Zibby Owens: I'm really excited to be here today with Karen Dukess who’s the author of novel The Last Book Party. A former journalist, Karen was also a speech writer for the United Nation’s Development Program on gender equality. Karen blogged for HuffPost about raising boys and has contributed book reviews to USA Today. A graduate of Brown University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she currently lives in Pelham, New York, with her husband and two sons. Welcome, Karen.
Karen Dukess: Thank you.
Zibby: Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Karen: I'm thrilled. I'm such a big fan for quite a while.
Zibby: Thank you. Can you please tell listeners what The Last Book Party is about? What inspired you to write it?
Karen: The Last Book Party is a coming of age of a writer. It takes place over the summer of 1987. It follows a twenty-five-year-old young woman as she moves from book publishing in New York to Truro on Cape Cod where she takes a job for a New Yorker writer and works in his house with him and his wife, a poet. It’s about what happens to her over the summer.
Zibby: It was such a vivid portrait. I feel like I actually just spent the weekend on Cape Cod reading this book with you. Everything, you painted such a vivid portrait of it. Anyway, sorry, go on.
Karen: When I started out, I did not have an idea for this novel in my head. It all grew from a piece of memoir writing, not that the book is autobiographical, which I can get into later. I had this amazing, magical day in my twenties. I had gone to a party like the one that opens the book, this literary crowd, and met a guy, an artist. Soon after, we had this amazing day at the beach, the ocean. It was deserted and after a storm. A buoy from a lobster pod was quite close to shore. We danced around in waves. We pulled it in, very much like I described in the book. We took the lobsters. Being in our twenties, we didn't think that this is poaching. [laughter] We walked carrying the lobsters by the tail back to his house. We had dinner.
Many years later, this guy died. Many years after that, I wanted to capture this day in writing because it was very magical at the time and became more special later. I had lost touch with him. I wanted to write about it. I started writing about it in the first person like it was me. Then I kept going. I was in a writing group. I just needed to keep going. I was intrigued by the idea of writing about myself at that time of life, the mid-twenties working in publishing. Then one day I was writing, and this character appeared, Jeremy, who walked out of the editor’s office. I'm picturing my actual editor that I worked for. This character appeared, completely fictional. He was prickly and intriguing. I didn't know why. I kept going. All of a sudden, it was fiction. It didn't quite even realize I was writing a novel for a while. I just kept going. It turned into this novel. I didn't know what happened to me where a character appears. It was kind of cool.
Zibby: I bet. I once asked somebody how they came up with everything in their books and their novels. They said, “I don't know. It’s like asking how do you come up with your dreams?” They just appear to you. You don't try to have them, necessarily. It sounds like you had that similar type of experience.
Karen: I did. I didn't believe it when I heard writers say that earlier. Wow. It’s true.
Zibby: [laughs] Tell me about how your experiences in the literary world -- tell me about your relationship with your editor at the time, how you used that part of your life to place the opening of the book.
Karen: I worked in publishing a very short time. In college, I kept telling myself I'm not going to be one of those liberal arts grads who gets out of school and works in publishing. What a cliché. I'm not going to do that. Then I got out of college. I was like, oh god, I need a job. Working in book publishing, I got a job at Little Brown as an editorial secretary, which is as low as it sounds. It’s in the editorial department, but it’s lower than the editorial assistant. You're typing. You do get to read manuscripts that come in on the slush pile. I had fun drawing on that experience. I worked in Little Brown for about a year. Then I worked for a literary agent for a year. It was fun to write about because suddenly I'm realizing that was a different era. That was a long time ago, the 1980s. It’s a very different publishing world. It was fun to revisit it. Although, it was very interesting. When this novel was on submission, a lot of editors and their editorial assistants, who are young like the protagonist of the book is, were like, “Wow, you really got that publishing thing right.” I thought how's that possible? I'm writing about the 1980s. Apparently, certain things haven't changed. I got that sense of being bookish young women. They're mostly young women that take these jobs in publishing. It was fun to go back to that.
Zibby: You wrote so beautifully in this book about being an aspiring writer and being young and wanting to do that as a profession later. In one of your opening scenes between Eve, the protagonist, and Franny, who is the boy who she has the lobster rendezvous with, Fanny asks her, “So are you a writer too?” She replies, “I'd like to be, but it’s hard until you know what you want to say,” which I thought was really interesting. Do you feel like people can't know what they want to say at that age? How did you figure out what you wanted to say?
