Thousands of young readers are mad for Sara Shepard’s dramatic tales of teenage betrayal and mystery.
But, it may be her meteoric rise from young author to bestseller of “Pretty Little Liars” that is the most amazing story of all.
“I was always writing,” Shepard said. “As little kids, my sister and I sat quietly and drew and wrote and made up silly stories.”
First published in 2006, “Pretty Little Liars” revolves around a clique of high school girls who navigate a dark high school world of gossip and deceit after the disappearance of their leader, Ali. The novel quickly became a hit and stayed on the New York Times’ Best Sellers list through summer 2012.
Shepard, now 35, spoke to a group of roughly 150 students, faculty and community members in the large auditorium of the campus life and sciences building. She said her success was not something she could have imagined when she was an undergraduate student studying English at New York University.
“They drilled it into our heads that you will never get published,” Shepard said. “It’s so hard you’re going to have to have some other form of employment.”
After college, Shepard worked a number of jobs, including journalist and ghostwriter for a popular novel’s short story spin-off. When she pitched the story of a group of mean high school girls and their deadly consequences to editors, she was surprised by the response: a contract for four books.
She never looked back.
“Suddenly, I’m this full-time author,” Shepard said, “and it’s been wonderful ever since.”
Shepard, born in Kittanning in Armstrong County, moved to the Philadelphia area when she was in 6th grade. “Pretty Little Liars” is set in Pennsylvania and her experiences growing up heavily influenced her writing.
The characters “all came from elements of my own life or experiences,” Shepard said. “Suburban Philadelphia, where I grew up, is just sort of … suburban. You know, snooty, uppity at times, but also very unique and fascinating.”
“Any writing class will tell you, when you know something, it just makes your writing so much stronger.”
Shepard went into detail about her writing style, giving some pointers on the way she kept the thread going with the 14 books in the “Pretty Little Liars” series and six novels in “The Lying Game.”
“A lot of authors don’t outline,” Shepard said. “But there’s so much going on, if I didn’t write an outline, I’d go insane.”
Her first experiences after her initial book was published – recruiting readers on MySpace, Facebook and Twitter – quickly evolved into receiving fan art in the form of stop-action animation and re-enactment videos. A television executive approached her about creating a pilot out of the novel.
“I can’t describe what it feels like to have this thing you worked so hard on reworked by Hollywood people,” Shepard said. “It’s kind of an indescribable thing for an author.”
Shepard’s novels have been dynamite on the small screen. Two of the popular book series she has written, “Pretty Little Liars” and “The Lying Game,” have been made into television shows on the ABC Family channel.
The crowd at the event was very well-prepared. A snafu with a nearby bookstore meant organizers couldn’t sell copies at the lecture. But that didn’t stop about 100 people from participating in the following autograph session. Copies of books, photographs, DVDs and even one VHS tape brought in by fans were graced by Shepard’s signature.
Freshman Abby Boytos, 18, of West Mifflin, brought the most recent book from the series, “Ali’s Pretty Little Lies,” to be signed, along with two friends from home she convinced to accompany her.
“I was really, really excited when I found out she was coming to campus,” said Boytos, who owns all eight original books in the series. “I wanted to bring all my books to sign, but they would only let me bring one.”