In her acclaimed 2009 publication Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, Francine Prose argues that Anne Frank was not an "accidental author" but rather an extraordinary writer who crafted a deliberate work of art when she wrote and revised her diary. The author of more than 20 works of fiction and nonfiction, Prose spoke with Masterpiece's Bennett Singer about the discoveries she made while writing her book — and about Anne Frank's literary legacy.
What motivated you to write a book on Anne Frank?
I was writing a novel, Goldengrove, from the point of view of a 13-year-old girl. And having written Reading Like a Writer — which says that if you're going to write something, read something — I thought I should read the best thing I could think of about a 13-year-old girl, which of course is The Diary of Anne Frank. So I went back and re-read it, and I was struck by how beautiful and brilliant it is. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how rarely people have really recognized what a conscious, incredible work of literature it is.
You point out that the diary is not the spontaneous outpourings of a teenager, but rather a carefully crafted work of literature. Can you talk more about Anne Frank's process of revision?
She was very conscious of what she was doing; she was very aware; she was very much a writer. It wasn't at all, "Let me just scribble this stuff in my diary and publish it." That wasn't the case at all.
Is "diary," then, not the best word to use to describe Anne Frank's writing?
Well, not in the way that we normally think of a diary. We think at the end of the day, or every other day, you sit down and write about the things that happened that day or yesterday. But when you're going back and writing things that happened two years ago that you forgot to explain or didn't explain clearly or understand only now, that I think is what we call a memoir....It's important to emphasize, as I say in the book, that the reason we know about these variant versions is that when the Critical Edition came out, the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation got all these forensic handwriting experts to authenticate that every single word was written by Anne Frank. So it wasn't as if people came and added material later; Anne Frank was the one who did the revising.
Do you think there is something about Anne Frank's voice that continues to resonate with young people today?
I do. Because the diary was written by a kid, it is almost uniquely suited to be read by a kid. Salinger and Mark Twain certainly got certain things right about being a kid; but they weren't kids when they wrote their books. The diary works on so many different levels.
What was the most unexpected discovery you made in the course of writing your book?
I hadn't known that Anne Frank rewrote the diary, and I think most people still don't. And that turned it into a whole different book from the one I was going to write. The information is out there — it's not like I discovered it — but somehow no one, for whatever reason, had paid attention. I kept calling up my friends and reading them the variant versions and saying, "Am I actually reading what I think I'm reading?" That was the big discovery.
Interview excerpted from the Masterpiece Anne Frank teachers guide.