Karen: That whole idea that you have to know what you want to write about before you write is partly why I didn't write a novel until my fifties. I really thought you had to know. You had to have the idea. You had to have the plot. You had to know what you wanted to say. That came, for me, both from a lack of confidence and also maybe being a journalist for years where you have to know what you're going to say. You can't write an article, “Let's see what happens.” You have to know. Writing is about thinking first and then writing. Having the impulse to write can really be enough. You can discover what you want to say through the act of writing. I've finally come to realize that is how I discover what I want to say. That is how I come up with the better stories is when I kind of let it go.
You're writing in the dark. You don't necessarily know why. You figure it out along the way, which is very scary because you don't have any guarantee you're going to figure it out. For me, that's how it worked. I was in a writing group. The leader of the writing group would say time and time again, when I'd say, “I don't know what I'm doing. I don't know where this is going,” he would say, “Just let the story reveal itself. Trust that you will.” I didn't really believe him, but that is how it happened for me. In the context of Eve’s story, it’s maybe more common for young women to have a harder time claiming their voice and saying, “I don't know why I want to say this, but I do. I'm going to say it.” There's more second-guessing yourself, and doubting yourself, and therefore stopping yourself from speaking or writing from a lack of confidence.
Zibby: You also had Eve say that -- I'm trying to find the quote. You said something like if the story just pours out of you, then it’s much easier and it’s worth doing. Jeremy, who is a writer and has written this beautiful novel about a leprosy colony, says, “If you need anything to make it as a writer, it’s stamina, not genius. No wonder you have trouble finishing stories. It’s not magic, you know.” Eve says, “Isn't it, though? My best stories have sort of poured out of me.” Jeremy then advises Eve, “You need to stop the magical thinking. You have to push through, especially when it’s not easy,” which I loved. You always hear about stories pouring out of people. They're just coming through and coming out. It’s not always like that. Tell me more about that.
Karen: It’s interesting because it does seem like two contradictory things. One is I had this experience where this character appeared. When I let go, things just happened, which is great, but that doesn't happen all the time. You don't finish a novel like that. At the same time, you have to be willing to let go and let it happen. You also have to be willing to work really hard, and not give up when it’s not working, and go down paths that don't work, and regroup and redirect. I've wanted to write my whole life. Why did it take me so long? I could've done this earlier. I was writing all the time. I would always stop because I felt if I were meant to be a writer, it should've been easier. I finally, when I was approaching fifty, got to the point where I felt like I don't want to be someone who always wanted to write a novel so I never did. That would be very sad for me. I thought, I can do this. There's no reason I can't write a novel. I don't know if it’s going to be great. If I keep chipping away and keep fixing it, I will eventually get one done. It became a goal that I just needed to do for myself.
I read a lot of things while I was writing to keep my confidence up to keep working hard. I was reading Writers on Writing. I started to realize that even the very best writers struggle. It’s hard. It just is. In the book, there's this whole sense that Eve gets from her mother that you shouldn't do it unless you're a genius. You're either brilliant or you're not. If you're not, what's the point? Eve inherited that and grew up with that idea. That stopped her from writing. Writing’s so hard. You can give yourself a million reasons not to do it. I'm not a genius. I'm not going to write anything great. What's the point? I remember reading things all the time -- many writers have said things like, “If you can live without writing, then you're not meant to be a writer.” I just don't think there are any rules like that. The fact that I couldn't let it go, that no matter what job I was doing, I knew what I really wanted to do was write a novel -- could I have had a happy life without doing it? I could've, but I really wanted to do it.
I had to shore myself up to realize that it is hard. There are no guarantees, but you can still do it. In fact, at one point I was like, I can write a bad novel. I can do that, lower the stakes so it’s not so scary. Of course, I didn't want to write a bad novel. I just wanted to keep going and not give up because I was tired of myself, all my life of fits and starts and not sticking through it. If you're working on it, then you can get those moments where a character appears. There are moments of magic, for sure, for me. It’s not magic. It’s subconscious or whatever. You have to keep chipping away at it. Then once I went through the first draft and I had a story, I was kind of amazed. Oh, my god. I actually have a plot. Something happens. Something changes. Then it was fun to flesh it out and add it. I do think you have to let go at some point. Ultimately, you just have to keep chipping away it until you're happy with it.
