Anton DiSclafani on historical fiction

“The thing about writing historic fiction is it’s easy to see the character’s flaws,” says Anton DiSclafani, author of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls and The After Party. “It give you automatic tension. The reader understands what the characters don’t: that their world is coming to an end.”

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Anton-and-CoverAnton DiSclafani, the New York Times best-selling author of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, sets all of her books in the past. Her debut novel took place in 1920s Appalachia; her work-in-progress is set in 1940s Alabama, and The After Party, her just-published follow-up to Yonahlossee, gives readers a window into Houston in the 1950s. But “I’m a big believer in not letting the research get in the way of writing,” says DiSclafani. “I’m not somebody who wants to spends days and days in the library.”

The After Party was inspired by the River Oaks community, a wealthy neighborhood in Houston. Both sets of the author’s grandparents are from that city, and when she’d visit as a child, DiSclafani loved to drive past the sprawling homes of River Oaks. While many of those grand domiciles are now being demolished to make way for larger, newer houses (“Houston is all about the future,” the writer says), The After Party’s narrator, Cece Buchanan, can’t imagine living anywhere else.

The novel follows Cece and her best friend, Joan Fortier, two girls whose fates are entwined as children. When Cece loses her mother and is estranged from her father, she moves in with the Fortier family. But while Cece aspires to the Fortiers’ level of social standing, Joan grows disenchanted with Houston’s social circles and begins to rebel. Much of the narrative is shrouded in mystery, but the tension, says DiSclafani, “comes from Cece’s obsession with Joan.”

While not exactly a midcentury Single White Female, the women’s fraught relationship is in part a product of its era. It was important that The After Party was set before Betty Friedan published her 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, which is credited with sparking a second wave of feminism in the U.S. Without access to those ideas, Cece was content to be a housewife; her wealth allowed her empty days without a job or even housework. But that vacuousness leads to a fixation on her best friend’s romantic life and carefully guarded secrets.

“The thing about writing historic fiction is it’s easy to see the character’s flaws,” says DiSclafani. She discusses such topics — how much of the historical record an author needs to get right, and what parts of a story set in the past can be filled in with fictional detail — with her writing students at Auburn University in Alabama. “It give you automatic tension,” she says. “The reader understands what the characters don’t: that their world is coming to an end.”

But even as Cece’s and Joan’s posh universes fall down around them, DiSclafani manages to resurrect a setting that’s been lost to time. Houston circa 1950s “was a city where anything — and everything — went,” she said in an interview with Star-Telegram. “Watered by oil, organized by the women and men who would have been laughed out of the social registers in most cities, unbound by zoning laws or a sense of modesty — you can’t make Houston up, literally. The details were spectacular.”

And, though opulent night spots like the Shamrock Hotel, frequented by Cece and Joan’s crowd, are being torn down to make way for new construction, DiSclafani brings them back to life — at least for a few hundred pages. “I’m just not a writer who wants to write about the presidential election or the newest technology,” she says. “It’s not that I’m not interested in those things, but I’m not interested in writing fiction about them, so it’s easier to set books in a world where my characters don’t know about them, either.”

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