Monday, July 7, 2008

The Science of Life As We Knew It and the dead and the gone

A couple of weeks ago, I received an e-mail with the following request:

If you aren't too busy, would you post on the blog or just to me if you like, how much science research went into LAWKI and td&tg? I'm sorry if you discussed this somewhere else and I missed it. I'm just wondering how you arrived at how you wanted the environment to react to the moon shift.

Things are calm now, at least for the moment, so the time is right to try and answer those questions.

My favorite themes to write about are Family and Consequences. Life As We Knew It and the dead and the gone provided me with ample opportunity to explore both.

All the science in LAWKI/d&g is consequence based. I don't know if the moon could ever be pushed closer to earth, but I wanted a catastrophe that would be worldwide, long lasting, not the fault of humans and not fixable. I've always been intrigued by the fact that the moon causes tides, and that tides are higher during full moons. So I gave the moon a little nudge. You are never more powerful than when you're writing fiction.

Obviously the first disaster would be tidal waves. I think I called them tsunamis in LAWKI, although I'm not sure they really are. When I was researching earthquakes for d&g, I learned that tsunamis are caused by oceanic earthquakes, and are not just gigantic moon caused tidal waves. But certainly the waves would be enormous. I remember seeing on a New York City newscast a house in Queens being demolished by tidal flooding. Water can do massive damage.

My brother was the one who pointed out that communication satellites would go down because of the changed gravitational pull. I knew I wanted phone service and cable out. Neither book works if Miranda or Alex knows just what's going on, since they're the eyes and ears of the readers. I've lived through enough blizzards and blackouts to know how fragile communications can be. One of the things I guessed at was that pay phones would work even if cell phones didn't. so Matt calls home from a pay phone. During Hurricane Katrina, I saw TV reporters doing the same, so I learned I'd guessed right about that.

To me, gravity is like a giant magnet, so it made sense that the moon's increased gravitational pull would cause the tectonic plates to shift around, causing earthquakes. I knew there had been an enormous earthquake in Missouri in the 19th century, and of course everyone knows about earthquakes and inconveniently located nuclear power plants in California. The earthquakes were needed to disrupt highway travel. Meanwhile I also raised the price of gasoline, which always happens during a disaster. Once again, my brother helped by suggesting that offshore oil rigs would be demolished by the waves.

But what I was really aiming for were the volcanoes. I'd read a book called Catastrophe by David Keys a while back, and in it, he examines a whole series of historical events (including the plague) that he maintains were the rolling consequence of a volcanic explosion. So I used my moon as magnet theory to get even dormant volcanoes erupting. I knew in the early nineteenth century there was a horrific cold spell that destroyed crops in the U.S. and that was the situation I wanted to create.

I've taken to watching all kinds of How Awful It Would Be shows on various cable stations, since I wrote LAWKI, and frankly, I was kind to humanity. With the volcanic activity I created, I don't see how anyone could survive. But I set LAWKI/d&g in the northeast, since there aren't any volcanoes around.

I chose relatively commonplace illnesses, rather than plague, because they're easier to picture. I don't think the moon's gravitational pull would cause a flu epidemic, but I knew from twentieth century history how devastating a flu epidemic can be. Since by the time the flu starts spreading around in LAWKI (caused by the Christmas carolers), everyone is weakened from lack of food and sunlight, the flu would be that much worse. I started the epidemic a little earlier in d&g, because I figured even in a mostly deserted New York City, there are more people around, and therefore earlier exposure to viruses.

Finally, there are the social and psychological disturbances. Now when I think about the LAWKI family, I realize they're suffering from depression. It's certainly understandable, since they're in an awful and terrifying situation. But they don't hunt or fish or do anything with wind power. I didn't want to write a book about highly competent people who know how to handle the wilderness. I wanted to write about people like me, who know how to use a microwave.

