Q&A: Katharine Weber

Critically acclaimed novelist Katharine Weber's new release, True Confections (Shaye Areheart Books; $22), tells the multigenerational story of the fictional Connecticut company Zip's Candies. The Bethany resident, a former contributor to Connecticut Magazine, is the granddaughter of Broadway composer Kay Swift and administrator of the Kay Swift Memorial Trust.

 

What inspired True Confections?

My books are always about a whole bunch of things at once. This is the first time that a book of mine has grown out of another book of mine. Triangle was set in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory at the time of the Triangle fire, and it was about disadvantaged people working in factories somewhere, making cheap goods for our consumption. A lot of unnamed children died in that fire; I think the reported number of deaths was low. When that book was on the verge of publication in 2006, I wrote an op-ed for The New York Times marking the 95th anniversary of the fire. The op-ed discussed how we no longer lock our children up in sweatshops to die in fires any more because we have laws against that, but in this age of outsourcing, we now outsource our cheap goods; they're made in third-world countries like Bangladesh, where children still die in factory fires. So we're outsourcing our tragedies as well. In my research for the Times piece, I learned about the child slavery of the Ivory Coast. The Ivory Coast is the biggest provider of the world's cheap chocolates. I became interested in what is the resultant moral dilemma for companies in the candy business. But that's only one of the novel's themes.

I've always been interested in family businesses, and the drama of family businesses-the fascinating arc of the classic family business story in America, which is: the founder who comes from somewhere with nothing, whether it's Poland, Italy or wherever and he has a pushcart he works in the street; he has a product, an idea, a shop, a storefront. The next generation grows it bigger; the generation after that grows it bigger. And the following generation throws it away, runs it into the ground. The idiot prince takes over. Look at George W. Bush. You have a dynasty where one of the problems is, rich prosperous people don't give birth to poor, hungry, innovative, driven people. And that's why family businesses tend not to survive past the third or fourth generation. So I was interested in examining a family business just on that brink, when you have the idiot prince running the ship into the ground, but then you also have the wonderful "trustifarians" in the family, who use the wealth to pursue social causes. It's a morally more honorable thing to do with their money, but sometimes they can be very silly people, real dilettantes. That's Irene: You can say her heart is in the right place, even if she's kind of an idiot.

And I've also always been interested in the Madagascar plan, because it's this thing that happened, and no one knows it. People who know their history quite well, people who were alive during World War II-nobody has heard of it. It fascinates me. Madagascar-within 20 degrees of the equator all around the world-that's where the world's chocolate comes from. It's where some of the finest chocolate comes from. So writing a novel is sort of stringing pearls together, these things that might seem disparate on the face of it.

I think the novel is a novel about race. "Little Black Sambo," okay or not okay? Oompa-loompas, okay or not okay? And there are the racial identity issues, also, of a Protestant trying to wedge herself into a Jewish family that just won't have her.

At times I really wanted to throttle your narrator, Alice.

 She's really unreliable, kind of a borderline personality-just oblivious to interpersonal boundaries. I was shocked when a friend told me, "Oh, I could hear your voice throughout; she's really you!" A thousand times no. I created her, I am not her.

She's also a victim; a good person trying to struggle through. She had those cold, horrible parents; she was raped; she accidentally burned somebody's house down. Other the other hand, she wears he wounds on her sleeve.

As she's telling you her version of events, you wonder how candid she's being.

That's why I love the book's title so much! I also love the implied reference to "True Confessions." I mean, it is a true confection. What is a confection? It's a thing made of many ingredients that's tasty and delightful and pleases you, but it's not necessarily a solid, honest product. Therapists would call her description of events "adding meaning."

What I mean her to be is challenging to you in the sense that she's a pain in the ass, you want to slap her; but you're also interested enough in her and sympathetic enough to her that she's also an engaging narrator. It's swimming against the stream these days-I have a theory that book publishers and marketing departments really want authors writing novels with sympathetic characters, because that's what book groups like. But I read novels in order to meet characters in novels. I don't need them all to be like people I would meet on my street. How boring would that be? Tell it to Dickens, tell it to Edith Wharton. That is not the current taste, however. I do think book groups play a role here-which is why I'm working on a reader's guide for my publisher on the novel. And one of the fun things in a reader's guide is the questions for discussion. My last question for discussion is something like, "If Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky were in your book group, what would that be like?" So I'm kind of bringing it home; telling them "deal with it."

