‘Pretty Little Liars’ Author Sara Shepard on Her New Novel and Writing Nearly 40 Books in 13 Years
Sara Shepard isn’t a household name, but the titles of her books—many of which have become popular television series—certainly are. The 18 novels that make up Shepard’s Pretty Little Liars universe inspired an ultra-popular TV series and cemented her status as something of a YA treasure. Two more YA mystery series from Shepard—The Lying Game and The Perfectionists—also made the leap to TV. This week Shepard released a new adult novel, Reputation, her 39th work of fiction.
Shepard’s stories have a few hallmarks: They are mysteries about women or teen girls usually taking place in Pennsylvania towns; they often involve the spooky or sinister side of technology; and whether these stories are being read or watched, they are filled with cliff-hangers so juicy you can’t turn away. Reputation is no different.
“I heard it called a ‘domestic thriller,’’’ Shepard says, defining her new book. If the title isn’t a dead giveaway, Reputation also involves another Shepard trademark: the often massive gulf between who a person pretends to be and who they really are.
Reputation follows the goings-on in a university community after a hack lands everyone’s private business squarely in the public eye. Like all of Shepard’s work, it is an inarguable page-turner filled with murder, intrigue, and female characters who are somehow simultaneously easy to adore and loathe. Shepard spoke to Fortune about Reputation, her incredibly prolific career—and what it is about the books she writes that leaves readers begging for more.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I’d love to start with your sharing a little about Reputation. What is it about, and where did the first nugget of inspiration come from?
It’s about a community and different families who are all part of a fictitious university town in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. What ends up happening is there is a hack at the university, and everything is exposed. The administrators, the teachers, the doctors, the students, everyone’s everything gets dumped into an email server. Obviously things come out that aren’t supposed to come out. The book follows a couple of different perspectives of some of the people affected by the hack, all of them women, and what they go through. It’s really about how far people will go to protect their reputations.
It’s funny, this book actually started quite a few years ago as an idea for a TV show. I didn’t have much to do with Pretty Little Liars as a show, but was always really interested in how it worked, and how to develop a story that can last over multiple episodes and multiple seasons. I started working with some people at Warner Bros. to create this idea about a hack, and all these people whose lives it touched. We got really close to getting it ready to pitch, but I had another show called The Perfectionists that takes place in a college town get picked up right at the same time, and they realized you can’t have two properties set at a college. They were too similar, even though they’re not similar at all. Still I thought it would make a really fun book, and it kind of went from there. I would say the kernel of the idea came from the Sony hack, which happened right around that time. I structured the hack in Reputation to look how the Sony hack looked, which is just that everyone’s data was dumped on this server.
You mentioned the story is told from different female perspectives. How did that work for you as a writer, and why was it important that all the voices be female?
It’s kind of my natural inclination to write female, although I have written male perspectives. I felt it was important to focus on the things that were affecting these very different women. And they are very different. There’s one woman who cares so much about how things look and being on top—she’s not a woman who helps other women, she wants to keep everyone else down. And there’s Raina, who’s young and just trying to climb out of where she comes from, but she makes terrible choices. Mostly it’s about the two sisters Kit and Willa who are very different and are dealing with motherhood and career. Willa also has a secret about the college that she’s kept for a long time. I wanted to concentrate on women’s issues and how much a hack could affect women.
Side note, I think you’re incredible at naming characters. I feel like you could do a full baby book of Sara Shepard character names.
Honestly, it’s getting harder because I’ve written so many books. I remember writing Pretty Little Liars, and because there were so many of those books, being like, “What boy name have I not yet used that’s kind of cool?” I named a character Lynn in Reputation because of a charity auction for childhood leukemia where I said I would name a character after whoever bid and won. The person who donated wanted me to name a character after his girlfriend, Lynn.
On a technical level, how do you plan a story with so many characters and so many turns? Do you have to physically map it out?
I outline it. I do try to think of the beats of each character, because I use a three act structure in the books. So what are their chapters, and what are the things that the characters are learning in each of these acts? I also write everybody individually. This book, like Pretty Little Liars, has multiple POVs, and to make sure their stories make sense I’ll write their stories independently so I’m not flipping from character to character. Then I weave them together. But I do a lot of outlining. For this book I had an outline, and then after the first draft I had to re-outline. There are a lot of moving parts; I have a lot of pages that I don’t use for everything that I write. Whole drafts get scrapped.
