Friday, November 30, 2007

My Preliminary Notes About the dead & the gone

I got an e-mail last night from one of the Bolivian hatters asking if I had known before I began writing the dead & the gone if a certain piece of action was going to happen. I replied that I really didn't remember.

But later that night, I went searching through my computer and I found my original notes about the book. It occurred to me that people might find it interesting to see the process by which the story and the characters evolved. I considered waiting until closer to the June 1 publication date before bringing the notes over here, but I'm not at all certain I'll remember then to do it. So I decided to do it now, and put one of those links on the left side, so that anyone who ever wants to read the notes can.

There are a couple of things I noticed myself when rereading the notes (which I wrote over several days, about a year ago). The first is that a lot of things I thought would happen in the book never did. The second is that all three of the major characters changed their names. Carlos became Alex, because I prefer the name Alex. Niki became Julie, because I was concerned Niki sounded too much like Sammi, a name I used in Life As We Knew It. And Juliette became Briana because Niki became Julie.

While there are many many changes from the notes to the novel, there are many things that stayed the same, so if you want to stay unspoilered, stop reading right now. I'm about to set up the nickname poll, so there will actually be something else to distract you. And if anyone feels like commenting, please either do so in a spoiler free manner, or e-mail me directly.

Okay? Now let's see how my cut and paste skills are holding up.


What I know:
Carlos has two sisters, one with asthma or maybe diabetes
Dad is at a funeral in Puerto Rico.
Mom is a nurse; she leaves for the hospital the first night and is never heard from again.
One sister won’t move away from the apartment as long as they don’t know if their parents are dead.
NYC rises to the emergency. It has more supplies and aid, National Guard.
Conditions deteriorate; the air quality becomes bad. Gangs.
Looting to survive. Breaking into rich people’s homes- stealing fur coats and luxury food items.
No electricity- no elevators. Corpses on the streets become commonplace. No heat. No food.
The waters keep moving inland; everything becomes covered with water, then ice.
Starry Night poster belongs to asthmatic sister.
Asthmatic sister dies. Other sister agrees to leave. Journey to Fresh Air Fund family.
Shea Stadium scene.
Family is middle class, moving upward. Catholic?
Father’s family is all in Puerto Rico for the funeral. Mother’s family is scattered, maybe an aunt or grandmother in the area.
Family is Latino because I don’t want another white upper middle class family.
Carlos is smart (goes to elite public high school), hardworking. He doesn’t get along with healthy younger sister.
Healthy sister is tough, a survivor, fights with asthmatic sister.

