Monday, January 11, 2010

A conversation with Katharine Weber about writing, art and True Confections, her latest novel

Katharine Weber’s life is a novel in itself. (Note: you’ll want to buy and read her forthcoming memoir.) The author of Objects in the Mirror are Closer than They Appear, The Little Women, The Music Lesson and Triangle, and the granddaughter of famed songwriter Kay Swift, she has no college degree, never took a writing course, and yet has taught at Yale and Columbia. Her latest novel, True Confections is an uproariously funny, provocative and smart novel about belonging and family, racism, Jews and the candy business. The raves began prepublication and continue to be astonishing, from the L.A. Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and more.

Over the course of a few days, Katharine and I got into a discussion about her work and writing in general, reproduced here. I can’t thank you enough, Katharine.

Let’s talk about the unreliable narrator and the whole question of voice. For me, the pleasure of writing is tunneling so deeply into your character you feel merged. With someone like Alice, who often is not quite telling the truth to us or to herself, how close to her were you able to get? Was there ever a moment when you weren’t sure what truth she was or wasn’t telling?

I think I started off thinking I was close to Alice, and so she seemed perfectly transparent and available to me as I wrote her. But as the novel progressed, and her voice became that much more specific to me, she got much more complex, on the page and in my thoughts about her. Her situation drove her character, and her character drove the situation. Consequently, things she had stated as facts started to feel less certain to me in retrospect than they had when I was writing those pages. She thinks she is telling all the Truth but telling it slant, but is she? There are all sorts of ambiguities in the story that I believed one thing about as I wrote the pages and now I am just not so sure what I think I know. Ultimately all kinds of things about Alice and her story are up for grabs, though as I wrote them I had what seemed like clarity at the time -- but it turns out it was the power of Alice's convictions.

You also deliciously blur the lines between truth and fiction yourself, by pushing the 4th wall out of the way and introducing, for example, the live Zips Candies website, complete with jingle. Because the jingle has a whiff of racism about it, and it sounds and looks and feels so real, it makes the whole idea of racism even more unsettling. We wonder, is this true, is this the novelist playing with us, what do we believe and why do we believe it? What makes us think something is so? Do you feel that writing about racism is ever racist or is this kind of writing really the way to look at it, understand it, and then do something about it?

I love your astute sense of what goes on in True Confections, Caroline. Writers talk about novels in certain ways that are different from the ways critics or readers discuss novels.

To answer you question on racism, I am sure there are sly ways, and careless ways, to write about racism in a way that is in itself racist. But it is racist to mock racism? Surely that is only offensive to racists. I really wanted to confront racism and the definitions of racism head-on. And I do think satire is the perfect way to do it. For one thing, I think that casual, submerged, endemic racism is much more insidious than overt racism, because it is denied and normalized even as it occurs. So, yes, I do mean to make people squirm a little, and then ask themselves why? What about that feels wrong, or what about that makes me feel a kind of chagrin about myself, and what about that activates the PC police, who are, in their own way, as blinkered and close-minded as bigots. Censoring anything that takes up issues of the complex issues of race does not solve racism.

Also -- I think women writers are expected to be nice, and to be well-behaved and proper, and not cause offense or upset anybody in any way, and I am serious when I say that I think the threshold for disapproval -- by purse-lipped priggish readers, by the Mrs. Grundys -- comes much sooner for women writers than for male writers.

Does the guy singing, "Say, Dat's Tasty!" at the end of the jingle seem racist to you? Why? Does it make any difference that the vocalist who sang the line for the jingle is actually Caucasian? Does the word "dat" have a specific connotation? What? Why? How do we feel about Uncle Ben's Rice, and Aunt Jemima on the box of pancake mix? Are they okay? Are they only not okay when pointed out, but okay when not discussed?

True Confections has a lot of threads winding through it. It’s the story of Alice battling for control of the chocolate company that’s become her life, but also the story of the chocolate business, racism, and a plan of the Third Reich to get all the Jews to Madagascar. How, in the writing, were you able to balance all these threads? And how did you make your ultimate decisions in shaping the story?

You left out the runaway slave from the cacao plantations of Cote D'Ivoire, wartime Budapest, the murder of Kid Dropper Kaplan on the steps of the Essex Market Courthouse in 1923, and a few other things, too! It is indeed a three-ring circus of a novel, but that's the way I write. I am always intrigued by the opportunities in a novel to find meaning and substance in those odd intersections, to take apparently disparate strands and weave them together to make something whole and shaped that signifies in new ways.

I recognize that for some impatient readers who prefer the simplicity of a single narrative line, one straight shot, there is too much going on. And you know, it has dawned on me, after five novels, that I am just not going to go into a spasm of anxiety if somebody doesn't like my novel and thinks it has too many parts and doesn't understand why. Perhaps the issue is simply that I am just not the writer for every reader.

I have been asked why, for example, in Triangle there is all that music? Or in The Music Lesson, why is there all that Walter Benjamin? And I can only say that singling out some of the elements in one of my novels that you think are somehow not necessary to the novel feels like asking me why the odd-numbered pages are in one of my novels because you would be happy reading only the even-numbered pages. For me, all these disparate pieces are essential, I have them in mind usually before I begin to write one word of the novel, and the way they fit together IS the novel.

That’s a really interesting question, that one can not be the right writer for every reader. I remember in an interview Dan Chaon said his wife told him to pay no mind to some of the stranger Amazon reader reviews, because those readers were not HIS readers. Because of this, I think many writers realize they can’t write for one audience, because who is that audience? Do you feel that instead the truest thing to do is write the book you are obsessed with writing and hope that what is deeply personal is also deeply universal and will strike some chords?

