Interview with Susan Beth Pfeffer

Life as We Knew ItWe’re big admirers of Susan Beth Pfeffer. Her career in writing children’s literature has lasted 40 years (“Just Morgan” was published in 1970) and 75 books, which would be remarkable enough–but it’s an amazing writer indeed who can produce the breakthrough “New York Times” bestselling “Life As We Knew It” (LAWKI) on Book #74. LAWKI led to a companion novel, “the dead and the gone” (d&g), and a sequel to them both, “This World We Live In” (TW), which will be released on April 1. We can’t wait. Why?

Her hugely popular apocalyptic series begins with Miranda in LAWKI, a sixteen your old junior in high school whose private diary is the story of the novel. We start reading in the spring, when the world is atwitter about the fact that a meteor is supposed to hit the moon, an astronomical event on the order of Haley’s Comet, the kind of thing everyone in Miranda’s rural Pennsylvania neighborhood stays up late to watch. Except the light show isn’t all fun and games. Instead, the meteor hits the moon and shoves it closer to earth: “It was like if you’re playing marbles and one marble hits another on its side and pushes it diagonally,” writes Miranda.

All hell breaks loose. Tsunamis. Floods. Volcanoes whose ash covers the sky in a permanent gray winter, eclipsing the sun. And that’s just the beginning.

Miranda and her family–her mother, and two brothers–hunker down in their house, deciding to gut it out with an enormous stash of canned goods, hoping against hope that the powers that be (the government, NASA, the geniuses of the world) will set the world straight before they freeze or starve to death. But this isn’t just a page-turning survival tale. It’s also the story of a girl who fights with her mother and siblings, who wants to be kissed and to meet her lifelong hero and crush–an Olympic figure skater from her hometown. The life-and-death circumstances of the novel give Miranda’s teen angst a razor edge that cuts into readers who stay up late into the night to discover her fate.

the dead & the gone“the dead and the gone,” which follows the same meteor story from the point of view of Alex Morales, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants in New York City–is much, much darker. In a good way. All bets are off here. Like in the “Harry Potter” books, no one is safe. Alex is stranded in his family’s apartment with his two sisters, only one of whom he particularly likes. Their parents are gone. One of the central questions of the book is: Will the parents ever come home? If you believe in miracles like Alex’s religious sister Bri, then hope is on your side. If not, then. . .

This is a gruesome story, told in unflinching detail. There are dead bodies, and terrible smells, and dirty dealings for precious cans of food. It’s also a moving story about a brother’s love for his sisters. And it’s deep, philosophically–Alex’s meditations on God and religion will turn your brain into a pretzel. Amazingly, there is humor too, largely supplied by banter between Alex and his cynical friend Kevin, but it’s downright macabre. Probably because the low moments of this book take you into such a deep, dark hole of despair, the happier moments might move you to tears.

All of which is why we can’t wait for “This World We Live In.”

And if all that wasn’t enough, Susan Beth Pfeffer is also really cool personally–read her blog, “Moons, Meteors, and Me,” (embed link) and you’ll see. With tons of humor and knowledge, she writes very regularly about her novels, about the publishing business, about figure skating and all her other passions. We highly recommend you take a look!

Susan Beth Pfeffer

Photo by Marci Hanners.

But only after you read our interview. Without further ado, here is the YARN interview with the one and only Susan Beth Pfeffer.

First, a few personal questions:
YARN: In December on 2009, Lourdes and Kerri had the pleasure of hearing you speak about how you got your first book deal–75 books ago! Could you share that story with YARN?

SBP: It’s a very long story, so let’s see how I do with the short version.

It was my last semester at NYU and I was concerned about what I’d do for a living once I graduated. I had always wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t think I had the talent to make a career of it. Since I loved books and was particularly interested in kids’ books, I thought about becoming an editor.

I took a course in book publishing and one of the guest speakers was a children’s book editor. I asked his advice about getting into the field and he suggested (among other things) that if I wrote a book, even if no one published it, the very act of having written one would be so impressive I’d get hired.