Family- Papi is super of building in the West side. Family lives in basement apartment. Mami is some kind of hospital technician.
Carlos, oldest brother, is 19 and in the armed services, probably Marine, stationed in a western state, probably CA.
Alex is a junior in high school. Smart, determined to go to college, goes to a Catholic prep school, works in the local pizza place.
Juliette is 14. Niki is 12.
Papi is in Puerto Rico when it all happens. Mami is called to the hospital in Queens where she works. Neither is seen or heard from again, but there is a phone call the next day which might have come from Papi. Carlos calls the next day before the kids realize that Mami is gone. Kids hear from Carlos maybe a couple of times during the book, so they have no reason to think he’s dead. At book’s end, they begin journey out west to find him.
Maybe an uncle who owns a bodega. If they do, early on he brings Alex and Niki to his shop to help him load his truck with food. He brings food to Alex (or Alex and Niki are told to carry food in wagons back to their apartment). Niki steals some chocolate and some instant lottery tickets, one of which turns out to be a winning ticket for $10000.
Gay couple in building. One of them talks to Alex at very beginning, getting pizza. Mistakes Alex for Carlos. Later on the couple leave NYC and give Alex keys to their place and to their neighbor’s place- they were taking care of neighbor’s stuff while they were in Europe. Papi also has keys to at least one apartment, people he was supposed to paint for while they were gone. Maybe another set or two of keys. Alex and the girls go door to door and tell people to give them keys if they’re planning on leaving NYC. They end up taking things from all the apartments- food, water, warm clothes (fur coats), maybe portable fireplace, barbeque, anything that can help them stay warm and cook. They also take all the booze, which can be used for barter.
Things are different in NYC than in LAWKI. Electricity comes and goes but it lasts longer. More food. Things deteriorate, especially after the volcanoes. Long lines for food donations. Alex is on a line, and two men get into a fight, and one stabs the other to death.
“He’s dead.”
“He’s lucky.”
Alex is glad the men are in line in front of him; he can move up two spaces as a result.
Increased lawlessness. Dead bodies on the streets. Alex’s school stays open although fewer and fewer teachers and students.
Alex and sisters are like jackals, as are most other people. The very strong (gangs) and powerful get most of the supplies, then everybody else fights over the leftovers.
Eating spaghetti sauce for dinner.
Maybe Juliette dies from asthma. Maybe she dies from being bit by a rabid rodent. Maybe Alex gets bit by the rabid rodent. Maybe Alex has to have a tooth extracted.
Bodies at Yankee Stadium.
Busses keep running for quite a while, but very long lines to get onto one (and very few busses actually running).
Maybe gang captures Niki and Alex buys her back with the lottery ticket. Girls cut their hair very short and with all the layers of clothes they can masquerade as boys for safety.
Nuns take some girls to Westchester. Won’t take Juliette because of her asthma. Niki goes and comes back. Either the nuns don’t keep the girls or Niki runs away.
Need to use NYC. What would stay open? Does Alex work (volunteer) in a hospital? Does Juliette? Maybe she gets asthma medication if she works in hospital.
Kids think that scientists will figure out way of getting the moon back in place. Alex believes in family, God, the church, and science. He never loses his faith, but he realizes that he has to take care of himself and his sisters; he can’t count on anyone else to do that.
In the beginning they hear from Fresh Air Fund family calling to make sure they’re okay.
Alex gets through to hospital at end of first day/beginning of second, but hospital has no idea if his mother is there. So much news that things filter in slowly (also no electricity in the beginning). Lots of seemingly wild rumors.
Things very very bad in the beginning, but people pull together. Some people (bodega aunt, gay couple) realize things will only get worse and move fast.
Bodega uncle shows up and asks for food back. He and his family are getting out of town.
Need to have Alex doing things.
The power of the tides never stops and it pushes against the buildings. More and more refuse starts showing up. Maybe not as much snow, but sleet. Salt water doesn’t freeze, but the sleet lands on top of it. Manhattan is being battered to death by the water. Slow but inexorable.
Only after Juliette dies is Alex willing to leave. They can’t go with her, because of her asthma, but her death allows Alex to accept that his parents are never going to return, so there’s no point waiting where they are for them.
Want one violent unexpected death of a major character.
Does Alex have friends? Maybe best friend gets killed, building collapse or racing water or car skidding out of control. Maybe Alex takes friend’s keys and uses them later to take food from his home.
Gay couple warn Alex- Manhattan is an island. Offer to let him use their apartment when they move out. Stay in basement for a while. Basement gets flooded. Move to gay men’s apt. 12 stories up- electricity no longer working. Juliette gets up there but can’t get down and up again.
Older priest; all the younger ones must leave school. Maybe Latin teacher.
Manhattan has evacuation order. Maybe they stay on past the order (many people do because they have no way of getting out). Things even more desperate since there are no more food deliveries. Only when Juliette dies do Alex and Niki leave.
Christmas eve- Midnight mass.
Juliette expect Christmas miracle- return of Mami or Papi, or the moon being knocked back into place. When nothing happens, she loses her will to live, goes into depression, ultimately dies.
Alex does volunteer work bringing food to elderly and infirm parishioners. When they die, he takes what remains in their apartments. Maybe one person he really dislikes, reluctant to take from him/her when they’ve died. Maybe guy in a wheelchair (who he likes).
Flu epidemic. Who is still in the city? Elderly die.

Alex and bf are walking maybe in Central Park looking for fresh bodies. You take the shoes and the watch and they can be bartered for food. It’s after the ice storm, and a tree limb cracks and falls on top of bf killing him. Alex takes his watch, his wallet (because if it’s found with keys, people will break into the apartment) and the shoes and brings them to friend’s parents and tells them he’s dead.
When he tells his sisters what happened, he realizes it could just as easily have been him who was killed. Juliette gets distraught and asks how they could have survived if he’d died.
Alex is the favored child. Carlos has entered military rather than going to community college in part so money can be saved for Alex’s college education. He’s never been the oldest child, but with parents and Carlos gone, Alex has to take on that responsibility, and he has to learn how to handle it.
At some point, Alex makes a sacrifice that in times past he never would have been asked to and never would have thought to. Maybe the first time he does so with a certain amount of resentment, but by the end of the book, he doesn’t even think about it. He’s grown into his role as head of the family.
At some point Niki acknowledges this and the two begin to work as a team.

