A recently widowed mother of two, Sylvie Bates-McAllister finds her life upended by a late-night phone call from the headmaster of the prestigious private school founded by her grandfather where her adopted son Scott teaches. Allegations of Scott's involvement in a hazing scandal cause a ripple effect, throwing the entire family into chaos. For Charles, Sylvie's biological son, it dredges up a ghost from the past who is suddenly painfully present. For his wife Joanna, it forces her to reevaluate everything she's hoped for in the golden Bates-McAllisters. And for Scott, it illuminates harsh truths about a world he has never truly felt himself a part of.
But for all the Bates-McAllisters, the call exposes a tangled web of secrets that ties the family together: the mystery of the school hazing, the event that tore Charles and Scott apart the night of their high school awards ceremony, and the intended recipient of a certain bracelet. The quest to unravel the truth takes the family on individual journeys across state lines, into hospitals, through the Pennsylvania woods, and face-to-face with the long-dormant question: what if the life you always planned for and dreamed of isn't what you want after all?
Adriana Trigiani Interviews Sara Shepard
Adriana Trigiani: Your name is often associated with your teen books, the best-selling series Pretty Little Liars and The Lying Game. How was the transition from writing for a teen audience to an adult audience? What types of issues were important to keep in mind?
Sara Shepard: I actually set out intending to write primarily adult fiction—I kind of fell into the teen world by accident (though I am very thrilled to write Pretty Little Liars and The Lying Game). I think there’s a little more freedom in writing for adults, with both writing style and subject matter. Certain things that I avoid in teen novels I can explore more deeply in adult books. I generally look at it like this: In teen novels, the characters are grappling with topics I used to worry about as a teenager, many of which I journaled obsessively about. In adult novels , the characters explore topics I’m worried about now. It’s fun to write about marriage and love and children because I feel very close to those things. But it’s also fun to write about first loves and dealing with parents and backstabbing friends because adolescence is so fraught with high-pitched emotions—that’s probably why coming-of-age novels are such a big business.
Trigiani: Like your teen novels, Everything We Ever Wanted features a death as a catalyst for the events of the story. Yet unlike in most of your previous novels, where the mystery and intrigue surrounding a death or disappearance is the main plot, this death serves more as the mechanism that brings the tensions within the Bates-McAllister family to the surface. How was writing this family drama different?
Shepard: I don’t generally outline my adult novels—I just start with a character or two and go. In this case, I started out with the relationship between Scott and Charles. I wanted to explore siblings who never connected, who had a lot of bad blood. My first idea was that Scott was going through a devastating illness, one that forced the family together. But since my last novel, The Visibles, was also about illness, I changed my mind and created a scandal instead. So the death of the student was kind of an afterthought—I just needed a catalyst to bring out the family’s demons.
Trigiani: The problem of bullying is certainly a very topical subject in schools across the country right now. What drew you to having this scandal as the center of your novel, especially given the fact that none of the characters are school age?
Shepard: I heard a story on NPR several years ago about a coach being accused of encouraging bullying in his team and wondered, “What was that all about?” Could a coach really have done such a thing? Were the parents just out for blood, looking for someone to blame? Was the coach motivated by parental or school pressure to lead the team to victory, or was there just something a bit dark and twisted about him? It’s one thing for kids to bully one another, after all, but when an adult gets involved, things become much more sinister.
It’s true that I don’t actually show any scenes of kids bullying one another—it’s more the rumor of it and the aftermath. But since everyone in the novel still sees Scott as never having matured beyond adolescence—he still lives at home, he’s aimless and irresponsible—the bullying connection seemed fitting. Everyone, including Scott’s family, thinks he’s guilty, simply based on how he behaves and looks. But is he? Is it as simple as that?
Trigiani: This book, like most of your others, takes place in the Main Line area outside Philadelphia, where you grew up and still live. How has your upbringing played a part in your writing? Are there characters and places from your own life that are recognizable in Everything We Ever Wanted, such as real equivalents to Swithin or Roderick?