There's one suicide in LAWKI that I can think of, but there are several in d&g. Alex and Julie see a man jump out a window, and Julie gets upset about hearing of a mass suicide in a church. The window jumping was inspired by suicides following the 1929 Stock Market crash. The church suicide has a bit of Jonestown to it, but mostly I just wanted something awful. I have no idea if suicide rates rise after natural disasters. My guess is not right away, both because of the powers of denial and curiosity. But I don't think mass suicides are implausible under the circumstances.

Then there's sexual exploitation. I think that's a constant in times of unrest.

I'm not sure any of this answers the original question. Most of what I wrote about, I just knew, from an interest in history or simply from life. When I had questions (can Pennsylvania have earthquakes), Google led me to answers (yes, but not necessarily in northeastern PA). I didn't do serious research because it never occurred to me I ought to. I wrote LAWKI for fun. I didn't even realize it was science fiction until it got shortlisted for the Andre Norton Award. Up until then, I thought of it as a disaster novel or a family problem novel, and the science I knew seemed adequate for the story I intended to tell.

ETA: Speaking of science, the Sci Fi Wire was kind enough to interview me. Here's the link:


Anonymous said...

Well, Sue, I see that you didn't exactly blind me with science, but I thought everything was extremely plausible and frightening. Personally, I think a million rats would descend on the city, the size and like of which we've never... oh, wait, there already here!


Marci said...

The Queen of the Universe is not expected to do scientific research to justify her actions. She just does them.

Anonymous said...

...and the universe changes to match her whims.


Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

I wish!

Mrs. Corbett said...

I'm not very science-minded, but because I have my fingers crossed for an author visit from our host, I've suggested to our science teachers the use of these books for their physical science classes.
The teachers are intrigued. Every year they have a section on natural disasters (I know because they bring their classes to the library for research), and these books would be a great springboard for such research.
Probably a long shot making fiction required reading for science, but why not?

Anonymous said...

Hi Susan - coming over from our library's blog with you.

I had a thought while reading d&g (very good, again) about eclipses. It seems that, if the moon were closer to earth, solar eclipses would possibly be more frequent and last longer??? Do you think??? this might be something to explore for book #3 (and I am SO GLAD to hear there will be a book #3!)

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hi Heather T-

I haven't been thinking about eclipses, which is actually kind of funny since one of my favorite possessions is a black and white photograph of a total eclipse of the sun taken (most likely in New York City) on Jan. 24, 1925. I got it in a junk store for a dollar.

I'll think about eclipses. This version of book three is proving very tricky to work out, although since I've only been at it for twenty-four hours, I'm trying not to put too much pressure on myself!

sciteacher said...

Although the science is a little thin, (I am a science teacher after all!) I liked this book. It is not actually about the science; it is about how the people reacted to the disaster. It could have been any type of disaster - fire, flood, famine, earthquake, or whatever. That said, I am wondering if the author has ever lived in a house with a well. If there was no electricity, how did they get the water out of the well? At my house, there is an electric well pump - no power, no water!

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hello and welcome Sciteacher-

Just writing that makes me nervous. I flunked a ten week period of ninth grade science (rocks were never my strong suit).

People with wells just love to get me on the well/electricity business. It's funny in a cheap ironic way. My family had a summer house in the Catskills, which I sold only a few years ago. We had spring water, kept in a small resevoir, which almost invariably dried out during the summer, leaving us dependent on other people's spring water. But because of the primitive nature of the system, there was no electricity involved. The spring was uphill from the resevoir; the resevoir was uphill from the house; the water ran in pipes from one to the other to the other. We had plenty of blackouts, but they never affected our water.

So I screwed up on wells, not because I'm a worldly sophisticated flunker of ninth grade science, but rather because I'm too rural.

Le sigh.

By the way, I am currently reading The Great Influenza by John M. Barry, about the 1918 flu epidemic, and it is fascinating. I think the scariest thing I've ever read is his description of what a flu virus looks like (nothing you'd want to run into in a dark alley!).

Tanner said...

