Read It Forward: Why did you choose to make the narrator in Afterwards a spirit?
Rosamund Lupton: Before I had any of the rest of the story, I knew I wanted to write about a mother and daughter talking to each other, as spirits, throughout the novel. I thought it would be fascinating to write characters who could watch and comment on the action but not take part and would enable me to intensely explore their characters and relationship. At an everyday level, Jenny can’t go off to see her boyfriend or go on Facebook, Grace can’t do chores or chat to her friends. They are trapped in this extreme situation, and each only has the other. I thought that for the first time since childhood, Grace would get to know her daughter properly.
While I was writing them, I felt I was writing about the bond between mother and child stripped of everything else, and to take it a step further, that this was in some ways a metaphor of the bond between two people that transcends the physical. It was this aspect of the novel that kept me writing. In terms of plot, it was an interesting challenge to write a detective who is a spirit, because although Grace can’t participate she can watch and eavesdrop, and so is in a unique position to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.
RIF: Did you find portraying Grace and Jenny as spirits difficult?
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RL: I wrote them just as if they were real people, which is how I saw them. Practically, there were challenges. I realized that it was confusing to have spirit voices mingling with “real” ones, and I had to rewrite the beginning so that Jenny and Grace’s conversations are separated from the “main” action. But gradually, as the reader hopefully gets onboard with the whole idea, I stop separating their conversations from the action they’re watching. I always knew that this was a difficult idea to pull off, and in the end I just had to hope readers would take that leap of faith with me.
RIF: How important is character to you when writing a novel?
R: Characters are centrally important to me when I’m writing, and the part I enjoy most. At some point they get a will of their own and their own voice, which I just scribe. If that doesn’t happen, I need to rethink that character. I used to be a screenwriter and could not write the thoughts of a character, just their surface interactions. Now, I love being able to fully explore a character.
RIF: Who was your favorite character?
RL: To my surprise, it was Sarah, who started life as a plot-device character – I needed a police officer – but very quickly she took over and revealed surprising aspects of herself; I really enjoyed writing her.
RIF: Your novel explores memory in detail. Can you tell us more about that?
RL: I was intrigued by the idea of someone’s memory holding the key to what really happened on that summer afternoon. Trying to access Jenny’s memory is a detective story within someone’s mind. The triggers are sensory, mainly those of smell, because I think smell can be tremendously evocative.
Sarah’s view of memory is pretty scientific; she talks about retrograde amnesia following a traumatic event, and dissociative amnesia. It explains the physical scientific reason for why Jenny can’t remember. Grace has less scientific views of memory but, for me, interesting ones. For example, she sees memory as a snow globe, where she is briefly inside that afternoon again.
Toward the end Grace sees memory as a corridor, like a long hospital corridor, with swing doors, and you don’t know what lies behind the next set. She sees Sarah’s “retrograde amnesia” as the final set of doors, which are fire doors, thick and heavy, protecting Jenny from the full horror of that afternoon.
RIF: Your previous novel, Sister, was about family, and Afterwards has a mother in the epicenter of the plot. As a writer, why are you interested in exploring family ties?
RL: I think the bonds among members of a family are the most powerful we experience and can make an ordinary person behave in an extraordinary way. In Sister, Beatrice is driven by love for her younger sister to risk everything to find the truth. In After- wards, Grace is extraordinarily courageous for her family.
RIF: Tell us a bit more about your use of a school and hospital as settings?
RL: I didn’t base the school on a real one, but many small details about the school before the fire were taken from my own experience with two school-age children; for example, the fruit cut up for the children at break-time or the drawings hung up like clothes on a clothesline across the classroom. I wanted the de- tails of the school before the fire to feel real and cozy to the reader, to contrast with the arson attack.
I deliberately kept most of the novel in a hospital, as I wanted it to be set in one small world. Hospitals are so self-contained, with their own sounds, smells, and rules. Many places inside the hospital have no natural light, so they are also outside the usual diur- nal rhythms. I made it painful for Grace and Jenny to leave the hospital, and even the garden is right in the middle of it, to give a sense of them being trapped in this micro-world. I also decided to set the story over a short time frame and in the middle of a heat wave to heighten the feeling of intensity and claustrophobia.
IRIF: Was Afterwards completely planned out before you began writing, or did you just go with the flow?
RL: With my first novel, Sister, I had to do a major re- write of the plot before publication – basically the last two thirds of the novel’s plot had to be rewritten. It was hard unpicking a plot from the characters’ journeys and the other stories that I was telling in the novel, so in Afterwards I made sure I had a secure structural skeleton before I started writing. Although sorting out the structure first was hard and not the part of writing I enjoy, it was then liberating as I wrote the novel itself, as I could allow myself free rein.
RIF: What are your literary influences?
RL: Many of the influences for Afterwards were from children’s books. Some of the old fairy stories, especially The Little Mermaid, fed directly into the novel. The hospital – even Grace’s own body – became the sea, which is painful for her to leave but she’s driven by love to do so. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, with that iconic wardrobe opening into another world, also influenced me when I was thinking about the story. Adam’s love of knights and myths was influenced by the books I read to my own children, and I wanted those stories – about good versus evil – to be a presence in the book.
RIF: The ending is incredibly sad. Why did you choose to end the story in this way?
RL: The story and plot had all been driving toward this ending, and there wasn’t any other way to end it. Although it’s terribly sad, and I found it hard to write, I hope that it’s not bleak and that there is something redeeming.