Zibby Owens: Hi.

Lauren Tarshis: Hello. It’s so nice to see you.

Zibby: You too.

Lauren: Look at your beautiful — it’s like a monk’s chamber of books.

Zibby: Yes, it is. Maybe I should shut that door before my son comes in. We’re still doing gradual back to school.

Lauren: How old is he?

Zibby: He’s five. I also have a seven-year-old and two thirteen-year-olds. He does every other day. Next week, he’ll go back for good. What about you? You have four kids too, right?

Lauren: We do, but they’re much older. Everyone but our oldest is home. We’re sort like a WeWork meets The Waltons. That’s the vibe I’m trying to create. My youngest is sixteen. She’s able to manage her hybrid schooling pretty independently. I’m thinking of your seven-year-old particularly.

Zibby: They’re in school, though. It’s crazy. They’re doing Zoom in the afternoons. The mornings, at least, they get to go. It’s so nice. They get to run around.

Lauren: Where are you?

Zibby: We’re in New York City. We just came back.

Lauren: I have to tell you, I love your podcast so much. My book club and I often listen to you. I was so thrilled and honored when Alex told me that I would be talking to you. It was very strangely serendipitous. It had been maybe a couple days after we had just gone wild over Disappearing Earth. We listened to you because we were just fascinated.

Zibby: That was great.

Lauren: In fact, I would love to change the topic of our podcast and just talk about that. I’m sure everyone wants to hear my opinion about Disappearing Earth. I had never had the experience — really, that last line of that book, it physically took my breath away.

Zibby: I get it. I actually listened to that book, which I don’t always do. I feel like I was so immersed in it. There’s something about listening to books. I can’t explain it. Hopefully, you know what I’m talking about.

Lauren: I actually like to toggle between them. It’s very decadent. I’ll have the hardcover of that and then listen to it, especially for that one because I read on a low level. I need a lot of support. Just having her pronounce all the names and the places, the audio helped me in that way, then going back to the book.

Zibby: What do you mean you read at a low level?

Lauren: Meaning, I was a terrible reader. It’s the first thing I tell the children when I go to a school. I didn’t read a book until I was fourteen. Obviously, I read fine now, but I do have trouble synthesizing information. Especially when I’m doing research, if I’m reading a real tome with a lot of dates and places and people, the audio really helps. It’s quite ironic, shocking that I find myself talking to you when I flash back to my childhood self.

Zibby: I actually tried to reach out to you two years ago when I first started my podcast because my daughter had been reading your Japanese tsunami I Survived book for school. I was reading it with her. We were reading that together. I was like, “This book is amazing.” She’s like, “Do you think you could interview the author?” I was like, “I don’t know. I’ll try.” I was so new to it.

Lauren: Did you come to me directly, or did you go through Scholastic?

Zibby: I think I emailed you on your website or something.

Lauren: Whoa. There was a period of time — my reader mail is a source — I try to answer everyone. As I’m getting older, I’m trying to let go of shame and guilt. I’m haunted by it. I expend a large amount of energy. Then still I hear from people, you never wrote me. Anyway, I’m glad you forgave me.

Zibby: At the time, I was so new to it. I didn’t know to go to publicists.

Lauren: I would’ve leapt at the chance had I been focused.

Zibby: All to say, it’s so nice to be able to talk to you. I can’t believe you were saying you’re sort of a slower reader because the amount of research and information and the way you create environments makes everybody feel like they actually lived through all the stories for real. I’m feel like I’m traumatized after I finish reading. I’m like, oh, my gosh, I feel like I just survived all this stuff. It’s amazing. How do you do it? First of all, how do you pick which I Survived topics? I read somewhere that you had started it for your son, Dylan. On your website you said that. Tell me about starting the whole series and how you now pick which disasters to focus on.

