One of the books at the top of our must-read list for this year was The Elizas (Atria Books), which just seemed to have every element you want out of a thriller: a narrator who isn’t quite sure what’s going on but whom no one will believe; a case of identity confusion; a beautiful location; and last, but perhaps most important, a writer who really knows what she’s doing.
Sara Shepard has a talent for writing some of the most complex and layered plots to ever hit the page, but she does so with what seems like little to no effort, and manages to explain everything out in the end in a way that has you berating yourself for not seeing it before. While a lot of her works has been in the YA genre – most notably, perhaps, her 16 book Pretty Little Liars series, which was turned into a hit ABC television show – that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a whole host of other work to her name, including two standalone novels, and three other series.
The Elizas centers around Eliza Fontaine, a debut novelist with a somewhat troubled past. Waking up in the hospital, Eliza is told that she was found at the bottom of a hotel pool, the result of another suicide attempt. But Eliza doesn’t remember trying to kill herself. In fact, she’s pretty sure she remembers someone pushing her in, her rescuer the only possible witness. Desperate to find out who tried to murder her and why, Eliza decides to investigate, while the publication date of her book draws closer. The further she gets into her investigation, the more questions she ends up with: most notably, why her agent, editor, and family keep mixing up events in her book with her own life. Struggling to recall what happened, the lines between fiction and reality blur together for Eliza, until she can no longer tell where one ends, and the other begins.
Sara Shepard spoke with us about how she first started writing, how she manages to write such complex plots, writing a book-within-a-book, and what’s coming next for her.
BookTrib: You wrote YA novels for years, perhaps most noticeably the Pretty Little Liars series, before switching to adult fiction. What was that transition, and writing for a completely new audience like for you?
Sara Shepard: I had written some other novels aimed more for an adult audience before; I wrote The Visibles in 2009 – it’s kind of a coming-of-age novel, and then Everything We Ever Wanted in 2011, and then The Heiresses came out in 2014. So, I had a little bit of experience writing for adults. Actually, when I got my MFA when I was in school, I always thought that I’d be writing for adults, it’s what I really like to do, and all the books I like to read are literary fiction. So, I started out writing for adults kind of thinking about what I like to read, and tried to think about writing for me, or my mother, or good friends who have the same reading tastes that I do.
BookTrib: So I guess the better question would be how you got started writing in the YA genre!
SS: I got my start in writing fiction as a ghost writer. I started working with a book packager – at the time they were called 17th Street Productions, but now they’re called Alloy Entertainment; they put out Gossip Girl, and we created Pretty Little Liars together – but back years ago, I think in 2002, I found out that they were looking for some ghost writers to do work-for-hire projects, where they came up with the concept, the characters and the outline of the plot, and they just needed writers to execute it.
I was living in New York City, and had no money, and I was looking for freelance writing work anyway, but most of it was in journalism, and I thought It would be so fun to be a freelance fiction writer. I begged them to give me a shot at writing, and eventually they said yes . So, I got to write a couple of books for them as a ghost writer, either middle grade book or YA, but once I did the YA ones, I just started having so much fun with it. It was also around the time when YA novels were really starting to explode into the marketplace. Twilight was just coming out, and there just wasn’t a ton of YA back then, so it was really great timing. Then I came up with Pretty Little Liars, and I loved the characters so much, and was just like “Okay! I’m writing YA now.”
BookTrib: You tend to write mystery and thrillers, with lots of twists, and in The Elizas, you basically kind of warp the main character’s reality with the book that she’s written, so that she can’t tell the difference sometimes. This was overlapped and intertwined so beautifully – did you find this difficult to do?
SS: It was a lot of work! It was a lot of drafts and trying to make things line up. I had to make the book-within-the-book as compelling as her life, and make sure that it lined up with the ratcheting up of the tension in her life. It’s funny, one of my big things as a writer is that when I feel stuck and I have to get away from the computer, I’ll go running, or I’ll go walk my dog, and I’ll have all these ideas that I’ll write them down in my Note app. So, I had all these notes on this book, and it didn’t occur to me until I was a few drafts into writing the book that it should even be a book-within-a-book. The chapters in the book where her book is were just flashback chapters. But then I was like, She’s an author – these should be pieces of her book, and she doesn’t quite realize that they happened to her. So that actually all came later.
