Raincoast Books suggested I read and review Jennifer Mathiew‘s book Afterward – a young adult novel with a different twist.

Q. I loved Afterward. It was sad, but also powerful. It was hopeful. It was also, as you have said, about finding light within the darkness. This was the first book I have read by you, but after poking through your website, I look forward to reading your two other books as well. In both of those books, and in Afterward, too, your characters and their situations seem very real (sadly). How do you do this? How do you create characters you wish you knew more about and cheer for their happiness?

A. Honestly, my characters come to me almost fully formed. I’m a very character-driven author. Plot is my struggle. At the risk of sounding creepy, I love to observe human beings, and I think this helps me paint what I hope are rich and complex characters. I write unlikable characters (sometimes), but I always write characters that I personally love and care for deeply. Even when they’re doing dumb things or things I might not agree with, I’ve created their vulnerabilities and their fears and this helps me cheer them on.

Q. Where do you find inspiration for these books?

A. Most of my books are based on real life events or interests of mine. My first book, The Truth About Alice, which is about an ostracized young girl in a small Texas town, was partly inspired by a young woman I read about in Seventeen magazine in 1992. This young woman had sued her school after they didn’t respond to her concerns about bullying and threating, obscene graffiti written about her in a bathroom stall.

My second novel, Devoted, about a young woman who escapes a Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull home and experiences a crisis of faith, was based on my interest in the Duggar family of 19 Kids and Counting fame. And Afterward was based on a real life case in Missouri involving two families. I saw a press conference on CNN one morning and the story just took off from there.

Note: You can read my reviews of The Truth About Alice and Devoted here.

Q. Why are these stories important to tell? And why are they important for people to read?

A. Selfishly, I love telling stories because I enjoy creating worlds and characters. So there is sort of an egotistical aspect to being a writer! But ultimately, I hope my stories are important to tell and read because they build empathy. I truly believe when we read about the lives of other people who may be different from us, we strengthen that empathy muscle and develop compassion. This is such a Miss America answer, but I think this world would be a better place if we read more, especially if we read about people unlike us.

Q.You say Afterwards offers a message of finding light in darkness. Why is it hard for people to see the light in their own lives? Tips to help them do so?

A. Oh goodness, I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer this question. The human animal is complex and life can be both beautiful and brutal in equal measure. I bet on the side of hope, perhaps only because it’s the less painful option. To find that light I suggest surrounding yourself with good people who support you, looking outward and finding a way to serve others, and taking time to recharge when necessary. One message I think is important to take from Afterward is that it is crucial to take care of one’s mental health. I hope that the novel has a positive and pro-therapy message. There’s still such a stigma surrounding mental health issues, and this pains me. I hope some folks who read Afterward start viewing therapy in a different light, especially young readers.

Q. You always hear “If it was me, I would have….” It is always easy for us to judge while sitting in our chairs eating popcorn. Why do we do this? How can we stop people from doing it and getting them to see beyond themselves and offering sympathy rather than accusations?

A. I believe this is a normal protective human reaction. If we read a story about something bad in the news, we are quick to think of all the ways we would have behaved differently because we want to convince ourselves such a thing would never happen to us. This leads to a lot of victim blaming. As a mother, I’m thinking of the story that happened this summer of a young child at Disney World who was killed by an alligator while playing near the water. So many people attacked those parents but the truth is, those parents and that little boy were the victims of a cruel twist of fate. To show their support, other parents started posting pictures of their own children playing in the exact same spot that little child was taken. Such a powerful thing to consider.

I think we need to face our fears and own them when we feel the urge to victim blame and shame. When we feel the urge to blame and shame, try to channel that into owning your fears and into compassion. It’s so much better to turn our energies outward to others and to do it with kindness, in my opinion.

Q. I thought it was interesting, however, that Ethan asked his doctor (another fabulous character) “why didn’t I leave?” Why is it important that Ethan asks that question? How hard was it to answer it, from the viewpoint of the doctor’s character?

A. Writing the scenes between Ethan and his therapist were some of the most challenging and also the scenes I’m the most proud of, I think. It’s important that Ethan ask that question because not only did he wonder about the answer, I knew the reader would be wondering, too. The question was tricky to answer, but it was made easier because I interviewed many mental health therapists and experts in PTSD and trauma bonding. I would not have been able to write this novel without their insight.

Q. The idea of a kidnapping by a stranger or otherwise is terrifying for parents and non-parents alike. Was there a real-life situation that inspired this story?

A. Yes, there was a story in Missouri several years ago that inspired this story. Afterward is only very loosely based on these events, however, and I’ve made it a practice not to mention the real people involved by name in an effort to protect their privacy. Folks that follow such cases will probably know who I’m referencing.

Q. I liked how you flipped between the two main characters and at different points of their recovery. Why did you decide to write the book this way? Had you planned to write it this way from the beginning?

A. I had always planned to write the novel this way, and I’m glad I did. I can’t say exactly why I chose to write it this way – it’s just the way the story came to me. I think Ethan and Caroline hold such important pieces of the puzzle of this story, but their experiences and personalities are radically different. So it made sense to approach it in this way. I’m a terrible writer when it comes to explaining artistic choices – I’m sorry! Most of the time it’s a gut thing.