Greetings Sue, I am going ahead with a ninth grade science unit using LAWKI as a springboard for engagement and discussion topics. I was wondering about a couple of ideas with which you might be able to help me. First, is there a podcast or read-aloud of the story available that I could use for some of my students who need this, or would I have your blessing to have a group of my students create one for use in our school? Also do you know of someone who has done this with LAWKI previously and I could contact? Thanks,
Waynesboro High School
Waynesboro, VA

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hi Tim-

Thank you for your comment. I'm delighted to learn you'll be using LAWKI.

Listening Library has an excellent audiobook available for purchase or download, but if you and your students want to put one together, you certainly have my blessing.

There's a link on the right side of the blog to program ideas for use with LAWKI that may be of use to you.

Let me know how things go. And your students are very welcome to email me with questions and/or comments (my email address is at the top right of the blog)- Sue Pfeffer

Anonymous said...

Hey. I just finished reading your book... like 10 minutes ago actually. I typed in the title of the book in google and it led me to this wonderful blog of yours.

First I have to say I loved Life As We Knew It. I started reading it last night around midnight, and was up until 7am reading. I didn't wake up until noon today, and I've been reading ever since. I can officially say I've found my new book series addiction. I just put Dead and the Gone on hold at my library....

Anyway, I didn't mean to write a gigantic comment like this. I just felt like I needed to praise you for this book.

The main point of this comment is, however, how surprised I was how much science was concidered in this book. I watched a show on one of the educational channels a while back about what would happen if an asteroid hit Earth. I thought, wow, everyone should watch this so they know what would actually happen. I was so surprised to see some of the events mentioned in the tv show, to be mentioned in your book. I thought this book would be like The Day After Tomorrow, or Armageddon, where the science behind it was completely ridiculous. And I'm glad to say, I'm presently surprised that it was different.

Wow. I can't believe I'm talking about science... Haha. I guess I should stop typing now.

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Good morning Cherie and welcome to the blog-

I'm always pleased when I watch one of those How Is The World Going To Come To An End Anyway documentaries and find I got something right in my own speculation.

It makes me feel very scientific!

I hope you've caught up on your sleep, that you enjoy The Dead And The Gone, and that you'll stick around until This World We Live In (aka B3) is published a year from now.

Unknown said...

how does Miranda change in life as we knew it?

Unknown said...

what type of person is Miranda?

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hi Andrew and thank you for your comments-

I think you can figure out the answers for yourself just from reading Life As We Knew It.

Try to determine what kind of person you think Miranda is and how she changes during the course of the story.

Your interpretation might end different from mine, but I'm certain it will be a valid one.

Unknown said...

ok, thank you for your time!

Id it is said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Id it is said...

What a page turner this proved to be!!
I would recommend this to any school district with poor reading scores. Here is a novel that will have students glued to it. As an educator who has seen both the reading and therefore also the writing skills deteriorate progressively across the US for the last so many years, I was excited to come across a piece of fiction that would make the most unlikely reader want to read this novel.
Congratulation to Ms Pfeffer.

Just an observation... the government intervention in the novel seems to be almost non existent and that was one part of the novel which seemed implausible escpecially in the context of this country; the most endowed in terms of its resources and its ability to wield power across public, scientific, political, and military domains. Had the setting been a country known to be wanting in its socio economic stability it would have lent more credibility to the story.

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Happy July to Id it is-

One of my favorite things to hear is that reluctant readers enjoy my books, so I thoroughly approve of the idea that schools with low reading levels try LAWKI. My vocabulary level died at an embarassingly low age, which makes my books more accessible.

As far as government intervention goes, there's considerably more of it in the companion novel, the dead and the gone. That's set in New York City, and government intervention, as well as the strength of organized religion, is a big part of the story.

LAWKI is about isolation. The family there simply doesn't know what the government is doing, and frankly I doubt even the biggest most organized government in the world would expend much of its resources on a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania.

To a limited extent, what the government can and cannot do is part of This World We Live In as well.

Different books, different takes on the same situation!

Id it is said...

Happy July to you too Susan! Thanks for that prompt reply and I look forward to reading "The World we Live in."

I just posted on LAWKI on my blog, I'd be delighted to have you visit.