As a resident, I enjoyed the novel's New Haven groundedness.

I pictured those streets as I wrote. I went over to River and James streets quite a few times, wandered around, took some photos, as a way to "locate" my factory. If it existed, it would be in the neighborhood where those empty red brick buildings are, like the Bigelow Boiler Co. factory. Once I started writing about race, the layers and layers of what there was to use were just fantastic, including the Black Panther trials and the discovery that my factory was located where the "colored" troops were drilled for the Civil War.

A number of themes repeat themselves in your books: What it means to be a part of a family and the disappointments that result; the role of written documents in family history.

Yes, the "textness" of each of the novels. Artifacts as forms of narrative appear in every single one of my novels.  My first novel had a journal of letters in the middle of it; my second novel was a journal. My third novel had the real people on whom the novel was based commenting with reader's notes and the author replying with author's notes, running through the text. Almost a third of that book, The Little Women, is such extra-textual dialogue. So it's a novel within a novel. Triangle was trial transcripts and interview transcripts as well as straight third-person narrative. And now, this books purports to be an affidavit.

How does this strategy enhance your voice as a novelist?

I suppose that maybe I never recovered from roaming around my parents' house, as an unhappy child in a crazy family-which is actually the subject of the book I'm writing now-and finding letters in the attic at 3 a.m. that revealed things to me that I otherwise would not have known, love letters between my father and a woman who was not my mother who I realized I knew. Finding evidence that both of my parents had been married to other people, which I had not been told. So, being a burglar in my own house and finding important information this way.

But beyond that, in all our daily lives, why do we know anything? Because we read a newspaper, or a blog, or somebody told us something that she read or heard. I'm so interested in the way information is disseminated, always intrigued by the way what you read in the paper and see on the 6 p.m. news differs from the truth. I'm fascinated by the difference between public record and what we know to be true. Human error is habitual and chronic and everywhere, and that's just unmotivated human error-let alone the secrets and lies that are in every family history, and the shadings of the way stories are told.

Tell us about your next book, which is going to be a memoir.

It's not entirely about me, it's also about narrative and family stories. I've titled it Symptoms of Fiction. I'm very interested in how families tell stories and what those stories mean; how they can be interpreted in different ways by different people. In my case, there's my memories of my father, Sidney Kaufman, and then there's the 600-page FBI file I have on him, reporting on the same events. The memos to J. Edgar Hoover are not telling the stories the same way at all. And so, here I am again with artifacts, FBI files.

 My father was a Communist, and once they started studying him in 1937, they didn't stop. The last record I have is from 1973-that doesn't mean there aren't more but they may have been redacted. About once a year I get an envelope from the State Department or the CIA or the FBI, with one more page, mostly blacked out. So my Freedom of Information requests, which began in 1996, are still yielding up little bits and pieces.

He was a crazy filmmaker, almost like a fictional character in a movie. Probably his best legacy was a particular version of Macbeth starring Maurice Evans that was filmed at Pinewood Studios during my childhood, which was why we spent a year in England. He's also the man who brought the world AromaRama, which he stole from Mike Todd Jr., who had Smell-O-Vision. I have to say I think my father had the better title. He beat Mike Todd into the theaters by a few weeks, by taking a movie that already existed and adding smells, while Mike Todd was filming a movie to have smells. My father had Chet Huntley do this voice over of a documentary about China, called Behind the Great Wall. The problem with the smells was that they were like concentrated Glade air freshener. I remember gagging and choking at five years old. Walter Reed, of Walter Reed Theaters, was in partnership with him-there were 68 movie theaters nationwide that Reed owned, that were all redone legitimate theaters, so they were the fancy ones with velvet and curtains. They had to be re-upholstered after this, because the odors just permeated these places down to the wood. These days, there would have been lawsuits over asthma attacks.

