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.
Interview conducted by Anne Sanow, Originally published in Publishers
Weekly, reprinted with permission of Publishers Weekly and Harper Collins.