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Thank you kindly Id it is-

Google, which keeps no secrets from me, told me about your blog at the same time it told me about this comment. I appreciate your review, even though there was one word I didn't know the meaning of (I told you my vocabulary level had died young).

One of the things I find most interesting about LAWKI is how seriously people take it. I wrote it for fun, and never worried that readers would outthink me. But just the other day, a cousin of mine mentioned reading it, and he thought there should have been guns in LAWKI. I told him there were guns in d&g, so he should read that one also.

It's wonderful to have written books people care about, but it's also a little disconcerting!

Lisa said...

Ms. Pfeffer, Our entire high school is reading your book, LAWKI. It's part of a program called One Book, One Boone(our school) created to unite the students through literature. I am the mother of 2 of those students. I am halfway through the book and I am really enjoying it. However, I almost stopped reading at the beginning when you had the mother call the President of the U.S. an idiot from a ranch in Texas. I was wondering why you included such an obvious political statement in a teen novel.

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hi Lisa-

Thank you for your comment. I'm familiar with (and thrilled by) the One Book One Boone program, and I think it's great when parents read the books assigned to their children.

Life As We Knew It is a novel. Mom is a fictional character making reference to another fictional character. It's the nature of fiction that characters say and do things readers might find inappropriate, or even morally wrong. If they did, fiction would consist of nothing but well behaved people behaving well, and frankly, that would be quite boring.

Heck, even Winnie the Pooh was a glutton.

If I had one thing to do over again in LAWKI, it would be to have the president live in Oklahoma. But truly, compared to the murders, adulteries, and general chicanery that fictional characters indulge in all the time, having one character say insulting things about another seems like a very minor sin to me.

Anonymous said...

hi, in parts of the book, you see that the mom is willing to sacrifice miranda and matt for jonny. idk if u have kids, but would you do something like that? i mean, i dont have kids, and i dont understand how someone could be willing to sacrifice two so one could live?

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hi Anonymous-

It's been a while since I read LAWKI, but my recollection is that Mom never actually says Matt and Miranda should die so Jon can live. It's more like she leads by example, choosing not to eat herself, and Miranda realizes that Jon has the best chance at survival and makes the same sacrifice.

People do many things that are hard to explain or justify in times of crisis. I simply showed one way things might happen.

Beverly said...

Dear Sue,

My 7th grade daughter received LAWKI as part of a rural summer reading program and insisted I read it as well. She's got great taste in literature so I set to it and its now one of my favorite books (right up there with Pride & Prejudice, Bleak House, My Side of the Mountain, and Mandy). Did you read Alas Babylon growing up? Living through a pandemic as we are, I'm recovering from H1N1 and rereading it in a new light. The 2nd book was fascinating and I'm thrilled there will be a third. LAWKI is affectionately called "The Moon Book" at our house and I've recommended both books far and wide. Please keep writing!

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hi Beverly and thank you-

First of all, get well soon. H1N1 is a scary business and I hope you make a complete and speedy recovery.

I never read Alas Babylon. I have read Pride And Prejudice though, and my brother read Bleak House. That's about as literary as I get!

Say hi to your daughter for me, and thanks again for posting.

Anonymous said...

Good book just hate doing reports on it.☺☻

Anonymous said...


Rosa said...

Best Book Ever , At The End I Was Almost In Tear , A Nail Bitting Sensation , Craving More Of The Thrill Of Just Reading A Well Writen Book , I Hope It Keeps On It Has Made Me Wounder , "What If?" , A Boled Boook That Deserves 5 Stars , I Loved Every Page Of It ,

Anonymous said...

Hi! *Waves* Just found this blog, and I'm glad I did! I really enjoyed this series.
Though you said you didn't think of LAWKI and company as sci- fi at first, I'd like to give you major points for writing wonderful teen science fiction anyway. I'm the type that can't stand something if I don't see any kind of scientific credibility, so fantasy's somewhat unbearable to read. (Yet somehow it fills up teen fiction bookshelves. Curse you, sparkly mind- reader!) It was so refreshing to find something both aimed at teens AND with a mostly realistic premise! :D
LAWKI and its sequels made me realize how delicate our world is and how easily things can go terribly, horrifically wrong.
Thank you very much from a big fan of yours, and apologies for the lengthy post. ^_^;;

Luker said...

