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Monday, May 19, 2008

Interview w/ Susan Beth Pfeffer

Thank again to Susan for doing a second interview. You can find out more about her on her blog and be sure to check out her books on Amazon (Life As We Knew It and the dead & the gone, the latter of which is released on June 1st, for example). Without further ado!

Thanks for doing another interview with me, Susan. I think we can skip the simple introductions since I've done an interview with you before. So let's get right to it. Your new book is called The Dead & the Gone, a companion novel to Life As We Knew It. What was the inspiration for writing this second book?

I had a wonderful time writing Life As We Knew It and I was eager to write a sequel. However Harcourt, my publisher, wasn't eager to have one. So one day I thought, well I'll write a book about a whole different set of characters living through the exact same catastrophe. It won't be a sequel, but it will be fun. And Harcourt liked the idea also, so I wrote the dead & the gone.

What are some challenges in writing a companion novel such as this that 'retells' the same even through the eyes of someone else? Were you at all concerned about the book working as well as LAWKI?

The biggest challenge was keeping the timelines the same. LAWKI takes place in eastern Pennsylvania, and d&g in New York City, so they'd both have essentially the same weather patterns.There's a blizzard in LAWKI and a major snow/icestorm in d&g that happen at the same time. I kept my copy of LAWKI by my side so I'd keep the dates straight.
I didn't really worry about whether d&g would work as well as LAWKI, but I had other concerns. My main character is a teenage boy, and I find it much easier to write from a girl's viewpoint. Alex, in d&g, is a Puerto Rican New Yorker, whose parents are Spanish speaking. So I knew there'd be things Alex would say and think in Spanish, a language which I have no familiarity with. I guess I just like to make things tough on myself!
While I was writing LAWKI, I knew it was a very special book, although I've been surprised and delighted by how many people love it. the dead & the gone was harder to write, so I think of it as a greater accomplishment. I'm curious to see how people who read d&g without having read LAWKI will respond to it. The books are completely independent of each other. You can read one or the other without missing anything (although I certainly hope if you like one, you'll read the other).

The characters in the books are all Catholic and religion is a very strong theme in the book. Why did you decide to go with a more religiously themed take in comparison to the mostly non-religious feel of the first book?

When I did my pre-writing for LAWKI, I decided I wanted the family to be non-religious, so they were. But when I was working on d&g, I wanted the characters to be as different as possible from Miranda and her family. So instead of a rural upper middle class girl from a non-religious family, I created an urban lower middle class boy from a deeply religious family.
There were a couple of reasons why I made Alex and his family Catholic, but the biggest one was the strength and power of the Catholic Church in New York City. I could see the Catholic Church knowing what was going on, being in regular communication with whatever remained of the city government. And because of the Church's strong organization, it could provide a structure for those people who need it.

Additionally, one of the key points in the novel is the idea of having faith tested. What about the testing of faith do you think makes it a good personal struggle? (This might seem like a somewhat obvious question, but people think differently about things, so I'm curious).

The testing of faith only works as a good personal struggle if the characters have strong religious beliefs to begin with. But if you do, and if your world is disintegrating in front of your very eyes, you have to find a way to reconcile your beliefs with the reality you're facing. People go through that all the time, with illnesses and personal problems. Different people respond different ways, but it's an interesting conflict.

What made you decide to set this particular book in New York City? Was it easier to write a story in an urban sprawl?

I actually considered other cities for d&g. I think I considered Buffalo. But I lived in NYC (a long time ago) and I go there regularly. It's the city I know best. And it worked out really well, because NYC in some ways becomes a character in the story. Alex and his sisters aren't alone fighting for survival. So is New York City.
There were some aspects of writing about a city that really exists that were tougher than creating a small town in Pennsylvania. My editor lives in NYC, and she actually thought I should be accurate in my descriptions. Humph. If I wanted to be accurate about things, I wouldn't be ending the world with such gleeful abandon.

Rumor has it that you're working on a third book in the same world. Would you mind talking a little about it for those that don't read your blog? Are you trying to take a very different direction, stick with a similar theme, etc.?

I've been working on a possible third (and no doubt final) book, something that takes the LAWKI/d&g world and describes what's going on five years later. It has a completely different set of characters, but one character from LAWKI and one from d&g show up, so the readers of both books can find out what happened to them.
LAWKI and d&g are very domestic books, but the one I've been working on is about a girl in a traveling troupe of entertainers, living on the road and being paid in food and water. So it's very different. I have no idea if it will ever see the light of day, but I definitely have enjoyed working on it.
I love my blog, by the way. I've been asking the people who read my blog to help me out on occasion with this possible third book. My mother keeps saying, "You're writing the book by committee!" but of course all my books get written by committee, editors and marketing people, art departments, etc. making suggestions about rewrites. So why not ask the people who read my blog to help me out beforehand.

Some writers often hit a point in a novel where they really just start hating it. As a reader I don't get that experience, but as a writer I do. Do you ever come to a point where you really doubt whether or not your novel in progress is good? Do you hit that 100 page mark and suddenly think "this is not going to work"?

I do vast amounts of pre-writing before I begin putting words on paper, so I've discarded what isn't going to work before I start writing. Also I am by far my own biggest fan. It's a rare book that I realize isn't going to work.That's why all those editors and marketing people have to help turn my manuscripts into publishable books.

Are you planning to write any more YA science fiction (even near-future type stuff like LAWKI and D&G)?

I stumbled into writing sci fi, since I hadn't really thought of LAWKI as being sci fi when I wrote it. I love writing stories about families in high stress situations, so that was how I thought of LAWKI.
Not knowing anything about sci fi when you're writing sci fi is a little tricky. But I never let ignorance stop me from having a good time.
How does it feel to have published what will be 75 books in your writing career? How are you going to celebrate?
There was a point in my career when I thought I might reach 100 books, but the past few years I've cut down a lot on my writing, so that's never going to happen (and the world of literature breathes a sigh of relief). But 75 is a pretty impressive number. #75, the dead & the gone, has a publication date of Sunday, June 1, and I'm giving a party, a Sunday brunch, to celebrate.

And of course a random question: If you could rename one city in the world, what city would it be and what would you rename it?

Istanbul. I'd name it Constantinople.

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