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Monday, February 15, 2010

INTERVIEW: Susan Beth Pfeffer

I can hardly remember a time when I didn't want to be a writer. I knew by first grade I was determined to be one. I always loved making up characters and stories, and I loved knowing people enjoyed my storytelling abilities. In sixth grade, I wrote most of a mystery (I lost interest as soon as I solved it, and stopped writing), and I discovered even kids who didn't like me were waiting to read each chapter as I finished it.

I also read enormous amounts as a kid, far more than I read nowadays. I had very little respect for most of what I read, and by seventh grade I felt I could do better. There were only a few writers I really respected. One was Mary Stolz, whose books were far superior to the drek I devoured. Many years later, she permitted me to dedicate a book to her, and I'm delighted that I was able to tell someone I looked up to so much how influential she had been to me.

When I was a junior in high school, I wrote a humorous autobiographical essay for the school paper, and it met with great success. Fool that I was, I asked my 11th grade English teacher (who didn't like me) what she thought.

She said, "It's like everything else you do- it's I,I,I."

While that was kind of nasty of her, it was also excellent advice (even if she didn't intend it to be). She taught me to make sure I don't start every paragraph with the word "I." When you write in first person (and I frequently do), that's a good thing to watch out for.

And while I'm on the subject of advice, the other best piece I was ever given, was from one of the many excellent editors I've had the good fortune to work with. I'm a sucker for backstories, which can really clutter the start of a book. My editor spotted this weakness (well, it was hard not to notice), and said, "A book should start as close to the center of the story as possible."

Oh, there's one other piece of advice that has been enormously helpful to me. It's professional, rather than writing advice, but it's essential for anyone who's self-employed. It came from an agent who was telling me about a possible big deal. She said, "Don't buy the mink coat until after you've cashed the check." So many possible big deals fall through, it's good to remember that.

My mother was a secretary and she taught my brother and me to type when we were in high school. As a result, I've always written by keyboard, first with a typewriter, and then on a computer. I write very fast, and I can't imagine how I would have managed if I'd written by hand (then again, I can't imagine writing poems any way other than longhand, but I can't write poems, so I'm just guessing on that).

Now that I think about it, there's another piece of advice that's had a huge positive effect on my career. Another agent said it to me, and it took a while before I understood what she meant. She said, "Think before you write."

Before then, I would just start to write without having given much thought at all to how the story was going to turn out. That's a good system for some people, but not for me. So now I'll come up with a question (what would it be like to be a teenager living through a worldwide catastrophe), and then I'll spend as much time as needed coming up with the questions and answers. Who is the teenager? What is the catastrophe?

Writers have themes they turn to again and again. My theme is families living through unusual circumstances. To me, the best way of exploring families is through children and teenagers .I love writing problem novels, and I saw Life As We Knew It as a problem novel about a very very big problem.

I loved writing Life As We Knew It and wanted to write a sequel, but my publisher was uncertain that was the way to go. So I convinced them to let me write a second book about the same world wide catastrophe, but with a completely different set of characters. I called that book the dead & the gone. Then my publisher decided a sequel was a good idea after all, so my newest book, This World We Live In (scheduled for March 2010), is about the characters in both books, as their lives intertwine. Writing a book that's a sequel to two different books is a lot trickier than you might think, and I take a lot of pride in how I figured out what details of the first two books to include in the third and what details to leave out.

Most of the outlining I do is in my mind, and I do it pretty much non-stop if I'm working through a story. It's that continuing process of asking and answering questions. When I'm confident of the beginning, have a strong sense of where I want the book to end, and know enough of the middle to be sure there is one (that reminds me of another great trick I was taught, by another excellent editor- If you're writing a book with chapters, write down each chapter number and a one sentence description of what happens in that chapter. If you see numbers without action, you know where you need to strengthen your story), I start the actual writing.

With all the pre-writing, the writing itself doesn't take that long, which is a good thing for me because I'm an impatient person and I can lose interest pretty easily. But it's a good system for me, and it prevents lots of headaches like writer's block. Other writers prefer to solve the problems as they go along. There's no one right or wrong method.

I have two goals with my writing and when things work out best, they go together quite nicely. One goal is to earn money. Writing books has been my fulltime job since college. I'm incredibly fortunate to have lived my dream. Some years I've earned lots of money and some years not nearly enough, but they've averaged out fairly well.

The second goal is to entertain myself. I am my own best audience. That's a good thing since I'm the one doing the writing and the rewriting. It's a not such a good thing when it comes to being objective. I have to write something pretty awful for me to acknowledge it's less than fabulous. Which is why I'm very dependent on my editors, and why I've been so fortunate to have worked with so many excellent ones.

I lead a quiet comfortable life (considerably more comfortable in the years when I earn enough money). I love movies and watching figure skating (I go to the occasional competition). This past spring, I adopted a kitten, who I named Scooter. As you can tell from the photograph, he's a very intelligent cat!

Susan Beth Pfeffer wrote her first book, Just Morgan, when she was a senior at NYU.

Since then, she has written 76 books for children and young adults. Her award winning titles include Kid Power, About David, and The Year Without Michael.

In 2006, her New York Times best selling novel Life As We Knew It was published. The winner of several statewide young reader awards, it was followed by the dead & the gone. In April 2010, the third volume in the trilogy, This World We Live In, will be published. The books follow the story of Miranda, a teen girl in small town Pennsylvania and Alex, a teen boy in New York City, after a worldwide devastation.

Ms. Pfeffer lives in the Town of Wallkill, New York, with her kitten Scooter.

1 comment:

  1. What an inspiring interview! I loved Life As We Knew It, and can't wait to read the other two.

    But I also loved many of your previous books. I remember buying Starring Peter and Leigh and Marly the Kid with my own money. I read both books so many times, to this day, I can still remember the plots, significant scenes and bits of dialogue and description.

    They were among the books I turned to during my (quite horrid) jr. high years.

    Thank you so much!