THE LAST BOOK PARTY
by Karen Dukess
(Henry Holt & Company, Inc., PB June 2020; HC, Jul 2019)
In The Last Book Party, Karen Dukess takes us to the summer of 1987 as 25-year-old Eve, an assistant at a publishing house, attends a party at the Cape Cod home of literary luminaries New Yorker writer Henry Grey and his poet wife, Tillie. When Eve is hired as Grey’s research assistant and forms a crush on his son, her ideals and aspirations clash with the reality of failed ambition, faded dreams, and broken romance.
Dukess shares her journey from a life as a professional writer to find the courage to explore her talent as a creative writer and her ultimate path to success.
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a creative writer. Were there degrees, jobs, workshops, writing groups, classes, or mentors that helped you in your writing?
“I was writing professionally but didn’t consider myself a writer because the writing that mattered to me – but that I was afraid of – was fiction.”
DUKESS: I loved to write as a child and wrote stories in a free and joyous way. But by the time I reached adolescence, I’d lost confidence in my own voice. I’d internalized the idea that I wasn’t writer material. I thought I was too conventional, too timid. I took writing classes at Brown University but was very intimidated by the writing scene there. After working briefly in book publishing, I got a master’s degree in journalism and began a career as a newspaper reporter. I worked for newspapers and magazines in the US and Russia and eventually became a speechwriter at the UN. I was writing professionally but didn’t consider myself a writer because the writing that mattered to me – but that I was afraid of – was fiction. It wasn’t until I was approaching 50 that I joined a local writing group and began to unlearn the beliefs that had held me back. I began to believe in my own story, whatever it was, and to understand that not knowing exactly what I wanted to say from the beginning is not a sign I’m not meant to write. I learned that I can let the story unfold – and not only will it unfold, but it will unfold in a better way than if I tried to think up a plot before writing a single word. I owe these lessons to the leader of this writing group, a wonderful teacher/essayist/novelist/poet named Steve Lewis. He taught me to believe in myself as a writer and to just keep going until I figured out what my novel was about.
AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. Where did idea for The Last Book Party come from?
DUKESS: The Last Book Party evolved from a piece of memoir writing that I did in my writing group. I’d had a magical day in the mid-1980s, when I was in my 20s, with a young artist I’d met. We went to the beach on the day after a storm and the ocean was still wild and wavy. A lobster buoy had been washed close to shore by the storm and, after much effort, we managed to grab it and haul it in. We found two lobsters, which we took (we were young and ignorant and it never occurred to us that we were poaching) and ate for dinner. Years later, this young man died. And years after that, I decided to write about him and our day together. I brought the pages to the writing group and then continued the story, thinking I would write a memoir. But then a fictional character appeared. He was a young writer and he was hiding something. It was a mystery even to me! With the encouragement of my writing group leader, I continued the story without really knowing where it was going. That first draft was a discovery draft; by the time I was done with it, I knew what I was writing about and what I had to do finish the novel.
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about your decision to take a fictional look at the literary world through the eyes of Eve Rosen. Why was Eve the best choice? What could her perspective reveal that others could not?
DUKESS: I wanted to write from the perspective of a character whose intellectual maturity outpaced her emotional maturity. Eve is smart and well-read, but she is naïve and has a lot of misguided ideas about people and herself and what it will take to become the writer she wants to be. I liked looking at the world of publishing and the literary world of Cape Cod through her eyes, and capturing the journey of someone who idealizes the people around her and draws conclusions about them based more on her own insecurities than an accurate understanding of who they really are.
AUTHORLINK: What authors and novels about literary life influenced your writing of The Last Book Party? Are there other novels you looked to for guidance?
“…I was influenced by two novels that are near and dear to my heart – Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.”
DUKESS: I’m not sure I was influenced by novels about the literary life, but I was influenced by two novels that are near and dear to my heart – Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Both are novels about young women who find themselves somewhat out of their league in the homes of older men they are attracted to. In both novels, the protagonist senses that things aren’t what they seem without understanding why. The novels examine jealousy and secrets and capture the excruciating way a young woman can yearn to be older and more sophisticated without realizing that there is strength in being herself. And, of course Rebecca climaxes at a costume party that the protagonist thinks will be her triumph but which becomes an evening of shattering disclosures. I had that in mind when I wrote the costume party scene in The Last Book Party. I also looked to Goodbye, Columbus for structural guidance as that novella also takes place over a single summer.
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about the importance of place in the book. What kinds of pressure does this setting place on the characters?
DUKESS: The setting of this novel in Truro, on Cape Cod, is extremely important to the story, and to Eve, the protagonist. Truro is not only a place of extreme natural beauty, space and quietude, but it is where Eve feels most herself. Her observations of her environment reveal her love of the place and also make it clear that though she doubts her creative abilities and potential, she already is a writer. The wild beauty and force of the ocean in Cape Cod – and there are miles of empty beach, thanks to the National Seashore – bolster Eve, and make her believe that her future might be as grand as the landscape around her.
