When a friend asks you to read the book they just wrote, things have the potential to get awkward. Of course, you want to support said friend and you’re definitely interested to check out their chef d’oeuvre. But what if you hate it? Do you risk the friendship in the interest of honesty? Raise your hand if you remember what happened between Carrie and Berger when she dared to bring up the scrunchie?
When Kristopher Dukes asked me if I’d like to read her novel The Sworn Virgin (Harper Collins, 2017), I admit, I was a bit hesitant for this very reason: What do I say if I don’t like it? Fortunately, there was no need to worry. Her debut novel is fantastic. In fact, I couldn’t put it down. I rushed to bed every night to spend more time with the characters she had deliberately and delicately crafted. The story is both entertaining and educational; it shines a light on the centuries-old Balkan tradition of sworn virgins, whereby a woman can choose to live as a man and enjoy the rights and privileges afforded to them.
Having loved the story so much, I was eager to ask Kristopher a few questions about what motivated her to tell this story, her inspiration as a storyteller and how travel has influenced her as a writer.
Natalie DiScala: How did you first learn about the Balkan tradition of sworn virgins?
Kristopher Dukes: I read about the tradition of the sworn virgin nine years ago, in a New York Times article. Sworn virgins are women who swear to remain a virgin their entire life, in exchange for living with the legal rights and social privileges of a man: they can drink, smoke, carry a gun, work for a living, inherit property, act as head of a household, and participate in blood feuds, though they cannot be killed—unless they go back on their vow.
ND: What motivated you to take this idea and write a novel?
KD: Immediately after I read about this tradition, I wondered, “What would happen if a sworn virgin fell in love?” A good story demands conflict, and what’s more difficult than forcing a character to choose between their life and the love of their life?
The tradition also fascinated me as a metaphor for any woman’s emotional journey: How often does a woman feel the need to repress her sexuality and femininity to be respected in a way that a man takes for granted?
ND: In your own writing, how important is sense of place?
KD: Sense of place is so important. I spent five years researching the mountains of Albania in order to understand the cultural context of my characters, and the physical difficulties—and beauty—that shaped their day-to-day lives.
More specifically, I also wanted to figure out how their homes could look, which to me, always is a reflection of the characters who live there, and their inner lives. For example, my heroine Eleanora’s own house is considered avant garde by other villagers, and only because it had glass windows—rare, expensive, and impractical—and she and her father did things like display flowers, and hang rugs as art instead of using them as floor coverings. After the first glimpse of her home, you understand how swayed she is by beauty, how eager she is to assert her identity as an artist, and how different she feels from the rest of her village.
ND: What was the first book you ever fell in love with?
KD: As a kid, I remember loving Motel of the Mysteries, by David Macaulay, which is a satirical anthropological book about the ruins of a contemporary motel rediscovered in the far future, and it analyzes things like a toilet seat as a ritual headdress . . . It opened my eyes to how quickly context can be lost. I think it became part of why I was drawn to historical fiction, classical novels, and speculative fiction: what’s considered normal, obvious, and moral is much more relative than we realize.
ND: What’s your earliest memory of reading?
KD: I can’t remember not reading. Luckily, I had parents who read to me often, and indulged my walking around with books, pretending to read before I could.
ND: What was your favourite childhood book?
KD: My favorite books during childhood were the Wayside School stories. I keep meaning to re-read them as an adult. As a child, I wanted to climb into the books and live in the characters’ world. As I remember the stories, they were wonderfully weird and layered parables about nonconformity and social expectations.
ND: Who and what inspires you most as a storyteller?
KD: All forms of storytelling inspire me: interior design and architecture, movies, TV, novels, music, marketing . . . Anyone who can create a world with real feeling.
ND: Favourite author?
KD: I recently fell in love with Shirley Jackson’s writing, which is hypnotic and took me back to the feeling I’d have reading when I was younger: the words on the page would dissipate as I was absorbed into this other world. I also love Patricia Highsmith, and Edith Wharton is a hero of mine. Going back to what inspires me, what’s interesting is that all three of these women were also visual artists in their own way: Jackson was a cartoonist, Highsmith was a painter, and Wharton was a landscaper and interior designer.
ND: What book do you read over and over again?
KD: Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton. I read it about once a year, and multiple times have watched Martin Scorcese’s same-name movie afterwards, which has made me notice so much careful craftsmanship in Wharton’s writing that feels organic when you’re reading.
ND: Favourite way to pass time on an airplane?
KD: Reading—or watching movies and TV that I’d somehow feel guilty indulging in otherwise.
ND: Book book or eBook? Why?
KD: You can’t beat a beautiful book in terms of what it accomplishes as completely portable, timeless technology—it was the original empathy machine before virtual reality. That said, I always have my iPhone, and I like being able to read anywhere I am, and carrying an entire library with me anywhere I go.
ND: What author, alive or deceased, would you most like to have dinner with?
KD: I’d have loved to see Oscar Wilde in action at a dinner party. One of the rare geniuses recognized during his own lifetime, and one of the few writers who seems to have been a brilliant extrovert. W. B. Yeats said he spoke in perfect sentences, as if he had written them all overnight.
ND: First question you would ask him?
KD: I don’t know if I’d have the nerve to ask him anything!
ND: What are you reading right now?
KD: A History of California and an Extended History of Los Angeles, by James Miller Guinn, as early research for my next historical fiction novel. Now you know where it’ll be set!
ND: How has travel influenced you as a writer?
KD: The best part of traveling, to me, is the best part of reading a good novel: understanding other perspectives, and the contexts that shape them. There are endless realities, and most everyone in their head believes they are doing the right thing, the natural thing.
ND: Favourite city in the world?
KD: Tokyo—it’s physically so large and culturally so layered, it’s impossible to comprehend.
ND: Best book to read while you’re there?
KD: In Praise of Shadows, by Junichiro Tanizaki, or, Some Prefer Nettles (though the latter would be especially perfect if you were in Kyoto or even further south in Japan.)