Jen is always the happy positive one, but she’s depressed after the failure of the Christmas miracle to appear. It takes a while before her spirits lift. Meanwhile Alex has been able to score some asthma medication for her.
Electricity never completely leaves NYC, but it’s sporadic and unreliable. Towards the end, it comes on more frequently (as it does in PA). One day when both Alex and Niki are out, Jen takes advantage to go by elevator to their old basement apartment. Either the electricity goes out while she’s in the elevator, and she ultimately dies of an asthma attack, or she’s electrocuted in the old apartment or she drowns in the old apartment. No matter what, it takes a long time for Alex and Niki to find her.
Niki: I know she’s with Mami and Papi but I wish she was still here with us.
Alex: They’re all here with us. As long as we’re alive, they’re never completely gone.
End of March, NYC calls for a complete evacuation of Manhattan, and that’s when Alex and Niki begin their long march to the west to find Carlos.
Brianna doesn’t have asthma at the outset, but develops it (or some kind of respiratory condition) after the volcanoes start erupting. She sees some kind of medic who says living in a basement is harmful for her, so only then do they move into an upstairs apartment. Maybe electricity is still fairly reliable at that point.
Alex goes back to the apartment and finds about 4-6 inches of water on the floor. Some things are lost (shoes), but he salvages as much as he can, and they realize things are only going to get worse; the water will get deeper and the apartment will be unusable. Maybe this takes place fairly late in the action.
Then electricity (following the ice storm) becomes almost non-existent, and Brianna is pretty much trapped in the upstairs apartment. Kevin dies, Christmas miracles doesn’t happen, Brianna becomes depressed.
Brianna works her way through it. Electricity starts returning. Brianna realizes there’s something she wants in the old apartment. She takes the elevator down, but by the time she gets it, electricity is gone. She waits and waits (on wet floor), then decides to try to climb the stairs. Somewhere in the stairwell she has an asthma/heart attack and dies.
Alex and Nikki have no idea what’s happened to her. Do other tenants know where they are, or do people assume they’ve left? If no one knows, then no one bothers to tell them in their borrowed apartment. Maybe they find her body outside, shoes and watch missing.
People leave bodies out on the sidewalk like they do garbage; every three or four days the sanitation department comes and picks them up. The idea is to find the bodies fast, right after they’ve been left, because there’s always a chance they’ll still have watches and shoes (and any other valuables).
“God isn’t punishing us; He’s testing us.”
“I realized just because we didn’t have a miracle on Christmas, doesn’t mean there weren’t any. Maybe people who needed them more than we did got them.”
Keys from gay couple and for the apartment they were looking after. One set of keys for apartment to be painted. Plus at least one door that opens with the master key and maybe one apartment that opens because there’s a suicide in there.
Briana’s body has either two sets of rosary beads (her own and her mother’s which is what she must have gone down to the basement apartment to get) or else the postcard of Starry Night.


Mary Burkey said...

Wow! What a gift you've given us with the posting of your notes. And as a Bolivian Hat winner of d&g (my vote), I am facinated with the peek into your story-building process. I will share this with my 8th grade co-teacher you is reading d&g aloud to the class who studied LAWKI. Thank so much!

Stefan said...

Good job! :)

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Thanks Stefan!

writerross said...

I finished THE DEAD AND THE GONE earlier this evening. Not that I wanted to. I inhaled your story and I did not want to come back out. I sobbed and wept as the story came to an ending I didn't want to happen but knew it must... Thank you for giving us Alex, Bri and Julie. I loved them and I will miss their presence. I pray your characters have found a haven of safety and life. {}

-Pamela Ross

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Thank you Writerross.

I loved the characters in the dead & the gone.

There was a moment when Bri was away from home, and Alex and Julie speak to her on the phone, that I felt like I was reuniting with an old friend myself.

I'm glad you felt that same connection.

writerross said...

That is what a great book does. Connects. Breathes. Moves. Feels. Exists in the page and outside the covers.

