A perfect dinner party is just like a good book
So you wrote a book. Amazing! Ready or not, it’s now time to be among people. It’s very possible that you are going to have to plan events. You’re also going to be meeting a lot of amazing people you’ll want to get to know. A dinner party is a wonderful place to practice throwing events and get to know your shiny new literary friends.
I sat down with the gorgeously charming consummate host Shelley Ambrose, publisher of The Walrus magazine and executive director of the Walrus Foundation to talk about how to throw a perfect dinner party.
Teva Harrison: Throwing a good dinner party is an art and you are exceptionally good at this. A big part of writing a book, once it’s out in the world, you have to plan events, a good dinner party is an example of a really good event. What’s the first step in planning a dinner party?
Shelley Ambrose: I think most people probably think it’s about the food, but it’s not. It’s about the people. It’s always about the people. So I believe, like anything, that you have to help the people. So the first thing with any dinner party is to pick a date and then pick the two people you want the most and see if they can make it before you invite everybody else, so you have a core reason for it.
All people are lovely, but at dinner parties not all people are created equally. There’s the right mix of people. If you don’t get those first two and there’s another two that’s another dynamic that you’re trying to work out. Doug and I have a couple of broad rules. We generally try to have people from every decade so that you have people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, or, in our case, 30s, 40s, 80s. And we try not to have all of our gay friends or all of our married friends or all people who are in our same business. We try to mix it up a little bit.
And once you have a date you have to invite the people so that they know what it is. Is it a casual barbeque? Is it a sit-down dinner? What is it? And you have to tell people what time it is. Things should begin on time. And end on time. And there are kind of subtle rules. If it’s a weeknight and you’re invited 6:30 for 7:30 you know we’re having cocktails at 6:30 but we’re sitting down at 7:30. So if you come at 7 that’s fine, but 7:35 is not good. And if you’re invited that early, 6:30 for 7:30, you should be gone two and a half hours later. So you should be gone by 10. Everybody should be gone. Which is good for a weeknight.
So then people know.
And you can say it’s casual, or we’re outside, so people know what shoes to wear. All of those sorts of things. Or the Lieutenant Governor’s coming. Like you need to, I think, surprising...I don’t like surprises. I think people are more comfortable and look forward to things if they know what to expect.
TH: Do you ever incorporate themes?
SA: Yeah, not like, “oh, it’s Mexican night,” but I think every dinner party should be a celebration of something, even if it’s “Oh! It’s Saturday!” or “We’re going to toast everyone who has a birthday this month” or (my favourite) “It’s Daylight Savings Time!”
You should always have something ridiculous, because the second step after doing that is people - everything takes longer than people know. So it’s not just dinner party day.
You have to figure out what you’re going to serve people and then you have to grocery shop, then you have to prepare. And then you have to count people and make enough room in the closet for 12 empty hangers, you know, the first thing when they come in the door, you have to hang up their coats, then you have to give them a drink, so you need glasses and you need ice, then you need what’s going in the glasses and they’ll probably have to pee, so it’s good to have toilet paper. And the table should be set. You should always look like you’re expecting people. So that they’re like, “oh!” “wow!” “okay...”
I also think that people get too freaked out about the food. I think that you should make one notable thing and make everything else easy. So if you’re making your signature paella, spend all your time doing that and buy dessert. Or have cheese and crackers to start. Don’t do it so you’re thinking “Why did I ever decide to have this dinner party? I hate my whole life, I hate my day, I hate my guests.” It’s too much. Too much work.
I think the most important thing of all is how you open the door when people come because if you’re all harried, or yelling at the kids, or the vacuum cleaner is running, or, the table isn’t set or whatever. You set the tone by how you open the door. You have to be ready. The more organized you are, the more casual it can be. You get to spend time with people.
TH: Instead of one person being relegated to the kitchen the whole time and one person doing all of the hosting.
SA: That’s the other thing, sometimes I’m at dinner parties where the two hosts both disappear. You kind of have to work that out ahead of time. Doug will be in the kitchen at the beginning, but once we’re at the table I’ll clear. I’ll do dessert and salad and he’s on the main course. You shouldn’t have to do too much during the cocktail hour. You should be ready enough, right? Because it’s about the people.
TH: Speaking of the people, because the way characters mix up against each other is really important, also at a dinner party, bearing that in mind, what kind of characters do you enjoy having at your dinner parties and what do you hope about that mixture of personalities?
SA: I always think the most successful dinner parties are where, if Doug and I left, by the middle of dinner and went to the Holiday Inn, they wouldn’t notice. So, even if they didn’t know each other before that you’ve picked a good mix of people that they’re really so interested in each other that you can kind of disappear. We don’t, but you could.
