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April 13, 2011

Steve Watkins: Behind the Scenes of WHAT COMES AFTER

Posted by jordana

whatcomesafter.jpgSteve Watkins's latest novel, WHAT COMES AFTER, tells the story of Iris Wight, sent to live with Aunt Sue, a woman who mistreats the animals on the farm and doesn't bat an eyelash when physically repremanding Iris for the slightest offense. The abuses eventually come to a head, and Iris is sent to live elsewhere, though she refuses to abandon the animals back on Aunt Sue's farm. Here, Steve talks to Teenreads about the inspiration for such a heart-wrenching story of trial, loss, and redemption.   

In a way, the story of Iris Wight in WHAT COMES AFTER started several years ago when I was sitting in a juvenile and domestic relations court during an emergency removal hearing, reading an autopsy report on a little 5-year-old boy. I can’t use his real name so I’ll call him Donny. He had more than 40 pronounced contusions, two broken ribs, a broken collar bone, and a skull fracture--all in various stages of healing, indicating that he had sustained the injuries over an extended period of time. In the autopsy photos he appeared emaciated, as if he’d been starved. He also had two severe traumas to his abdomen caused by what the medical examiner said were powerful external blows. The second, and most recent, was the one that killed him.

None of us who worked on that case, which lasted two long years and led to terrible revelations about Donny and his siblings, have ever been the same. It was my job as a Court Appointed Special Advocate to investigate Donny’s story, and the stories of his brothers and sisters, and to write a narrative that would bring those children to life for the judge presiding over the case--and, in a way, to bring Donny back to life, if only in my report, and if only for a little while, and if only for the court. None of us doubted that the surviving children would be scarred by what happened to them, but thanks to the love and dedication of a lot of people involved in the case—therapists, attorneys, social workers, foster parents, teachers—Donny’s brothers and sisters ended up with families who loved them and promised to take care of them. They had a chance--at least a chance--to recover, and grow up safe, and live meaningful lives.

When I read an article an couple of years ago in our local newspaper about a girl who had been badly beaten by her cousin, on orders from her guardian aunt, I was struck by how few details there were about the girl—though that is usual in the case of underage victims, who are rarely identified to the public by police or prosecutors. The article didn’t say what her life had been like before she was beaten, or what happened to her after, except for this one sentence: “The girl is now in foster care.” The more I thought about that girl and what happened to her, though, the more I felt drawn to tell her story, too—as I imagined it, for a wider audience than the court. I knew she wasn’t just another foster care kid, and she wasn’t just another victim. She must have had a life, and a story worth telling.  All children do.

 --- Steve Watkins