Anton DiSclafani follows up her bestselling debut, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, with another morally complex and compelling historical novel. The After Party charts the ups and downs of a friendship between two women who are navigating society in the wealthy Houston community of River Oaks. Cece, married with children, has the typical life of a 20-something woman in the 1950s—and she can't help but worry about the less conventional choices made by her beautiful best friend, Joan. As Cece tries to protect her unpredictable friend, dark secrets surface.
We asked DiSclafani, who now teaches Creative Writing at Auburn University, a few questions about her new book.
For your first novel, you had a personal connection to the North Carolina region in which it is set. What drew you to Houston in general, and the River Oaks community in particular?
My entire extended family lived in Texas at one point (many of them still do), so I spent a lot of childhood vacations staring out the backseat of our rental car. We used to drive through River Oaks so my mother could admire the houses; after a while, I started to admire them, too.
Houston in the 1950s is a fiction writer’s dream. Anything went. People were spectacularly rich, but the societal rules that dictated other, older parts of the country didn’t exist there.
In the Author’s Note, you mention that you spent a good deal of time researching the Shamrock Hotel, one of the centerpieces to this novel where more than a few pivotal moments occur. Did you dig up any juicy tidbits about the hotel that you weren’t able to incorporate into the book?
Rumor has it that Frank Lloyd Wright took one look at the Shamrock and asked: “Why?”
One of the areas where The After Party particularly shines is in its candid depiction of the complexities of female friendship—the devotion, but also the resentments and viciousness that can crop up. Can you talk a bit about Joan and Cece’s relationship and the dynamics that you wanted to explore between them?
I wanted to explore what a friendship looks like in all its agony and glory. The extreme, instinctive closeness that characterizes a friendship between girls, first, and then how, in this case, that closeness continues through adolescence and into adulthood. People move around so much now, but until relatively recently it wasn’t unusual to die in the same place you were born in. So that kind of friendship interested me—a friendship that began in girlhood and continued into adulthood.
But what happens when one friend pulls away? When the friendship sours? Will the one friend survive without the other? That’s what The After Party is about—surviving friendship.
"That’s what The After Party is about—surviving friendship."
As a writer, what is the personal appeal to setting books in the past as opposed to the present? In your mind, does historical fiction offer any advantages over novels with contemporary settings?
There are all sorts of historical pressures a novelist can use to her advantage. It was a different world for women (for everyone, of course, but especially for those who weren’t white, wealthy men); I find that world fascinating to write about. Choices were very limited, and the limits built tension. In this case, what happens when a woman didn’t want to get married at 22 and have her first child at 23? That wouldn’t be a source of conflict if the book were set in present day. Everyone would understand.
The immediacy of the modern world is exhausting. You can’t remember a tiny piece of trivia at a dinner party, you look it up. You send a text to a friend and you expect a response immediately, and worry when you don’t get one. I like that the past isn’t so rushed. From a novelist’s perspective, there’s a lot more stewing, a lot more wondering about what someone else is thinking without receiving any sort of electronic signal.
In the 1950s, acceptable standards of behavior for women and what constituted a scandal were quite a bit more conservative than they are now. Without giving anything away, what was your thought process when it came to constructing a storyline that was faithful to the time but would still appeal to and (hopefully!) surprise and titillate modern readers?
We’ve grown up and moved forward, in some ways, but in other ways we’re still shocked by certain attitudes and behavior on the part of women. I think it’s easy for a modern reader to relate to the past’s codes of decorum. And, in a way, when you’re writing historical fiction you’re not writing about the past. You’re writing about the present, and you set in the past to emphasize certain things.
"[W]hen you’re writing historical fiction you’re not writing about the past. You’re writing about the present, and you set in the past to emphasize certain things."
Were there any specific lessons you learned when writing The Yonahlosee Riding Camp for Girls that you applied to your second novel?
It was a beast of a different order. Yonahlossee felt like it wrote itself (or perhaps I’m flirting with nostalgia). But I had just graduated from my MFA program when I started Yonahlossee. Nobody expected anything of me. This time around, of course, there was pressure. First I wrote a failed book (or 250 pages of one) that I had to set aside, and then start over. Now I see that the failed book was my way into The After Party (I took one of the less important characters, Cece, and made her the main character), but at the time my outlook wasn’t so rosy.
Once I found the story, I wrote the book quickly. And it didn’t require nearly as much revision as Yonahlossee. So I think the process of writing the first draft was more difficult because I was thinking harder. I was trying to layer the book in ways that would pay off a hundred, two hundred pages down the road.
In addition to a being a published author, you’re also an Assistant Professor in the English department at Auburn University and have taught creative writing courses as well. What’s your favorite class to teach and what do you love most about being in the classroom?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I love teaching historical fiction! I love revealing to students how to choose a little patch of history and stake a story on it. And I love everything about being in the classroom. It doesn’t feel like work. There’s an energy there I haven’t found anywhere else.
You’re originally from Florida, but currently live in Alabama and spent good chunks of your formative years in North Carolina and Georgia. What do you love most about living in the American South and why do you think it makes such a rich place for exploration in literature?
I’ve just moved back to the Deep South after spending 10 years away, in the Midwest. My immediate answer is I love how nice everyone is here. There’s a friendliness in the South that makes it a really pleasant place to live. You don’t ever meet a stranger when you’re out and about. It’s also beautiful—people love their yards and homes. Why is it such a rich place for exploration in literature? I don’t know—it’s a good question that I’ve thought a lot about. We have such a history in the South, much of it fraught, and I think (I hope) that part of being a Southerner is constantly reexamining who you are in the world, where you come from: what the South was, what it is now, what it should become. There’s also a deep love for the past in the South. Antiques, cemeteries, homes. And the past—is there any greater territory for fiction?
The ladies in this novel spend a lot of time living it up and sipping on boozy beverages—from dirty gin martinis and Manhattans, to champagne and daiquiris. When you indulge in a tipple, what’s your preferred poison?
I actually wrote this book while I was pregnant, so it was kind of torture, writing about all of these boozy beverages and not being able to indulge. Now that I am not pregnant, I love a good gin martini, dry with olives.
What are you working on next?
A Southern gothic ghost story, set in the 1940s.
Author photo by Nina Subin.