Ally Carter on Gallagher Girls, Uncommon Criminals, and more

Ally Carter, author of The Gallagher Girls and Heist Society, graciously let me steal her away for a quick interview at the RT Booklovers Convention to talk heists, spies, and what’s coming up next.

Byrt: Ally, I wanted to ask you – how did you first get interested in writing about spies?

Ally Carter: I’ve always been fascinated with spies, like most people – I watched a lot of James Bond, read a lot of Nancy Drew. The girl sleuth trope had always been kind of appealing to me. But it wasn’t until I was watching ALIAS one night – and I loved ALIAS, it was one of my favorite shows – and there was an old flashback episode, of when the main character’s half sister was growing up in an orphanage in Argentina. And she was running through the halls in the middle of the night, and I kind of was just half watching out of the corner of my eye, and my first instinct was, oh my gosh, I bet she went to a boarding school for spies. And of course that wasn’t what was actually going on in the clip, but that was where my mind went – and I thought, well now I’ve got to write about a boarding school for spies.

Byrt: Now what kind of research did you do for this?

Ally Carter: I did a lot of research, especially at the beginning – how the school should be set up, what would be the subjects and the topics that real spies would have to study. I knew that languages would be important, math, science – one of the key jobs of the spy is being able to sort of blend in anywhere they go, so I wanted to make sure that the girls understood the countries of the world, and the various cultures around the world. And I did a lot of research via the International Spy Museum –  they have a great website; they have a wonderful gift shop if you’re ever in the Washington D.C. area – and one day I just kind of went in there (I was about halfway through the writing process), and said, okay give me what I need.  And so the workers there were incredibly helpful, as most independent bookstore workers are, and they knew exactly what I needed and they just went through, pulling stuff, and sent me home with a suitcase full of books, so it was very helpful.

Byrt; I almost wore my t-shirt from the International Spy Museum today! So it is different writing a spy caper versus writing a con story?

Ally Carter; There are definitely similarities, and there are slight differences – but really, they’re kind of just two different sides of the same coin, in many, many ways. Probably the biggest difference between the two series is that Cammie, my protagonist in the spy series, really wants to know what her parents’ life was, she really wants to live that life, and experience it, and go down the spy route. Whereas Kat, the main character in my thief series, Kat’s burned out. She is the oldest fifteen year old in the world, she’s been doing this since she was three, and she just wants to walk away from the life. So really the biggest difference is just in the characters themselves and kind of how their parents’ profession has shaped their childhood.

Byrt: Now have you learned any cool tricks or techniques from learning about cons and spies?

Ally Carter: I have learned a few real cons – Holly Black and I are always tempted to try a con called Dog in a Bar. (We are totally going to do that one of these days, if we can just get our hands on a dog – that’s the only thing stopping us at this point.) And yes, I’m freakishly aware in parking garages. I’m like, who is where, where did I park my car, was that there, why does that car have tinted windows – I’m like a crazy woman in a parking garage. Nobody is every going to attack me there and live to tell the tale. So yeah, I definitely – you pick up things about anti surveillance, and you know, oh, that should probably not be parked on that side of the street, what’s going on there. And so you just get far more aware of your surroundings, which is not a bad thing.

Byrt: Now are you ever tempted – like when you walk into a museum or a jewelry store – do you just end up casing the joint?

Ally Carter: Oh I totally case the joint. Yes. I was in Italy last year for the Bologna book fair, and Sara Rees Brennan, author of The Demon’s Lexicon, and I have the same agent, so we came in a day early, and we went to Venice, and we were walking around Venice and going to all these museums. And our guide was talking about how this incredibly valuable paining was in this church – and I’m like, they have no motion detectors in this entire place. This would be a fairly easy job. But I guess they think it’s Venice, and you’re going to have a really hard time getting away, so…

Byrt: Well you know, the LA jewelry district is just a few blacks away from where we are…

Ally Carter: This is kind of temping, yes…

Byrt: Now, seeing how the Gallagher Girls series has evolved over four books, do you think- Does there need to be a nemesis for this type of storytelling?

