One afternoon in the summer of 2013, Anna Todd was in the checkout line at Target when, as most of us do, she pulled out her phone. Then she propped her elbows on her shopping cart and began to type.
Todd was 24 years old and living near Fort Hood, Texas, with her husband, a soldier she had married a month after graduating high school, and their newborn, who suffered daily seizures. While caring for her son and taking online community-college courses, she helped support the family by babysitting for a neighbor and working the beauty counter at Ulta. For fun, she read. Wuthering Heights, Twilight, The Things They Carried. Since the previous fall, she’d also indulged an addiction to One Direction fan fiction—stories featuring the boy band in imagined scenarios. After blazing through all that she could find online and then tiring of waiting for updates from erratic authors (many of them teens juggling writing and school), Todd decided to attempt her own series. She called it After and wrote on her smartphone whenever she could steal a moment—while shopping for groceries, waiting to get her teeth cleaned, riding in friends’ cars. She used a pseudonym (imaginator1D) and hid her alter ego from family and friends. “My husband just thought I had a phone addiction or something,” she has said.
Without pausing to proofread, Todd uploaded a chapter a day to Wattpad, a free site that has earned a reputation as the YouTube of ebooks for its success in giving prose the social-media treatment. (Readers can chat with writers and discuss books with one another by leaving comments alongside the text as they read.) After, generously sprinkled with Pride and Prejudice allusions and oral sex, opens on Tessa Young, an innocent bookworm beginning her first day of college. It follows her torrid, tortured romance with the brooding sophomore Harry Styles—named after the One Direction heartthrob—as he initiates her into heavy drinking, heavy makeup, and heavy petting. (Aside from his accent, After’s Harry bears little resemblance to the British singer.)