Ok, so Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer freaked me out. Like, really freaked me out. I was unbelievably eager for the companion novel to come out, and thanks to a mysterious benefactor, I scored an ARC. It is just a riveting at the first, but a whole lot more macabre. It's disturbing, haunting, and totally awesome. Hence the interview - welcome Susan Beth Pfeffer!
1. Um, holy cow. the dead & the gone IS way darker than Life As We Knew It! How did you get there? How did you find the worst and then make it even more horrible? How did you know when you made it grisly enough? Did you ever think that you had gone too far? Did you take anything out, or abandon any ideas as too far-fetched or dark? Is that enough questions?
I don't remember having a lot of problems figuring out the story for the dead & the gone. I knew it would be darker than Life As We Knew It because the situation I set up for Alex, not knowing what had become of his parents, would make him much more vulnerable. Miranda is protected a lot by her mother and older brother; Alex has to take that role on himself (which he does with mixed success). I suppose the book is more grisly, because there's more death on the streets. Miranda's story is about her world getting smaller and smaller; Alex's is about his world getting more and more dangerous.
I was never worried about taking things too far. I named the book almost immediately, and figured anyone reading a book called the dead & the gone would understand there's going to be a lot of dead and gone in the story.
(Jac says: Touché)
2. Without giving anything away, there were a few scenes, especially the stadium, that were particularly emotional to read. Briana was also often hard to read about. Do you have that kind of approach some authors talk about where they feel a connection with their characters? Did you find any part of the novel especially difficult to write, revise or read?
I have to admit, after I got my first copy, I skimmed through the book, and thought, "Whoo this is dark." I use the Yankee Stadium scene as a readaloud (and there's a link to it on my blog - for anyone who wants to read it). It separates very neatly from the rest of the book, and gives a strong sense of all the themes. So it's lost its power to shock me, just from familiarity.
A character I'm very fond of dies during the book, and when I skimmed through it, I forgot which scene it happened in, and I got upset all over again.
Actually, a larger number of important characters die in LAWKI than in d&g.
(Jac says: If we are thinking of the same character, I liked him/her a lot, too, and that death was just wracking. I just didn't know how to bring it up without giving anything away. She's not kidding about the amount of death, either. Teens will love it.)
3. How did you settle on making your central characters Puerto Rican?
When I started coming up with the idea for d&g, I wanted it to be as different as possible from LAWKI, boy/girl, urban/rural, lower middle class/upper middle class. Miranda's family wasn't religious, so I wanted religion to be central to Alex's life. Making Alex's family Puerto Rican just felt right.
4. Religion is a major theme of the book. Faith is central to Alex's sister Bri's life, to the point where she believes in things that aren't rational. There was a small character in Live as We Knew It, Miranda's best friend, who essentially starved herself for her faith. On whole the treatment of religion in the dead & the gone is far different from the first book. Can you tell us a little about this?
When I first came up with the idea for LAWKI, I decided Miranda and her family wouldn't be religious. I didn't like they idea of their praying for conditions to improve, when I (their creator) was commited to making things worse rather than better.
(Jac says: Remind me never to lobby to be a character in one of her books, k?)
But there was no way of writing an end of the world book without some religious overtones, so I gave that viewpoint to one of Miranda's friends. Someone pointed out to me that by the book's end, Miranda is doing for love of family what Megan did for love of God.
Bri comes off as more religious than Alex or Julie (the youngest sister), but really, they're all very devout. Bri trusts in God in a way her brother and sister don't, but none of them turn away from their faith.
5. One thing that everyone says about these two books is that they really make them want to go stock up on canned goods. Have you personally thought about what you would do given some cataclysmic event? Have you a plan? A basement full of supplies?
I'm deadmeat. My cats will do okay, if they can figure out how to open cans. I'm a stockpiler by nature, but most of what I have in the house is cat food.
(Jac says: Two Months. Two months it took me after reading LAWKI to get over the urge to stockpile everytime I went past the grocery store. Not better this time.)
6. You've written A LOT of books for all ages – do you approach them differently due to their intended audiences? Are some age groups harder to write for than others?
I certainly aim different kinds of stories for different age levels. I would never write anything as dark as LAWKI/d&g for younger kids, and when I hear that young kids have read them, it upsets me (fortunately, I don't hear it often).
I have a grand total of one picture book in my collected writings. I like real little kids, but I don't understand them. But after that, I've written for just about every other age group except grownups. Most of my stories have to do with families, a subject that works very well in kids' books.
