The Big Idea: Susan Beth Pfeffer
Say you’re an author and you want your publishers to do something they have no intention of doing. How do you get them to do it — and think it was their bright idea to begin with? Susan Beth Pfeffer explains how, using her latest novel, This World We Live in. Take notes, folks. But a warning: Watching a bad movie may be required.
SUSAN BETH PFEFFER
Like so many other big ideas, my young adult apocalyptic novel, This World We Live In, is the direct result of a bad movie.
In my case, the movie was Meteor, starring Sean Connery and Natalie Wood, and generously granted 1 ½ stars by Leonard Maltin. If I’d known Maltin gave it a kiss of death under 2 star rating, I might not have watched it one Saturday afternoon.
But there it was on some Cinemax or another. I could have said, “What a piece of crap,” turned off the TV and gone on with my life. And perhaps I would have, if I’d had a life at that particular moment. But I didn’t. My career had hit one of its periodic ruts, which I preferred to think of as early (and voluntary) retirement. I was living off the money I’d made from the sale of my house. No work. No life. Nothing better to do than watch Sean and Natalie, two fabulously attractive astronomers, destroy that no good meteor and save the world.
The movie ended. I turned the TV off, and promptly asked myself, “What would it be like to be a teenager living through a world wide catastrophe?” The next thing I knew, my brain had unretired itself. I spent weeks thinking of nothing other than disasters and teenagers and families and how to turn all that into a young adult novel. When I was satisfied I knew my disaster, my characters, my story, I began writing Life As We Knew It. A few months later, I’d finished the first draft, and a year or so after that, Harcourt published it, and I had a life again.
I loved writing Life As We Knew It. Even as I was writing it, I knew there had to be a sequel. If I wanted to know what happened next to Miranda, trapped with her family in a world where a change in the moon’s orbit has caused tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, famine and epidemics, then the book’s readers would want to know also.
After Harcourt purchased the book, I pointed this out. “I want to write a sequel,” I said. “Everyone is going to want one.”
“Harcourt hates sequels,” Harcourt responded. “Harcourt will never publish a sequel.”
That’s when I had my second big idea. If Harcourt didn’t want a sequel, but I loved killing off all humanity so much, I’d write about the exact same disaster and but with a whole new set of characters. Eventually, Harcourt would want both sets of characters to meet, and I’d get to write my sequel.
I promptly proposed the idea to Harcourt, leaving out the part about the characters meeting in a third book. A new book, I said. Same disaster, new characters.
“A companion novel,” Harcourt declared. “We like companion novels. It’s only sequels we hate.”
So I spent another few weeks coming up with a whole new set of characters trapped in a world of tsunamis and earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and famines and epidemics. Instead of a teenage girl in small town Pennsylvania, The Dead And The Gone was about Alex, a teenage boy in New York City.
Once again, I had a great time writing. Once again, Harcourt published it. Once again, I dreamed of a sequel, only now it was for two books.
“We’re glad you had fun,” Harcourt said. “But don’t think we’ll ever let you write a sequel. We hate sequels, you know.”
“I know,” I said. “No sequels. Never any sequels. Never.”
But I sure did love ending the world. So I tried to come up with a non-sequel sequel. I set books five years later, forty years later, one day later. I became a little apocalyptic engine, churning out idea after idea after idea. All of them big. All of them disdained by Harcourt.
“No, no, no,” Harcourt said. “We hate sequels. But we hate all these ideas even more.”
Then Life As We Knew It came out in paperback and nuzzled its way onto a New York Times Best Seller List. The Dead And The Gone sold nicely also.
“What we want,” said Harcourt, “is a sequel. Readers want to know what happens to Miranda and Alex. Why are you even trying to write something different, when it’s obvious what’s needed is a sequel where the characters meet.”
So I spent another few months writing This World We Live In, a sequel to both Life As We Knew It and The Dead And The Gone. At first, I thought of all three books as a trilogy. But then I realized that trilogies tend to be consecutive, first Book A happens, then Book B and finally Book C.
Since Life As We Knew It and The Dead And The Gone take place at the same time, This World We Live In isn’t so much the third book in a trilogy as the third side of a triangle. It’s a shared sequel. You can read either of the first two books and then read This World We Live In and go back and read the book you hadn’t read before, or you can read both of the first two books and then read This World We Live In or you can read This World We Live In first and go back and read either or both of the other two books. I’ll never know.
But only after you’ve read one, two, or all three of the books, can you watch Meteor. I don’t want you getting any big ideas on your own!
Visit the This World We Live In Web site.