I remember having the idea, actually – it was a complete, lightning-strike, light-bulb moment! It was kind of fun, that I got to write the story like it was a story, but that it actually wasn’t.
BookTrib: Eliza is a really interesting character, especially if you look at other unreliable narrators in literature. Eliza is just very different than them: she’s bold, a little bit brash, and very determined. She’s really just a truly compelling character. How did she first come to you?
SS: I always kind of wanted to write a character like Eliza. I feel like I’ve known a lot of characters like her, and I feel like I’m a little bit like her, and some of my friends are a little bit like her. I read a lot of thriller novels featuring women, and they’re sort of meek, and taken advantage of, and kind of interchangeable, in a way. I feel like I’ve read a string of books about women with these awful husbands, and then they sort of take charge, and manipulate things so that these guys go down, but they always start off in these places where they’re weak, and not really original.
I wanted to create a character who was her own person, and not ashamed to be her own person, who had some strength to her. Obviously, she’s starting from a vulnerable place because she’s confused and she doesn’t know what’s going on, and she doesn’t feel like the people around her are telling her the truth. But it’s not like she hasn’t had some success in her life, and you can tell that she’s smart. She really kind of came from me just knowing people who were kind of like her, and having her be into the same stuff that I’m into, but making her a more exaggerated version of that. She was a lot of fun to write.
BookTrib: Another thing about Eliza is that this whole book is kind of wrapped around her identity kind of being taken by another person, and the lines between where one identity end and another one begins being blurred.
SS: I love writing about identity, and I think having a YA background means that’s something you’re always thinking about in the background. With teenagers, they’re always kind of searching for Who am I? What am I all about? and What group do I fit in? and this goes deeper than that, and Eliza’s sort of realizing that this one person has kind of shaped part of who she grew up to be, and she’s starting to question who she really is. That’s kind of why I made her a younger character, because she’s asking some of the same questions that teenagers and young adults ask going forwards. But I’ve also always really been into lookalikes – and Pretty Little Liars has a lot of that in it as well, it has twins, and people who look like other people, and not know who’s who – but this isn’t really anything like that. I think there were some movies that inspired me when I was writing this; I cant’t think of them right now, but there were definitely some old movies that I used for getting that creepy, not-knowing-who’s-watching-you vibe, and why does this person look like me? But it’s a theme that I always find interesting to talk about, and have a character figure out… and it’s something that we kind of all go through.
BookTrib: So, this book is written completely from Eliza’s perspective, and she has no idea what’s going on, while certain other characters, and you, do. How hard was it to write from the perspective of not knowing what was going on, while really having it all figured out?
SS: I feel like I do this with all of the books I’ve written, where I have another document, or several documents, where on document will say what’s actually happening, in reality, from an omniscient point of view, but then another will say what each character knows, or what they perceive is happening. But you can’t have a character give away too much: it has to be vague enough to not give away what that person knows, but they also can’t be pretending like they know nothing. It can be very hard to keep straight. So, again I think it’s a matter of having those different documents, and I had a lot of readers on this as well, before it was even edited. So, there were definitely some points where they said, “By this point, wouldn’t she already know this?” or “Wouldn’t this give it away?” It was just a lot of carefully going through it. It sort of seems like a lot of literature is using the unreliable narrator, and narrative tricks that make the reader think one thing, by this carefully placed language, but it turns out that it’s another thing. So, I didn’t do that exactly, I guess. But I think with all my books I have a lot of outlines, and additional material that I refer to throughout writing the books. But it’s fun – it’s like a puzzle.
BookTrib: Just to finish up, I know that this book just came out, and you’re probably taking a very well-deserved break, but do you have plans for any forthcoming books?
SS: I do! I have a book, or a draft of a book – it’s another thriller for adults – it’s called Reputation, and it will be out… I don’t know when! I would say maybe late 2019, or early 2020. And, I have another idea for another thriller, again adult! So, my writing is kind of moving that way. I’ll go back to YA eventually, but right now all my ideas are for adults. And I’m also working on an idea for TV.
The Elizas is now available for purchase.
ABOUT SARA SHEPARD
Sara Shepard is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Pretty Little Liars series. She has also written other young adult series and novels, including The Lying Game, The Heiresses, and The Perfectionists. Sara now lives outside of Philadelphia with her husband, sons, and dogs.