The After Party: Interview with Anton Disclafani

The After Party: Interview with Anton Disclafani

A few years ago, my friend and local bookstore owner—Annie—told me about this book called The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls. At first, I imagined a group of girls writing at their desks during a summer. I’d misheard the title, and I had never seen the cover, so I shrugged my shoulders and moved on. Then, a few years ago, The After Party came out, and Annie said I should come and once again reminded me that I absolutely had to read Yonahlossee. I drove down to Thomasville and Anton Disclafani was setting up for the signing at the front of the store. I distinctly remember how generous Anton was with her time—she was basically game for anything, Q&A, whatever—even though (I’m assuming through context clues) that Annie thought Anton would only be there for a signing. I bought both books, told her I hadn’t read her work but had heard heaps of praise, and then sat my books down to have them signed. Then I awkwardly stood near her while others had their books signed, because I wanted her to like me and become my best friend. Which was why I cried when Anton agreed to this interview.

If you haven’t read The After Party, it’s a thrilling novel about female friendship set in 50’s Texas. It’s about a lot more than that, but that’s the gist. It’s a well-written slow burn and she perfectly captures the world she’s written about.

This interview has been transcribed from a recording. I’ll be posting the recorded version soon, but I wanted to have the typed out version here so it’s accessible to everyone :)

Hunter: I wanted to start by asking one or two questions that weren’t directly related to the book. This question is related to your career as a whole. When you imagined yourself as a writer when you were younger, did you have an idea of the kind of books you’d like to write or how many…if you thought you’d be a prolific writer?

Anton: that’s a good question. I did not. I didn’t decide I wanted to write until I was in college, so—I was always a big reader, which all writers are. I did not really start to write until I was in college, and I took a creative writing class. and that might have been because of Florida public schools…there wasn’t a whole lot of chance to write. I had great English teachers, but maybe if i’d had a creative writing class. But I did not know what kind of books I wanted to write. So, Yonahlossee, my first book, I did not know—I knew it was going to be historical fiction when I started writing it, but I didn’t set out to write historical fiction. I was just interested in that voice and the voice happened to come to me as set in an older time and the same thing with The After Party. My new book is also set in the past, but I still don’t consider myself solely a writer of historical fiction—which I know sounds silly since that’s what i’m writing right now, but I don’t love research, I definitely am not a Hilary Mantel type of historical fiction writer. So, I guess, to answer your question, i didn’t know what kind of writer I would be or even that I would write a book. I wrote short stories all through college and grad school and then started a novel after college.

Hunter: It’s funny that you say that about not really knowing what you’re writing—Mary Karr once said, “it’s a novel idea—it’s a very american idea to think we can choose what we write, but it chooses you.”

Anton: Yes, Deborah Eisenberg says something similar to that. But yeah, you write what you feel moved to write. I guess there are some writers who are able to write a book a year and treat writing more like a business—which i’m not being condescending about that—but if someone said to me, you have to write a mystery novel, I don’t think I could do it. I mean, I like mystery novels, but I don’t think I could spit them out, one a year.

Hunter: I still don’t know how Joyce Carol Oates does what she does.

Anton: Me neither. and she tweets now, right? She does everything. and I can’t keep up with JCO as a reader. she has so many books that i’ve never read because there’s just so many of them.

Hunter: Oh yeah, I own all of her novels, and it’s really stressful to even look at them. They have their own book case.

Anton: well yeah, how many has she published?

Hunter: Of novels, she’s published like sixty something.

Anton: Oh my God!

Hunter: Yeah, it’s crazy. [Both laugh} So you mentioned your third novel, and that’s something a lot of people brought up because we all want to read more of your stuff, and a lot of people have already bought Yonahlossee. Which, it’s really funny, because when I first met you, and Annie had raved about Yonahlossee and then whenever your new book came out she was so excited, and then I met you and I hadn’t read it yet and felt so awful.

Anton: That is not at all a requirement for meeting me.

Hunter: I just remember you were so kind, and I don’t know if you remember what you signed, but there was this little joke about how obsessed i’ve been with Lauren Groff, and—

Anton: Yes! Yes! Did I sign something about not being Lauren Groff?