Ally Carter: Yes. I don’t know if nemesis, but there needs to be an external conflict, lots and lots of external conflict. I knew in the first couple of books, it was really- not a character study by any stretch of the imagination, but it was about trying to figure out what this life, what this world, was. And I also knew that to keep telling their story, I had to take their life and their challenges outside of the walls of the school. I knew that we can’t just continue to learn about covert operations in theory, that eventually the stakes have got to become real for the girls. And so that was a very conscience decision, and I’m really glad I went there, and in fact I’m in the midst of writing book 5 – things are getting even darker for the Gallagher Girls. It is not easy – life is not easy at spy school these days.

Byrt: Are you going to continue the series after they graduate? Will there be spy college? Or is high school all they get?

Ally Carter: Spy college, spy grandchildren – I guess it depends on how sales for other things go. I was laughing the other day that I’m probably going to have to write Gallagher women, the Gallagher retirees…

Byrt: Gallagher retirees – that would be awesome.

Ally Carter: That would be kind of awesome, would it not? Starring like Helen Mirren and Judy Dench. Yes. Yeah, I think that I could totally go there… But right now the plan is to just do six books. And it will probably depend on where the characters are and how I feel about them. That will also take them through graduation, so I would kind of like to hope at that point that they’re fully trained spies and that they’re capable of handling whatever comes at them after that. So maybe they’ll be able to manage without us at that point.

Byrt: Now, will Katerina have a nemesis?

Ally Carter: Will Katerina have a nemesis… Katerina – I see that that book, or series, is going to be a little bit more episodic, probably, than The Gallagher Girls. I think she’ll have a lot of enemies. I think that in every book, she will have someone who stands between her and whatever it is she needs to steal. And so I think that we will probably have some people who come back in, periodically, just because it’s nice to see old faces – but for the most part she’s going to have a lot of different challenges, I think, in her career.

Byrt: Is she ever going to get out of the business entirely?

Ally Carter: Right now, I don’t think so. I think, right now – you know, the first book, her story arc in that was she wanted out of the business and they kept sucking her back in. In the second book, she’s realized that she can steal things, but she just- as long as she steals them for really good causes, it’s okay. And so I think perhaps she’s even crazier about stealing stuff in the future, because now she looks around the world at all the injustice, and she’s like, there’s so much – not that I want to steal, but I have to steal. To kind of go on her, you know, sort of mission.

Byrt: Have you ever watched a TV show called Leverage?

Ally Carter: Oh I love Leverage. Absolutely love Leverage. It’s really fun – I want to be Parker when I grow up.

Byrt: Me too. I was just thinking, if you ever – John Rogers is the writer behind that show – if you, Holly and John Rogers every got together, watch out world. You could take anything. It’d be terrifying… I saw on the jacket of Uncommon Criminals, Heist Society 2, that there’s talk of a curse. Is that, without getting too spoilery, are you opening up the world a little bit for fantastical elements? Or is this more an exercise in paranoia and bad luck and how that affects cons?

Ally Carter: That’s a great question – and the answer is no, it’s still realistic fiction. I really thought long and hard about what she should be stealing this time. In the first book it was art (it was a painting), and I didn’t want to go back to another art heist. I wanted it to be some other kind of caper, and so the next obvious decision was to do a jewel heist. And when you look at the famous jewels throughout history, there’s a long history of them being supposedly cursed. The Hope Diamond is probably the one that comes to most people’s minds first, and then there are a lot of other stones as well. And so I knew that there had to be a reason – many, many different reasons – why people would tell Kat not to do it. And I thought one of them should definitely be that it was cursed. Not only cursed in the mainstream sense, that all the owners have had bad things happening to them, I also thought it might be great for all of the thieves who have gone after it, in history, bad things have happened to them too. So that it’s kind of- It is one of Uncle Eddie (who is the patriarch of Kat’s family) – Uncle Eddie has very few rules, and one of them is you do not steal the Cleopatra emerald. It is forbidden, you do not go there, because bad things happen to thieves who try it. And so that’s where the curse comes from.

