An interview with Francine Prose
You open your novel A Changed Man with a character most of your
readers probably have never met: the ex-skinhead Vincent Nolan. Was this
"changed man" the inspiration for the book?
I certainly began with him. I was on the subway in New York once, and I saw these two very young skinheads -- all dressed up, with jackboots and shaved heads -- and I noticed that they looked terrified, like they'd been dropped from Mars. It was very clear to me that they were out of their element; this was not their home territory at all. That made me curious about who they were and what kind of people they were. Then I began to do research.
It's strange how life imitates art. Later I was in an elevator in Manhattan, and there was a middle-aged guy with his hair growing over tattoos on his head -- it looked as if a swastika had been there, and the laser removal hadn't done a good job. I thought this is my character, 10 years later.
Were there other topics you were keeping in mind as you wrote?
My aim was to write about this character, but I wasn't necessarily writing about neo-Nazis. I was writing about what it means to be a good person, what it means to change -- and how our culture hypes this change, this growing. As I was writing, I was dealing with the nature of American culture and the way in which anything can be turned into a publicity scam. Everyone in the novel is scamming to a degree. And more so than hatred, there's the idea of class resistance.
There's an element of suspense as to whether (and how much) Vincent will change -- did you know what he would do, or did that emerge as you wrote?
You hear writers say that their characters have a life of their own, and I had this experience with this book more than any other. Once I set these characters up and put them into motion, I really had no idea what would happen. The challenge was figuring out what Vincent's inner life is, his moral life -- how he distinguishes between good and evil, and what conscience is.
The American obsession with celebrity and redemption is put under the microscope here -- Bonnie's son, Danny, even becomes an object of this toward the end. How difficult do you think this obsession makes it for people to truly examine their beliefs?
It makes it much more difficult. If the mirror you're looking at yourself in is a TV talk show where by the end of the hour [the guests'] soul is revealed and people resolve to live new lives, and the reality of your own life is quite different, it's got to be discouraging.
I noticed that there are very few scenes in fiction where people are watching TV, there's the moment late in the book where Bonnie and her kids are watching themselves on TV, and I thought this was something I definitely wanted to do.
Did you intend to push reader's buttons?
I knew I had a risky topic, but I hope that the minute readers meet these characters, they'll feel about them the way I do. I have compassion for them, I never think of myself as having a moral. But certainly what seems so important to me now is what it seems we're losing in our culture: the very basic ability to empathize, to feel that others are human beings just as we are, though they may look different and have a different set of beliefs. Everything, to me, comes from that: civility, democracy, civic responsibility, and peace.
Ending the book where you did, with the suggestion of a future between Vincent and Bonnie, what do you think might have happened with them?
Who knows -- stranger marriages have taken place! I was very sorry to finish the book. But as a writer I like endings like Chekhov's story "Lady with a Dog," ending with a beginning -- it's perfect.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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