So for that reason, and that reason only, I added writing a young adult novel into my other obligations that semester. When I finished the manuscript, I gave it to my book publishing professor, who very nicely read it.

He told me it was publishable, and he sent a letter of introduction to a small publishing house where he knew people. They read the manuscript and suggested various changes to me. I followed their instructions, they accepted the book, and poof–I was a writer after all.

YARN: On your blog, you mentioned you are a fan of figure skating and have skated in the past. Do you have a favorite male figure skater on which you based the character of Brandon in LAWKI? Any favorites for the upcoming Olympics?

SBP: I love figure skating; I’m a huge fan. If I were allowed one pick and one pick only for a gold medal, it would be the Chinese pairs team Shen and Zhao.

I pictured Johnny Weir when I wrote about Brandon. No particular reason why. I just did.

YARN: There’s a funny section in d&g where Alex and Julie go into the empty apartments in the building looking for food, and are overjoyed to find all the Oreos, Hershey’s kisses and “weird shaped pasta” in the “rich people’s apartment.” I (Kerri) bet it made more readers than just me wonder what’s in your kitchen right now. Though I’m hardly a rich person myself, I’ll cop to having weird shaped pasta and Trader Joe’s brand of Oreo. What about you?

SBP: I live off of fruit, frozen dinners and 100 calorie snacks. Except for the fruit, I’m pretty much a nutritional nightmare.

Schools all over America are using “Life As We Knew It” and “the dead and the gone” for their students, not just in English classes, but science and math and history. One school had its students go through their kitchen cabinets to determine how many calories there were at that very moment, so they could figure out how long they could live off of what was available to them.

I could live a very long time 100 calories at a time.

YARN: There is also a similar moment in LAWKI where Miranda finds a bag of chocolate chips and eats loads before finding out they were for her brother’s birthday. Thus my (Lourdes) question: Could you resist an entire closet filled with chocolate?

SBP: I actually prefer my chocolate in small doses, like chocolate chip cookies or ice cream. But I’d certainly nibble my way through a closet’s worth!

Your writing process:
YARN: What is your writing day like?

SBP: I used to have a set amount to write a day. In college, I wrote 5 pages a day, and once I graduated and became a real honest to goodness professional writer, I raised the total to 10 pages a day. If page 5 or page 10 ended in the middle of a sentence, I’d scribble the end down somewhere, but I never wrote another full page (or even another full sentence).

Then I mastered the 10 page chapter, so I’d write a chapter a day, but basically it was still 10 pages. I did that for years, and no one, myself included, could figure out how I managed to get all my chapters exactly the same length.

I should add here that I’m a very fast worker, and especially if I’ve given a lot of thought to what I was going to write, all this would take me 2 hours, maybe less. I’ve never been one for hard work.

After a while I decided I should go with a chapter a day, regardless of length, and suddenly some of my chapters were 11 pages or 12.

If I was in a hurry (especially when I was close to the end of a book and impatient to stop working), I’d do two chapters in a day just to get it done with. I don’t think before LAWKI, I ever took more than a month to write a first draft (and I pretty much submit first drafts; I’m not one for rewrites, since they’re work).

I loved writing LAWKI and d&g, but they were both so long (over 300 pages), they just took longer. I’d start writing in the morning and not stop, except for the occasional break, until suppertime. When I wrote both books and the third in the trilogy- “This World We Live In”- I didn’t write them in chapter format. After the book was finished, sections were divided into chapters. So I didn’t write a chapter a day, or 10 pages a day, or anything else so structured. I just wrote and wrote and wrote.

I did a lot of pre-writing with all three books. LAWKI and d&g took 6-7 weeks to write; TW more like 5-6 weeks (it’s shorter).

YARN: In your “Publishers Weekly” interview, you mention “pre-writing.” Can you explain a little more about what this process entails for you?

SBP: Pre-writing is my favorite part of writing. My books almost always start out with a what if. What if you were a teenager living through a worldwide disaster?