7. Why the special punctuation for the dead & the gone? Why no capitals?
When I wrote the dead & the gone, it was The Dead And The Gone (and it still is in the UK). But then I read an interview with my editor, where she referred to it as The Dead and the Gone. That looked kind of clumsy to me. I figured everything should be capitals or nothing should be. Then I decided an & would be kind of sexy. Harcourt was real nice about it. But that's actually just the way the title is on the book jacket. In the LAWKI paperback, the teaser calls it the dead and the gone. And the Harcourt website for it (which just takes you to my blog) is www.TheDeadAndTheGone.com
8. Were you at all surprised at the reception of Life As We Knew It? You said that it was the one book you never told anyone you were writing? Why was that? Did that one feel different to you?
When I wrote LAWKI, I did it purely on spec, and mostly to entertain myself. I told my brother, one of my cousins, and two close friends that I was working on it, but no one else (not even my mother, as she reminds me on occasion). I wasn't sure I'd finish the book, and I certainly had no idea what would happen with it. I figured the fewer people who knew about it, the fewer people who'd ask what had become of it.
I loved writing LAWKI. Some books are a joy to write, and LAWKI was one of them. I was immensely involved with it. I'd reread sections every night before going to bed. That's very unusual for me.
9. Last I noticed (and this is exceptionally dated awareness, I might add – and apologize for) on your blog you were talking about ideas for a third book – but also mentioning that there's no contract for another. Has that change? Will we get a full trilogy? 'Cause I really want one (that counts, right?)
I want a third book also, but it's Harcourt's decision. My guess is if d&g does well enough, Harcourt will give me the go ahead. If the dead & the gone turns into the dud & the gone, then we'll never know what becomes of the characters.
(Jac says: People. Buy. The. Book. Do it for the children.)
10. What other teen authors' books do you always look forward to?
I read very little fiction for any age level. I read biographies and history mostly, and choose books based on subject matter (I just finished reading a biography of Anne Boleyn's sister-in-law).
Why don't you read fiction? That seems unusual for a writer of fiction. When you do read it, what do you lean toward? What age group? What genre?
All right- when I read fiction, I favor suspense novels. I have a real fondness for American or British suspense novels from approximately 1946-1960, standalones where the wife is planning on murdering her husband or the husband is planning on murdering his wife. They're mostly by people I've never heard of and aren't that easy to find anymore.
As a kid, I read all the time, but I liked non-fiction as much as fiction- the Childhood of Famous American series and Landmark Books, for example. My interest in Tudor England comes from the Landmark Book on Queen Elizabeth and the Spanish Armada (although even as a kid, I didn't find Queen Elizabeth all that interesting, but I loved the beginning of the book about Henry VIII and his wives).
I absolutely adore movies though. They're my favorite form of storytelling.
(Jac says: dang. The perfect opportunity to ask what her fav. movie is. I blew it. Sorry guys.)
11. Can you recommend any books for fans of Life As We Knew It and the dead & the gone? You know, dark, painful books where most of the world dies and reader can't put down?
Actually, I can, but it's non-fiction. It's called Catastrophe and it's by David Keys. PBS showed a two part documentary based on it a while ago. I read it before coming up with LAWKI, and it was definitely an influence. It's about various horrible things (plague and famine and the suchlike) that happened during the dark ages, that the author believes were the result of a volcanic eruption.
(Jac says: Non-fiction are books too! And, I'll be checking at my library for that DVD.)
12. One extra question: I have a colleague who is featuring Life As We Knew It in her Summer Reading Program – all the kids in her community will be reading it. She'd like to know if you have any advice on cool related activities.
It makes me deliriously happy when I learn LAWKI is being used in summer reading programs and in schools. I went to a parent/kid discussion group about it where the librarian brought different foods mentioned in the book and we had a grab bag (did I get the chocolate? No, I got the Lime Jello).
(Jac says: I like lime Jello. Mom used to shred cabbage into it, which tastes WAY better than it sounds...I swear. It's the only thing I'll allow to float in my Jello.)
A school I know about had its students do a make believe shopping without telling the kids what the book was about. They were just told to buy the things they'd think they would need in an emergency. I'm told a lot of disposable razors were "purchased."
Another school had its students write diaries from any LAWKI character's viewpoint that they chose. One kid wrote a diary for Peter (the doctor) and another one wrote for Horton (the cat).
Harcourt is working on a teachers guide for both books, and they may include related activities.
Thank you Sue!
The rest of your Monday SBBT:
Adam Rex at Fuse Number 8
David Almond at 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast
R.L. Lafevers at Finding Wonderland
Dave Schwartz at Shaken & Stirred
Elizabeth Scott at Bookshelves of Doom
Laurie Halse Anderson at Writing & Ruminating