Hunter: You wrote something like, Was Lauren’s dress as cute as mine? but it was a joke and it was so funny. and then last year when I read Yonahlossee, I was so floored by it because the only other time I’ve seen a book go into what it’s like (I cannot speak from experience, but I can assume) I feel like a lot of women readers would probably feel underrepresented in their feelings of and experiences with their sexuality in their teen years, because the only other time I’ve seen someone go near that was Mary Karr in Cherry, but I felt like yours even went a step further and went into a territory i really hadn’t seen before and I appreciated that.

Anton: Well thank you, yeah it was—I mean, i think that, I’ve heard that YA doesn’t really write about sexuality or that they do but that it’s not graphic, which I think that Yonahlossee is pretty graphic, not that Yonahlossee is YA, but it’s about a young girl, and yeah the sex scenes are very explicit, but it was important for me to be…I think there’s this thing in literary fiction where you walk right up to the bedroom and then the doors close and I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to be honest and it was such an important part of the book and an important part of Thea’s motivation that it felt like i needed to stay with her during that. I will say, as a side note, it was awkward copy editing those scenes, because the copy editor would be like his arm wasn’t there before.

Hunter: in a way, I would assume it would be the same as editing a sex scene in a film, because you’re having to make sure the continuity is there.

Anton; exactly. and it was hard to find…i definitely am a writer where if i’m having difficulty with something, i’ll be like, “oh that’s how that writer did it”, or if i’m looking for something specific in a voice or something, i’ll look at another writer who has written that voice who I admire and it was hard to find a lot of sex scenes. I had to search around. I did find some.

Hunter: I know a lot of people like James Salters’ sex scenes, but I haven’t read him yet.

Anton: I really like James Salter—I don’t remember the sex scenes, but it’s been a long time since i’ve read him, I need to revisit his sex scenes.

Hunter: Speaking of sex scenes (potential spoilers for The After Party) when we were discussing The After Party, around page 70, there is a scene—Joan gives a blow job in the gym, and I know that’s probably not the term to use—

Anton: Well, I think it gets the point across.

Hunter: It’s just funny because i’d read Yonahlossee and I knew you’d written sex scenes before but for some reason I wasn’t expecting it this time—it’s kind of naive to say, oh it’s the fifties, even though it’s after the time of Yonahlossee—and I remember the chat group blew up when everyone reached that part.

Anton: I mean, I think Cece’s not expecting it either, that it’s something that was kind of—I was thinking about these things as I wrote the book, like how Joan represents a new kind of woman who was ahead of her time and Cece was very much of her time—so it was something…I mean, obviously people were having sex but there was a lot of people who thought it was terrible to have sex before you were married or terrible to have any kind of sexual contact like that, and now, can you even be a teenager and know what a blow job is? I don’t think so .but i think it was possible to be Cece and not have any understanding of what Joan was doing—I mean, to know what she was doing, but not have any reference for it.

Hunter: Yeah, that’s really true. and it’s so funny, too, because there’s a woman who is in one of the chat groups and she mentioned that she felt that it was very accurate to the time, especially as far as the naivete that Cece had, and you know, I grew up in south Georgia and I think The Bible Belt is one of the few places where you can sort of say, okay early enough may still not know.

Anton: Totally. Yeah, its funny to think about, how old are you? (25) Okay i’m 37, and so I grew up well before the internet and the way my children will experience sexuality versus how I experienced it—I don’t even want to think about it—but there definitely, if you were a woman then you weren’t supposed to think about sex, and you weren’t supposed to be sexual. and i was reading about unmarried mothers in the 40’s right before when The After Party is set, and if you were an unmarried other, you were considered immoral. and a lot has changed in the past 70 years. It was a very different time

Hunter. I agree with that. I also think it’s interesting because everyone had an opinion on whether they liked Joan or Cece and I think part of that probably comes down to—both of these women are very—one is like you said very of her time, and the other one is very open—and a lot of people who either loved Joan, and some identified more with Cece, and I thought it was really interesting that some either loved one or hated the other, but there wasn’t a lot of people who liked both.

Anton: that’s interesting. and it’s always interesting for me to talk to readers and how they respond to my characters, and I don’t go out of my way not to do this, but i don’t think I like typically likable female characters. and I think that’s just because people are complicated; there are different facets to people and it’s something--a lot of people really didn’t like Thea in Yonahlossee, they really hated her—which I really thought was interesting—people would be so pissed at readings, talking about her and what she did, but no one was mad at Mr. Bolts, which was fascinating to me because she was technically a teenager and he was a grown man, but I think some of that has to do with—I don’t want to say it has to do with hatred of women, but hatred of women.

