Monday, February 18, 2008

Interview with Susan Beth Pfeffer

I still can't believe my good fortune in having an interview with Susan Beth Pfeffer. THE SUSAN BETH PFEFFER. Of Life As We Know It fame. I first reviewed Life As We Knew It in November of 2006. In September, I reviewed the audio book of Life As We Knew It. And this past January, I reviewed the dead and the gone. It will release in June. The audio book releases a few weeks later. If I have the opportunity to review the audio book of that one, I'll happily review that as well. Yesterday, Sunday, February 17th, was her birthday!!! So after reading this interview, you should definitely make a point of going to her blog to say hello and wish her well!

What inspired you to write Life As We Knew It? (Or how did this book come to be?)

It's always embarrassing to admit how I was inspired to write Life As We Knew It. I was home one afternoon, with nothing else to do, so I ended up watching the movie Meteor. It got me thinking about how a teenager would cope with a worldwide disaster, and the next thing I knew, I was plotting away.

How long did it take you to write?

From the moment I saw Meteor, until the completion of the first draft, about two months. Which is a long time for me (but then again, it's my longest book).

Do you have a favorite scene?

I probably have a dozen of them; the book was a joy to write. If I had to pick one at this very moment, well, I'll go with two- the ice skating scene and the woodstove backdraft scene. But I really love the tiny one paragraph diary entries.

What was your first impression of the cover art for Life As We Knew It?

I loved it. I still do.

Because the book is so intense, I'm curious if it ever became too intense, too overwhelming for you when you were writing…were you haunted by Miranda and her world?

It was never too intense or overwhelming, but I was totally absorbed by it, and continued to be so for months after writing it, which is very unusual for me.

When you were writing it did you begin to look at the moon differently? I've often heard that people see the moon as "spooky" or "eerie" after they've first read your book…

Oh yeah. Nowadays, when I look at the moon, I smile at it and thank it for all the good it's brought to my life. But as recently as this fall, I drove home with a full harvest moon glaring at me, and got a little nervous.

Are you ever surprised by people's reactions to the book?

I've been surprised (and delighted) by how adults have responded so strongly to it. I love hearing about how people check out their food supplies after reading it.

How soon after writing Life As We Knew It did you know you wanted to revisit Miranda's world and write a companion novel?

Instantly. Of course all my thoughts were of a sequel. I wanted to know what happened next. Actually, I still want to know.

What inspired you to write the dead & the gone? (Or how did this novel come to be?)

I'd been haranguing my editor to let me write a sequel to LAWKI, and she was quite resistant. So I suggested a book taking the same disaster and putting it in a completely different setting with completely different characters. The people at Harcourt discussed that and agreed to let me try.

I decided immediately that everything about the dead & the gone had to be different from LAWKI. If LAWKI was about a girl, d&g had to be about a boy. If the family in LAWKI was upper middle class, the family in d&g had to be lower middle class. If LAWKI was exurban, then d&g had to be urban. If religion was not a factor for the family in LAWKI, then it had to be of primary importance to the family in d&g. If the LAWKI characters were isolated, the d&g characters had to get out of their home and interact with other people.

It was very easy to write LAWKI. Nothing, for me at least, is easier than a teenage girl diary book. You just sit down and let her do the writing. d&g, which is third person from a male point of view, was much more challenging. I made it even harder for myself for having the d&g characters be bilingual, English and Spanish. I don't know Spanish, so I was constantly using the internet, and a good old fashioned Spanish/English dictionary.

How long did it take you to write?

I'm not sure, four months maybe from conception to completed first draft? I know I was working on it in my mind when I took a trip to Vancouver, because it was on the plane ride home that I came up with the Yankee Stadium scene (where Alex goes to look for the body of his mother). I was so excited, I was practically dancing in the aisles. That would have been the very beginning of November, 2006. I submitted the outline and writing samples (including the Yankee Stadium scene) to Harcourt in January, and they gave me the go ahead almost instantly. But I really don't remember when I actually finished.

Do you have a favorite scene?

Just like LAWKI, I have several. The Yankee Stadium scene, which is a great stand alone (and which can be read on my blog anytime one wishes). There's also a birthday party for Alex's younger sister Julie that I love. I was working on the submission scenes for Harcourt (I decided I didn't want to submit the first 50 pages, but scenes from various parts of the book instead), and I realized everything I was writing was really depressing. So I created the birthday party scene just for a change of pace. For some reason, I almost always have a party scene in the books I write, maybe to compensate for the fact no one ever invites me to parties!

Again, as with LAWKI, there are little moments I love in the book. I'm particularly fond of Alex's interactions with his friend Kevin.

What was your first impression of the cover art for the dead and the gone?