Zibby: You had some interesting elements to some of the characters that I found a little surprising but also intriguing. For instance, Jeremy’s parents had met at a displaced persons camp in 1945 in Germany, which I thought was such an interesting little tidbit to throw in, especially amidst the WASP-y society where you place the characters in this society in Cape Cod and everything. I was wondering, how did you come up with that particular detail? Then I was wondering, maybe she was working on a story about displaced persons and then she decided to put it in. I had this whole theory in my head. Prove me wrong. How did you end up putting that in?
Karen: It really grew from -- both Eve and Jeremy are Jewish. They're both very taken with this WASP-y literary world that they want to be a part of, that they idealize. They think it’s somehow this secret to having the life they want. They're Jewish in very different ways. Eve’s family is completely assimilated. They're not religious, yet all their friends are Jewish. They're that kind of Jewish, like “Oh, it’s not important to us,” but that's their world. I wanted Jeremy to be from a very different kind of Jewish world that he was also not comfortable with and trying to run away from. The displaced persons camp thing was more of a logistical thing. I wanted them to be Holocaust survivors, and not the inspiring kind of Holocaust survivors. [laughs] He came from a family that he did not like and he kind of wanted to disavow and run away from himself in a similar way that Eve was doing, but yet different. Then the displaced persons camp thing was more of my thinking how old would they be? What would be logical? They can't be too young. They can't be too old. It was really more about them having this history that Jeremy didn't want to deal with. Part of his change is his changing attitude towards that.
Zibby: Interesting. I get it. I was a little wrong, but that's okay. [laughs] You talked a lot about the different societies, even contained on Cape Cod, the old-school WASP society and either kind of Jewish society. Later on, Eve says to Jeremy about the poet, the wife of the author who she ends up helping for the summer, you say, “Is Tillie a little bit anti-Semitic?” Jeremy gives her a knowing look and answers, “Isn't everyone?” Talk to me about that passage.
Karen: Eve was not somebody whose Jewishness was a part of her identity in a strong way. Yet she is conscious of these differences, the different worlds in her family circles and Tillie and Henry’s circles. I didn't want Tillie to be outright anti-Semitic. There's some little comments that she makes that I don't think are anti-Semitic. There's one point when she says, “Eve doesn't eat pork,” to Henry. I don't think that's an anti-Semitic remark. It’s a remark that reflects Tillie’s lack of familiarity with a lot of Jews. If she assumes that all Jews keep kosher, she clearly hasn’t known a lot of Jews in New York, most of whom probably don't keep kosher. That assumption, every time she talked to Eve, she was aware of her being Jewish. I don't think that's anti-Semitic. It’s a difference.
Zibby: When they ran into each other at the restaurant, when she was like, “You're allowed out on Friday nights?” [laughs]
Karen: Right. Exactly. Her lens was seeing it through that way, which Eve wasn’t even really aware of. Yet Eve also saw them in this other kind of way. That was interesting to me. Jeremy, being the child of Holocaust survivors and having gone to a very not-Jewish prep school as a teenager, was much more aware of those differences and uncomfortable with them in certain ways. He saw the world in a different way than Eve did. They were both uncomfortable with their background, but in different ways. It was interesting to me to explore.
Zibby: A friend of mine recently saw -- there was a play about the Lehman brothers at the Armory in New York City. I said, “How was the play?” She said, “You know what? They had the same thing on their door that you have on your door.” [laughter] She's like, “Can you believe it?” I was like, “It’s on like every Jewish person’s...” I thought it was so funny. Then she, of course, felt bad. I was like, “No, it’s fine.”
Karen: That's something that was interesting. The publishing world that I depicted was -- I wasn’t making a big point about it being not Jewish, but it was Little Brown, kind of a WASP-y environment. Eve is passed over for a job by this handsome blond literary grad. Some older editor, upon reading the manuscripts, one of her comments was “She really captured that subtle anti-Semitism of that era,” which I wasn’t even aware of when I was there. Really? It was? [laughs] I somehow must have ingested something that I reflected back in this without even realizing. It was interesting to have that confirmed that it was that way. I was very young at the time. You pick up on a vibe, but you don't really know.