Hunter: Do you think the reaction would be different now with the times up and me too movement?

Anton: That’s really interesting, I hadn’t thought about that. Yes, probably, I think people’s reactions with everything is different now and people would just have to think about it in a different way. One of my students wrote a story about a creepy film director and we were talking about it, and I was like I need to know if this happened before me too or after me too, because it changes how i read the stories and how i think the characters will respond which I think is so amazing, that a movement like that has created this before and after, and it’s changed how everyone—even if you’re against the movement, which i’m not against it obviously—but it changes how you see things.

Hunter: well yeah, now you have the cowards that are like, ‘oh now i’ve got to watch out and make sure my behavior is always on’

Anton: yeah, and it’s like, weren’t you always doing that, dude? but no they weren’t.

Hunter: So, talking about Likable characters—I really liked Thea from Yonahlossee—but even when I didn’t always like Joan and Cece, I still appreciated them and understood their choice, and i don’t think you can write an entirely likable character, so i think you’re just being honest about people.

Anton: yeah, I mean, I think Faye was kind of completely likable but also kind of boring.

Hunter: yeah when it’s too likable its like wheres the drama.

Anton: yeah, where’s the edge.

Hunter: One of the readers mentioned this and then several others agreed to this as well, but there were multiple comparisons to this book with Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, and i was wondering if any of that was intentional or not and if not, what your reaction to that comparison was.

Anton: How does it remind them of Rebecca?

Hunter: I’m going off memory, but I think they mentioned how Joan kind of haunts the book, I guess, and also I think people consider Rebecca to be this feminist driven novel.

Anton: yeah, that’s really interesting. I was not thinking of Rebecca consciously, but I like that. I’m very into that.

Hunter: Yeah it’s funny because once that was mentioned, everyone was like oh yeah, and we got on the bandwagon real quick.

Anton: It’s been a while since i read it, but I remember reading it in high school and it blew my mind.

Hunter: I read it recently for a podcast and I can tell I’ve read a lot of books that have been inspired by it, too.

Anton: Yeah, what have you read that’s been inspired by it?

Hunter: Social Creature was one, which I guess the reason i make the comparison is because the atmosphere of it, and I have a list of them and i’ll send them to you.

Anton: Yes, definitely.

Hunter: So, if they made The After Party into a movie, who would you want to play the characters?

Anton: Oh, thats a good question. I keep thinking Reese Witherspoon for Cece, but—i mean, i hate to say Reese Witherspoon is too old because she’s not, but she’s not 25, so i’m gonna have to go younger. I really like Saoirse Ronan…maybe she could play Joan. I know she’s not American but she could do an accent. I trust her. and then…who would play cece…

Hunter: we could always say dream cast with everyone meeting the right age requirement.

Anton: okay, then Reese. I think she could do it. She looks very youthful.

Hunter: that’s funny too because i didn’t initially get this but several people said the book made them think of The Help, I guess the vibe and the feeling of it.

Anton: that is interesting. Yeah, when I talked to—i did a lot of research (newspapers, etc.)—but I spoke to two women who lived in river oaks as teenagers, and they talked about their servants, and that is something that is also so foreign to me, someone who is with you every day and part of your family, and raises your child, but be so comfortable with it, because it’s just how they grew up. and they also were fairly incurious about their help and their lives.

Hunter: That’s one of things I noticed was how disinterested Cece was, and it was funny because I kept thinking like Cece, hello, but then i realized this is so realistic to this time, and it made sense.

Anton: yeah, and not to excuse it. I also think there’s something— they also grew up with servants. Like children,—Pete, my son who is four, children have no empathy. Your ego trumps everyone else’s until I don’t know how old you are. and i think the way women in that book were conditioned to think of people not of their social class as outside their orbit and so they thought of them the way children think of other people.

Hunter: I remember hearing—after I read Yonahlossee, I was searching the web for interviews—and one of the things I found was how initially…i’m not sure it was even called The After Party at this time, but that you had an original draft that was much more grand in scale, maybe?