And how are you so prolific?
I became so prolific because back in Pretty Little Liars days my first book deal was for four books, and they’d come out every six months. But even before that I’ve always been used to jumping from one thing to another. I got an MFA and at the same time I also had a job, and I also was a ghostwriter, so I was doing all those things at once. Even now I flip back and forth from different projects. Right now I’m working on a new novel which is taking up most of my thoughts, but there have been a couple of other things that have come up that I will go and look at and fiddle around with. I often do more than one thing at a time.
I wanted to ask you about Pennsylvania because it’s where so many of your stories are set. Is that a return home for you because you’re from there, or is there something about the state of Pennsylvania that you think lends itself as a good backdrop?
Pennsylvania has a lot of different parts to it. It has its very affluent parts and many, many universities, and there’s a lot of culture. But then it also has its middle of nowhere, very remote towns where you see this very different part of life. I grew up being in both those worlds, because my parents were from out in the middle of nowhere in western Pennsylvania, and especially driving there you’d go through these towns like, “Where are we?” That always intrigued me. Pretty Little Liars is set in a very different part of Pennsylvania which is very wealthy, Eastern Seaboard, close to Philadelphia. I also still live here so it does feel both like home and easy to draw from. I can just look out my window, and there it is. But I do think it’s interesting that you get such a huge slice of what people are like just from driving a few hours here and there in this one state.
I’m sure this is an impossible question for you to answer, but what do you think it is about your writing and your stories that has been so compelling to readers and viewers?
Pretty Little Liars was great timing. I remember developing that idea, and Gossip Girl was really popular at the time, and I was like, “I don’t want to write another Gossip Girl, but I want to write something about issues that people are going through, and I also want to have a mystery element.” With text messaging and cyberbullying and all that coming onto the scene it was just unusual timing.
I also just try to write what I find interesting, and what I find entertaining, and the most suspenseful thing I can think of. I was thinking about this the other day, being like, “I can’t believe I have another book coming out.” When I got the first Pretty Little Liars deal, I was like, “Okay, well, I can at least sustain this for two years and not have to work in an office,” but that was 13 years ago. That I still can do this is a really special thing.
How many books have you written?
I am not sure. I think it’s over 30, but I’m not sure, it might be 32? (Shepard’s publisher confirmed that she’s written 39.)
So how many books is that a year?
Well, it used to be quite a few. There was this one year where I had five books out. I had two series simultaneously, Pretty Little Liars and The Lying Game, and I had an adult book come out at the same time called The Heiresses. It was insane. And also that year my second son was born. I look back, and I have no idea how I did that. These days it’s more like one book a year, maybe two if there’s a YA novel. It’s much more manageable.
And when and where do you write?
Having kids, I just write on a nine-to-five schedule, five days a week. I have an office in my house on the top floor. I used to be really good at writing anywhere, but I’m no longer great at writing in, for instance, an airport. I’ve lost that ability for some reason. I get really self-conscious and think, “Are people looking over my shoulder? Are people reading this? Is it terrible?” For the most part I write in my house, which is where I get my best work done. I am not someone who writes on my phone. I know some people who’ve written half a novel on their smartphone, but no way.
Looking into the future, do you think you’ll continue with a mixture of YA and adult books?
I hope so. The book I’m working on now is also for adults. It’s another thriller, a scandal at a high-end nursery school. It’s about parents again, another domestic thriller, but there are secrets, and somebody is almost killed—and I have thoughts for more adult books in the future. I also have a YA book coming out in June that I wrote with a young influencer Lilia Buckingham, called Influence. It’s a YA thriller about the world of young influencers in L.A. It’s kind of nuts. I hope to continue YA, but I don’t have a series in the works or anything like that.
You mentioned that Reputation started as a potential series. Do you imagine that it will go to the screen at some point?
I would love that. I think it’s a great idea. It’s certainly something I would watch.
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—The Peloton holiday ad controversy shows what brands are up against
—Debunking the myth of workplace ‘Mean Girls’
—J.C. Penney’s retail lab at center of CEO Jill Soltau’s turnaround plans
—Can virtual reality teach executives what it feels like to be excluded?
—Ellen Kullman becomes an exception: a woman who’s been CEO—twice
Keep up with the world’s most powerful women with The Broadsheet newsletter.