In Ally Carter's Heist Society, a crew of teenage thieves—led by Kat, youngest in a clan of accomplished heistmasters—gets down to the sticky business of retrieving valuable paintings stolen from an Italian mobster. Kat has strong incentive for recovering the masterpieces: to clear the name of her father, prime suspect in the theft, and to return the paintings, plundered by the Nazis decades before, to their rightful place. Launching a series, this latest work by the author of I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You and subsequent Gallagher Girls novels was published by Disney-Hyperion with a 200,000-copy printing. Carter talked to Bookshelf about why—and how—she dunnit.
First, taking a look back, when did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
Like many authors, I caught the writing bug during my teenage years. I don't remember the exact day or year, but I remember that reading S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders sparked my interest in writing.
So you dabbled in writing as a teen?
I did. Like so many aspiring writers who still have boxes of things they've written in their parents' houses, I filled notebooks with half-finished poems and stories and first paragraphs of novels that never got written.
And did you then pursue writing in school?
No, actually. I am practical by nature, and I'd heard that being a writer or an artist is a good way to starve! So I was an economics major at Oklahoma State, and then received an M.S. from Cornell in Agricultural Resource and Managerial Economics. I knew if I wanted to write I would do it on my own, but I knew I wouldn't make myself study economics on my own. So after working a day job for several years, I decided to focus on my writing.
Did you immediately gravitate toward writing for young adults?
Actually, I first wrote an adult novel, Cheating at Solitaire, which Berkley published. And then I wrote I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You, before writing another book for adults, Learning to Play Gin, also published by Berkley. I discovered I felt much more at home with my young adult voice than I've ever felt with adult romance or adult chick-lit.
Since the Gallagher Girls series is set in a school for spies-in-training, it seems a logical jump for you to write about young thieves. But what was it that specifically triggered Heist Society's plot?
I had just finished writing Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy, the second Gallagher Girls book, and like most sequels it was very challenging to write. I wanted to do something different, to stretch my legs a bit. I remember driving in my car, listening to a book on tape, and there was a line that said something like, "I feel like a cat burglar in my own house." I immediately thought about a girl named Kat who was a burglar. That was the seed of this novel.
Obviously you include in the novel historical details as well as crime-related maneuvers and jargon. What kind of research did this entail?
My research was more related to the art works and the art world. I did some research on famous art thieves and art crimes, but I made up a lot of the crime stuff that's in the novel. I came up with insider names for different crimes and heists and had fun with that. But I knew I had to get the art details right, so I spent a lot of time researching what happened during the Holocaust and learning what artists the Nazis had cherished and which artists' works they would have burned. I also wanted to make sure I could write knowledgably about the eras of the paintings and where they would be displayed in a museum.
Did the characters come easily to you?
It all fell together once I figured out how big the cast of characters was going to be. I didn't want the cast to spiral out of control, but wanted to keep it small enough so that readers felt they got to know the characters well. Once I figured out what skills were needed, I could work out what types of characters would have those skills. Writing these characters was the most fun I've had in a long time!
Masterminding a major heist, these players certainly don't have typical teen lives. Was it a challenge to keep Kat and the others real?
I know I do—and I think others do—like to read and watch escapist types of things, so that was always in my mind. I've never written a typical I-go-to-high-school-and-here-I-am-standing-by-my-locker story. But it's absolutely key that readers identify with characters, if even in a wishful kind of capacity. There has to be an emotional connection between reader and characters—otherwise there's no reason to keep reading.
So how did you build that connection, given your somewhat sensational setting?
I think the connection comes from the character on the inside, and doesn't matter what the external circumstances are. At the core, I try to write characters who are real people with real insecurities, fears, hopes, and dreams, which is why hopefully readers can identify with them. Kat is an elite thief, but at her core, she wants a chance to be a normal girl. It's important that characters do not become caricatures, that they're not just about those external circumstances. I must keep their souls and spirits rooted in being a teen, in the interior, so readers can relate to them and appreciate them.
Kat comes across as a good and ethical person—yet she definitely is treading on gray moral and legal turf. Did you justify her actions by the fact that she's stealing for a good cause?
Absolutely. I knew I couldn't have these characters doing what they do otherwise. That is one thing all Heist Society novels will have in common: the person the thieves are stealing from must be far less likable than the people doing the stealing, and the teens have to be going after something for a good reason. It's hard when writing for teens, knowing that a lot of adult gatekeepers are going to be looking at the book. I don't want to send the message that stealing is good. I'd never have Kat steal a diamond bracelet because she wanted one. Here she is not technically stealing something, but going after something that's been stolen. I felt that was an important distinction that I needed to make.
Do you envision the Heist Society series as open-ended?
Yes, I am planning on wrapping up the Gallagher Girls after six books, but this I see as open-ended. That's a model that I like and respond to in adult publishing, and we haven't seen a terribly lot of open-ended series in YA lately. I see each Heist Society book as an episodic, stand-alone book rather than continuing a single story.
Have you started the second installment?
I'm writing the first draft now. I took a break to write the fourth Gallagher Girls novel, Only the Good Spy Young, which will be out in June. I'm finding it fun to get back into the Heist Society world. Any time I leave characters for a while and come back to them, I find it nice to see them again.
So the second novel will star the same characters?
The crew might change up a bit—I haven't quite decided. But I know that Kat's work was definitely not done by the end of the first book. In fact I'm hoping that in this next book she's involved in multiple heists—to shake it up a bit.
And it's true that Kat and her accomplices might find their way onto the silver screen?
Yes—and it's very exciting! Warner Brothers has optioned the movie rights and Shauna Cross, who wrote the screenplays for Whip It! and If I Stay, is working on the screenplay as we speak. Everything seems to be happening very quickly.
Will you be involved at all?
Not in the writing. Shauna has e-mailed me with questions and we've brainstormed a bit. But I think it's best to leave it to the experts. People have asked me why I wouldn't write the screenplay myself, and I answer that that would be like a surgeon taking out his or her own appendix. It would be very painful—and I don't really have the right point of view to do that.
So what do you predict the future holds in terms of your writing?
I think I'll continue writing in the same vein, writing about young women who find themselves in some sort of exceptional circumstances. I didn't consciously set out to do that with the Gallagher Girls and Heist Society, but I do like building exceptional worlds around characters I love.
You mentioned Hinton's The Outsiders as hooking you on the idea of writing when you were young. As your career unfolds, do you find that other authors offer you inspiration?
I am a huge fan of young adult fiction and try to read as much of it as I can. My favorite books of the last few years were E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks and the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. I'm also very inspired by a wide range of adult authors—from Janet Evanovich to Dennis Lehane and Daniel Silva. Really, I'm just a sucker for an interesting story told well—no matter where it happens to be shelved in the store.
You are a dedicated blogger. Do you find that your blog is a useful way to keep in touch with your readers, and do you use the feedback you receive through that online dialogue to shape your novels in any way?
Absolutely! I enjoy writing my blog for many reasons, one of which is that it allows me to keep in touch with readers during those long stretches of time when I'm working on books and am not touring or am not around readers in person. I really enjoy that interaction, because teen readers are smart and very, very savvy, and frequently they have fabulous insights that adults—myself included—might have missed.
That said, however, I'm very careful to always keep in mind that we aren't writing future books by committee. Readers know what they think will happen—they're almost always passionate about what they want to have happen. But in the end, it's my job to figure out what needs to happen. Those can be three different things, and I'm very much aware of that fact.
Heist Society by Ally Carter. Hyperion, $16.99 ISBN 978-1-4231-1639-4 (Feb.)