Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Q&A with Karen Dukess

Karen Dukess, photo by Nina Subin
Karen Dukess is the author of the new novel The Last Book Party. She has worked as a reporter, a magazine publisher, and a speechwriter, and she lives outside New York City.

Q:  How did you come up with the idea for The Last Book Party, and for your character Eve?

A: The Last Book Party grew from a piece of memoir that I wrote about a magical day on the beach in Cape Cod in the 1980s, when a new friend and I pulled in a lobster pot that had been tossed near the shore by a storm. Years later, the friend died, and I wanted to write about that perfect day, which was much like the scene in the book.

I was intrigued by the idea of writing about that time in my life, when I was in my 20s, working in publishing and feeling very unsure about my future and my desire to write. I wrote the first scenes for a writing group I had recently joined and they encouraged me to continue.

And one day, the character of Jeremy appeared - completely fictional, a prickly writer with some kind of secret -- and I decided to just go with it and see what evolved. I soon realized that in my protagonist, Eve, I had a character with a burning desire to claim her voice as a writer but with some misguided ideas about how to do that.

Q: The novel is set mostly on Cape Cod in the late 1980s. Why did you choose that setting, and how important is setting to you in your writing?

A: I've spent part of every summer in Truro on Cape Cod and I absolutely love it. Truro is the least developed town on the Cape and it's absolutely beautiful, with miles and miles of empty ocean beach.

But I think my strong attachment to the place not only comes from its beauty but from my having to leave it every year and then experiencing the relief of returning again the following summer. Coming and going like that makes you notice a place more and really appreciate it. Eve feels that the grandeur of the landscape reflects her own potential.

Setting is very important to my writing - to feel real, a piece of writing has to conjure up a whole place, one that feels real, otherwise it's just talking heads moving through space. 

Q: What do you think the novel says about the book publishing industry, and also about literary creativity?

A: The Last Book Party captures the publishing industry at a time of change - creeping toward commercialism, but before the internet, the ascendancy of Barnes & Noble, and of course before Amazon totally changed the landscape. The Last Book Party is not a book about publishing, but it certainly captures how many fragile egos exist in that industry and how gender can play into success.

Ultimately, though, the book has more to say about literary creativity, what makes a writer and the varying levels of importance of genius, hard work and confidence that it requires.

Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I knew that big, shattering things had to happen at the end-of-summer book party and that the book would end with Eve in a better place, well on her way to becoming a writer. But I didn't know what secrets would be disclosed at the party or what would drive Eve to chart a new path.

The fun of writing the first draft was discovering all of those things, which often meant trying story lines that didn't pan out. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a novel about marriage and ambivalence that is set in the U.S. and Russia during the year after Trump's election. The backdrop may seem surprising, but it's giving me a chance to have some fun with the experiences I had living and working in Russia for six years in the 1990s and during a recent visit back to Moscow.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: You should know that I love being a late bloomer - there's nothing like publishing your first novel in your 50s to make you feel young and promising!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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