Anton: Yeah, so…second books are harsh. My third book is definitely easier. So, your first book you just have so much time because it’s just you and your book. and then my second book, I wrote a draft that was based on a true crime. It was based on Joan Hill, the murder of Joan by her husband, John Hill. It hasn’t been proven that she was murdered, but he probably poisoned her. The cause of death was toxic shock syndrome but it probably wasn’t that. It was set in river oaks. I had a draft of 300 pages. From the very beginning it kind of got away from me, and it became really difficult to write about something that exists. The kind of historical fiction that I write is..I don’t write about people who are real, so I don’t feel beholden to the historical record and I felt beholden to the historical record with this since they were real people. And I, with the help of my editor, who is a really great editor, I put that book aside and thought what do I really want to write about? and so I kept the name Joan—there’s no relation to that Joan and the Joan in my story. But I kept certain details. Like Joan Hill was beautiful, famous in river oaks society, but she was really bad at dressing herself. Like there was something kind of masculine about her, so there were certain details that I kept just because I thought they were really good. So, yeah, so the first book was much bigger in scope. I think it’s maybe a book I will be able to write in twenty years, but just wasn’t able to write then. But what I was most interested in was river oaks, and that particular society and the Texas wealth and how the new money was so different from money in Philadelphia and Manhattan or even the deep south. Houston is not constrained by the same rules. It was just kind of blasting through societies norms. So I kept that, and I decided I really wanted to write a friendship about two people. Cece was in the book, but she wasn’t a minor character. So I kind of extracted her and made it her story.

Hunter: That’s something I found so interesting. That we don’t ever really…in some ways, this felt kind of like the nick Carraway to me, Cece did. because she’s not always directly in on the action.

Anton: Yeah shes kind of creepy

Hunter: Yes. [Both Laugh] It’s so funny though because some of us felt so bad at times because some of us identified so much with Cece in the book club and then others were like ugh Cece is so annoying.

Anton: Oh my gosh, that’s so funny.

Hunter: Cece is really possessive of Joan—even from a young age—and I was like, yeah that’s totally me, and they were like I hate that.

Anton: Yeah, and I think that might depend on your high school experience—I certainly identify with Cece—as somebody who was at the edge of the action. If Facebook had existed when I was in high school, I never would have left my computer. I was just so interested in the life—especially of popular people. I was not a popular kid in high school, ever. I remember thinking, and this is going to sound creepy, but you know, there was a really popular girl in eleventh grade and I was just fascinated by her, how she moved through the world which was so different from how I moved through the world. We had nothing in common, I mean nothing. I also hated the popular people and everything they stood for, but I was fascinated by them. and I remember thinking, if I could just have access to her family albums I would love to look through them. The Facebook equivalent of the time.

Hunter: I get that. Even ten or fifteen years ago we would’ve been like oh my gosh that is so psychotic, but now we do that as a culture and don’t even blink at it.

Anton: Exactly? I’m so interested—not in people that are like me, or that i’m friends with—but in peoples lives who are totally different from mine. I just want to know about them, and now i’m like, well it’s because i’m a writer, but it’s really because i’m kind of like a stalker. But maybe that’s part of being a writer.

Hunter: Yeah, we’ll say that.

Anton: So it makes us feel better [Laughs]

Hunter: Yeah, because I feel like I do the same thing. I think i’ve heard a lot of writers being nosy.

Anton: One of my best friends, I visited his extended family, and in that day I had it all mapped out, who was related to who, and he has a huge family. I was asking him questions he didn’t even know about his family, and i’m just interested in that. I’m interested in the minutiae of people’s lives. Like i love to know what people eat. It’s one of the first things I ask my friends when we talk on the phone, i’m like what did you eat for breakfast, what did you eat for lunch?” I mean I care about food, but I also just like those details.

Hunter: Yeah, i’ve noticed, in a different way, like when people smoke, I always want to know what kind of cigarettes they prefer. and I don’t smoke, but I like to know that kind of stuff.

Anton: yes, and it says so much about them. Like what somebody eats for breakfast, I can tell you a whole lot about them based on that. Not to pat myself on the back.

Hunter: yeah, I think if you’re an observant person, you can learn a lot about a person very quickly.

Anton: totally, and I talk about that with my students all the time, like what is their car like. I have a son who’s in pre-school, and I definitely like to look in other parents cars. you can tell so much about somebody by how they keep their car. is it obsessively neat, is there crap everywhere, and if so, what kind of crap. you can tell so much, especially because it’s a space they don’t think anybody is going to peak into, so it’s not like inviting someone over to your house.

Hunter: Yeah, because you’re putting on a show, then.

Anton: exactly.

Hunter: Which, relating back to the after party, something i noticed people do, from their outfits to their houses, it’s all putting on a show.