Lauren: Definitely, you’re right. The series was inspired by both my experience as a mom of four kids, my boys, who are the older three. The middle two particularly were not interested in reading at all. I was always in that situation that so many parents are of just constantly trying to find books that would light them up — this will be it! — and not succeeding. At the same time, for many years, for thirty years, which is a very staggering and now increasingly shocking number, I have worked at Scholastic in the magazine division. In that role, I spend an enormous amount of time with teachers and in classrooms and with kids trying to take topics that are either not engaging inherently or far removed from the lives of our kids, if it’s a story about the Civil War or a story about Korea, anything, to try to make those engaging. I found that through the magazine work that anytime I had a real child or a fictional child and put them in the middle of the story, those were the stories that their teachers wrote to me about and kids wanted to know more about. I was actually really surprised that there wasn’t already a book series for that age, for that third to fifth grade level, that did that. Of course, there are wonderful narrative nonfiction books written by incredible authors like Deborah Hopkinson and Tonya Bolden and all these amazing authors. There wasn’t really anything in that between Magic Tree House and Lightning Thief. There was this gap for my sons. I think the hybrid experience, for me, of being the parent and the author/educator gave me that inspiration.

You’re right. They are an enormous amount of research because what I’m trying to do is I’m trying to, with a very fine brush stroke, create these vignettes for kids so they really know, what does it smell like inside a tornado, actually? What does it feel like to hold a cannonball? That’s the fun part of the research. That does mean that it’s not just a linear research path of learning about a topic. A lot of the research is ancillary. I’m going down tributaries hoping that that will unearth some incredible detail. For my California wildfires book, which is unfortunately way too timely at this moment, I was really wanting kids to understand what it was like for a firefighter in a wildfire. What are the sensory experiences that you would have if you had to deploy your fire shelter? You’re interviewing people and reading very arcane firefighter blogs and trying to get as close to the sources as you can, which is easier, obviously, for contemporary topics than it would be writing about ancient Rome. That’s definitely the most exciting part. Well, the most exciting part is being with kids and talking to you. Other than that, being on that treasure hunt for the detail. There’s always three or four facts in a book that I want the kids, even if it’s not about the topic itself, maybe it’s something — for the California wildfires, I had this whole frame story that the characters, one of them, they run this reptile rescue, which is real thing. People give up their large pet reptiles because they can’t take care of them. Then you or I would have a shelter for them, so details about having a large monitor lizard that you’re taking care of. That breaks up the background information and all those facts that I really want them to absorb. It’s alternating between the boring facts and these sparkling details that distract them from the fact that they’re actually learning stuff.

Zibby: It’s amazing. You should do this for grown-ups. It’s actually just an exercise in empathy, is what you’re doing. You’re literally putting kids in other people’s shoes. You’re using it in historical context. It’s really a gift. How can you imagine what life is like for someone else going through something hard? Yet you’re also teaching them. I feel like the main gift is the empathy piece. It’s almost like memoir for kids.

Lauren: You’re inspiring me. I’m going to cling to your words. I’m going to put them in my heart and my brain. They will be there with me all day. Sometimes it feels like almost a ridiculous amount of work. Luckily, my editor and the people who I work with, they do understand. These books, looking at these little paperbacks, you’d think that they could be, especially now that I’ve written twenty, that they would just be so easy. They are quite torturous. When I’m about to get into that heavy deadline mode with my family, everyone’s like, all right. I’ll say to my husband, “I think this one’s going to be easier.” He’s like, “Okay. You say that before every single one, but I think you’re wrong. It’s going to be horrible.”

Zibby: How long does it take? How long do you research? Then how long does the writing take and all of it?

Lauren: Because I have very kind and understanding, my editor, Katie, and the whole team, I have generally gotten away with writing all the way up to the very last second. They have wanted two a year up until now. That means six months for each one. It became too much for me. The minute I finished one, I would have a week. Then I would just have to completely shed Revolutionary War and plunge into World War II. Then the joy of it kind of started to go away for me, to be honest. I don’t want to sound like one of those people, like, it’s such a joy, all that. Look, the experience of being able to talk to you and hear you respond to this work that I’ve done in the way that you do, I just feel tickled by it constantly. I found myself around maybe book fifteen, sixteen, really feeling like I just couldn’t keep this up. Fortunately, they had the very genius idea of creating a line of graphic novels based on I Survived. I’m a little bit involved. They were incredibly kind about, I approve things. There’s this incredible author named Georgia Ball. She’s a scriptwriter for graphic novels. She somehow interprets my stories in this really lyrical way. The team just does a beautiful job. I get to watch and then weigh in on the history and all of that.

