In After, Francine Prose's first book for young adults, the author of Blue Angel and other books for adults explores the cost of giving up freedoms under the guise of protection at a suburban high school, in the aftermath of a Columbine-style shooting at a neighboring school. PW asked Prose about her inspiration for the book and its themes.
PW: What made you decide to turn your attention to a younger audience?
Francine Prose: Actually, it was my editor Joanna Cotler's idea. When she approached me about writing a YA novel, I was wary, but she said, "Trust me. You can do it." At times, when I was working on After, I worried that it was getting too dark for a younger audience. I'd ask Joanna, "Is this okay?" And she'd always answer, "It's great!" I have to give my editor a lot of the credit. She was never less than encouraging.
PW: The premise of the book is intriguing. Was there one event that prompted you to begin writing about this issue?
FP: I began writing the book two weeks after 9/11. During the aftermath of the tragedy, it seemed that every time I'd turn on the TV, someone would be talking about how we were entering a new era when we would have to give up some of our freedoms.
Before this, I'd been doing a lot of thinking about the new security measures—locker checks, backpack searches, drug tests—taken in schools since the Columbine shootings. I'd even heard that a hotline had been formed for students to report any kids acting "weird" at their school. I mean really, don't all kids act weird in adolescence? The issue of security and the loss of civil liberties are suddenly so much in our culture, but no one's asking kids how they feel about it.
PW: In an author's note, you explain that After was inspired by your concern about kids having "already lost many of the freedoms we adults were so afraid of losing." Why do you think kids are losing those freedoms?
FP: I think that our society is becoming schizophrenic about kids. We're all talking about how to protect them and we're concerned with coming up with rating systems for video games, music and movies. At the same time, adults seem to fear and want protection from children. Adults cross the street when they see a group of kids walking together, for example. In this book, I wanted to explore what's behind this contradiction.
PW:After seems to move from realism into the realm of science fiction. When you began writing this novel, was this part of your plan? What made you decide to add such fantastical elements as the brainwashing of adults through e-mail?
FP: I wanted to take the idea of loss of liberty—what we are taking away from our kids—as far as I could. I wanted to see how bad things could get. I think that the book crosses the line into science fiction only after the whole community gets involved. The rest of the story is scarily realistic.
PW: What do you hope teenagers will take away from your novel?
FP: Number one, I want teens to have fun reading the book. Beyond that, I want them to think, "Oh, someone knows what's going on with us, someone has noticed that there's something weird about having to pee in a paper cup if you join a team or club."
PW: How is writing for teens different from writing for adults? Do you plan to write more YA fiction in the future?
FP: I've started working on a fantasy novel, the kind of book I loved as a kid. For me, writing for a younger audience is a more pure form of storytelling. When I'm writing for adults, I worry more about what's going to happen next in the story and how to create psychologically complex characters. With After I didn't worry so much about those things, and the psychological complexities and plot development occurred anyway. The voice of Tom was so clear to me. It was like I was channeling my inner 15-year-old boy.
Writing this book had the same kind of appeal that telling ghost stories in a tent in Brooklyn had for me as a child. Of course, the fun part, back then, came in terrorizing the little kids. I felt some of that same sense of joy—grabbing the audience's attention—when I wrote After.