Shepard: I tend to use caricatures of places I grew up or know well—when I have a clear vision of a place, its machinations, and rules in my mind, it’s much easier to twist those machinations just a bit to create my own little world. I like using the Main Line as a backdrop because I know the area very well, but really I was aiming for an Everyplace, a community that has a lot of wealth (McMansion neighborhoods, high-end grocery stores) but some more downtrodden sections as well (the apartment complex where Christian’s father lives). I had a school in my mind for Swithin and a bunch of different houses for Roderick, but they aren’t based on anything specific per se.
Trigiani: The narration switches between the points of view of Sylvie Bates-McAllister, her son Charles, and his wife Joanna. In terms of the parts in Charles’s perspective, was it a challenge to write from inside a man’s head?
Shepard: I’ve written short stories from a man’s POV before, so I wasn’t a complete male-narrator virgin. Reading books told by male narrators definitely helped—Anne Tyler has written quite a few wonderful novels from a man’s POV, for example. It was interesting to write from another perspective after writing about girls for so long! I’m actually writing a new novel right now, and one of the POVs is a rather eccentric 13-year-old boy. Now that’s hard.
Trigiani: I loved the character of Sylvie, the matriarch of the Bates-McAllister family. She starts off very prim and proper, haunted by the demons of the past, and yet she evolves so much throughout the course of novel. Have you known anyone like her?
Shepard: I feel like I know Sylvie, but I’m not entirely sure who she is in my life—more than likely a combination of a lot of people. That happens a lot with the characters I create—they’re sort of like me, or my mother, or a relative or friend I know well, but they’re also completely themselves, too. Sylvie’s so afraid to make a mistake. She’s lived within the rules for so long. But she has a lot of heart, and it was a lot of fun fleshing her out. I love the place she gets to in the end.
Trigiani: The question of Scott’s possible involvement in the Swithin wrestling team scandal permeates every interaction between the characters in the novel, and yet no one ever asks Scott if his connection to the scandal is real, nor does the reader see Scott’s point of view until the epilogue. How did you decide upon this important characteristic of the narration?
Shepard: The first draft of the novel didn’t have Scott’s POV at all, but I knew something was missing. When I added in his last chapter, the novel felt finished. I’ve known a lot of families that tiptoe around things without ever stating them aloud, so it was easy to write the scenes where the characters desperately want to know if Scott had something to do with the scandal but are too afraid to ask him. Withholding Scott’s POV until the very end also gives readers a chance to make up their minds for themselves. The characters in the novel have their preconceived impressions of Scott that influence their opinion, but does that match up to what we see of Scott in the novel? If they had different preconceived notions about him, would we as readers come to a different conclusion? One of the takeaway messages I wanted readers to get from this book is that people can sometimes surprise us. There are a lot of surprises at the end, a lot of characters who turn out to be more than just their first impressions.
“Sara Shepard delivers the perfect read with Everything We Ever Wanted. This is a delicious story loaded with mysterious twists and turns and a vault of secrets, that when revealed, will keep you turning pages long into the night. Sara is a brilliant storyteller.”
(Adriana Trigiani, bestselling author of Very Valentine and Brava, Valentine
“With unflinching honesty and unstinting compassion, Sara Shepard tells the story of a proud family, with the best intentions, who must face the hypocrisy of the past or lose any hope for saving the future.” (Jacquelyn Mitchard, author The Deep End of the Ocean
and Second Nature: A Love Story
“[An] expertly rendered novel of family dysfunction set in moneyed Main Line Philadelphia. . . . Readers will respond as this family grapples with their many long-held secrets.” (Publishers Weekly
“The strings are so tightly laced around this family that they are bound to break-when they do, old secrets reap surprising results. . . . Shepard has crafted a fine character study on the repressed lives of the American elite.” (Kirkus
“Explor[ing] the complexity of family dynamics and heritage. . . . Shepard delves deeply into the differing emotions and moods aroused by family conflict.” (Booklist
“This riveting, provocative and well-crafted family drama surprised and delivered at every turn. I could not put it down.” (Sarah Mlynowski, author of Ten Things We Did (and Probably Shouldn't Have)
“Compelling and touching, this is a story with a differencea real treat.” (Closer
, 4 stars (UK))