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Arts & Entertainment
03/27/05, G

By JACK RIGHTMYER, Staff Writer
Author Francine Prose a master of observation

Author Francine Prose admits that one of her strongest traits as a writer is her ability to observe people. “The whole idea for my newest book came about from watching two young skinhead guys on a subway in Brooklyn,” she said in a recent phone interview from her home in New York City. “They were all dressed up with jackboots and skinheads, but they looked terrified, like scared cornered animals. They clearly were not in their own element.”

Since 1973 Prose has written over twenty books including novels, nonfiction, short-story collections and young adult and children’s books. Her latest “A Changed Man” (385 pages, Harper Collins, $24.95) tells the story of Vincent Nolan, a 32-year-old tattooed ex-skinhead who appears one morning in the New York offices of World Brotherhood Watch, a foundation headed by Meyer Maslow, a Holocaust survivor. He wants to work for the foundation to “save guys like me from becoming guys like me.”

The book took five years to complete and according to Prose she still didn’t want to stop writing it. “I wrote a few things in between this book,” said Prose, “but I just got so attached to all the characters. I really cared about them. Finishing the book was like ending friendships.”

The book took some time because she had trouble with the subject matter. “I had to do some research about white supremacists,” said Prose. “I did a Google search for Aryan Nation because I wanted to capture the language of a white supremacist, and what I found made my blood turn cold. There was so much anger and hatred in those groups.”

From her research Prose ultimately came to the conclusion that much of their racist hatred came from their feelings of being left out of the mainstream. “It all comes down to economics,” she said. “Their hatred stems from their belief that they are being taken advantage of by others.”

On Monday Prose will conduct a public reading at 8 pm at Assembly Hall of the Campus Center at the University at Albany’s uptown campus. She will also lead an informal seminar at 4:15 at the Campus Center in room 375. Both talks are free, open to the public, and presented by the New York State Writers Institute.

Prose is not only an expert at observing the nuances of people, but she is also adept at writing dialogue. “For whatever reason if I listen to a conversation I can have almost total recall about what was said.” She mentioned that years ago she was interviewing author Salmon Rushdie for a magazine article and after the interview she discovered her tape recorder had malfunctioned. “I didn’t take any notes during the interview,” she said, “and I couldn’t call him back to do the interview all over, so I sat down and wrote out the entire conversation we had just had from my own memory.”

After she wrote the article she faxed a draft to Rushdie for his approval, and he only changed two words that she had written.

Although the book deals with a reformed white supremacist, Francine Prose avoids being preachy about the evils of racism. She tells her story with a great deal of humor and creates flawed characters that all readers will care about.

“I guess one of the things I’m making fun of in this book is our craving for celebrity,” said Prose. “With all these crazy reality shows I think our need to be famous has only gotten worse. Back in the 1950’s there were artists like Jackson Pollack and Salvador Dali who didn’t care about being famous. They only cared about the quality of their work.”

Prose also enjoyed writing the scenes with Vincent staying at the suburban home of single-mom Bonnie Kalen, who is the World Brotherhood Watch’s development director. “Once I found the language of Vincent, he was so much fun to write,” said Prose, “especially those scenes when he’s talking with Bonnie’s two boys Danny and Max. Having been the mother of two teenage boys I know their type of humor. I think teenage boys are the funniest people in the world.”

As you read the book part of the fun is trying to figure out if Vincent Nolan is really sincere in wanting to change, or is he doing this to avoid being caught by his racist cousin Raymond and other members of ARM, the Aryan Resistance Movement.

“It’s very difficult to change,” said Prose, “but I also believe it’s impossible not to change. If people are going to survive they must change and adopt. We need to keep working on this project of ourselves.”

She credits her enormous output of writing through the years to the fact that she loves the action of sitting down at a computer and playing with words. “It’s not easy,” said Prose, “but it’s creative, and I’d rather sit down and write than do just about anything else.”

Last fall she taught a literature class at The New School, and next fall she’ll teach a literature class at Bard College. “I find teaching how to write much more exhausting than teaching good literature,” she said. “When I teach literature I’m forced to read closely some excellent writers like James Joyce. This inspires me to write.”

Her advice for beginning writers is to read great writing. “As you read pay attention word by word how the author created the story,” said Prose. “Too many beginning writers worry about having the perfect plot or having a great idea. I think what’s really important is how the author puts the story together.”

She is excited to once again visit Albany as part of the New York State Writers Institute. “I’ve been there before and I’ve been to Skidmore College in the summer a few times for their summer conference,” she said, “and every year when I look through their pamphlet and see all the great writers who are doing readings I wish I lived closer so I could stop over and hear them.”

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