relaxed.

Zibby: When you’re writing, where do you tend to do that? Do you like to write at home? Do you go out and about?

Sara: No, I have an office. It’s surrounded by books like this office, though not as neat. It’s at the top floor of my house. I don’t hear my kids as much. I have a big screen, probably the same computer that you have. It is the best place for me. I used to be able to write anywhere, on trains, in coffee shops, on the plane. Lately, I can’t do that so much anymore. I also feel like whenever I’m on a plane and I’m trying to write something, the person sitting next to me is like, “What are you doing? Are you an author?” You have to get into that. It’s fine, but you’re trying to work. Mostly, I just write at home.

Zibby: You mentioned you were in the middle of another book now?

Sara: I am.

Zibby: Can you talk about that?

Sara: I am just finishing it. It’s another book for adults. Right now, it is called Safe in My Arms. I don’t know if that will continue to be the title. It was the working title. I am not good at titles. I feel like it takes me a long time to figure out a title. Often, titles are suggested to me. I’m like, that’s good! It’s not my strength. It’s another thriller. It is another worst-case scenario. There’s this assault that happens at a kid’s nursery school. It’s chaotic. It’s kind of like a school scandal book. It’s about three women. They’re all hiding something. I’m always seemingly writing about people that are hiding things and then how the things are exposed, but it’s kind of a different way that they’re exposed. I am just about done with it. I think I’m going to send it to my editor next week. Luckily, I have an idea for the next book too. I actually have an idea for two more books, which usually doesn’t happen. I came up with this other thing too. I also have a YA book coming out in June. I wrote it with a young influencer. It’s about the world of influencers in LA, teen influencers, yet another murder mystery. It kind of gives an inside look into what being an influencer really is. It’s not always very pretty. It seems fabulous and perfect, of course, but it’s not all the time. That is coming out in June. I’m really excited.

Zibby: What’s that called?

Sara: It’s called Influence. I’m excited to do some events for that. Her name is Lilia Buckingham. She is the coauthor. She’s really great.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Sara: Just keep at it. Try to crash a Christmas party if you can. Try to get in there how you can. I just think persistence. I have been rejected many times. Even as an author of many books, I will pitch ideas to editors and they will reject. You have to kind of get used to rejection because it’s going to follow you through your life. Also, read as much as you can. Write as much as you can. Don’t be afraid to show your work to people. For so many years, I was afraid to show anybody what I would write. A critique is a good thing. It helps you learn. Just keep at it. A lot of people ask, you’re sitting down, and do you ever get writer’s block? What is that like? To keep from writer’s block, you just have to keep going. You have to keep writing. Even if it’s bad, just get something out. Just type something. You can always fix it later. I have many, many days where what I write, I feel like, is terrible. Then I come back the next day and it’s like, oh, well I did at least write five pages. That’s something. Then I can fix it. I think a lot of people just sit down at the computer and think, my first sentence needs to be perfect. My next sentence needs to be perfect. They don’t. They can be terrible. You just have to get something there. That’s kind of how you build a book. It’s not always fun. You just have to keep doing it.

Zibby: Awesome. Thank you so much. How did it go, the first podcast? You survived? Everything okay?

Sara: It was great. I did it. Yes, it was great. Thank you so much. Your questions are awesome.

Zibby: Thank you. Congratulations on finishing one.

Sara: Thank you.

Zibby: Thanks for coming on.

Sara: All right, take care.