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.


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!


This World We Live In: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the This World We Live In Web site.

34 Comments on “The Big Idea: Susan Beth Pfeffer”

  1. Oh I’m so excited–I loved Life as We Knew It and The Dead and the Gone. Can’t wait to read the sequel-not-a-sequel!

  2. I loved the first two, too, and i am anxiously looking for her new one.

    BTW, don’t be ashamed to browse the Young Adult book section (or even the ‘tween section) at the bookstore. You can find some real gems like these.

  3. I’m a big fan of the first two books inspired by Meteor, and they’re great on CD. I secretly enjoy natural disaster movies, which are usually pretty bad, but still exciting. Young adult dystopian fiction is hot right now, just look at Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games and Catching Fire.
    It’s very interesting to hear the back story of how Susan got to finally write the sequel.

  4. My 15 year old read the first two of these a few years ago (I think the first one she got was from a giveaway at our library, which has an awesome Teen program) and she’ll be thrilled to know there’s a third one.

  5. I picked up the first two books for my kids, and found I loved them too. So now my kids are going to have to cage-fight to determine who gets to read the new one AFTER I read it first.

  6. I loved this Big Idea! Nicely written…off to pick up Life as We Knew It and The Dead and the Gone.

  7. My first thought upon glimpsing the cover was ‘what a design ripoff of Life As We Knew It’.

    Immediate second thought was ‘wait whats that line in small type? A sequel to LAWKI?’

    Third (after reading the Big Idea) was ‘how did I not hear of the concurrent novel before?’

    And fourth was (obviously) “Do I have time to go to the bookstore before work?’ – the answer is yes.

  8. My 7th grade daughter read the first one for class, and the next on her own. Has this one on her to do list. Wishing you continued success.

  9. Why would Harcourt hate sequels? Most of the best selling novels in sci-fi/fantasy are series. They pick up steam as more books come out.

  10. This post was hilarious. Raise your hand if you didn’t predict the course of events described from the first time Harcourt denounced sequels. Nobody? Thought so.

    I have not read either of the first two books, but now I’ll be adding them to my TBR list(, which, thanks to John and his little blog feature, is far too long to get through within my lifetime).

  11. Life as We Knew It is one of the very best y.a. novels I’ve ever read (like, “almost as good as Speak” good), and The Dead and the Gone is next in my to-read pile. I can’t wait for this one.

  12. All I have to do is mention Life As We Knew It to my 16-year-old when she’s acting ungrateful and her perspective changes! We’re both anticipating reading this third one.

  13. Ms Pfeffer, have you considered going into politics? I think you’d do well. (Grin)

    Also, good job on getting Harcourt to stop referring to themselves in the third person.

  14. My fiance bought me my Kindle because, as he says, ‘if you buy one more book, we’re not going to have a place to eat breakfast.’ (That’s hyperbolic: all my books are on shelves. There are just… a lot of shelves.)

    As it turns out, though, he was closer to right than I usually admit and it’s all Whatever’s fault. I started reading Whatever a few months ago, but it was sporadic. As my reading as gotten more regular, so has my book buying. I read the Big Idea with Carrie Ryan and grabbed my Kindle before I’d finished the article. I bought Kelly O’Connor McNees and Dan Wells on Kindle and I snugged Tom Fowler’s Big Idea next to my other graphic novels and hoped the husband-elect didn’t notice (he did, but graciously didn’t say anything).

    Reading this, I love the personification of Harcourt and Pfeffer’s charming, anecdotal storytelling. I’m reaching for my Kindle again even now and I don’t even feel guilty about it.

  15. I have read LIFE AS WE KNEW IT and THE DEAD AND GONE. I loved both. I cannot wait to read THE WORLD WE LIVE IN.
    Thanks for letting us in on the author’s side.

  16. I have to agree with Atsiko @ 13
    Because of this blog, and others to be honest, my TBR list is much too long unless I live forever.

    OTOH, I’ll never run out of things to read. I’ll just grab from the list and be happily reading along.

    Wow, that’s totally awesome, I’ll NEVER run out of good things to read!

    Thanks John and the big idea, I’m good

  17. You have no idea how much hope this gives the rest of us…

    I love your sequel story (and was lucky enough to read an ARC of THIS WORLD WE LIVE IN from ALA Midwinter – it’s brilliant. Many congrats!)

  18. I saw Meteor when it was in theaters in 1979 – in retrospect it really wasn’t much worse than Armageddon, except that some scenes such as the tidal wave in Japan(?) were ripped off from earlier movies. I’ll go check out these Pfeffer titles for my middle-school daughters.

  19. I have two of Carrie Ryan’s world-after-the-zombie-apocolype books on my shelf, and now I guess I’ll have to acquire your books, too!

    I’ve read the reviews on Amazon, and the books do sound intriguing. What *is* it with Harcourt, anyway?

  20. Awesome – the kids loved the first book, despite it being on the recommended reading list. Keep ’em coming and keep converting Harcourt. :)

    This was great, love to see you end the world!

  21. I loves the first two books and I now want to get my hands on the first copy of This World we Live in I can find. I hope you get to put out some more.

  22. I’m sure that Harcourt’s buyout and reorg with another publisher didn’t hurt the chances either.

    Arg, now I’ll have to keep an eye out for these.

  23. Loved the first two novels. Carried around LAWKI all summer and completely restocked my pantry to boot a couple of years ago. And am so looking forward to reading the third installment…really soon.

  24. After reading this post I went straight on Amazon and got the “first” book via Kindle. I absolutely loved it, and couldn’t put it down.

    The only flaw it has is the actual kindle edition (and not the story); simply enough it just wasn’t properly edited for Kindle, and the text wasn’t clear.

    I’m off now to get The Dead and Gone, can’t wait to read it! :D

  25. I just grabbed the first two books for Kindle, and will get the third as soon as it’s available!

  26. I should note that the pinball game by Stern, based on Meteor was an excellent game…better by far than the movie.

  27. Just read the first two- great stuff!!! I admit, I actually looked ahead to the end of TDATG to see how it would end.

  28. Because many of the books spotlighted on this website are excellent, I decided that “Life As We Knew It” might be a good book to share with my pre-adolescent daughter. The story is interesting, thus far, but I am dismayed that in several instances the author took time away from telling the story to engage in political vitriol. This, especially when it is intended for children.

    Any book that says something to the effect that Obama and the mainstream media are untrustworthy and evil I would consider propagandistic and unsuitable for children. So, too, a book that calls George W. Bush and Fox News untrustworthy and evil. It simply is not appropriate in my opinion.

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