Even Carlos, Mami and Papi felt real, although we only meet them through the children's eyes. Brilliant.

I didn't know how you were going to follow-up with a corresponding story to the equally powerful LIFE AS WE KNEW IT. I think the shift in the main character's POV == from 1st to 3rd== was a perfect way to tell the story in different ways.

I have hope for and because of the Morales. Thank you for painting them into life.

-Pamela (still thinking about how I cried last night, finding it hard to breathe as I approached the ending --and I am not ashamed to admit I did)

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hi Pamela and thank you again-

I felt like I really understood the family dynamics in d&g, that Mami's favorites were Alex and Bri (the children she had the biggest dreams for, and who reflected her own ambitions and beliefs) and Papi's were Carlos and Julie.

None of that showed up in the book (at least not intentionally), but it underlined Alex's feelings about his parents and his siblings.

It's really a lot of fun to write a family novel in a sci fi/disaster format!

Marisa Rothwell said...

Hey Susan,
I loved the notes, I finished the Dead & the Gone last night. As I was finishingit, I was crying because it made me very sad to have Bri die alone, but once I finished the book, I was happy because Bri wasn't alone; I'd like to think she died with Christ at her side, and now she can be with her Mami and Papi so she can be at peace and watch over alex and julie. I can't wait for "what was/what is"!! Good Luck to whatever you do and thank you soo much for writing!

<3 Marisa rothwell

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hi Marisa Rothwell-

Thank you for your comment. It gives me great pleasure to know I created characters that readers can care so deeply about.

It's fun to look at the notes and see what I kept and what I changed while I was writing the dead & the gone. I always think I know just how a book is going to end before I begin writing it, but the truth is things change and decisions get altered.

In the case of the dead & the gone, it was my realization of the second snow storm that happened in LAWKI. I just couldn't deal with it, so d&g ended in late December instead of Feb. or March.

Thanks for the good wishes for What Was/What Is. If I can get my brain in order today, I plan to do some think work on it.

Beth in Asheville NC said...

I just bought the dead & the gone yesterday and read it last night. I enjoyed it - it's thought-provoking and I greatly appreciate your sense of humor and your strong sense of hope thoughout this book and LAWKI. Your stories match my beliefs about what's most important in life. Every one of us is the descendant of thousands of generations of survivors, so we're born with strong instincts to do what's needed to keep ourselves and our families and friends (and ideally their supportive communities) alive - to survive and ideally to thrive, despite challenges.

Now for a few comments and suggestions (from a 61 year old who had a Bachelor of Science degree in math and a career as a computer systems programmer and technical writer).
1) I detect some mushy science. Things seemed to happen too fast the night of the asteroid strike on the moon. I know someone who has a B.S. Degree in Astronomy (NOT Astrology...) and his quick reaction was that the change in the moon's orbit would happen much more gradually because it would need to travel many thousands of miles closer to the earth. And the asteroid probably would need to be at least 300 to 400 miles in circumference to cause such a major change to the moon's orbit. Also he thinks the impact would create significant debris that would strike the earth (perhaps hitting the oceans and causing the Tsunamis...) but the high tides wouldn't happen right away and more satellites should remain broadcasting. This major astro event to be caused by such a huge astro body would be detected years in advance, so many, many more international preparations would be probable. If you have any questions about this, I probably can get responses from the person I know. (He said his quick response might not be totally accurate and he'd need to analyze this much more carefully before he'd want to be quoted by name about this.} For your readers guides and notes for your current books and for your(hopefully) future books in this series, I recommend that you create a science supplement to give out along with your readers guides, with help from an informal "science advisory" group, including at least one high school science teacher with strengths in astronomy and physics... (who could help you come up with some science-related discussion questions). You could get into some really interesting science-related aspects, such as the fact that the moon was much, much closer to the earth long ago, when life was arising, creating enormous tides. The moon stabilizes the axis of the earth, so that has interesting implications...
2) A minor comment -- On p. 190 the birthday cake has fourteen birthday candles for Julie but her age is now thirteen (p. 192). Maybe the cake has "one to grow" but you don't mention that in the text. Perhaps you can correct this before the paperback edition is printed...
3) A big wish. I found myself caring about the characters you created in both of your books and I hope that you'll create a third book to continue their stories and ideally have both sets of characters encounter each other (and then continue their stories into a fourth book...) Perhaps the troubles you're going through with your aging mother can find their way into the new book(s). Your books feel real, and they deal with real reactions to life, in a very interesting and often inspiring way. Please keep followon books coming!!!! (And international stories - Puerto Rico, perhaps characters' families in other countries, etc. etc. would have interesting multi-cultural broadening.) Thanks for writing such enriching stories!