Q. Your characters, both main and secondary, are amazing. Do you have a favourite? Who was the easiest to write? The hardest?

A. Ethan came so easily to me, which I found strange as my experiences are so different from his, and I’ve never been a teenage boy. Caroline was a bit tougher. At first I think she was too much of a flat character – just a bad girl acting out. My editor had to really push me to develop her more fully and truly get to understand her motivations, dreams and fears. In terms of secondary characters, Ethan’s control freak, Type A mother was the easiest because she is essentially based on me! Dr. Greenberg was also quite easy to write. And so was his dog, Groovy! As far as favorites, it would be a tie between Ethan and Dr. Greenberg.

Q. You mentioned you had a zine called Jennifer. What was it about?

A. Oh, man, that is a blast from the past. I made a zine called Jennifer from 1998 until around 2004 or 2005. It was a zine about myself. I can’t believe I even had the time to do this. It was basically about my pop culture obsessions and my life in general. I published pieces about my travels, medical issues, and my interest in the television shows The Golden Girls and Designing Women. I once included entries from my junior high diary. It was ridiculous and so fun.

Q. Any ideas as to what your next book will be about?

A. Well, it’s zine-related! My next book comes out in the fall of 2017. It’s called Moxie and it’s about a teenage girl named Vivian Carter who is growing up in a small Texas town. Viv goes to a very sexist small town high school, and she ends up starting an underground teen feminist revolution by adopting her mom’s old Riot Grrrl ethos. For those who don’t know, Riot Grrrl was a feminist punk movement that grew out of the Pacific Northwest and the Washington D.C. area in the early ’90s. Many Riot Grrrls started bands and zines to promote their thoughts about feminism. Viv actually creates (anonymously!) a zine called Moxie that she distributes in the bathrooms at school, and soon the movement takes off and grows beyond what Viv anticipated. The most exciting thing is that the zines that Viv makes will actually be in the book as interchapters. It’s going to be so much fun. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so excited about a book as I am about this one.

Q. What is your writing process? How often do you write? Do you like to complete one project before moving on to another?

A. I work steadily on one project until it’s done and then I move on to the next. I do not get ideas easily, so I’m not an author who can jump easily from project to project and work on multiple projects at once. When I’m on deadline I write every night for about an hour or so. I still work full-time as a high school English teacher so time is precious. But a little at time works for me. I’m a night owl and have trouble writing during the day. I write at my dining room paper, usually in complete silence with the lights turned low. That makes me sound creepier than I actually am!

Q. What type of topics would you like to see covered in YA literature?

A. I would love to see more stories that center teenagers of color, teenagers with disabilities, and teenagers of different sexual orientations and expressions of gender. I would love to see more YA lit that addresses sex with candor and humor, too.

Q. Do you plan to explore other genres of writing or do you prefer to write YA?

A. For now I only see myself writing YA. I have published non-fiction in the past, but for now, I’m happy right where I am, writing about teenagers!

Q. I enjoyed reading the 10 facts about you. Do you still teach? How long have you been teaching? How have teens changed in that time? What issues do they face now that they might not have faced when you started your career?

A. I am in my twelfth year in the classroom. I still teach full time, currently tenth -grade English. In many ways, teenagers are the same. They still face self-esteem issues, peer pressure, and epiphanies about family (including that awareness that your parents don’t know everything and may, in fact, be wrong about some things). Since I started teaching in 2005 the biggest change has been the power of social media and the Internet, especially the birth of smartphones. All of this is a force in the lives of teenagers that can be both good and bad. I feel for my kids, mostly because they can never shut out the noise without putting forth real effort and hiding their phones. When I tell them about my phone-free youth, they’re a bit envious, to be honest.

Q. How do your students influence your stories?

A. Just being around the rhythm of adolescence inspires me. And being around real teenagers reminds me that they appreciate and deserve complex stories with nuance that treat teenagers with respect. My students remind me that teenagers will run from a morality tale at top speed – as they should.

Q. What is your dream job?

A. I have both of them – writing for and teaching teenagers. I’m pretty lucky.

afterward

Afterwards
Jennifer Mathieu
$24.99

When eleven-year-old Dylan Anderson is kidnapped, his subsequent rescue leads to the discovery of fifteen-year-old Ethan Jorgensen, who had gone on a bike ride four years earlier and had never been seen again. Dylan’s older sister, Caroline, can’t help but wonder what happened to her brother, who has nonverbal autism and is not adjusting well to life back home. There’s only one person who knows the truth: Ethan. But Ethan isn’t sure how he can help Caroline when he is fighting traumatic memories of his own captivity. Both Caroline and Ethan need a friend, however, and their best option just might be each other.

Editor’s Note: What a fabulous book. Despite the terrifying and horrific nature of the book – kidnapping not one, but two children – the book itself wasn’t a terribly sad read. I enjoyed how Ethan changed from the time he was found to when he fully opened up to his doctor, when he forgave himself enough to heal. The idea of being connected, and then becoming great friends, with someone who understands, as much as one can when one hasn’t experienced kidnapping themselves, is pretty amazing. A great read.
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