In rough, turn-of-the-century Albania, women were only allowed to own property, work for a living, and carry a gun if they swore to remain virgins the rest of their lives. When writer and interior designer Kristopher Dukes learned that fascinating historical footnote, she knew she had found the subject for her first novel. As an enterprising woman who started freelance writing in high school and taught herself 3-D modeling to launch a design career, Dukes self-published A Sworn Virgin in early 2016, relating the story of Elenora, a woman suddenly at odds with the outlandish tradition when she falls in love. Response to the historical accuracy and the twisted romance of the novel was tremendous, and Dukes leveraged a glowing Kirkus review into a deal with HarperCollins’ William Morrow imprint, seeing the official rerelease of her novel this September.
What led you to write a novel?
Since I was 8 years old, before I understood what it meant, I wanted to “be” a writer. Professionally, I wrote articles, interviews, editorial and commercial copy, but I was constantly dreaming of potential ideas for novels, which have always been my favorite thing to read.
Does your design work influence your writing?
Interior design, to me, is a form of visual storytelling. I’ve always understood novels as architecture: there is the foundation (the themes), the narrative (the arrangement of spaces), and the characters (who bring purpose and life to a space).
What drew you to early-20th-century Albania?
What drew me to the mountains of 1910 Albania was the unique tradition of the sworn virgin. It’s a wild tradition. It feels exotic until you ask, “How many times does a woman have to suppress her femininity, or sexuality, in order to be respected in a way that men take for granted?” I find the sworn virgin tradition, as a metaphor and as a cultural phenomenon, extremely compelling and fascinating as a woman.
You did extensive research; could you expand on that process?
I spent five years researching the culture and the customs of the Albanian mountains to make The Sworn Virgin as historically accurate as possible. I was able to dig deep into the internet and find postcards that showed me what hotels and cafes in Shkodra looked like, travel articles that described the layout of Shkodra, pictures displaying various tribal costumes, and paintings of people.
What made you think this would make a good setting for a romance?
As writers we have to be masochists to take on a blinking, blank page every day. And to be a good writer, you have to be a sadist to your characters. Immediately, when I read the tradition of the sworn virgin, I wondered what would happen if one fell in love. Making a character choose between their life and the love of their life feels like one of the ultimate conflicts.
As a writer who has had work in major publications before, how did you find your experience with self-publishing?
Self-publishing appealed to me because a large part of my writing career was related to online marketing. So publishing online, and marketing my novel online, felt very natural. That said, there’s only so much one person can do! To be published by William Morrow is the social proof readers and reviewers often need that the book will meet a certain level of quality, and after working with them, I completely understand why.
What are you working on next? Any plans for a new novel in the near future?
Absolutely. I’m working on another historical fiction novel. This one takes place in early-20th-century Los Angeles, with another woman who is misbehaving according to her society’s standards. Well-behaved women seldom make history—or good fodder for historical fiction.
Rhett Morgan is a writer and translator based in Paris.