Sara Shepard on Reputation, Email Hacks, and Taylor Swift

Sara Shepard on Reputation, Email Hacks, and Taylor Swift

If the world could suddenly read and search your entire email inbox, what would the consequences be? This is exactly the situation that the characters in Sara Shepard’s new novel Reputation find themselves in, and the results are deadly. Here, Shepard chats with Bookish about email hacks, writing about complicated relationships, and being inspired by Taylor Swift.

Bookish: This book is titled Reputation, and the first section is titled “Look What You Made Me Do.” Is there a Taylor Swift connection there? If so, what inspired you to include her in this book?

Sara Shepard: Ha! To be honest, I always knew the title of this book would be Reputation, and around the same time, Taylor Swift’s album of the same name came out. So I had her song lyrics in my head. Normally I’m not that much of a Taylor Swift fan—though her songs are admittedly crazily catchy—but I thought the line “Look What You Made Me Do” was a perfect intro to this story of people forced into sticky, compromising situations because of a massive email leak. 

Bookish: Was the hack in this novel based on any real-life data breaches? Have you ever been hacked or had your information compromised? 

SS: The hack was based on the SONY hack a few years ago. I read a lot of reports about how the systems went down and how the information was posted online, and then of course drilled down to read about all the things, both major and minor, that were exposed, including random Amazon purchases and the like. Since SONY, plenty of other email breaches have happened that I’ve also drawn inspiration from, but I’d say SONY was where it all started. 

Knock on wood, I haven’t personally experienced any real-life data breaches. I’ve had family members who’ve been victims of identity theft, though. My mother’s credit card was compromised once, and she ended up getting mysterious gardening gloves in the mail. Inside the gloves were marijuana seeds! (This was back before marijuana was legal anywhere in this country.) I guess the hacker screwed up and didn’t change the mailing address when he stole her card info.

Bookish: There are a number of complex relationships in this novel. Was one particularly fun to write? 

SS: I loved thinking about how Kit and Greg functioned. When you get down to it, they were both a little at fault for their marriage starting to crack, and it took a lot of tweaking to get at their separate issues. Laura and Ollie’s relationship was a fascinating one to delve into as well—especially the infertility piece and how desolate a landscape it can be. It’s funny that I say these are “fun” endeavors—it’s writing about people going through very painful things—but it feels satisfying once you feel you’ve nailed a relationship.

Bookish: Reputations are a major motivator in this novel: Characters care a lot about how they are perceived, often to their own detriment. What drew you to this theme? 

SS: I think that all of my books are about reputation to some extent—most of my characters keep secrets to preserve how they appear to others. I feel like it’s a universal issue, you know? We’re all keeping something hidden, even if it’s very small. I’m not saying they’re secret shames, necessarily, but maybe a quirky interest, or a random freak-out to a cashier at the pharmacy, or a snarky email dashed off in haste. Not everyone knows everything about us… but what happens in a world when suddenly everyone does? A hack—and secrets being exposed—seemed like a natural thing for me to write about. 

Bookish: The plot of this book is delightfully twisty: Did you have every twist and turn mapped out when you started writing, or did some elements of the plot surprise you? 

SS: This book went through a lot of plotting to get to where it is. I’ll say that by the last draft, YES, I knew everything! But by the first draft? Absolutely not. There were whole characters I ended up cutting, including a nosy investigator who ends up being a love interest for Willa. I decided I wanted Willa to be the primary investigator, not someone else. As for who “did it,” though, that I always knew. But all of the other pieces were quite fluid.

Bookish: There is a strong #MeToo element in this book. What do you hope that this book adds to the conversation about harassment and assault? 

SS: In this story, strong, middle-class, educated women suffer abuse and hide it. For so long, hiding it was the norm, but I think any narrative that shows women breaking out of that mold helps to further the conversation. To be honest, #MeToo and the dialogue surrounding it has made me rethink a lot of behavior I’ve endured (or ignored) over the years. I think everyone becoming more conscientious about it will help change the landscape.

Bookish: At the end of the Acknowledgments section, you write that it’s wise not to put your real thoughts into an email because people will always find out. Why do you think this is such important advice? 

SS: It’s unfortunate advice, and I kind of meant it tongue-in-cheek, but with data being so sensitive these days, email isn’t really a safe, private haven. Share your thoughts in therapy, maybe? Or maybe go old school and get a diary with a lock on it. Then again, it would have to be a lock no one would be able to pick…

Bookish: What have you read recently that you’ve loved? 

SS: I really liked The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo—she so deftly paints nuanced family dynamics—and I’m reading The Perfect Wife by J.P. Delaney, which is this weird mix of thriller and sci-fi and asks interesting questions about memories, love, trust, and what makes us human.

For as long as she can remember, Sara Shepard has been writing. However, when she was young she also wanted to be a soap opera star, a designer for LEGO, a filmmaker, a claymation artist, a geneticist, and a fashion magazine editor when she grew up. She and her sister have been creating joint artistic and written projects for years, except they’re pretty sure they’re the only ones who find them funny. She got her MFA at Brooklyn College and now lives outside Philadelphia, PA with her husband and dogs. Her first adult novel is called The Visibles / All The Things We Didn’t Say. Sara’s bestselling young adult series, Pretty Little Liars, is loosely based on her experiences growing up on Philadelphia’s Main Line…although luckily she never had any serious stalkers. The series has also inspired the ABC Family television series of the same name.

Elizabeth Rowe
Elizabeth is a graduate of Columbia University's MFA program in Nonfiction Writing. She is based in San Francisco and can frequently be found at Philz with her nose in a book. Her current obsession is the My Struggle series by Karl Ove Knausgaard, and she thoroughly embarrassed herself when she met him shortly after the release of volume four (and she has the photos to prove it).

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