Teen author Ally Carter, best known for the best-selling Gallagher Girls series, has always loved movies like To Catch a Thief, The Thomas Crown Affair and Ocean’s 11—heist stories in which the bad guy is the good guy, and twists and turns are staples of the genre.
“You can never 100 percent see what’s coming, and I always enjoyed that,” says Carter, from her home in Tulsa during a recent phone interview with BookPage. “You know that something’s going to go wrong, and [the characters] are going to have to fix it in the end.”
With this in mind, Carter wrote Heist Society, the first in a new series about a teen girl named Kat who was born into a family of thieves. When the novel begins, she’s being dragged back into “the life” after escaping to Colgan, a prep school. A family friend has staged a crime to get Kat kicked out so she can save her dad; he is wrongfully presumed to have stolen a mobster’s valuable paintings. What’s the best way to save Dad from the mafia? Kat and her friends will steal the paintings back, of course.
The true thief is Visily Romani, whose name is a “Chelovek Pseudonima,” or an alias that old crime families used “when they were doing things that were too big, too dangerous—things they had to keep hidden . . . even from each other.” Carter, who loves movies and has dabbled in screenwriting, based the “Chelovek Pseudonima” concept on two ideas from Hollywood.
“It was really late one night and I was working on the book, and The Usual Suspects was on TV,” she says. “I love the idea of [a legendary criminal like] Keyser Söze . . . all the other thieves know his name, and maybe he doesn’t even exist. The second thing is that [in the past] if a director was taken off a movie, or if it was cut without the director’s permission and he thought it was a terrible movie, he could actually choose not to be listed in the credits. And the name that they used instead was Alan Smithee.”
So, Visily Romani is Carter’s nod to Alan Smithee and Keyser Söze—a notorious alias that any thief can use.
When Kat and the gang figure out that Romani is no ordinary criminal, they go on a romp around the world, breezing through Naples, Vienna, Warsaw and other cities in order to crack the crime and figure out how they can snatch back the paintings—under a two-week deadline. As the leader of the group, Kat must prove her worth after bailing on the family business. Since many of her fellow thieves are boys, she must also navigate the terrain of teen romance.
Readers will get sucked into this fun, fast-paced story. And though the plot is mostly focused on solving the mystery of the stolen art, Carter addresses heavier themes such as isolation within a group of friends, standing up for your beliefs and rebelling from family—subjects with which most teens can identify. Readers will also learn about art history, specifically paintings that were stolen during the Holocaust.
Although if she were a thief, Carter would steal untraceable bearer bonds (“art is very very difficult to fence”), she is personally interested in art, especially old art. “In a way, those painters were capturing a moment in time and the moment has become as famous as the actual physical paintings themselves, and that has always been really fascinating to me,” she says.
A former agricultural economist, Carter wrote two chick-lit novels before breaking into YA literature with I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You, the first Gallagher Girls book, about a girl who goes to spy school. The transition between writing for adults and teens was easy for Carter: “It feels like coming home,” she says. “Writing for adults felt like traveling in a foreign country in which you’re fluent in the language; you can get by, but it still doesn’t feel like home. Writing YA definitely felt like my home country.”
And Carter has been embraced by her audience. When she posted the jacket image and title of the next Gallagher Girls book (Only the Good Spy Young, out June 15), she received a whopping 340 comments on her blog. Carter’s Twitter account has more than 2,700 followers. In a publishing landscape where authors are practically expected to interact with fans via social media, Carter has thrived.
“A thing I’ve noticed from my readers is that they feel like they know me,” Carter says. “They bring me peanut M&Ms to my signings because I blog about how I like peanut M&Ms. And when George Clooney is seen in the tabloids with an Italian supermodel, they email to tell me about it because my ‘boyfriend’ George Clooney is stepping out on me. It’s like building a community, which is something I never set out to do. And I’m very grateful that it happened. I don’t necessarily think it’s something you can plan for.”
Carter’s readers may know her, but she also thinks about their lives—and how they might identify with Kat, whom she calls “a person without a home” since she doesn’t fit in at Colgan, but she’s not completely at ease with the family business, either. Although Carter suggests Kat’s dissatisfaction with stealing might be rooted in morality, there’s something else behind it, too. “When you’re a 15-year-old girl, part of your job description is rebelling against your parents,” she says. “When you’re a 15-year-old girl and you were raised to be the world’s best thief, part of that rebellion might very well be trying to fly straight, and so that’s what she does.”
Carter hopes her readers can understand Kat’s restlessness. “I think all teenagers feel like outsiders whether they admit it or not. There’s something deep inside that they know is different, or that feels different from the people around them. And they’re conscious of that all the time.”
In Heist Society, Kat deals with her outsider status by slowly gaining the trust of her crew and figuring out that she can do the family business “on her own terms, in her own way,” explains Carter. It’s an adventure that readers won’t be able to put down.