With the release of her 75th novel, the dead & the gone (Harcourt), just a few days away, Susan Beth Pfeffer spoke with Bookshelf about her companion survival novels that trace how two families endure a global disaster.
Susan Beth Pfeffer.
Photo: Marci Hanners.
Both Life As We Knew It and its sequel, the dead & the gone , begin at the same point, when the moon goes off orbit, creating a series of natural disasters. How did you come up with this premise?
I wanted to write about something that affected the entire world but wasn’t anyone’s fault. I wanted people to be blameless and powerless. That eliminated most types of traditional disasters, so I decided to go with gravity, exploring what happens when the pull of the earth is changed.
In your books, were any of the catastrophes caused by the moon’s shift—earthquakes, tornadoes, tidal waves—inspired by current events?
No, they really weren’t. I had finished the first draft of LifeAs We Knew It before Katrina hit, and it was startling to see things I wrote about actually happening in the real world.
How is writing adventure/survival stories different from writing other types of novels?
It isn’t. A lot of my YA novels are about family problems. Life As We Knew It and the dead & the gone are no different. They’re about families dealing with a really big problem. They’re not “leaping the lava” stories.
What’s a “leaping the lava” story?
In so many disaster movies and novels, there’s always that scene where the hero gathers the heroine in his arms and says, “Don’t worry, I’ll save you,” then “leaps over the lava” to safety. I always thought if I was the hero I’d probably fall in or wouldn’t even attempt to make the leap. What interests me more than dramatic heroics are the domestic things: How do people do laundry and find food when the world is about to end?
In both books, those who have the greatest chance for survival are hoarders, those who have stocked up on basic supplies. Is there a message here for readers?
It always helps to have supplies in the house, and I’m a fiendish stockpiler. I live about 60 miles northwest of New York City, and whenever there’s news of a big snowstorm coming, everyone runs for the store. The perishable items are usually the first things to go, which doesn’t make sense because they perish. The mother in Life As We Knew It does it [stockpiling] best. She goes for the cans of food that will last forever.
Life As We Knew It takes place in a medium-sized town in Pennsylvania. The sequel is set in New York City. Which of these places do you think would be safer to be if global disaster occurred today?
Both would have advantages and disadvantages. Being in a house with a wood-burning stove [like Miranda’s Pennsylvania house in Life As We Knew It] would be good. You’d have the ability to stay warm by chopping down a tree. But the bureaucracy of a big city would also be advantageous. There would be a lot of officials trying to keep people from dying. This was important in my second book. I had to keep New York City alive long enough to keep my characters alive.
Besides using different settings in the two books, you also use different types of narrative. Why did you decide to move from a journal format to third-person narration in the second book?
When I write in first person, I have to justify why a character would be writing. I couldn’t do that for the dead & the gone. I just could not envision a teenage boy keeping a diary. It’s as simple as that.
When you began writing each of the novels, did you know the fates of your main characters?
Yes, I do an enormous amount of prewriting. When I actually begin a book, I’m very comfortable about what I’m going to write. I knew from the start of both bookswho was going to live and who was going to die. But I hated killing the character of Kevin [a resourceful boy in the dead & the gone]. When the time came, the heartless part of me said, “Okay, he’s scheduled to die now,” and I did it, but later, when I reread that part of the book, I thought, “Oh, no. I forgot he has to die.” I really loved that character.
Both books end on an upbeat note, but protagonists aren’t completely out of the woods. How do you envision their futures?
I play around with their futures a lot. My current thought is that they all stay alive. They’re tough kids. They know what to do to survive.
Do you have plans to write other companion novels?
I play with ideas, but the decision will be up to Harcourt. I would love to see what happens to my characters in the future. The current “play idea” is to move forward 18 years and have Miranda’s baby half-brother struggling his way back to Pennsylvania to reunite with a family he never knew.
Seventy-five is an impressive number of books to write. How do you do it?
Writing has been my career for my entire life. I had my first book published when I was 20 and still in college. But out of all my books, these last two have been the most fun for me to write.
How has writing changed for you over the years?
The Internet has changed everything. Now I can see what other people—besides critics—think of my work. That’s an extraordinary experience for a writer. I’m so grateful that Life As We Knew It has been embraced by readers. I’m looking forward to reading their comments about the dead & the gone.
What do you hope readers will take away from the books?
When I write a book, I write to entertain myself. If readers like it and get something from it, that’s a bonus. Over and over, people have said that Life As We Knew It helps them to appreciate what they have. For adults it has more to do with family. For kids, it seems to have something to do about realizing how hard it would be to do without certain things. A class of seventh graders in Kentucky was asked to make a list of things they would want to have on hand during a global disaster. The overwhelming response from the girls was “disposable razors.” They wouldn’t want to leave earth with hairy legs!