Harcourt e-mailed me three variants of the cover art. I loved one of them, liked the second one enormously, and didn't care for the third, which for some reason had lots of birds in the sky. Harcourt decided against the one I liked the best (of course!), but combined covers two and three, clearing the sky of some of the birds. I think the cover is terrific. I love how it echoes the cover for LAWKI, yet creates an urban feeling of loneliness and desperation. And it has just the right number of birds (which I think they think represent life or something positive, but to me are the souls of the dead and gone).

Was it easier to write or harder to write the dead & the gone since you'd already created the fictional world—the setting, the tone, the events, etc. and timeline?

It was a little of both. When I wrote LAWKI, there were things I had to learn or figure out, the volcanoes, the off shore oil rigs, the communication satellites (the latter two, I think my brother suggested). I knew all that before writing d&g, so that was a time saver. On the other hand, I had to stick with the basic schedule of events- when would the flu strike (earlier in d&g, because it seemed reasonable to me it would hit an urban area earlier), the big snowstorm (which also is an ice storm in d&g).

When I was working out the plot, I originally planned for the book to end about a month later than it actually did. I had a copy of LAWKI by my side at all times, and I discovered there'd been a second snow storm (the one that causes the woodstove to backfire). I just couldn't deal with a second storm, so I changed the plot of d&g so the book could end before the weather got worse.

Both books seem very authentic, very realistic, very intense, yet both have their small threads of hope running throughout. How, as a writer, did you balance hope with the doom and gloom of global catastrophe?

I'm a very cheerful, optimistic person.

This one may seem odd, but I want to ask it just the same. As the author, as the creator of these characters, you obviously have thoughts about what goes on behind the scenes. Both books leave so many unanswered questions, so many things are left unsaid and unanswered. Do you as the author know 'the fate' of some of these characters and the resolution of some of these situations? (Not that you have to reveal all your secrets or anything. But it's hard as a reader not to wonder about what happened next…)

I wonder about what happens next also. And I harangue my editor regularly to let me write a third book so I can find out. Twice I floated suggestions to her where major characters from each book die (one time it was Matt, one time it was Alex- I guess I kill the boys off for some reason). Both times, she vetoed the ideas emphatically.

There are minor characters I'd love to know what happened to, Chris Flynn from d&g in particular. The yenta in me would like to fix him up with Miranda.

I get letters from kids, and they seem most interested in what happened to Miranda's father and stepmother.

Is there going to be another book, another sequel?

I harangued my editor about this possibility in the middle of November. She said, basically, that Harcourt would want to see how well d&g does before deciding. d&g comes out June 1 (I can hardly wait) and she thought they'd have a sense of its success/failure within a couple of months. So I guess I'll know by next fall if I can keep on ending the world.

I don't know what the nature of the third book would be, except that it would be further along in terms of time. Maybe the original characters would show up, maybe not. Maybe it would just be a sequel to LAWKI. Ideas get suggested and rejected on a regular basis. At this point, I'm not thinking about it. Next fall seems very far away.

Have you always wanted to be a writer? Has this always been a dream of yours? Growing up, whose work did you admire most? Was there a particular author that made you say, "I want to grow up and do that!"?

I knew I wanted to be a writer from first grade on. My father, a constitutional lawyer, had his first book published when I was in first grade, and I'd sit there, reading the title page with the word Pfeffer on it, and the dedication page, with my mother's, my brother's, and my name on it. That did it for me.

Having a father who wrote books showed me that I could, that there was nothing exotic about the process.Of all the good fortune in my career, that was the biggest and best piece of luck I ever could have had.

The writer that influenced me the most was Mary Stolz. Her YA books, which I read when I was 11-12 years old, were so superior to everything else that was out there that I knew if I could model myself after anybody, it would be her.

Years later, she allowed me the honor of dedicating a book to her.

Who are some of your favorite authors? Have you met any of your favorites? Who would you most like to have dinner with?

I mostly read non-fiction, and I make my selections by subject matter, rather than author. Ellen Conford is my cousin and very very close friend and I always like having dinner with her (she's a wonderful cook).

If you had twenty-four hours, a time machine, and a limitless supply of money, what would you want to do?

I'd take the time machine back 24 hours and deposit the limitless supply of money into my checking account.

I am a very practical person!


Erin said...

REALLY GREAT interview! I am just dying to read d&g now. Thanks, Becky!

Melissa Walker said...

great interview--so in depth. loved it!

Marg said...

Both books sound really good! Interesting interview!

Darcie said...

I just finished reading LAWKI for your book club and had to read more about what SB Pfeffer was up to. I LOVED LAWKI and have D&G reserved at the library when it comes out!! I can't wait. This book for me is like Harry Potter if that makes any sense. I can't wait until the next book comes out and I hope that she continues the series!! I will be giving LAWKI to everyone this Christmas!!