And, so, I mean, I think it’s probably the way we collect our friends. It’s that you want really curious, engaged people. And you really...we don’t want people that...what people tend to do is hang out with people who think like them. It used to be that people hung out with people who looked like them and the world has changed significantly that you’re not looking at a group of people and they look like they’re from the same place, but they tend to hang out with people who think like them. So we can have, you know, Noah Richler, who was running for the NDP with Pamela Wallin who is a Conservative Senator and they’re just going to have to figure it out.
And know what to avoid and what to get into, and they might even have an argument, but you don’t want people who are going to lose it...you want people to get different perspectives from other people. a lot of books and movies, there’s a lot of eating. You know, in Downton Abbey, they were in that dining room 98% of the time.
There’s a big dynamic so it also matters how you seat people. So any number over 6, you should have place cards. Because it’s awkward for people. Like, I really want to sit next to you, but I just talked to you for an hour at the cocktail and somebody else wants to sit next to you and I want to sit over there and those people look more interesting. You have to have place cards after 6 people and that’s careful. It used to be boy-girl-boy-girl and that’s gone now. Out the window. In Canada, people used to sit the main guest, let’s say you have a famous writer, at the head of the table, but the NY way of doing it is they’re in the middle. So the people across from them – so one of you, if there are two hosts – is at each end, and then the person in the middle at the long part of the table is the most important person. And lots of times I use place cards that have questions on them. You can make them or buy them.
You should always, when you sit down, start with a toast. Make up shit to celebrate. Anything. “Happy you’re all here!” Sometimes we go around the table at desert and we either do the questions on the card, or I’ll ask a question.
One of the best questions is what are you reading, that you would recommend. We were at a dinner party at Anna Porter’s just before Christmas and we went around and I took notes and the next morning I sent the list to everybody at the dinner, people like Jack Rabinovitch and Margaret Atwood were at that dinner telling you what they’re reading which is just a great way to get to know somebody, and get to know a new book. So that’s one of our favourite tricks. Sometimes if I have really good friends over, or new people, Doug and I will go to Indigo and we’ll buy everybody a book & they all get it at dessert & they’re always wondering why they chose that book for them – it’s a great way to do it.
TH: Are the characters in charge of the plot, per se?
SA: I think the host is the writer, but of course you can’t control your characters, so things will happen, but I think you can set a tone and an evening with kind of a beginning, and a middle and an end. so there’s, in the same way that you might have three courses, but if you want an evening to go on, like say if it’s New Year’s Eve and everybody needs to stay up until midnight, then you have desert, then you bring out the cheese course, then you take everybody to a different room and you play a game, or there’s a fire and you make popcorn. It’s really obvious to people if you want them to stay or you want them to go. So if things weren’t going so well, then you wouldn’t put out the cheese course or get out the popcorn. I definitely think the host is the writer and the people are characters. It’s up to the writer who they invited to the book. It’s up to you who you invite into dinner.
TH: How do you know when you hit the peak?
SA: When everyone is talking so loud to each other that you’re like “excuse me excuse me excuse me” and nobody will listen to you. Because they’re all just going like mad. And sometimes you can have a different moment in a dinner party where everybody is listening to one person. Usually when you sit down at the table there might be a conversation that everybody is involved with but by the middle of the main course, unless people are deeply uptight, that just goes away and everyone...the proper thing, you talk to the person on your left and the person on your right and the person across from you. then you might shout at somebody at the end, but that’s when you...if you can look around the table and nobody’s isolated, and everybody is engaged & that’s one of the great reasons to have young people because they’re learning. You can’t just sit there and eat your food. When you’re an invited guest you also have responsibility, you are meant to bring something. I don’t mean dessert or wine, you’re meant to bring something, a contribution to the room, to the conversation, a joke, a story, a song.
TH: What’s the subtle cue that the story is about to draw to a close?
SA: We stop offering things. The bottles of wine are empty, you’ve already had coffee, scotch, desert, we’re not throwing another log on the fire. Last saturday night I said, you people need to go home now! It’s 1:30 in the morning. Go home!
My dad used to say to my mom’s friends “I’ve got your coat ready,” and I have often said “Your taxi’s here.”
TH: What does success mean?
SA: That everyone’s had a great time, really what it is is that you’ve connected two friends or acquaintances in a way that they no longer need you in the middle.
TH: If you could have any literary characters, living, dead, otherwise, at your dinner parties, who would they be?
SA: Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Edna O’Brien, Leonard Cohen (but I’ve had dinner with him), Christopher Hitchens, Shakespeare, Wallace Stegner.
Now, go have a glorious party of your own! And lots of excellent conversation.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Teva Harrison is a writer and graphic artist. She is the author of the critically acclaimed graphic memoir, In-Between Days, which is based on her graphic series about living with cancer published in The Walrus. It was named one of the most anticipated books of 2016 by the Globe and Mail, which also named the author one of 16 Torontonians to Watch. She has commented on CBC Radio and in the Globe and Mail about her experience. Numerous health organizations have invited her to speak publicly on behalf of the metastatic cancer community. She lives in Toronto.