That now has enabled us to create an annual schedule that leaves more breathing room. It’s really six months. Researching, one of the problems now is, with COVID, I’m not able to travel. Except for Japan and the bottom of the North Atlantic to see the Titanic, I’ve gone everywhere for the books. I do feel like that’s a super important thing. I like to take video there because I like to be able to show the kids what it would’ve been like for the characters and for them to walk in the character’s shoes. Often, the stories then give birth to nonfiction articles that appear in the magazine Storyworks which is this beautiful labor of love that I create with a team at Scholastic. It’s this ELA magazine. I’ll send you Storyworks, the second-grade version which is so adorable, for your seven-year-old. The work I do on I Survived, actually, many different sprouts come from it that end up blooming in different places.

Zibby: I’m sure you have thought of this, but I bet there are a lot of people who would jump at the chance to help you do your research and speed along the process of these books. Do you feel like it’s hard to outsource that?

Lauren: I would love it. The problem is, it goes back to what we talked about earlier. I’ve learn to create the character, for the most part, that’s the first thing I do now. That’s something I learned from my editor, Katie, who’s only been doing the books the past three or four. She’s really helped me understand that I used to discover the character during the writing and then have to go back and research to create additional experiences for my character to have these epiphanies or opportunities for growth. She was like, “That is not . You have to figure out the character.” It’s like 101. I’m sure this is what your thirteen-year-old writing the character’s journey. That is something that now I do. I really try to figure that out beforehand after a little bit of research, just understanding basically the trajectory of the book. Then all of that great stuff, really, I discover it accidentally. Sometimes what I discover in research — I spent several days just researching helicopters for the wildfire story. I learned that the ones that many of the firefighters have loved the most are these old Hueys from the Vietnam War. That’s the kind of thing that a researcher — that became the little chapter head spots, those helicopters. They led me into this whole incredible world of magazine articles and blog posts by helicopter pilots, the people who are now in Oregon. That helped me create these two characters. One particular in the book, one of the firefighters is this woman who is just very badass who’s the best helicopter pilot in their Cal Fire district.

Zibby: I know the forest fires now are raging again. It’s unthinkable that your book would be coming out and be this timely. I know you mentioned it. How are you, to say leveraging it sounds totally crude and commercial, but how are you getting the word out? People are really suffering right now and could probably use this experience. I feel like you should be airdropping books of them to California or something. I don’t know.

Lauren: I don’t know. It’s a really good question. The story of that book, it had a very wonderful emotional component which is that one of the things that happens to me as the author of this series but also in my role at the magazines is that people do reach out to me directly in the aftermath of disasters. This lovely woman named Holly Fisher wrote to me four days after the town of Paradise burned down. She had grown up there. Her son, Lucas, reads my books. She just wrote me this beautiful email. “You might have heard about the fire that destroyed my town of Paradise. The fire is still burning. I think that you should come here. You’d have many people who would want to share their stories.” We got in touch. There were other people who had written to me from those areas. A few months later, three of the four kids and my husband and I went to Paradise. We met Holly and her husband, Josh, who’s a firefighter who helped save people in a parking lot, unbelievable. They took us around the ruins of the town. Then we went back in the summer to see how things were.

I wrote an article about it for the magazine. We created a video. I wasn’t really intending to write an I Survived book about it, but a lot of the kids said to me, “Are you going to write about this?” Then I thought, I learned so much when I was there. I do think it’s a very important climate story. It’s a story, also, about our relationship with nature. Not all of it is climate. A huge part of it is, but it’s also how we have this interesting — I don’t know if you remember the book The Big Burn. I think it was Tim Egan. He writes about, that was the biggest wildfire in American history. I think it was 1910 if I’m not mistaken. That fire in the Bitterroot Mountains in Idaho and Montana, it gave rise to the whole fire suppression policy of we’re going to put out every fire because it was so terrifying. It made sense, but people didn’t understand how important regular fires were to forest health and preventing the overload of dead trees and brush that is fueling — we could talk for a long time about this. I decided that it would be worthwhile to do.

