Susan Beth Pfeffer Talks Blogging, Research, and Writing About Family Dynamics

Susan Beth PfefferProlific (she’s written more than 70 books). Beloved (her novel The Year Without Michael is classic). Lauded (she just won the prestigious and awesomely fun to say Buxtehuder Bulle Award in Germany for her New York Times bestseller, Life As We Knew It ).

She’s Susan Beth Pfeffer. And she’s the judge for our Family Gatherings Essay Contest, which we’re sponsoring with our buds at YARN, which and you can enter here.  She shared some thoughts on the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction, her love of creating stories about families, and figuring out the balance of what’s too personal to reveal in her blog.

Though you mainly write novels, you’re also an avid blogger. What writing tools do you need to be a good non-fiction writer that you may not necessarily need to be a good fiction writer, and vice-versa?
While the vast majority of my career has been spent writing fiction, I do have one non-fiction book to my credit, and I would have liked to have written more. I read more non-fiction than fiction, and even as a kid, I loved reading biographies and history books.

Of course with non-fiction it’s extremely important to actually know what you’re talking about. Fiction allows you to do whatever you want, and if the readers don’t believe you, well that’s their prerogative. I figure if I’m accurate about the characters’ emotions, then I can be fanciful with everything else.

Non-fiction doesn’t allow you to be fanciful. So the biggest most essential tool is the ability to do research while avoiding plagiarism.

Both fiction and non-fiction require a writing style readers will find appealing. The best non-fiction, at least as far as I’m concerned, tells a story, one so involving the reader wants to keep on with it until the very end.

What made you decide to start a blog in the first place? How have you felt your blog-writing style evolving these last few years? Any tips for aspiring bloggers?
SBP: You know, I don’t actually remember what got me started on my blog. I probably read an article that said blogging was a useful tool for people with books to sell. I find promotion interesting, and blogging seemed like a relatively easy, certainly inexpensive, way to go about it.

I love my blog. I couldn’t tell you how my style has evolved though. Every now and again, I’ll read an older blog entry, but for the most part, I write them and don’t go back to them.

The biggest trick for blogging is keeping the balance between what is personal, but you will write about it for strangers to read, and what is personal and you don’t write about it for strangers to read. I have to be very careful when I write about my friends. Some of them don’t mind at all if I mention them. Others prefer me not to. I don’t necessarily know which is which until they make it clear to me.

Knowing what to reveal and what to keep to yourself can be very tricky, both with personal and professional involvements. My editor sometimes reads my blog, so I’d better be careful before I complain too much in public.

Life As We Knew ItCongrats on the success of your latest novel, Blood Wounds. When you were writing it, during and after the award-winning and best-selling success of Life As We Knew It, did you ever freak out? Was it more nerve-wracking to write after that kind of success?
I think I felt that way more when I was writing This World We Live In, the third of the three moon books, and something of a sequel to Life As We Knew It.

But I don’t remember feeling that way at all with Blood Wounds. Generally speaking, I write for myself, and if I’m pleased with the story I’ve told, that’s good enough for me.

In Blood Wounds, there are many sensitive, even violent, family dynamics at play. How much research–if any–did you do, and when did you feel like you knew enough to portray those issues honestly?
I love writing about family dynamics. Writers often have themes they go back to again and again and mine is how a family responds to unusual circumstances. So for me, Blood Wounds was a natural progression from most of the other books I’ve written, YA and younger (although in my younger books, the family circumstance is never quite so grim).

I’d love to say I did vast amounts of research. Sadly, I can’t remember doing any. Probably I did do some, but it wasn’t so essential to the creative process that it made much of an impression on me.

If you were going to write an essay for the Figment-YARN contest about family gatherings, what event from your teenage past might you choose?
That’s a good question, and not one I can come up with an immediate answer for. Maybe one of the family seders. We had two each Passover, the first one just for family, and the second one where I’d invite friends. Maybe I’d write about one of those second seders. Or maybe I’d write about the family gatherings my father’s side of the family had once or twice a year. I had lots of aunts and uncles and cousins, so that might work. Or maybe I’d write about my brother’s bar mitzvah. I was ten, so I wasn’t a teenager, but it was still a very important event in my life, and one that left a big impression on me.

But whatever I might choose to write about, the odds are I wouldn’t do enough research!

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