Essentially, I always had the idea of writing a novel about a society hostess in The Hamptons, predominantly because I live there and, secondly, because I’ve always been fascinated by what motivates such ladies. When I was an editor at Random House, however, I would frequently field submissions from writers inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which famously recounts a day in the life of another hostess, Clarissa Dalloway. The books were always wonderful and would update the concept to set it in the present day or in new locales, such as Paris and Cairo, but I began to wonder why nobody was taking a greater risk with Woolf’s ingenious idea. All authors are the sum of their parts, after all, and we are all inspired by our literary predecessors. I asked myself how I could evolve the idea to make it in some way fresh and challenging to readers, whilst still acknowledging Woolf’s inspired concept. This is when the idea of examining a society hostess’ life in microcosm, over the course of five minutes, came to me.
It struck me that such a narrow focus could allow me to explore not only the minutiae of Serena Lyons’ life as it passed over five minutes, but also allow me to go back into the defining moments of her life, to mine her history and understand how she became the fabled hostess of The Westhampton Leisure Hour and Supper Club. Moreover, by setting a novel in the five minutes leading up to the devastating tragedy that was the 1938 Hurricane – of which the guests and Serena are entirely unaware – I wanted the novel to be as much a celebration of life, in all of its comedy and tragedy, as a poignant rumination on those handful of memories that define who we are and impel the choices we make: the choices and decisions made for us and by us that are decided and enacted in less than a minute.
In order to fully evolve each character, I elected to set the party both in the present and to return to parties of the past. Therefore, in each minute of the story, as Serena watches her guests arrive for the last party of the season, she finds a trigger to a memory that defined the course of her life. And so the reader is taken back into those five defining moments, some of which happened decades earlier, all of which is narrated – similarly to The Art of Devotion – from multiple perspectives: that of Serena herself, her husband, Captain Lyons, and her lost love, Kit Peel.
In addition, each guest owns a secret about Serena’s life that could have changed the course of her life irrevocably and a story from each of them – from Lucinda, an alcoholic; Anthony Duverglas and Venetia Dryden, two unrequited lovers; Helen Fitzgerald, a society matriarch who lives on the fabled Gin Lane, in Southampton; Rupert Turner-Hume, the 1930s screen idol; and May Cook, the eighty-year old scion of one of the richest families in East Hampton, all add to what the reader comes to know of Serena. In this way, I was able to develop and flesh out her character so that she became fully embodied: by the end of the story, there is nothing about Serena’s life and history to which the reader is not privy.