The process consists of asking question after question. Some of the questions have to do with the plot, others with the characters. As I figure out the answers, the book falls into place.

When I’m comfortable with the beginning, a fair amount of middle, and the essence of the ending, I start the actual writing.

The pre-writing can take several weeks. It’s incredibly valuable to me, since it solves the problems that invariably arise when you’re creating a story, and saves me the middle of the manuscript freakout, when you realize something just flat out isn’t going to work.

Different people work different ways, and there’s no right way or wrong way to do it. Other writers are willing to get partway through a book and then throw out a huge section of what they’ve written. But that’s not the best system for me.

YARN: Do you do this prewriting in your head, or do you write it down? For instance, do you outline each chapter, profile characters, etc?

SBP: I do it all in my mind. Sometimes I’ll write a kind of stream of consciousness story outline (I did that for “the dead and the gone”), but mostly I keep the information in my mind until I start the actual writing.

YARN: In your many years of writing books, did you ever write something that felt like an “assignment,” and was kind of a drag to write? If so, how did you work through that?

SBP: Oh yeah, there’ve been plenty of books that I wrote more for the money than the joy of the creative process. Some of those books did very well.

Generally, you get half the advance money for a book when you sign the contract and the other half when your manuscript is accepted for publication. That half an advance is a very strong incentive to keep working even if you’re not madly in love with the book you’re writing.

Writing is my job. Nobody loves their job every single minute of every single day. In the immortal words of Lou Grant, “That’s why they call it work.”

YARN: Do you have any tips for high school readers out there who have to write for assignments all the time?

SBP: Grit your teeth and do it.

Your Books:
Having been raised a Catholic myself (this is Kerri asking), I was particularly intrigued (and put on edge) by the Catholicism of the characters in d&g. As a result, I think I was interested in the fact that d&g is both more religious and more gruesome than LAWKI; plus I also know you’re a big movie fan, and many classic horror films also link religion and violence (“Exorcist,” anyone?). Do you want to comment on the connection between religion and violence in the book?

SBP: Well, d&g is more religious and more gruesome than LAWKI because I wrote LAWKI first and I needed d&g to be as different as possible, given that they’re both about the exact same disaster at the exact same time. Miranda and her family in LAWKI were not particularly religious, so I needed Alex and his family to be religious as a contrast. And I just figured death would be more visible in New York City than in an isolated house in small town Pennsylvania.

I made Alex Catholic because I needed him to be able to get help, and the Catholic Church in NYC has a very strong infrastructure. The martyrdom of St. Sebastian had nothing to do with it!

YARN: There is a lot of altruism in LAKWI and d&g, in which central characters like Miranda and Alex seem very willing to give up food for themselves in order to feed younger siblings. Sometimes, this felt like the “good” sibling making sacrifices for the (if not “bad,” then) less appreciative, and more selfish sibling. Can you say a little more about the altruism in the books? Was it inspired by anything in particular?

SBP: I’m the younger of two children, and most of my books are about kids with older brothers, like I have. Miranda is a middle child with an older brother who’s a lot nicer than she is and a younger brother. Alex has an older brother, who is only heard from a couple of times in d&g, and two younger sisters.

As a younger sister, I think it’s the obligation of older brothers to take care of me. I don’t think of that as altruism. I think of it as my birthright.

Both LAWKI and d&g are about the main characters learning to accept responsibility. In young adult books, it’s always a good thing if the main character shows growth during the course of the book. If the main characters in the books were Jonny or Bri and Julie, they’d be very different books (and you’d see their growth instead).

In other reading…
Have you seen a shift in YA literature since you first started writing? How has the genre grown, improved, changed?

SBP: I guess so. I’ve been writing YAs for decades; they must have changed over the years.

I don’t read children’s books. Basically I’m functionally illiterate about them. More than anything, I write to entertain myself, and I’m not all that interested in what else is going on in my field.