I don’t want to be tweeting about my wildfire book every day now that the wildfire is burning. I’m in touch with Holly every day because they’re in Paradise. Their house did survive. Nothing else in their neighborhood did. She’s very involved in trying to rebuild Paradise. It’s tricky. I know that the people of Paradise and those towns want people to know what happened to them and to share and these people fighting the fires, all of that. I really want this to be about honoring them. I don’t think it’s appropriate, frankly, for someone — even though the fire book has a very happy ending, of course, and it’s a story of resilience like all of them, I keep thinking, if I was a parent in Oregon right now, would this be the book I’d want my kid reading? Maybe not. So later when they can really connect and for people elsewhere to empathize and to really want to engage and help people. In the back, there’s stuff on what you can do. That is super important.

Zibby: Totally. I sat down, I tried to read it to my two little guys who, as I mentioned, are five and seven. I started reading it and they’re like, “This is a fire. This is so scary.” I was like, okay, I’m going to save this for my older kids. You’re too young. Sorry.

Lauren: It’s true. My daughter did not read my books. She was too scared. These are books that are for certain kids who are not going to overidentify. I hear you. I don’t recommend them for very young kids. I’m shocked, I’ll get letters from parents like, “We just read the 9/11 book together to our kindergarten.” I’m like, I don’t know if…

Zibby: Have you ever thought about writing an adult version? It would have to repackaged. There are a lot of grown-ups who could benefit from learning about the wildfires right now or learning about all these scenes. A lot of grown-ups have such short attention spans now that almost — not that reading your younger kids’ books couldn’t benefit them, but I just feel like parents might be reluctant to read them on their own. You have such great information and the sensibility behind them. Not that you need another project. You’re overwhelmed as it is. I’m just saying it’s a unique skill to be able to take something that happens in the world and make it so relatable immediately that I feel like the world could really use, even for grown-ups. That’s all.

Lauren: That’s definitely my favorite genre, the great narrative nonfiction writers. There’s so many of them. Is it William Langewiesche? I can never pronounce his name. William Langewiesche, he writes for The Atlantic. He wrote The Looming Tower. Tim Egan, there are just so many amazing authors who are doing this. I read all of their books. I think, oh, my gosh, it would be a dream to be able to spend a couple of years. Even, there was this great book — I’m showing my age. I have zero short-term memory anymore. It’s quite a problem. Although, people seem to be fairly indulgent. There’s a great book I recommend which is the kind of book I would love to write called This is Chance! Have you heard of this?

Zibby: No.

Lauren: About the Alaska earthquake. It just came out this past year. It’s so wonderful. It’s this 1962 earthquake that happened in Alaska right when Alaska was getting on solid ground as a state and Anchorage was growing. Just pulls in all these wonderful tangents about Alaska, about the time period, and about this woman, Genie Chance, who was the weatherwoman and brought people hope and calm in the aftermath of this completely devastating earthquake and tsunami in Alaska, so the idea of bringing to life a little-known event but also illuminating this large chapter of our history. Of course, there are all sorts of insights that are applicable to us today. Maybe I will.

Zibby: If you were going to write an I Survived about something really awful from your own life, what would that be about?

Lauren: Oh, boy. That’s a great question. No one’s ever asked me that. For my own life, I’m fortunate that I — as I always tell the kids, they’re always like, “Did you live through any of those disasters?” I always say, “I’ve seen a tornado from a distance. I’ve been through a bunch of hurricanes here on the East Coast. I’ve been in an earthquake. It was in California, but it wasn’t a huge one.” I’ve never felt that my life has been in danger because of an event like the way my characters are, but I have been through — one of our sons had an illness that lasted a few years. He’s great. Fortunately, it was not this dire thing like many people experience. The experience of your life shattering apart, which is what so many people are experiencing at this moment, whether it’s because of COVID directly or because of the economic collapse or because of now these fires, that’s something that I, fortunately, have not even been through. Of course, it’s what we all know. I think that’s what keeps me writing these stories in a lot of way. We think we have all this control.

That’s what I’ve learned over and over, these two big lessons. We think we have a lot of control and that we can, by being really careful or planning in advance or disciplined or good, that we can forestall something, but we can’t. The other piece, the flip side, which is why I keep doing it because if you only focus on that first part it gets very grim, is that I am really — honestly, talking to Holly Fisher from Paradise, I hang up the phone with her and I just feel so stronger. People go through those shattering events and you see, whether it’s looking at what happened during the Holocaust or what happened during the Chicago fire or in Paradise, people find the strength. They go through a grieving process. It’s really hard. It’s not quick. For some people, it’s terrible and agonizing and lengthy. People, for the most part, do find the strength somehow to go on and feel joyful again.