Zibby: I found it interesting, also, how you described Danny, Eve’s brother. You don't give him an official diagnosis, but it seems like he's on the spectrum or Asperger-y or something in that world. Do you think that Eve felt compelled to be a more easy child because her brother, he became more difficult to manage, especially as he got older. In the book, you would have her go, basically, rescue him at one point and clean up his apartment and help him function. Even though he's this genius, this mathematical wiz and the whole family idolizes him in that way, he has trouble managing his life, day-to-day functioning. I thought that was interesting because in the family dynamic, there's often someone who is harder. Then the other person takes up their role of what's left over in a way. I wanted to hear more about your decision to make their family structured like that.
Karen: I definitely agree with that. There's often someone who sucks up all the oxygen. He’s creating so much drama that other people can't. That was interesting to me. I wanted to have him be a manifestation of the idea that the mother already had about genius, that you're either born with this or you're not. Danny was so brilliant that it’s like he's brilliant and Eve’s not brilliant. Why should she pursue some artistic thing? She doesn't have it like he does. That was a very difficult thing for Eve to grow up with. I also think that there's a dynamic that happens in families, not just emotional issues, but intellectual areas. People stake out areas. Maybe some families, they all compete to do the same thing. In some families, they do different things. I have a good relationship with my two older sisters, but I definitely grew up with this sense that if my sister did gymnastics, then I would do dance. She did that, so I had to do something else. It was a way of not competing. It was also this sense that if someone staked their claim to territory, you can't do it.
Eve says at the end of the book, why can't we both be brilliant? Why can't we both do what we want even if we’re not brilliant? Why does one person in the family get to be the difficult one or the accomplished one or the brilliant one? Families, you grow up, that's your whole world. You give yourself a little role in it. At some point, you have to break away from that. The whole world doesn't see you as the younger sibling or as the not-as-smart one. If you have taken that idea in with yourself, you have to fight against that. Those family roles that we have are so strong. You carry them with you. If you really are going to realize your full potential, you have to be who you want to be and not in relation to an older brother or an older sister.
Zibby: As a mom, I'm trying to figure out how not to keep my kids into little roles too. If both girls are into gymnastics, why should only one person be allowed to be on a team and all of that? I don't want to ever pigeonhole. People often ask me, as I'm sure has happened to you or every other mom out there, “Which is the easy kid? Which is the this?” No. I'm not going to do that to them.
Karen: It’s very hard, though. I find that you only have experience raising the kids you have. It’s very difficult not to compare them. You can talk about one child for being a certain way. You almost automatically refer to the other because you only have a couple of examples in your house. You're either this way or you're that way. You do have to fight against it. Also, the whole idea that if you had two kids doing gymnastics and one is really great and one is not so great but loves it, I think it’s a normal thing that you would push the one who's really good at it more, which you shouldn't. There's the joy of doing something, which is very different than the being good at it. We’re in a very achievement-oriented society. In the book, that's Eve, no guarantee that's she going to write something good. Nobody’s encouraging her to do it even though it’s what she loves. She lives and breathes books. That's what she wants to do. That was very much my experience. I love reading and writing. It was so hard over the years to embrace it because you feel like there's no guarantee that you're going to write anything good ever. If you want to do it, you need to do it. It’s difficult.
Zibby: The other day I was getting so stressed out. I'm trying to write a novel myself. I was like, I've got to finish that. No one is sitting there waiting for your novel. Do you know what I mean? I've decided to do this. Any stress I put on myself to finish is only because of me. No one’s waiting for it. You have to put the pressure on yourself to get things done without driving yourself crazy.
Karen: You can also drive yourself crazy with the idea that if I were really serious about this, I would be getting up at four AM every day and writing. I tortured myself with that for years. I say I want to write, but I'm not doing that. Maybe I don't really. Then I realized that you don't have to do that. I wrote this novel on Tuesdays, the first draft. I literally wrote on Tuesdays. That's it. I was working three days a week. I was in a writing group that met at four o’clock on Tuesdays. Tuesday was the day I saved for writing because Friday, I did all the family and kid stuff that full-time working people do on the weekend. Tuesday was my writing day.
