Author Interview: Susan Beth Pfeffer

 

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 Hi all, I am excited to present an interview with the prolific Susan Beth Pfeffer, who said yes to an interview! What follows is a bio mostly stolen from goodreads and wikipedia and the ‘About the Author’ sections of her books and then, the interview! To stay tuned 😉

Susan Beth Pfeffer was born in New York City in 1948, though she grew up in the city she spent summers in the Catskill Mountains. When she was six her father wrote and published a book on constitutional law, and Pfeffer decided that she, too, wanted to be a writer (aww!). That year she wrote her first story, about the love between an Oreo cookie and a pair of scissors. However, it wasn’t until 1970 that her first book, Just Morgan, was published. She wrote it during her last semester at New York University; since then, she has been a full-time writer for young people.

She has won numerous awards and citations for her work, which range from picture books to middle-grade and young-adult novels, and include both contemporary and historical fiction. She is also the author of the popular Portraits of Little Women series for grades 3-6, and has written a book for adults on writing for children (which I just couldn’t find!).

To date, she has written more than 70 books. When she is not working, she enjoys watching movies, both new and old, and collecting movie memorabilia, reading biographies and histories, and eating foods that are bad for her. She lives in Middletown, New York, with her two cats, Alexander and Emily.

This interview will revolve around Susan’s The Moon Crush series. Life As We Knew It was on YALSA’s Best Books for Young Adults list in 2007 and also was shortlisted for the Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Science Fiction or Fantasy of 2007. In addition, it won the Booklist Editor’s Choice Award for Books for Youth in 2006 and in 2009 it was nominated for the 2009 Rebecca Caudill Young Reader’s Book Award.

So! With no further ado, the interview with the wonderful Susan Beth Pfeffer!

1. I have been finding lately that books very rarely fit nice and squarely in the genre they are being marketed as. The Moon Crush series is being sold as ‘dystopia’ – do you agree? How would you classify these books – or would you?

When I wrote Life As We Knew It, I didn’t think very much about what genre it fell in. I certainly didn’t think of it as dystopian, a word I still have trouble spelling.

The theme that has always intrigued me the most is that of a “normal” family living through an abnormal situation. I’ve returned to that theme time and again, both in my YAs and in my middle group books. For me, that was what Life As We Knew It was about, with the situation being worldwide rather than particular to the family. So if I defined the genre at all, it was “family problem novel.”

It wasn’t until the book was nominated for a science fiction award that I realized people thought of it as sci fi, which dystopian, I assume, is a subgenre of.

  • 2. I have often wondered, especially about Life As We Knew It if your motivation was to make a comment on how much humans rely on technology and nature as we know it. Though I know, from many of your other interviews, that you write to entertain yourself and hopefully readers, does a motivation for the book take shape as you write? By crushing the moon and playing with gravity you have taken the inciting incident out of the hands of humans, and you have affected the entire world, why do you think you made this choice?

Ooh ooh, I know the answer to that one. I didn’t care about making comments on how much humans rely on technology. Heck, I’m human, and I rely on technology all the time (hear my clothes drier in the background?).

There were several reasons why I messed with gravity. The first was that I’ve always been intrigued by the fact the moon controls the tides. It’s way up there and the oceans are way down here and gravity is clearly a very powerful force.

Secondly, I didn’t want whatever was destroying life on earth to be the fault of human beings. It’s always our fault. We overpopulate or we explode atom bombs or we mess up the ecology through global warning. Just once I didn’t want people to be responsible.

Finally, it was important that the problem not be something a teenage girl could solve, because I had no interest in writing a book about how a teenage girl saves humanity. So it had to be worldwide and unsolvable.

3. Who or what do you think the antagonist of your series really is? Is it the environment, is it the waiting for things to get back to normal, for electricity to return, for instructions from ‘the powers that be’… or is it something else?

I don’t think in terms of antagonist. It’s not like Miranda or Alex have things any worse than anyone else (well, to some extent Alex does, but that’s the class system, and even there, he has specific benefits from where he is in that same system).

4. I find the depiction of religion throughout the Moon series fascinating and authentic to the setting of your novels – actually, I think that is what I enjoy the most. You capture, in so many small ways the life that we (Western worlders) know now. In Life As We Know It we see Miranda’s friend starve herself in the name of god, but religion is redeemed in many ways with The Dead and the Gone and the Morales family’s ties to the church – but then there is Brie. I just wanted to ask about what your own intentions were with religion in general, how did it find its way into your books and how did it shape the world that Alex and Miranda live in?

Religion is a big tricky issue for the books. Here’s how the decisions basically were made:

When I first started the pre-writing for Life As We Knew It, I had to decide how religious Miranda and her family were. There was no way I could write an essentially realistic book about the world coming to an end and ignore religion.