Byrt: Have you ever looked at the Hope Diamond in person?

Ally Carter: I have – I saw it at the Smithsonian, probably when I was in high school, so it won’t remember me. But I did see it and I thought wow, so that’s what all the fuss is about.

Byrt: I remember being really nervous – I looked at it and I was kind of scared. You don’t want to get too close – don’t do anything to me! So you’ve got Uncommon Criminals coming out in…July?

Ally Carter: June 21.

Byrt: And then when’s the next Gallagher Girls?

Ally Carter: It will probably be out in early 2012 – I don’t know an exact date yet, but look for it January, or February, somewhere in that time frame.

Byrt: And can you tease a little bit about what’s coming up next?

Ally Carter: It is the darkest of all the books yet. I don’t want to spoil the end of book 4 for anyone, but in this one – oh, how do I- I haven’t really talked about it yet…

Byrt: Is it getting personal?

Ally Carter: It is very personal. It is incredibly personal. Cammie is realizing that she has made some big mistakes, and she’s living with the consequences of those mistakes. And she’s going to have to- They’re getting much, much closer to the answers, and that is a good thing – but it’s also pretty scary when you don’t like what the answers are, and so… I’m doing a terrible job describing it. I’ve just turned in a rough draft, and I don’t really want to spoil book 4…

Byrt: Will there be more about Cammie’s father in book 5?

Ally Carter: Yes, yes, we will learn more about Cammie’s father; we will learn more about The Circle of Caven, the group who is after them; we will learn about Zach and his family – and we learn a lot of this stuff  in this book. Even though it’s not the last book in the series, I think readers- a lot of the types of things that a lot of series save until the final book, I’m putting it all on the table, so we’re going to see where it goes. And again, it’s just a first draft at this point, and who knows what my editor might say – you know, this is stupid, why are you doing this, this book needs to go in the trash and we need to start all over from scratch. That’s happened before and it will happen again! So I’m not saying that anything I just said actually has any relevance whatsoever, because who knows.

Byrt: Fair enough. But as you said, you’re planning six books – if you’ve just turned in five, you must have a hazy idea of what the end is going to be…?

Ally Carter: Yes. I think it’s kind of like going through a maze, and with every choice you make you get closer and closer, and the choices get fewer and fewer. And so as we get to book 5, there are certain things that have to happen; as we get to book 6, there are certain things that have to happen. And I’m just lining up the dominoes right now so that I can flip them and they can all fall down.

Byrt: So my last question – because we are at the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention – what is your favorite romantic moment ever, be it books, film, TV, anything.

Ally Carter: Oh, my goodness… I really love – and this is kind of cheesy, but it’s like, in my dream- I’m single, but in my dream proposal… At the end of While You Were Sleeping, the great movie with Sandra Bullock, and she’s working at a subway (or the L in Chicago, the train system) and the guy, the love interest, walks up with his entire family, and everybody is flipping tokens in, and she’s taking the tokens, and taking the tokens, and he flips in the engagement ring and she flips it up and looks at it and he’s like, do you wanna? I just, I always thought – yeah, that’s the guy, right there. No candles, no rose petals…

Byrt: That’s hilarious. You don’t need the kneeling, don’t need the – no banners, no doves…

Ally Carter: There you go. I think, that’s what love is, right there… Not the biggest romantic in the world right here, if you can’t tell.

Byrt: It’s a good answer though.

Ally Carter: And it fits the two of them.

Byrt: It does. Thank you very much Ally, for taking the time, and have a good rest of the convention.

Ally Carter: Thank you.

Thanks again to Ally for braving a windy rooftop in LA to chat with me!

For more on Ally, check out her website here.

And for a peek at Uncommon Criminals, you can read an excerpt here.