I remember I was sitting in this café once that I always would go to right near my house. There was a guy there. He had a big poetry book. He was writing on his laptop. I imagined he was a poet. I imagined him asking me if I was a writer. I imagined myself saying, “On Tuesdays.” [laughs] I didn't really think of myself as a writer. I wasn’t writing every day. I didn't know where I was going. I did write the draft of The Last Book Partyjust by writing on Tuesdays. This whole idea that you have to be in the five-AM club or you have to write every day or it’s not going to work, you have to do what you can do. There's something nice about nobody waiting for your novel. That pressure would be difficult. Then you realize how much you want to do it if you're finding time within everything else you do.
Zibby: How many Tuesdays did it take you? How long did it take?
Karen: It took a lot of Tuesdays, over a year for sure, probably two years of Tuesdays. The whole novel took longer than that. That was just the discovery draft. That was every week going into the writing group and saying, “I don't know where I'm going with this,” and being encouraged to keep going. Maybe two years. Then I set it aside. My dad got sick. He'd been sick for a while. He got a diagnosis. We knew he only had a few months to live. I suddenly had no interest in my novel. I set it aside. Then I spent the next year after he died writing about him. I wrote a short story based on a story he told me. It was very therapeutic, very cathartic. Then about a year after he died, I picked up this draft that I had written on Tuesdays. I was like, this really is a novel. I started getting more serious about writing it then. I could see that it was going to work, not that I was that confident about it. It had the shape of a novel. I knew I could finish it. Then I started working more than just Tuesdays on it.
The fact that my dad died, it was a little wake-up call to me as well. You're going to die someday. If you really want to write a novel, get cracking. You need to do more than Tuesdays. Once I had the first draft, it was more fun to work on it because I wasn’t working so much in the dark anymore. I had the beginning, the middle, and the end. It was more fun to go back and say I need to flesh out this character. I need to slow down this. It became more fun because I had more sense of what it was becoming. I could really see the shape of it. I was procrastinating less. It’s hard when you're working in the dark and you don't know what you're doing. It’s hard to sit down. Once I had the story, it was more fun. I picked up steam. By the last six months, I was working every minute that I could get to sit down and work on it.
Zibby: Speaking of father-child relationships, you have a very interesting dynamic that happens in this book. Is it okay to talk about?
Zibby: I don't want to give anything away. Eve does have a relationship with both a father and his son, first with his son and then with the father in this book, which was scandale, very scandalous. I couldn't believe it was happening. I had some houseguests over the weekend. I was telling them about your book and how first she had hooked up with the son. Then she hooked up with the father. They're like, “Who do you think she's going to hook up with by the end of the book?” I was like, “I don't know!” It was pretty funny. Did that come from any sort of autobiographical situation or some sort of “friend” that might have had this happen, out of curiosity?
Karen: It did not. It’s very funny that you ask that because so few people have said, “What the hell? This is weird.” There's definitely been some reviews on Goodreads where people -- I guess they don't want to do spoilers, I don't think it’s a huge spoiler -- have said “I had a real problem with some of Eve’s choices.” No, it was not autobiographical at all. It really came out of -- at one point when I was working on the novel, I took a very brief writing class at the 92ndStreet Y with the writer Matthew Thomas who wrote We Are Not Ourselves, who is an amazing teacher. At that point in the draft, I wasn’t sure what was happening yet. The lobster scene happened in the evening with Franny. It wasn’t even clear if they spent the night together or what happened with them.
I remember him saying, “No, they have to. They have to. If your character doesn't make mistakes, who wants to read it? She has to be full-in and have things happen.” I really embraced that. Again, I was writing this draft not quite sure knowing where it was going, so it became very fun to make Eve do some really stupid things and then write it out and see what happened. The relationship with the father, I hadn’t actually planned for that to happen either because I didn't have this plot in my head. That happened. I was like, that's weird. I just went with it. I do think she makes some questionable choices, but this is a twenty-five-year-old woman. She's naive. She's looking for answers in relationships instead of in herself. She's trying different things to try to figure out how to be the person she wants to be. It’s fun to make people do ridiculous things. If you have someone who's more like me, who's not quite that dramatic in her living, the book wouldn't be as interesting. That is not autobiographical.