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about Henry Grey. Who was he based on? What role does he play on Eve’s story?
DUKESS: The character of Henry Grey is inspired by some of the old guard New Yorker writers who summered in Truro and who found themselves a bit adrift when the venerable magazine began to change in the 1980s. Henry Grey opens up a world to Eve that she thinks she wants to be a part of. She finds a kinship with him that she didn’t expect, and though it’s a positive experience for her, she realizes that she has misjudged the whole situation. There are writers at different stages of their careers in The Last Book Party, and writers carrying different kinds of insecurities. Henry is a writer at a difficult time in his career and his insecurity about his prospects are a factor in his behavior. He is perhaps too caught up in status and self-image and maybe a bit too old, or egotistical, to change in a way that would lead to greater happiness.
AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing The Last Book Party and how did you overcome them?
“The main challenge was keeping the faith that I would figure out the story along the way.”
DUKESS: The main challenge was keeping the faith that I would figure out the story along the way. Every week I would bring pages to my writing group and confess that I didn’t know where the story was going. And every week the leader of the group would say “let the story reveal itself.” Once I had a rough draft and realized that I had a story, and an arc, and an ending, it became easier to continue working. The revisions – and there were many – were fleshing it out, filling in characters, adding depth and context. That was easier for me than writing in the dark, which was what the first draft felt like.
AUTHORLINK: Talk about the process of revision for this book. What was it like working with your editor?
DUKESS: The Last Book Party was edited very quickly, over about six weeks. The first revisions were on the macro level – my editor asked me to add depth to some characters, slow down some scenes, and flesh some out. The next round involved line editing – sentence structure and word choice. On the whole, there were no grand changes to the plot, just filling in the story more to create a richer, more vivid world and characters with more depth. I had tight deadlines and was amazed at my editor’s surprise that I always met them. I think that comes from having worked as a journalist – deadlines are sacrosanct and it would never occur to me not to meet one! My editor, Libby Burton at Holt, was wonderful to work with. She could be forceful at times but she always insisted that it was my book and I had to be the final say on changes. Thankfully, we were in synch with what needed to be done.
AUTHORLINK: Advice on revision for apprentice writers?
“Revision is everything – don’t be afraid of it.”
DUKESS: Revision is everything – don’t be afraid of it. Think of it not as changing your work, but making it better. And it can always be better. I looked at revision as a very manageable challenge – I’d be given a task and would have to figure out how to do it. Sometimes my editor would ask for a line to be funnier, or a description to be more vivid. I regarded those edits as assignments that I had to fulfill.
AUTHORLINK: How did you connect with your agent? What advice would you give on managing the author/agent relationship?
DUKESS: I was introduced to Doug Stewart at Sterling Lord Literistic via email by a mutual friend who thought he would like my manuscript. I sent a query letter – which I spent a lot of time writing – and he agreed to take a look. A few weeks later, he got in touch to say he liked the manuscript but felt it didn’t quite deliver on his promise. He offered to meet with me to discuss how I could improve it and I jumped at the chance as I was at the point where I wanted advice but didn’t know whose advice to take. Doug and I hit it off immediately; all his thoughts on the manuscript made perfect sense to me. I told him I’d revised it over the next three months, but ended up sending it back to him about five weeks later. He wrote back the next day that he loved it. I feel extremely lucky to have found Doug and to have done so quite quickly. He’s been a wonderful guide and champion through this whole process.
AUTHORLINK: We leave the book with Eve having found a new way to pursue her love of writing. What advice would you offer to apprentice writers who are searching for their own avenues?
” Honor your impulse to write even if you don’t know exactly why you want to write…Writing can be an act of discovery.”
DUKESS: Honor your impulse to write even if you don’t know exactly why you want to write or what you want to say. Writing can be an act of discovery. Write when you can, even if it’s not every day. I was working part-time at the UN when I wrote The Last Book Party and had only one day a week for writing. I had my writing group at 4 pm on Tuesdays so I saved Tuesdays for writing. With that schedule and that weekly deadline, I wrote a novel.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on now?
DUKESS: I’m working on a novel that draws on my years living and working in Moscow, Russia. It’s set during the summer after Trump was elected and is about an American woman in her 40s who, at a crossroads in her marriage, visits Russia for the first time in 20 years to revisit a past relationship in hopes of regaining her sense of self.
Karen Dukess has been a tour guide in the former Soviet Union, a newspaper reporter in Florida, a magazine publisher in Russia and, for nearly a decade, a speechwriter on gender equality for the United Nations Development Programme. She has blogged on raising boys for The Huffington Post and written book reviews for USA Today. She has a degree in Russian Studies from Brown University and a Master’s in Journalism from Columbia University. The Last Book Party is her first novel.