The “New York Times” review of d&g referred to how it didn’t follow the rules. A few months after the review appeared, I ran into John Green, who’d written it. I asked him what rules I hadn’t followed and he said it was that Alex’s parents never came back.

Who knew it was a rule that parents had to come back in a YA book? Apparently not me.

YARN: I (Lourdes) find it very interesting that you do not read many children’s books. This allows you to be less bound to the “supposed” rules of YA fiction. However, your books are extremely YA. What do you believe then is the true definition of YA fiction? Is it the main character’s age, plot, or just writer’s luck? In other words: Why are your books considered YA?

SBP: My definition of a YA is a main character under the age of 18, a PG13 vocabulary level, a main character who shows growth during the course of the story, and a limited amount of sex and/or violence.

Those are my rules and since I don’t read other people’s YAs, I can’t speak for anyone else.

YARN: You once wrote a fantastic blog entry discussing the business end of writing. What prompted you to write it and what was the response to it? (For example: John Green loved it and posted about it on his blog)

SBP: I’ve never had a salaried 9-5 job. I’ve always been a self-employed freelance children’s book writer. So I’m accustomed to thinking in terms of advances and royalties and sub rights. That’s how I make my living.

But I found out that the paperback of d&g was going to cost a dollar more than the LAWKI paperback, and I decided to write a blog entry about how happy that made me, since it meant I’d get more royalties. And as I was writing it, I realized there might be people who didn’t know about royalties. So I did an entry explaining the whole process of how writers get paid.

It turned out a lot of people didn’t know and were very interested. Apparently I broke another of those rules I never know about because I discussed exactly how much money I’d gotten for my advances ($20,000 for LAWKI, $30,000 for d&g–they were combined hardback/paperback advances).

I always enjoy other people’s shop talk. I guess people enjoyed mine as well.

YARN: On your blog, you mentioned that in 2009 you tracked every book you read–a very worthy resolution. During this process, did your reading habits change at all? For example, did you become aware of reading many books in a certain genre and therefore make an attempt to diversify? Or, was there any book you kind of wanted to read, but didn’t want to admit to reading, so you set it back on the shelf?

SBP: I have no shame, at least not when it comes to keeping a booklist.

I always think I read more non-fiction than fiction, and the booklist showed I did. The percentages were close to the same, but non-fiction books tend to be longer (and almost always take longer to read than novels).

What I did find was I read in spurts, and I read considerably more in the end of the year than I had in the beginning (which makes sense, since in the beginning of 2009, I was writing “This World We Live In”). I’ve been on a bit of a reading jag since New Year’s, but I’m about to enter a stretch of watching lots of figure skating and tennis, so I know I’ll be cutting down on my reading again.

I do read two newspapers a day and enormous amounts of unimportant stuff on the internet.

YARN: Are there any blogs (including those of fellow authors) that you’d recommend to other lovers of YA literature, and aspiring writers?

this world we live inSBP: My friends Elaine Marie Alphin and Todd Strasser both have blogs, as does John Green. But most blogs I only stumble onto if Google tells me they mention me. You could probably make more and better recommendations than I can!

YARN: Do you Google your own name? How often? I, Lourdes, will admit I have done it more than once. Okay, about twice a month but who is counting.

SBP: I certainly check myself and my books on Google (and it’s amazing the things I find out that way that no one bothers to tell me). I also have Google well trained to let me know what’s going on by way of email. And I check my emails all the time!

YARN: Thanks, Sue, for answering all our questions! Good luck with “This World.” We can’t wait to read it.

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4 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Laura White says:

    Very inspiring interview. 75 books in 40 years! I love the new series and look forward to This World We Live In.

  2. student says:

    Hi, I have a question about Life as We Knew it. Can you please tell me what Mirand’s Caloric intake per day was after the disaster.

  3. Books says:

    I have all your books. I love the books. I hope you keep writing.

  4. Student 2 says:

    I love your book life as we knew it. i am doing a school project and was wondering what your favorite part of writing the book was?

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