But I didn’t want a set-up where Miranda prayed regularly for things to get better and then not have things get better. I knew things weren’t going to get better, so I knew Miranda’s prayers would go unanswered. It was better therefore not to have her pray, so I made her family what I think of as Christmas and Easter Bunny Christians.

Still, religion had to be part of the story because I wasn’t limiting myself to how Miranda saw things; there were other characters as well. So I created Megan, who sees what’s happening as God’s will, and chooses not to question His decisions.

Personally, I think that’s very sensible. If God is omnipotent, then He’s responsible for floods and earthquakes and the suchlike. So I have no problem with Megan’s attitude about things, even though Miranda does.

I did realize, kind of after the fact, that I didn’t put in a nice clergyperson, to offset the nasty minister. But that nice clergyperson didn’t fit into my plot, so I didn’t create one.

When I was working on The Dead And The Gone, I needed as many things to be different from Life As We Knew It as possible. The books take place at the exact same time with the exact same things happening worldwide. So Alex and his situation had to be different from Miranda and hers.

Therefore, since Miranda’s family wasn’t religious, Alex’s family would be. It was as basic as Miranda is a girl and Alex is a boy, Miranda lives in a small town, Alex lives in New York City.

In addition, in New York City, the Roman Catholic Church is almost its own city. It has schools and hospitals and an infrastructure that Alex could depend on to help him and his family survive. If Alex and his family had been devout Quakers, there wouldn’t have been that support system in place for them.

  • 5. I have to ask about the gender roles – because for me it really stuck. The fact that Miranda has to stay inside and clean with Mom, while the boys chop wood stood out, as one example. Again, in The Dead and the Gone the girls have to stay ‘safe’ inside and consequently the same delegation of work comes about, and in This World We Live In we only get a glimpse of Syl’s previous life but some gender issues are latent there as well. Did you consciously play with gender roles? How did the gender roles shape the narratives?

I have chopped wood. Chopping wood is hard. I mean really physically hard. So is handwashing sheets and towels, but I’d still rather do that than chop wood.

I don’t see how gender roles couldn’t shape the narrative. Women are always at greater risk of being raped than men are. Alex’s sisters don’t have to stay “safe” inside. They go to school. Bri leaves New York. Julie works in a garden.

But I think it’s naïve to picture them (or any other girls/women) wandering around safe and secure, unless they’re armed and capable of shooting to kill. And I wasn’t going to create characters, male or female, who were armed and capable of shooting to kill

6. I’m curious about your choice of a Puerto Rican protagonist in The Dead and the Gone, what led you to this choice and what kinds of research did you embark on to make the Morales’ as authentic as possible?

Alex and his family had to be different from Miranda and hers. So I decided to give Alex a different ethnic background. I considered making him African American, but didn’t think I could pull that off.

So I made his family an immigrant family. I wanted them to be Catholic for the reasons I’ve stated above. Puerto Rican worked well for what I wanted.

My father was born in Hungary and my mother’s parents were born and grew up in Russia. I’m very comfortable with the immigrant experience, that sense of two languages, two homelands.

7. You have said in previous interviews that you didn’t do much research but instead started with a ‘what if’ questions and followed logic down the rabbit hole – so I just had a funny question, what is the funniest most uncanny thing that you had to google while writing these books?

I love saints, and I think I felt it was important to know the patron saint of farms. Only it turned out to be some saint I’d never heard of (I used the saint anyway).

Google was my friend when I wrote The Dead And The Gone, but largely for language. I don’t speak Spanish, and I knew there were certain words and phrases Alex would automatically think of in Spanish. I wanted those words not to be italicized, but if I remember correctly, my publisher insisted that they be.

8. You have written more than 70 books for young adults, which is quite prolific, and I know that you give advice on your own blog to aspiring writers. What is it that draws you to the young adult audience? Why write for them? Can you tell us what you think the most important tip or trick is when writing for this audience in particular?

I stumbled into writing for the YA market when I wrote my first book, my last semester in college. It made sense that I wrote a YA because I’d read so many of them when I was 11, 12 years old, and I’d been so aware of how bad the majority of them were. So when I chose what to write, I figured I’d go with that, and since I was 20 when I wrote my first book, it was no great stretch to remember what I would have enjoyed reading at 12.

Since then, I’ve written for all other age group children. But I remain comfortable with YAs. They allow me to explore families, which is what I like doing best. I don’t like writing romances and I don’t like writing school stories, but I love looking into family dynamics. 16 year old main characters give you a great viewpoint for those dynamics, still young enough to be a part of it, but old enough to figure out what’s working and what isn’t.

I don’t have any particular tips for this age level vs. other age levels. The important thing about writing fiction is telling a story that appeals to you. Otherwise, what’s the point!

Thank you so much for agreeing to the interview! I look forward to many more wonderful books from you!