The Sworn Writer
In her first book, Manhattan Beach-based fashion writer-turned-novelist Kristopher Dukes finds a willing muse from a far-off place and time.
INTERVIEWED BY DARREN ELMS | PHOTOGRAPHED BY ANNIE DEPTULA
Kristopher Dukes turns heads when she walks into a room. Chic and comely in the best classical sense, she also reverberates a confidence and grace you either have or you don’t. Now she’s putting that inherent charisma into historical fiction with the debut of The Sworn Virgin. We sat down for coffee with the writer while the ink was still drying on her new novel.
Congrats on the book! This isn’t your first foray into writing … you’ve also written for WWD, Vogue and others. How did you get into the business?
Since I was 8 years old I wanted to “be” a writer. I was first published professionally and nationally in high school, and by college I was focused on fashion journalism. I started a blog to promote my freelance writing career, and my blog became a good enough business on its own that it offered me the freedom to write what I wanted. So I started putting short stories into the world via my blog.
Even while I was interested in newer ways to distribute and tell stories, I always dreamed of writing a novel. For a while I felt like I was supposed to write a novel somehow situated around fashion—because that’s where my audience was for a time—but I couldn’t get the story of The Sworn Virgin out of my mind.
The Sworn Virgin … not an autobiography, right?
Ha! The Sworn Virgin takes place in 1910, in the mountains of northern Albania. So you are right, this is not a memoir. It gets its title and its premise from a true tradition that allows a woman to swear to remain a virgin her entire life and gain the rights and privileges of a man. She can smoke with men, drink with men, inherit property, act as head of the household, participate in blood feuds that consume the tribes—only she can’t be killed herself, unless she goes back on her vow.
As wild as the world of The Sworn Virgin is, it is ultimately the story of an independent young woman struggling to make her dreams come true and balancing what she wants in life with what others want for her. I believe plenty of women in the South Bay will relate with her emotional journey.
What was the inspiration for Eleanora’s story?
Nine years ago I read a New York Times article about the last sworn virgins in Albania. Yes, they still exist! Immediately I was inspired to write a story. What would happen if a sworn virgin fell in love? Can someone choose between the love of their life … or their life?
So I saw that story potential, but I also thought the tradition was a fantastic metaphor for a woman of any place and time. How often do women have to suppress their sexuality in exchange for being respected in a way that men often take for granted?
Is this a theme you’ve always been attracted to?
I’ve always been attracted to classic novels and historical fiction as a means of exploring how much morality and human nature are simply social norms. Even when I wrote about fashion, I was drawn to it as a reflection of how femininity was being idealized for different times and places. I think it says everything that in the 1950s—when women went from factories back to more “traditional” gender roles—stilettos were popular, girdles were favored, restrictive pencil skirts were in vogue.
One of the many things that sets my heroine Eleanora apart is that she disregards what women traditionally wore in her village, favoring unique outfits she designs—including a riding costume incorporating pants—which no one around her can understand. That’s a small hint of how provocative she becomes!
Do you consider this a feminist story?
The Sworn Virgin is a feminist story in that it is a story of a young woman who fights for control of her life, her body. Things happen to her—as things happen to all of us—but she is a true heroine who acts independently and to achieve her own goals.
That said, I researched Eleanora’s world for years—down to whether or not she would have known what a fork was—and while she is progressive and at times aggressive, I wanted to be as realistic as possible. She exists within the constraints of her culture, but she also rebels against these constraints. I’m really looking forward to hearing what other people think about this.
What does feminism mean to you … in 2017?
Equality and freedom.
The book was self-published at first. How did you get to William Morrow?
I self-published The Sworn Virgin last year, got great reviews from Kirkus and readers, and was picked up by William Morrow. I knew there would be a lot more opportunity with a prestige publisher, but I had no idea how much. My editor, Tessa Woodward, really helped me bring my characters and their world further to life.
You also have a great sense of personal style, and it comes through in your work. In the age of Instagram influencers, what do you think is most essential when putting your personal tastes out in the media marketplace?
I think the age of social media calls for an authentic self … but an authentic cocktail-party self. You’re sharing the layer of yourself you share with strangers—not your deepest thoughts and feelings you reserve for your best friend. That said, I do appreciate how vulnerable people can be online and how that can start real dialogues—or at the very least, let someone know they’re not alone. The best fiction has that same effect, right? It can mean everything to just know someone else has felt the same things.
What’s next for you … in writing and life?
Travel is always on the horizon, along with some interior design projects here and there. Interior design, to me, is just another way of storytelling. I’m also very excited about the next novel I’m working on. I can’t say more than it’s about another strong woman, in another time that feels faraway, and she is misbehaving in the most wonderful way. “Well-behaved women seldom make history” … or fodder for great historical fiction.