Thursday, July 19, 2012

Author Sara Shepard a speaker at BookFestPA

Author Sara Shepard
Author Sara Shepard spent some of her elementary school years in State College, she told the BookFestPA crowd gathered to hear her speak on Saturday at State College Presbyterian Church. Shepard is author of the "Pretty Little Liars" YA series (now six published books) as well as 2 books intended for adults, "The Visibles"(2009) and "Everything We Ever Wanted" (2011).

I am sorry to say I left my camera/phone in my car while hurrying toward this event, attempting free street parking several blocks away ... SO, I did not get a photo that day of the ebullient Shepard, neatly dressed in a fashionable kelly green sleeveless dress accessorized by a chunky brown bead necklace, her long straight light brown hair cut with bangs worn down, despite the 95-degree heat outside. The photos I use here are borrowed from the Internet.

Clearly Shepard is practiced at telling her story to groups. She appeared to be quite comfortable in the pulpit, as it were, talking animatedly about her work and how she came to be a novelist. There were maybe 70 of us in the audience.

"Writing books was always what I wanted to do as a kid," she said. When she was halfway through her Master of Fine Arts program at Brooklyn College, Shepard said she "got in touch with" Alloy Entertainment, which produces books for teens and pre-teens.

"I crashed their Christmas party and begged them to give me any writing job they had," Shepard said with a wry smile. "They needed ghostwriters."

The job, though it paid nothing - as entry-level publishing jobs are know to do - turned out to be a really "great way to write a book," Shepard said. For Alloy, she wrote three books in a series of six about samurai girls."They were not my characters, not my plot."

At the time Shepard also had a day job. "As a writer, you just don't think you're going to have a job doing this," she said.

Growing up, she was a big fan of the spooky TV series "Twin Peaks," which was an inspiration for the "Pretty Little Liars" series.

But years later now, with several novels under her belt, Shepard has made it to full-time novelist.

Shepard noted that writing about what you know is always advisable ... however, she added, "I never had a stalker named 'A' or a stalker at all (as in the PLL series); I never had a car accident and then forgot who did it to me. But I have a lot in common with these characters. The characters were all sort of based on my life ... though I never had an affair with a teacher!"

She said sometimes it's hard to plot the PLL series books, to keep it all straight. The series started out as doing 8 chapters on spec, which turned into four books, which turned into 8, then 12, and is up to 14 - where Shepard says she will stop. She's writing "The Lying Game" along with the "Pretty Little Liars" books.

"'The Lying Game' is more about class than "Pretty Little Liars," Shepard said. The live twin who takes over a dead twin's body was a foster child, and the dead twin was rich and popular," the author said. "The Lying Game" is set in Arizona, where Shepard lived until recently returning to the Philadelphia area.

"Writing YA is something I did not plan to do, but sort of fell into it and I'm really happy to do it," Shepard said, noting her two adult books haven't gained as much acclaim.

During a brief Q&A period, Shepard said if the had to pick a favorite PLL character, it would be Hanna. She said her favorite authors include Wally Lamb, Margaret Atwood, Alice Hoffman and Jeffrey Eugenides. As a teen, she liked Lois Duncan and V.C. Andrews. "I tend to like books with young characters," Shepard said.

Asked how she names her characters, Shepard said she tends to choose names she has no connection to. But once, she used the name Ezra Fitz for a character. That name belongs to a schoolmate at Corl Street Elementary in State College. In her book, Fitz is a teacher who sleeps with a student, Aria. The real Fitz contacted her after the book was published and luckily was flattered to be included, though there was no behavioral connection to the real Fitz, who is also a writer, and the fictional Fitz, Shepard laughed.
She advised those who want to write books to a living to "move to New York!" for the connections.

She added: "You really need to read a lot and find someone who will read it and constructively criticize your work. Have a thick skin if you're trying to get published, because you're going to get rejected A LOT. Don't pay attention to reviews. Network, go to conferences. Get an agent who works for you.

"If you just love to (write) anyway, you're halfway there."

Shepard's books:

The "Pretty Little Liars" series includes:
  • Pretty Little Liars (October 3, 2006). 
  • Flawless (March 7, 2007). 
  • Perfect (August 21, 2007).
  • Unbelievable (May 27, 2008). 
  • Wicked (November 25, 2008). 
  • Killer (June 30, 2009).
  • Heartless (January 19, 2010). 
  • Wanted (June 8, 2010).
  • Twisted (July 5, 2011). 
  • Ruthless (December 6, 2011). 
  • Stunning (June 5, 2012). 
  • Burned (December 2, 2012). 
  • Pretty Little Liars: Pretty Little Secrets (January 3, 2012).
Her subsequent YA series, "The Lying Game":
  • The Lying Game (December 7, 2010). 
  • Never Have I Ever (August 2, 2011). 
  • Two Truths and A Lie (February 7, 2012). 
  • Hide and Seek (July 31, 2012).
  • Cross My Heart, Hope To Die (February 5, 2013)
Both YA series are now popular TV series on ABC Family.

"I don't have very much to say about the shows," Shepard said. "A lot of people were mad about the girls who were cast because they didn't look like the girls on the covers ... but it didn't matter to me."

About the author 

Sara Shepard graduated from Downingtown West High School in 1995 (she's younger than I am!) and got her undergraduate degree from New York University. She got her MFA at Brooklyn College and now lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and dogs. She says she lives in suburban Philadelphia, on the Main Line, though she did not offer a town. Perhaps I'll run into her in Ardmore or Wayne sometime!

Learn more about Shepard on her website.

Next up: Tawni O'Dell's keynote presentation at BookFestPA.

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