I’m sitting here, I’m in this beautiful office of mine, it used to be my mother-in-law’s apartment, which is connected to our house. She died at the age of ninety-seven a couple years ago. She lived with us for ten years. She was a survivor of World War I and a refuge. She just had a life that you cannot even — that should be a book. My one regret is that I didn’t write her story because I didn’t think she wanted me to. It wasn’t until the very end that it was clear that she would’ve liked that. She was going to write it herself. I would wake up sometimes. She was a real night owl. She would stay up until two in the morning. She lived for many years in the Jewish ghetto of Shanghai during World War II and lost people in the Holocaust and all that. I would get up in the middle of the night to get a drink of water or if one of my kids needed me, and I’d hear this noise coming from here. It was her on the phone with her friend Hilda in Rome laughing, this joyful — I would think, after all you’ve been through, there’s still a lot of joy. I don’t know how I got started on that, Zibby.

Zibby: That’s a great story to share. That’s what life is all about, I survived.

Lauren: What really gives me a lot of satisfaction, you can imagine, is when I hear from kids who are going through difficult things. They write to me or their parents write to me and they say that the books — somehow, kids who’ve been through difficult events find they connect with my characters. It’s not a trauma to read. It’s not triggering them, but it’s actually bolstering them in some way. I think of course, every person reacts differently. It’s a constant lesson through all the research.

Zibby: That’s an inspiring takeaway. It’s just super inspiring, and especially now. It’s what people need. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Lauren: Yes. I don’t know what you think. Another time, we’ll have to talk because I’m curious on your take after speaking to so many authors. I don’t consider myself a Julia Phillips-like literary novelist, Alice Monroe, my heroes. I really think of myself as a storyteller who is constantly working on her craft. I do embroidery. Here’s my latest embroidery sampler that I did. It’s very analogous. You learn these different stiches. You practice them. You notice one. In Julia’s book or in one of the Alice novels, I’ll see this amazing — look at this sentence. I’ll write it down and study it. I think that writing is something that, it can be learned. People improve. Writing a few books that are bad and unpublishable is really part of that journey. That’s the advice. You have to start writing your bad books and looking at those as part of the learning process.

Zibby: I have heard from so many people, and it seems to me that the magic number is three. You have to write three novels before — the third one might sell, but the first two, you should just say — even though you think these are going to be the great American novel, it’s okay if they don’t sell at the end. Most people have to write two full novels before they sell one. That’s just my anecdotal .

Lauren: I think you’re totally right. I also think the other piece of it is that — maybe it’s different now because the world of writing and writers has changed so much over the past twenty years. It’s hard to make a living as a writer. I think the idea of taking it on and not being as obsessed with becoming a best seller, saying, this is something I want to do, this is something I’m going to do, that was sort of my — I wrote a really terrible first novel that I sent out beautifully bound from Kinkos with a spiral and imagining the movie rights. Maybe they’ll ask me to do a cameo. It was terrible. My dad, who is a writer — he was a freelance writer when I was growing up. He worked for magazines, very scrappy when you could make a sort of living as a freelance writer. My mom was a teacher, and that helped. My dad loved what he did. He did all nonfiction. I remember when I proudly told him I was writing this novel and that I was very stressed, I wanted to finish it — my dad’s the nicest guy in the whole world. He never says a mean word. He looked at me and he goes, “No one is waiting for your novel.” It was actually, no one cares if you finish it. So take your time and make it good. My two pieces of advice: feel great and excited about the books that you might consider bad; and then, it is an ongoing learning process. That’s what makes it satisfying.

Zibby: Amazing. Lauren, our time is up because I try to keep my show to thirty minutes, but I feel like I could sit here and chat books with you all day. I hope that sometime we can get together or something.

Lauren: I would love it.

Zibby: I want to hear what your book club is reading and all the rest.

Lauren: Your work is so wonderful. I’ve loved listening to your podcast. I sort of feel like I know you. It’s been a huge treat for me to be able to spend time with you. Yes, please stay in touch with me.

Zibby: Thank you, Lauren. I really appreciate it. Have a great day.

Lauren: You too.

Zibby: Buh-bye.