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hi Beth In Ashville NC-

It's always nice to hear from someone my age, and Beth is such a lovely name. I've never been to Asheville, but everything I've heard about it makes it sound quite wonderful.

Now how's that for a warm, effusive, greeting!

When I wrote Life As We Knew It, I really didn't think of it as science fiction, and therefore I didn't care all that much about how scientific the science was. What I wanted was a rolling catastrophe, something that would start out bad and get worse and worse and worse, and I figured as long as each worse was logical (lack of fuel leads to lack of food, lack of food leads to illness; gravitational pull leads to volcanoes, volcanic ash leads to early frosts, etc.)then the setup for the book would be less important that the reason for the book, examining how families cope with ever worsening conditions.

The term Alfred Hitchcock used was MacGuffin- the suitcase that the hero accidentally picks up at the train station that leads to him being chased by spies and pursued by police and involved with a beautiful blonde. For me, the moon was the MacGuffin, just the starting off point.

Of course, when I wrote LAWKI, I didn't expect it to take off as it did, and for people to care so deeply about it, and to look at it with educated, critical eyes. And if those educated, critical eyes are the price I pay, so be it. I still get off easy!

I agree that it would make sense to have a third book that combines the characters from the first and second books, but Harcourt doesn't seem to see it that way. And given all the backing and forthing and waiting and wailing (well, I'm the only one doing the wailing), I'm not betting on a third book at all, and certainly not on a fourth.

My guess is I won't have a real sense of what's going on until after Labor Day. In the meantime, I'm going to a concert with friends, having lunch with another friend, taking my mother to two doctor appointments, and shopping like a maniac at New Paltz Crafts Fair. Not to mention finishing up the Olympics and watching a week's worth of US Open Tennis.

Reality and the moon will just have to wait!

Maryann said...

Miss Pfeffer,
I really like your books, they make me cry really hard. I'm not allowed to bring the books to school or else I'll start crying during english and look silly. I really hope you make another book about the moon coming closer to the earth. At school we have to write a report about if we were the author, what would be the hardest part to write and if the book were to be made into a movie, what scenes would be definitely made. So for my project, I'm doing the Dead and The Gone!

I really admire you works of writing! Thank you so much, you have saved me from my increasing boredome for the past few months.



Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hi Maryann-

Thank you for your comment and for using The Dead And The Gone for your school project.

I am hard at work on a third book that will bring together the characters from Life As We Knew It and The Dead And The Gone. I just finished the first draft this weekend. Its name is This World We Live In, and it should be published in Spring 2010.

So be prepared to start crying all over again!

Maryann said...

Miss Pfeffer,
I'm happy that you responed to my comment so quickly! I hope you can answer this question of mine. What was the hardest part to write during the Dead and the Gone? I hope I'm not disturbing your work or anything....


Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hi again Maryann-

All of d&g was a challenge to write. Alex is very different from me, in just about every significant way.

I think the scene I most dreaded writing was the one when Kevin dies. I loved Kevin, and up until the last minute, I asked myself if he really had to die. But I knew that he did, so I went through with it.

Also, I don't know any Spanish, so I was constantly checking terms out in the internet.

I hope that helps.

Maryann said...

Miss Pfeffer,
Thank you so much! I really appreciate it, I really hope i'm not bothering you. Thanks so much x100!


Tristan Parr said...

Hello. I really love the dead and the gone. I am almost finished with it. I can't wait for your new book.

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Thank you Tristan Parr!

Vera said...

Wow!This was the first book I read written by you and its so fascinating ^^ I can say its the best book I've read before because none of the books I read before left me feeling so touched.The story is really very sad and emotional.I'm looking forward to your next book!And I decided to give a speech about this book that you've written!Awesome story!

Anonymous said...

I really love Susan's books and i can never put them down. I'm trying to read the Dead and the Gone last minute but how many pages is in this book?