In conversation: Karen Dukess and Taylor Jenkins Reid on writing female-centric period pieces
The following is a conversation between Taylor Jenkins Reid, the best-selling author of Daisy Jones & the Six, and Karen Dukess, whose debut novel, The Last Book Party (July 9), unfurls a romance against the backdrop of 1980s Cape Cod and the publishing industry. The two authors discuss writing (and researching) decades in the past, centering ambitious female characters, and more.
TAYLOR JENKINS REID: What inspired you to set your book in 1987?
KAREN DUKESS: The Last Book Party started as a piece of memoir about a magical day in the mid-1980s on Cape Cod, when I was in my 20s and a new friend and I pulled in a lobster pot that had been washed close to shore by a storm. The scene was much as I describe it in the book — we found two lobsters in the pot, walked back to his house holding them by the tails and made ourselves a delicious dinner, talking until dark. Years later, after this friend died, I wanted to capture this day with him. When I finished that scene, I decided to keep writing about my life at that time, when I was working in publishing and feeling very unsure about my future, and by the time I had written one more scene, the story had become completely fictional. Some readers, obviously younger than I am, have called The Last Book Party “historical fiction,” but I see it as a nostalgic return to a period of time that’s still quite vivid to me.
REID: I’m interested in telling stories about Los Angeles and so I’m always looking for exciting times in L.A. history. The Sunset Strip, and the Laurel Canyon scene, during the ’60s and ’70s, felt really fun to me. So I started my research to make myself feel as if I’d lived through it.
How did the decade you chose influence the plot of the book?
DUKESS: No internet! My protagonist, Eve, is deeply interested in the people she meets and spends a lot of time imagining their histories and their connections to each other. If she’d been able to turn to Google or Facebook, the mysteries would have been gone and with them much of my plot, which concerns Eve discovering just how wrong she had been about everyone.
REID: [For me], you could tell a story about a band breaking up in any decade and it would be completely different each time you wrote it. That’s what is so fun about Daisy Jones & the Six to me. They exist entirely in the ’70s and if you move them in time, you change almost everything about them.
DUKESS: For the most part, my own life was my research — I worked in publishing right out of college and I’ve spent every summer in Truro on Cape Cod, where the novel is set and which I know quite well. That said, I did read several books about book publishing and The New Yorker and I delved into some old issues of a local newspaper in Cape Cod to get some good details. I also went back to some of my old journals (I knew I kept them for a reason!) from my years in New York in the ‘80s. A few things that I’d recorded ended up in the book — like how disdainful publishing people were about my decision to go into newspaper journalism. I remember one older and quite established writer grabbing my arm on my last day at work and making me promise that I wouldn’t let journalism school “ruin me.”
REID: I do almost all of my research for cultural touchstones through film, TV, books, and magazines. Rolling Stone was a huge help. I went back and bought all of these old issues and read through them. I read Springsteen’s memoir. I watched a lot of Behind the Music. This was a very fun book to research!
DUKESS: My parents started going to Truro on Cape Cod before I was born, and I’ve never missed a summer there. It’s a beautiful, inspiring place with incredible light, miles and miles of empty ocean beaches, and the tallest sand dunes on the Eastern Seaboard. It’s the place where I’ve always felt most myself. I loved capturing Truro in the late 1980s, before the real estate got insanely expensive and before the really big summer houses were built. An early reader of my book said that Truro is practically a character in the book, and I took that as a great compliment!
REID: I write almost exclusively about L.A. I like telling stories about this town that has become mythologized and maligned in ways that often have little in common with what I see in my city on a day-to-day basis. I moved here from Massachusetts with a dream. But my husband grew up here. Hollywood didn’t seem mythical to him. It seemed accessible and fun. He could try it as a lark. There are a lot of people that grow up in this town that can dip their toe into Hollywood in a more cavalier way than those of us who grow up in small towns and have to sell all our possessions and leave our families in order to get here. Daisy is one of those people.
DUKESS: Daisy and Eve are very different — where Daisy is bold about her art, and outspoken about her creative ambition, Eve is timid and has to learn how to own both her desire and her ability to write. Ultimately, though, both strike out on their own — away from the men they are drawn to — and confront their fears in order to fully become the people they want to be.
In The Last Book Party, Eve’s mother says that an artist has to have a fire within, not just an ember. But the truth is, an ember can be enough — even the slightest impetus, however tentative, can be nurtured to grow into enough fire to write a novel or a song or to have the role in life you dream of. Where Eve has to tend those embers, Daisy has fire in spades and has to learn how to balance it with other things, like taking care of herself.
REID: Daisy lives in her own world, however inspiring she may sometimes be. If Daisy and Eve met and had any sort of honest conversation, I think Daisy would tell Eve to stop hanging around people who are doing what she wants to and, instead, become someone who is doing what she wants to do. But that’s advice that would be easy for Daisy to say — unaware of her immense privilege in saying it as if it was so simple.
I think what’s great about Daisy is also what’s sort of maddening about Daisy — which is that she’s entirely self-focused. She’s not actively involved in any women’s movement. She’s not fighting anything on behalf of women as a whole. She’s just not going to willingly submit to being undermined or maligned. But here’s the thing: One woman fighting for themselves makes it easier for another woman to do it, too. And as much as Daisy lives in the world of the 1970s, I wrote her to be relevant to what we are fighting today. Daisy’s sense of entitlement to certain things (respect, artistic freedom, the right to wear whatever she wants) are things we’re still fighting for. So my hope is that she makes it a little easier for someone who reads about her to demand those things for themselves, too.
DUKESS: The main challenge of writing later in life is to convince yourself that the fact that you didn’t do it earlier doesn’t mean you’re not cut out for it now. People often say that publishers aren’t interested in older writers, but that’s not true — publishers are interested in good stories. It’s never too late. And writing later in life has benefits too. I got serious about writing fiction when my sons were in high school and not particularly interested in hanging out with me or laughing at my jokes. It was a great solace to disappear into the world of my novel and amuse myself! And having sold The Last Book Party a month before my youngest went to college, I had a lot of my own excitement happening as I became an empty-nester. More important, achieving a lifelong dream at 56 is a pretty fantastic way to feel young and vibrant!
REID: I think the biggest thing that’s changed for me is that I’ve fully grown into my confidence and ambition. It feels sort of like when you have to grow into your face as an adolescent. I was embarrassed about how ambitious I was as a young woman. I tried to hide how intense I was about things. I tried to act more casual and indifferent and cool.
Six books in, I’m not cool. I care. I care a lot. I throw myself into every book with an intensity and a passion that is, I think from the outside, a little thirsty. I want big things and I’m willing to work hard enough to deserve them, even if that means people can see me trying. And at 35, I’m much for comfortable with that than I was when I started.
DUKESS: [If I could go back in time,] I’d tell myself to learn the lessons that Eve finally learned — that writing is difficult, you don’t always know what you’re doing and often feel like you’re writing in the dark, but if you have the impulse to write, honor that, and push through until you figure out what you want to say. I’ve wanted to write fiction since I was a child, but I spent a lot of time starting and stopping because I thought that if I were really meant to be a writer, it would be easier. But you don’t have to have all the answers first — and the thrill of writing a first draft is discovering where you’re going along the way. I’ve discovered that I come up with my best ideas when I wing it a little bit and let my imagination roam, not when I sit down and try to think up a plot.
REID: I might tell my younger self that big risks can pay off. I think I sounded a little nuts when I said I wanted to write a fictional oral history about a ’70s rock band. It took me a little while to get used to the idea of doing something that felt so different from the things I normally write. But I’m glad I took the big swing and tried it. And I hope I keep taking big swings.