Following her debut novel, Sister, Rosamund Lupton returns with Afterwards (reviewed below), in which suburban mother Grace runs into a burning building to save her teenage daughter. Both women are badly burned and find themselves sharing an out-of-body experience at the hospital. Lupton, a former screenwriter who lives in London with her husband and two young sons, recently spoke with us on her novel about love, family, and what comes afterwards.
Afterwards centers on Grace's love for her husband and children. What inspired you to create the members of this close-knit family? How did you first get the idea for their story?
I am a wife and mother myself, so inevitably drew upon that experience. Although the characters themselves are totally imagined, the bonds between them are ones I know well. I was interested in the "mother tigress" instinct that seemed to me to arrive with a baby, and I explored that with the mother character, Grace. At the beginning of the novel she runs into a burning school to rescue her teenage daughter and from then on finds tremendous physical and mental courage, which is an instinctive rather than a rational response. I hope that the novel illuminates, in a dynamic way, the strength of family bonds.
Much of the book hinges on Grace's love for her daughter Jenny and their relationship. As the mother of two boys, did you have to stretch your imagination to create the mother-daughter bond? How do you see Grace's relationship with Jenny as different from her relationship with Adam?
I think personality--of both parent and child--influences the bond more than gender does. My two sons are not yet teenagers, so I couldn't steal anything from them to create the character of Jenny (which I'm sure they're grateful for!). That said, I remember vividly what it was like to be a teenager and my own close relationship with my mother, so I had that to draw on. Grace's relationship with Jenny is different from the one she has with Adam because Jenny is older and getting to be independent of Grace, rather than because she's a girl. When I first wrote Jenny and Grace, I had Jenny as a rather dislikeable, selfish teenager who I thought would mature through the book. I didn't enjoy writing her this way, and thought the reader wouldn't enjoy reading her, so I changed her into a character I liked from the beginning. As I wrote, it was Grace who had to mature through the book. Like many mothers, I feel that children make me grow up as much as the other way around.
How did you decide to use out-of-body experiences as a central plot device?
Before I had any plot or real 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 have characters who could watch and comment on the action but not take part. I hoped to show a relationship evolving in a short space of time, and to really get to know these characters. At another level, I wanted the spirits idea to be a metaphor for the connection that exists between two people who love each other. Although I found it creatively inspiring, there were practical challenges. For example, 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 pretty separate from the "main" action. But gradually, as the reader hopefully gets on board 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'd just have to hope readers would take that leap of faith with me.
In both Afterwards and Sister, you chose to have the narrator address another central character rather than the reader. Why do you use this approach?
I worked for many years as a screenwriter so it's natural for me to write a novel as one half of a dialogue, addressing someone else. It is a more intimate way for me to write, and I hope that the reader feels pulled into the characters and the story.
Domestic violence affects a family in this story. Is domestic violence awareness a cause near to your heart?
The family as a sanctuary from violence and brutality is something I believe in very strongly, so I find it shocking and disturbing when, instead of refuge, there's viciousness and cruelty. In Afterwards, I tried to write about the complex effect of domestic violence as well as delineating the travesty of trust and love.
Afterwards is a moving story about family, but it's also a top-notch mystery. How do you balance the two?
I hope that the story and the mystery are woven tightly together. Grace's love for her daughter and son push her on as a detective--she has to find the culprit in order to safeguard her children. The tension ratchets up during the book for Grace, and therefore for the reader, too.
Do you plan to continue exploring family dynamics in your work?
I'm not sure that I'll choose family members again, but I think dynamics between people--whether family members or not--have been the stuff of stories from time immemorial.
What message do you hope readers of Afterwards take from the book?
I just hope that they enjoy reading it--if they take anything away from it, then I'm honored. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger, Infinite Reads
Rosamund Lupton: The Strength of Family Bonds