Wednesday, November 28, 2012

How I Came To Write Life As We Knew It

This past weekend was a good time for me to be nostalgic.

Well, it would have been a good time for me under any circumstance, since my agent caved in to my begging and pleading and told me how much my royalty check for the three moon books was going to be. Considerably more than my fantasy amount, but I admit I kept my fantasy amount extremely low.

Unfortunately the check went in the mail on Tuesday and because of Thanksgiving, there was no mail on Thursday. Until I held the check in my hot little hands, I wasn't going to believe what my agent told me.

 I spent much of Friday nervously waiting for the mail. Since my chair swivels, I swiveled it around so I could stare out the window. Which I did, for several hours.

When the check came (and my agent hadn't lied about the amount, thank goodness) I zipped over to the bank and deposited it gleefully. And I turned the chair around.

Royalty checks don't make me nostalgic (except when they're so tiny I get nostalgic for when they weren't so  tiny, which was not the case with this royalty check), but nostalgia hit me hard on Saturday, because that was the sort of anniversary of the day I came up with the idea for Life As We Knew It. It was Thanksgiving Saturday of 2004 that started the whole business.

Here's how it happened, complete with a historic recreation.

I was sitting in my chair watching TV. That very chair, but a different TV, so the historic recreation ends right there.

There was nothing I wanted to watch. It was about 3:50 PM, and I wanted to keep the TV on, so I scrolled through all the cable stations, which I intended to dump New Year's (and I did, so it's a good thing this happened before then), looking for something to watch.

One of the multitudinous Cinemax stations was showing the movie Meteor starting at 4 PM. I didn't care that Meteor is not on anyone's 10 Best List. I didn't even care that I'd seen Meteor in the past and knew it wasn't on my 10 Best List. I changed the channel and watched it from beginning to end.

108 minutes later, I turned off the TV. At least I probably did. I don't really remember if I kept the TV on or not, but it doesn't matter. What does matter is 108 minutes after I started watching Meteor, I said to myself, 'I wonder what it would be like being a teenager living through a worldwide catastrophe.'

My mind began to race. Who was the teenager? What was the catastrophe?

I decided immediately the teenager would be a 16 year old girl and that the book would be her diary. I wanted the immediacy of a diary. I named her Miranda right away, for Miranda in The Tempest. Then I gave her a big brother, because I have a big brother, and a little brother, because I didn't want Miranda to be the youngest in the family. They became Matt and Jonny. Almost immediately (I am still in the chair, so it really happened fast), I gave Miranda a mother, who I wanted to be like a real person and not just the mother of the heroine in a YA novel. So Mom got political almost instantly. And she got divorced just about that fast, because I didn't want Miranda to turn to her father all the time for help, so he couldn't be around.

I knew before I got out of the chair (and it was suppertime, so I probably didn't linger) what the catastrophe was going to be. I wanted something that would affect everyone on earth, so the book wouldn't be about Miranda escaping from danger. I call those the leaping the lava scenes, where the main character leaps over a river of flowing lava. Those kinds of scenes are beyond my writing capabilities, and I never believe them anyway. I'd stay on my side of the lava river and build a nice home there.

So there were going to be no big dramatic moments. Instead I wanted to focus on the everyday stuff, which movies like Meteor never discuss. What happens to schools? What happens to cable, the internet, the mail system? And how do you get your laundry done? I am a firm believer in clean underwear.

I've always been intrigued by the fact that the moon controls the tides. I figured if I moved the moon a bit closer, the tides would go crazy. I plopped Miranda in Pennsylvania then for two reasons. I needed her inland, so I wouldn't have to describe those tides, and I was tired of setting all my books in New York.

So the moon moved closer, the tides went crazy, and Miranda was far enough away that she wasn't going to drown. And I started working out all the bad things that could happen, what I called a rolling catastrophe.

Around then, I probably plopped supper in the microwave. The first and most important order of business had been completed.

I spent three weeks doing the pre-writing, and then a couple of months writing the first draft. I loved writing Life As We Knew It. It was enormous fun being in Miranda's brain while I threw as many bad things as I could think of her way. I practically had to force myself to stop working in the evenings.

My recollection is I only told my brother, my friends Christy and Joyce, and my cousin Ellen that I was working on a book. I was doing it on spec, with no guarantee it would be published, and I didn't feel like telling people about it and having them ask what was happening. And it was a good thing I kept it to myself, because it took close to a year before my agent found a publisher for it.

Then I had to tell everybody. I had lunch with my friends Marci and Carol and I told them and they said, "Who are you dedicating it to?" I said I didn't know, and they said, "Then dedicate it to us." And that's what I did. Now they're stuck getting copies of every single version.

I lead a life of great good fortune. But even I am struck by how fortunate I am that that particular Saturday I decided to keep the TV set on!


20 comments:

Anonymous said...

But surely, the seeds of exploring new directions had somehow been cast.

Emily said...

So fun to read your thought process! What made you change to Alex and New York in book 2?

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hello to the profound and poetic Anonymous and to Emily as well-

Someday when I'm feeling nostalgic about The Dead And The Gone, I'll tell you all about how it came to be!

Anonymous said...

Wow,amazing how something as simple as a movie, made those ideas flow through your mind!!! Glad that movie came on! Your extremely talented!
-Fabiola C:

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Thank you Fabiola C.

I'm glad too!

Anonymous said...

My parents named me Miranda after Miranda in the Tempest to!

Anonymous said...

I was named Miranda after Miranda in the Tempest!

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Miranda is a beautiful name, Anonymous Miranda!

Lindsay said...

I love this series. I even got my mom hooked on it, she made me go out and buy the second and third books as soon as she finished the first and than read them before me! We always wondered how you came up with the idea, thanks for sharing! After going through the recent hurricane that hit Jersey/NY, we both agreed that these books had a lot of good tips and could possibly happen in the future. I'm amazed at how you came up with the idea, I wish I had your talent!

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Good morning Lindsay, and please say hi to your mom for me.

Let's hope all those bad things I invented never happen. It's a lot easier to read and write about them than to live through them!

Lulume said...

I heard about this story in the car yesterday and I thought, "Who needs a meteor hitting the moon when we have a group of competitive, trigger happy men to mess with it."

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/28/atomic-bomb-moon-secret-mission-nuke-cold-war_n_2199615.html

Sheesh!

PS. Congratulations on your payday.

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hello Lulume-

I read that same article yesterday.

I'm glad they never got around to doing it. The moon was so beautiful last night. It would have been a shame to see a giant mushroom cloud over it!

Anonymous said...

That the "profound and poetic" laureate,is undeserved...

Turning the calendar page this morning with relief as I reviewed November's scribbled, too-often forelorn accounting of sullied days, I have the awareness that December, save for the most mundane notations of tasks, is, as yet, unwritten. The philosophy with which I approach each day, and the moments within each day, are mine to choose if I only allow myself the same tabula rasa.

And, then, I recall that in November, the sight of a cardinal, red and glorious against November's fading light.

Anonymous W.S. Time to buy that new year calendar!

Crystal M Billings said...

That is cool how you came up with the book.

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Thank you Anonymous W.S. and Crystal M. Billings!

Rebecca said...

That's awesome! I love this story almost as much as I love that book.

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Thanks, Rebecca.

I pretty much feel the same way!

Corey said...

The power of an amazing thinking chair...and cable tv!

Anonymous said...

is there a movie based off your book (life as we knew it) ?

Anonymous said...

I'm so happy you watched that movie, because I love your books. This still leaves me wondering if there are any other autobiographical parallels to your life in the book other than you having a brother.