YOu opened my eyes a bit. I realize Im a bit late in reply...but no matter. Anyways what you opened my eyes to was the caolers. I didnt really think they were the ones that spread it until now. I mean its so obvious in the book I dont know what I was thinking but that really made me think. I guess if I knew i was going to get a flu from caroling, but i hadnt met anyone for weeks i would have done it anyways. people are so important to other people...even if you're a loner :)

Gabby said...

I started reading this book at 7 p.m. today and was unable to put it down. I finally set it down so I could get online and find out some more about you and the inspiration behind the book.

A great read and I'm definitely recommmending it to my daughter!

Unknown said...

I totally love your Moonshadows series, and I always thought you were like all the other writers I know of who start out with a ton of research before writing anything. That always seemed to squelch my creativity when I write, but I was afraid any faulty science or history would be glaring if I didn't do major research first, so I just gave up on anything but modern, everyday fiction. To see that you didn't spend days poring over encyclopedias (and actually used Google, too!) and still had a major success with your book encourages me. A lot. So thanks. :)

Elizabeth said...

I googled "Do suicide rates increase after natural disasters" and this was the first result:

From the New England Journal of Medicine

Suicide rates increased in the four years after floods by 13.8 percent, from 12.1 to 13.8 per 100,000 (P<0.001); in the two years after hurricanes by 31.0 percent, from 12.0 to 15.7 per 100,000 (P<0.001); and in the first year after earthquakes by 62.9 percent, from 19.2 to 31.3 per 100,000 (P<0.001). The four-year increase of 19.7 percent after earthquakes was not statistically significant. Rates computed in a similar manner for the entire United States were stable. The increases in suicide rates were found for both sexes and for all age groups. The suicide rates did not change significantly after tornadoes or severe storms.

Samantha said...

Hello. I have read all the books and, surprisingly, all the science behind the disaster seems very realistic, even though you really didn't have a lot to go off of. But that's not what I wanted to ask about. What do you think the chances are that a movie would be made out of just the first book? I tried the idea in my head and it seems pretty adaptable (if that's even a word lol).

Oh, and where did you get the idea to shift to an entirely new character in the second book? Did you want us to see what was happening with the rest of the world, or did you just need a break from Howell?

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Hello Sue, I teach a high school grade 7, 8 & 9 class and we are reading "Life as We Knew It". We have a question, how are they baking bread with no electricity? Are they using a wood oven? Many wood stoves do not have ovens. Thank you, Mary

Anonymous said...

Loved the series! Please write 4 and 5. I agree that this could be a great movie! Looking forward to your next project.

Anonymous said...

Hi i love your books. There amazing! I wanted to ask are you going to make a fifth book? I would love it. But i don't mind if you have no plans. Maybe a book in the future when Miranda's older.

Anonymous said...

Hi Susan. Please make a movie or a new book maybe a book of a few years later that would be awesome please talk to me about it.

~ Mari said...

I think the characters more have PTSD than depression. Now, I can certainly see Laura as having depression. And Miranda might even have a slight taste of it. But as for everyone else - PTSD.

Anonymous said...

I have the same question as a previous person who did not get a response: what kind of oven is being used to bake bread? (Since they are doing this when there is no electricity.) I just wished it would have been explained. Great book though.

Anonymous said...

I'm a few years late to the game, but I was going to ask the question asked by a few people - How did they bake bread/cook without electricity. Then I discovered the answer is actually there in the book. The very top of page 172 - "It wasn't until I got home that I realized we use natural gas for the stove and the water heater." That's what I'd suspected, but it was nice to find it's there in the book :-)

~ Mari said...

here's one way

~ Mari said...

oops well that didn't help. i should have specified "stove" and not "oven" ... there are ways to cook without electricity, including over an old fashioned fire, which in the story wasn't really an option.