Anton: Absolutely. Women—there were women who had to work then—but in this specific setting, women did not work, so they didn’t earn money, so their currency was really how they dressed, how they looked, and how their houses looked. How their children looked. and that was their currency, it was supposed to be their currency, what they cared about. With Cece I wanted to write about a character who was invested in those things, and i think it’s easy to dismiss women who are interested in those things, and I think it’s easy to dismiss women who don’t have any outside ambition, which is a lot of historical fiction was written about, and what Yonahlossee was written about. But Joan definitely was that person, to a tragic end, and Cece was definitely not that person, she was very comfortable with the trappings of a fifties housewife. I think that’s the problem with those mannered societies is that if you want to have children and live the domestic life, that’s great for you, but if you’re not that kind of person then it really sucks.

Hunter: I feel like Joan is very secretive throughout most of the book. I remember my breath was taken away when she revealed everything at the end. I was wondering, were you surprised by the revelation? I know some writers who say, “my characters say things to me,” and I know other writers who balk at that.

Anton: Yes, I was surprised. Because when I started writing the book, it kind of came…she was very secretive when I started writing the book and i didn’t understand why, and then I understood why. Because she’d had the [Spoiler Alert] secret pregnancy. and that the baby had been born not as she had expected. So yeah, it was a surprise. I kind of wrote my way into her, which is a really slow way to write and requires a lot of revision, but I didn’t know that when I started writing, so yes it was a surprise. But as far as the, ‘why does Joan care so much about Cece, who is so much different from her’, I feel like the appeal is—because I think Cece’s connection to Joan is more apparent than Joan’s to Cece—I thought a lot about how people used to live, and people used to be born in the same place, grow up in the same place, have children in the same place, and so you had these friendships that you never really outgrew and if you outgrew them it didn’t really matter because those people were like family to you. So, I wanted that friendship to kind of be second nature to them both. So it made sense to me that they were friends like that, because you have family—well, not all family, because my family is full of estrangements—but that you have these connections to people just because you have shared experiences, even if you have nothing else in common.

Hunter: I definitely get that. I’ve had friendships like that. Okay, so I have my final question, which caused a heated debate in one of the book club groups, which was that—

Anton: Is Cece a lesbian? [Laughs] I think—have we talked about Sarah Waters?

Hunter: We have not, but i’ve heard great things. I haven’t read her, yet.

Anton: Oh God, Hunter! You’ve got to read her. I know your TBR stack is really tall, but you would love her. She has a book called The Paying Guests, which is amazing, and part of it is about the lesbian culture in London, in the 20’s I think, and she talks about writing about lesbians when the terms didn’t even exist, and how easy it is to write through the lens of what we know now versus how those characters thought of themselves in the twenties. So I think in this day in age, Cece would probably be bisexual. I feel like her attraction to men is genuine, but she didn’t have the terms for that. Like, those terms existed for some people, but in her milieu, it wasn’t something that was acknowledged. But i think if she’d have lived in a different time, she’d have slept with or tried to sleep with Joan, I don’t know if Joan would’ve liked Cece.

Hunter; I mean, there’s little moments here and there where Joan kind of rejects her. She says things like, oh we can’t get married and that kind of stuff. Which, just know, this mild confirmation will bring so much joy to so many people.

Anton: I mean she’s definitely really interested in a really creepy way in Joan’s sexuality so I don’t think it’s a big leap for her to put herself in these situations with Joan.

Hunter: Well, I know you have to run, but thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview.

Anton: Thank you so much for getting people to read this book.

Hunter: Seriously, thank you for being such a help during this time.

Anton: Always. I am most thankful. I am the most—just kidding. we can both be thankful. but books, once they come out, you know. People read them, but it’s rare for back-list to get attention like this. What’s your next pic?

Hunter: Lit by Mary Karr.

Anton: Oh' i’ve read that!

Hunter: did you like it?

Anton: I did.

Hunter: Oh good, i’m a big fan of hers. I’ve read Liar’s Club and Cherry.

Anton: oh so you havne’t read lit yet. Are you choosing them having not read them? That’s smart, having the experience of reading them. Yeah, I really liked it. It is very different from The Liars Club. The Liars Club is just a perfect book, that last scene where they’re in the car is one of my favorite scenes in a book, but yeah, Lit is really good. I haven’t read Cherry, I need to read Cherry.

Hunter: I think you’d really like Cherry. If you get to it soon, i’d love to discuss it with you.

Anton: yeah, totally.

Hunter: That’s a wrap!