I Survived: A Conversation With Lauren Tarshis

Students and Library Media Specialist at Kelly Elementary School (West Orange, NJ) pose with Lauren Tarshis.
Students and Library Media Specialist at Kelly Elementary School (West Orange, NJ) pose with Lauren Tarshis.

Author Lauren Tarshis with students and the Library Media Specialist (left) at Kelly Elementary School in West Orange, New Jersey

The I Survived book series by Lauren Tarshis takes readers on often-harrowing journeys through historical events that shaped our world. Hurricane Katrina, the September 11 attacks, and the sinking of the Titanic are among the tragedies that Tarshis writes about. Despite death-defying challenges, the fictional narrator in each story keeps going.

The latest book in the series, I Survived the Eruption of Mount St. Helens (Scholastic), hits bookshelves this week. I recently spoke with Tarshis via Skype. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Where did you grow up, and where do you live now? 

I grew up in Connecticut, in the town that I live now. I am a real hometown girl.

When did you start writing?

I started writing in college, but not for kids. I didn’t write a novel for kids until I was in my 30s.

How difficult is it to write about tragedies and still stay positive?

In my research, I discover amazing stories of people who have been through incredibly challenging experiences. I have seen how so many people are able to heal and move forward with their lives. It’s encouraging to know that we have this ability to move forward after something really difficult. It’s sometimes hard to write about such sad events. But in the end, I find the experience inspiring. I become a more hopeful person.

How do you choose which historical events to write about?

I’m lucky to have a lot of wonderful readers who tell me what they want to read about. They email me and write me letters. I do what they suggest.

How do you come up with the characters?

That is the most difficult part of writing the I Survived books. I have to come up with a character who has a whole story behind him or her. I have to understand who the individual is at heart and what is motivating him or her.


Author Lauren Tarshis

Lauren Tarshis, author of the best-selling I Survived series

How do you create the storyline for each book?

I sort of have a general idea of the plot. I always have to put my main character very close to the action. Once I bring a character to life, he or she sort of takes over.

Of all your books, which one are you most proud of?

They are all so hard to write, and they are all so different. I am proud of particular parts of each book. The book that has a special place in my heart is the one about the Joplin tornado. It came about because of emails I received from people in Joplin, Missouri.

If you could travel back in time, when and where would you go?

I love the era of Westward Expansion. I would love to see what it was like when people were trying to create new towns in the West.  

When and where do you write?

I write everywhere and all the time. The morning is my most productive time. I try to write from 5 to 10 a.m. I like to write on the train or outside. I love to write in the car with my husband. We take road trips, and I get a lot done in the car.

How long does it take to write one book? 

They only give me six months. So I do two every year. I take every minute of the six months.

How do you research the events you write about?

I read tons of books and articles. I like to travel to the place I’m writing about, interview experts, watch videos, study maps, go to museums, look at paintings, and visit historical houses. I try to immerse myself in the time period. I look for diaries and newspapers from the time period because you can really get a sense of what people were thinking about.

In your research, what are the traits of survivors?

I try to create characters who are not superhuman. Survivors understand that being brave doesn’t mean that you can’t be scared. The people who have the willingness to expect a little more of themselves are the ones who are the survivors. I also think the survivors are the ones who get help. What I find in my research is that, very often, people just keep going.

Who are some of your favorite authors and what are some of your favorite books? 

I love The Hunger Games. I really admire Suzanne Collins. Elise Broach is one of my friends, and she writes amazing books. I think Tommy Greenwald is a great writer. He writes very funny stories.

What did you enjoy doing as a kid? Did you enjoy history?

As a kid, I had my own reading struggles. I couldn’t read a book until high school. I would get very confused. When I was little, mainly what I loved to do was be with my friends and my dog. I was not talented at anything. I was bad at sports, bad at art, bad at playing the violin. But I was always interested in other people.

What is your best advice for young authors?

Don’t think that writing is a talent. It is very much like learning to play basketball or Minecraft or do gymnastics. It’s a skill that you learn. Don’t be afraid. My first books were terrible, but writing the bad books is part of the process. You have to embrace those failures in a good way. You will improve if you practice.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a True Stories book about two huge tornadoes. One is the Tri-State Tornado of 1925, which is still the deadliest tornado in American history. For the other, I’m taking the story I wrote about the Joplin Tornado and tripling it in size because that tornado teaches us so much about modern weather forecasting. I’m also starting to research the next I Survived book, which is about the American Revolution.


Photos courtesy of Scholastic