My father was a real oddball. But the FBI followed him and followed him, and there are these bizarre incidents like . . . he imported hundreds of East German typewriters, which were really cheap and bad, and you could bend the metal of the keys with your hands. I remember them piled up in our garage, we couldn't put the car away. And the FBI was thinking of nailing him on breaking the McCarran-Walter Import Act. Meanwhile, he is observed going into the Yugoslavian Embassy with two of these typewriters, and comes out empty-handed. People wondered,  what would he be up to? What he was up to was he was trying to sell them to whoever would want them. And they had Eastern European keyboards, so he wasn't dumb to think the Yugoslavs might want a couple. But he basically had this carload of East German typewriters because somebody owed him money and couldn't pay him, but could pay him in East German typewriters. I mean, he was just crazy.

My fantasy was that when I got his FBI records, I would understand my mysterious father; all would be revealed. Instead, all I discovered was your tax dollars and mine were spent pursuing a crazy person who no one could understand.

There's also my mother's family, particularly my grandmother Kay Swift, who wrote Broadway show tunes and had a big romance with George Gershwin. My great great uncle Aby Warburg, the art historian, was really crazy. Here's one little for instance about him: He became a vegetarian because it was the only way he could be certain that members of his own family weren't being cooked and served to him.

I wanted to ask you about Kay Swift. Because she was the first woman to score a Broadway musical, Fine and Dandy, and she was a major force in Gershwin's life.

It's the first hit Broadway musical scored by a woman. There may have been previous shows that ran for one or two performances.

She was very central in my life. I was very close to her; she in some ways gave me a lot of maternal love that my own mother did not. And though I never consciously modeled myself after her, in some ways she was a very good role model in the sense of being a creative independent person who did what she wanted, a great deal of the time. She was brilliant and witty and kind and loving, and the most connected narcissist you could ever know. Most narcissists don't get down on the floor and play with little children. She also had the anti-Mame side, but she had many sides.

What would you say was the biggest legacy she left you? You mentioned you were named for her, but do your see yourself in her or her in you?

Yes, I do-that's a great question that I don't think anyone has ever asked me. I think, valuing my own creativity and trusting my own strangeness. I know that's a slightly odd thing to say. Being convinced of the value of my creativity which I hope always has the power both to move you and entertain you, because that's what I want in a novel. I write novels that I would like to read. That's what I think my grandmother's music did.

I should also add that it's probably not a coincidence that in the time period that I wrote Triangle and True Confections, and at this very moment, I'm deeply involved in reviving Fine and Dandy, which is set in a factory. So, that's another factory in my life.

Do you think this will be a Broadway revival?

Absolutely. We've been doing readings; we had a reading last year directed by Casey Nicholaw, who is best known for The Drowsy Chaperone. It's my other life. We have a new book. The original book from the 1930s is why this show wasn't previously revived; it's just a big mess. The new book is very much in the style and form of the old, but it's a show a contemporary audience can watch and enjoy. The original score is retained, and it's fantastic. You know the title song whether you want to or not. Probably every 7th grader knows it; it's the theme for Jesus's magic tricks in "Family Guy." It's had this whole second life as the theme to bad magic acts; Chuck McCann used it first, then Tim Conway took it up. It's ubiquitous. At the 1974 Academy Awards, when a streaker ran behind David Niven, the orchestra struck up "Fine and Dandy."

In the show, it's a duet that has the same kind of sensibility as the Gershwin duet "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" between the two love interests.

Anyway, KaySwift.com is my Web site for her-that updates the projects we're working on.

Your husband, Nicholas Fox Weber, just published a major work on the Bauhaus artists [The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism].

I think it's his best book.

I just wonder, how do two writers live together? Do you have separate houses?

We actually are in different places some of the time. It's not a formal agreement, but we have-this is so obnoxious, I wonder what people think-an apartment in Paris and a little house in Ireland. His work takes him to Paris a lot, he's there much more often than I am. Right now, I'm sitting in a studio in our backyard, I'm not in the house. He has an office in the house. So, if we're both having writing days, the symptom of that is the pile of dishes in the kitchen sink. Otherwise we take turns doing life maintenance.

Booksigning dates and locations for True Confections can be found at katharine-weber.com and randomhouse.com.

Q&A: Katharine Weber

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