Zibby: I was trying to think, father/sons that I would ever hook up with. [laughs]
Karen: [Audio cuts out] think about it.
Zibby: Then I was feeling very creepy about it. Obviously not now -- I'm very happily married -- when I was twenty-five. I certainly know a lot of twenty-five-year-olds out there making highly questionable decisions. I thought that was pretty juicy. I thought it was pretty awesome. You’ve written all this other stuff. I know we’re running out of time. I wanted to talk to you about why you love helicopter parents, which you wrote about in HuffPost. You ended with this great line, “Lift off, good helicopter parents. Safe flight.” [laughs]
Karen: What I wrote in that and I felt when my kids were young is that it’s a struggle not to be a helicopter parent. You always have these parents who brag about how non-helicopter-y they are. “I let my kids do this and that.” I'm the type of person who reads a lot about whatever I'm doing. When I'm raising kids, I was reading a lot about parenting. I wanted to fight my tendencies to control them too much or to try to fix things for them because I wanted my kids to grow up and be resilient and be able to deal with their own problems and cope with life. Whenever I read these stories about crazy things parents could do, there was always some element of it that I could relate to. It was something maybe not completely crazy, but when you read about the really extreme helicopter parents, it’s a great reminder of what not to do. You may not see it in yourself, but when you see it in someone else kicked up a notch, you realize you really need to not do that to your kid. It was very instructive for me. It was a fun way to get reminded to be the kind of parent that you think you should be instead of some of your less admirable instincts. [laughs]
Zibby: So funny. One of the last scenes takes places at the literary party of Henry and Tillie’s. Everybody has to dress up as their favorite literary character. I started thinking who would I dress up as? I decided if there was a party today, I would probably dress up as Kya from Where the Crawdads Sing so I could just wear rags and carry a thing of watercolors and be done with it. Everybody would probably know since everyone’s reading that book right now. I was wondering who you would want to be. Who would you dress up as?
Karen: It’s a good question. My knee-jerk reaction is to tell you truth, which is that I hate costume parties. I'm very much like Eve. Too stressful, hard enough to just be your best self.
Zibby: I totally agree.
Karen: It’s too revealing. What you choose to wear is telling people something about your fantasy vision of yourself. I've said very often when people are like, “We should have a costume party,” I'm like, “I get to dress as me. I wrote the book. I'm not going.” [laughs] Now I feel like that was maybe also a lack of confidence and too much self-consciousness. In the book, Eve says at one point when she's trying to decide who to dress as, she's like, “Nancy Drew? No, I don't have red hair. I'm more likely Bess Marvin, the plump, shy friend. That's no fun.” Now I think that would actually be kind of fun. I would love to dress as Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca. I could never pull it off. I'm too friendly looking. I'd have to play to my natural -- I think it would be fun to do some retro little pumps and a dress and be Bess Marvin in Nancy Drew.
Zibby: Awesome. Are you working on another book now?
Karen: I was working on another book this winter. I set it aside for the summer to promote this book, which is a huge relief because it was very hard to have my head in both places. It’s a book about an older protagonist. It’s not a sequel to this one. It’s really about a marriage and ambivalence. The backdrop is Russia in 2017 and drawing on my experience. I lived in Russia for six years in the nineties. There's a backstory in the nineties. It’s about an American woman, but it’s got a whole Russia thing in the year after Trump is elected, or Trump’s first year in office. That's all I can say, not because I'm being cagey about it, but because I haven't written that discovery draft all the way through yet. I don't know exactly where it’s going. I have some broad ideas. I've been tempted to try to be more efficient and come up with the plot first. Whenever I do that, it’s cheesy. It just doesn't work. I have to go back to my natural game which is just to write and hope that I figure it out.
Zibby: A Gentlewoman in Moscow type of book. [laughs]
Zibby: Maybe. We’ll see. Karen, thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” I loved hearing about all of your inspiring stories about writing, and Eve’s experience, and how you wove everything in. Writing on Tuesdays, I love that. That's so great. Thank you so much.
Karen: I loved doing it. I love listening to the podcast. I've learned a lot from it too, listening to other writers.
Zibby: Good. I love to hear that.
Karen: [Audio cuts out] your novel.
Zibby: Thank you. [laughs]