Susan Beth Pfeffer may yield to cats and elevators, but her status as the oft-neglected younger child has taught her how to handle her publishers: when they asked for a stand-alone, she pestered her way to The Shade Of The Moon—the last book in a bestselling series of four.
Zola: In Life As We Knew It, the first book in the Last Survivors series, the characters discuss how fiction can have more power than reality. What sort of power do you hope your fiction may have?
Susan Beth Pfeffer: I write my books to entertain myself, and if I have the good fortune to entertain someone else, that’s just gravy. So I never think in terms of the power my fiction might have. Actually, I’m kind of stunned and delighted at the thought of my fiction having any power at all. I don’t want to suggest I’m completely unfamiliar with power, but my cat definitely runs my life and I can never figure out which symbol means the elevator door stays open and which one closes it, so when I’m trying to hold the elevator for some nice stranger, I’m completely powerless (and kind of dumb-looking as well).
Zola: The books are each told from a different character’s perspective, with only the first and third books sharing points of view. What made you decide to do this?
SBP: This one I know the answer to, but it’ll take a while, so sit back and relax.
I wrote Life As We Knew It completely on spec, but while I was writing it (and entertaining myself heartily), I thought, I want to know what happens next and I bet readers will want to know too.
So Houghton Mifflin Harcourt buys the book and I say to them, “I want to know what happens next and I bet readers will want to know too. How about letting me write a sequel?”
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt immediately says, “No, no, never, never. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt hates sequels.”
Well, I’d had such a good time writing Life As We Knew It and ending the world and killing off all humanity, and I really wanted to know what happened next. So in an extraordinary burst of intelligence, I say to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, “How about if I write a book about the exact same catastrophe at the exact same time only with a completely different set of characters?”
Yeses always take longer than nos, so it took Houghton Mifflin Harcourt a few days before they said, “That would be fine because that would be a companion novel and not a sequel and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has nothing against companion novels.”
So I wrote The Dead And The Gone, but while I was writing it, I thought, Ha! Someday they’re going to want a sequel and I’ll make sure Alex from this book meets Miranda from Life As We Knew It and it’ll be a sequel for both those books.
Time passes, during which I constantly pester Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to let me write a third book. Eventually I wear them down and I try many different approaches, none of which are normal kinds of sequels. At which point, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt says, “What we really truly want is an actual sequel and why would you have ever thought otherwise?”
So I write This World We Live In, which is an actual sequel, at least sort of, and Alex meets Miranda, just like I always knew they would. And I figured that would be it.
Only I kept getting emails from kids asking what happens with Alex and Miranda, and then I took my cat to the vet and he asked if there was going to be a fourth book. So I figured maybe there should be a fourth book and I wrote one, only Houghton Mifflin Harcourt hated it (most likely with cause). I took some time off and then decided to try again and I looked around for a character for the book to be about, and picked Miranda’s younger brother Jon.
And that is how I came to write four books with three different viewpoint characters. And why I tend to feel powerless, even outside of elevators.
Zola: You weren’t originally going to publish The Shade of The Moon. Why did you change your mind?
SBP: Although I do tend to blame my vet for making me write a fourth book, the truth is I love my characters and the world I’ve put them in. They’re so much fun to think about and write.
I also love to write series. I’ve always been fascinated by consequences, and when you move a story along for a few years, you really get to see how things play out.
Zola: Unlike the first three books in the series, which focus mostly on survival, The Shade of the Moon’s main theme is inequality. Did you draw inspiration from any real-world instances of inequality as you wrote it?
SBP: The scary thing about The Shade Of The Moon is, no matter what terrible things I created for it, they’ve happened somewhere in the world, and probably fairly recently. People can do such horrific things to each other.
But the can’t-get-around-the-truth-of-it is I’m a younger child, and us younger children are very sensitive to inequality. “Not Fair!” should be inscribed on my tombstone.
Zola: You have a very active blog on which you give a lot of advice about, and insight into, the world of writing. Do you wish you’d had a resource like this when you were starting out as a writer?
SBP: Yes. It would have been very helpful, if I’d had the good sense to pay attention and accept what was offered.
I wrote my first book that got published when I was 20, and boy, I thought I knew everything. I had the good fortune to work with intelligent and sensitive editors over the years, and I’ve learned and learned and learned some more from them (trust me, I’m still learning). Marilyn Marlow, who was my agent for many years, also taught me a lot.
I can’t speak for other writers, but as far as my career has gone, I’ve needed to learn from my own experiences, make my own mistakes, and figure out for myself what I could do better and how.
Zola: Do you have plans for another Last Survivors book, or is this the end?
SBP: I have no idea!
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.