I can't worry about the response of individual readers while I am writing. Of course I hope to find a wide audience, and I think I have a fairly diverse following, as it is, one that expands in new directions with each novel. (For example, Triangle was probably read by more men than any of my previous novels, and at two of my Connecticut library readings, firefighters were there, in uniform, in the back row, with their hook and ladder parked out in front of the library!)

So of course I hope for a broad readership. I have said more than once that if you are a carbon-based life form with the price of the book, then you are my reader. I have never subscribed to the Franzenian definitions of my work as too "literary" or too "high art" for certain audiences. However, I know my novels have been deemed "too much" by some readers. But trying to be all things to all readers is just a hopeless and pointless enterprise (for me, anyway) and it really has nothing to do with the deepest reasons why I write. In one sense, the first reader I am writing for is myself. I was a reader before I was a writer, like all of us, and I think my sense of what I wanted to write came from my sense of what I have always responded to most deeply and found most appealing and moving and satisfying in the novels I have read over the course of my lifetime. So I try to write novels that I would want to read.

I usually think of your work as very serious and literary, and while True Confections is certainly that, it’s also hilariously funny. Can you talk a bit about the progression of your novels. What parts were a progression by design and which novels simply happened and surprised you?

First of all, I happen to think that each of my novels has a lot of humor, although they haven't been characterized that way by critics, and although there are very sad pieces to some of them as well. You know that old cliché of a perfect book review? "I laughed, I cried, I couldn't put it down!" Well, that really is, for me, the perfect response from a reader. I want my readers to be moved, I want them to be challenged, but also, I want them to be very entertained along the way.

I am not sure I have ever thought about my novels as a progression other than the way I like to write very different novels each time out, so there is a natural progression in that sense that each novel has a different narrative strategy, a different sort of structure, and a very different sort of narrator.

With True Confections, I had the story and the substance of the novel very thoroughly planned without really having the narrative strategy in place. Alice actually came along after the Ziplinsky family and Zip's Candies were well mapped. In a way, I think what I am describing is that each of my novels has come into being with a left brain-right brain sort of dual energy being harnessed. I make a plan, I have all kinds of intentions and elements in mind, and that is all very governed and detailed. But then I deviate from the plan in intuitive leaps, with a purely associative and playful, imaginative engagement with the material. Out of that I can find myself developing completely new elements in a kind of organic way as I am writing. These pieces of the story feel both surprising and inevitable. I am always willing to be surprised by where the novel goes -- and by that I do not necessarily mean plot -- and I have never failed to be surprised by some imaginative alchemy that occurs during the writing.

Oh yes, I meant categorized by critics as humorous. Which leads to another questions, how do you deal with the way critics categorize your work? What is it like to get a brilliant review but you feel the critic was not reading the book you wrote?

It's frustrating to be praised but not understood. We all like praise, but maybe even more important to most of us is being understood, being really truly understood. But you can't let yourself be too reactive or too defined by reviews. Like most thoughtful writers, I would rather have a strong mixed review of high intelligence than an empty-headed rave. But even that rave feels good because you know it might win you a few more readers, and among those readers there might be someone who really gets it.

A negative review hurts (and I read my reviews) but it would very rarely make me regret the way I have written my novel. It's hard not to be defensive. It can feel as if someone has just said your wonderful child is ugly and stupid. But opinion is only what it is, one person's response to something you have spent much more time thinking about than she has. And it is important to remember that unless the critic has a personal agenda (in which case he or she shouldn't be reviewing your book in the first place) then the review is not personal -- your book is of you, but it is not you.

The biggest issue for me is that I don't want to be pigeon-holed as a writer. Each of my novels is very different, and that's always going to be the case. But critics and booksellers, and maybe some readers, too, like to slot writers into categories. I do think that every serious female novelist is pigeonholed in a certain way just because she is female. I know this is a tired subject, but it doesn't go away. I believe my novels would be read somewhat differently if I were not a woman. If I were a man, I believe that there would be more obvious comparisons to certain male writers in reviews of my novels. And I believe male critics would more often read and consider my work.

I’m fascinated that you are able to be working on so many different projects at once. How do you juggle all of this and what’s up next—and why?

I feel a bit overwhelmed by the various projects I am juggling these days, in fact. I am working on a screenplay revision of my own adaptation of The Music Lesson, which is now on its third option, with a dynamic young director who has made an award-winning short dramatic film of a short story of mine. And I am working with a creative team to revive the hit 1930 Broadway show Fine and Dandy, the score for which was written by my grandmother Kay Swift, whose musical legacy my husband and I manage. And I am on staff at Star in the Arizona desert at least once a year. There are just not enough hours in the day or days in the week or weeks in the month or months in the year.

What's up next is a nonfiction consideration of family stories, memory, and the impulse to create narrative. It is manifestly a memoir, with the title Symptoms of Fiction, but it is also very much about telling stories in a family, how we are shaped by those stories, and how we tell our own story to ourselves and others. I have contributed several essays to collections over the years that touch on key aspects of my story, and finally it felt that the time was ripe to put this kind of writing front and center. But I have three novels in my head that will come after that's done, I hope in the middle of this year, and as much as I am loving writing this memoir, I really look forward to returning to fiction.


Debi Harbuck said...

Thank you both for this. Just wonderful.

Dory Adams said...

Wonderful, wonderful Q&A and insight into the novelist's process. Thanks Caroline and Katharine!