Sunday, July 17, 2011

Katharine Weber talks about family, lies and The Memory Of All That and Here Today! a new musical based on the Love Affair between Kay Swift and George Gershwin

Here Today! is a new musical based on the love affair between Kay Swift and George Gershwin, written about in Katharine Weber's wonderful memoir, The Memory of All That. It's about to be performed Saturday, April 27th, 3:30-5:30 at the Lang Recital Hall at Hunter College, on East 69yh Street. Tickets are just $5 for members, and $12 for non members. For reservations, call Lucy at 917-371-5509 or email In honor of this event, I'm reprinting the blog post I originally did with Katharine last July!

I first met Katharine Weber after asking her for a blurb for a novel of mine, which to my delight, came with an offer of friendship. We quickly became confidants, and now spend hours talking about books, writing, food, art, music and gossip, too, of course. Her career is enviable. She debuted with a story in the New Yorker, and three of her novels were New York Times Notable books. Her extraordinary just-out memoir, which is also her sixth book, The Memory of All That: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family's Legacy of Infidelities, has already garnered an A from Entertainment Weekly and raves from Booklist, Publishers Weekly and More.  Levi Asher also weighed in on all of Katharine's novels in a terrific piece in Literary Kicks. I'm so happy to have Katharine here! (Thank you, Katharine!)

This book defies labeling--though it's the story of your family, it's also the story of so many other things, so you can't really call it a traditional memoir. Can you talk about how you stretched and changed the boundaries of the genre?

The book really isn't a traditional memoir, is it? It is not my story in any complete or historical sense. It is my sensibility and my awareness of this vast cast of characters in my family, starting with my mother and father, but it is certainly not the story of my life in a traditional sense. At the same time, even though there is a great deal you won't learn about me from this book, in some essential ways, it really is very intimate and personal. These are my people, and these are my experiences of my people, and here is more of their story which I have researched in the writing of the book. So in a certain sense, it is a researched group biography hybridized with a very personal memoir strategy. Is that stretching and changing the boundaries of the genre? I had no idea I was writing the book this way when I set out to do it.  Though I did want to use my father's enormous FBI file as an organizing element with the contrast between my memories of childhood in contrast to the FBI 's way of telling the same story about my family. I thought the book would be much more about the ways we tell our stories.

How would you say writing this book changed you?  Did anything surprise you? Did you have something in mind and then the book took on a life of its own?

I do think writing this book changed me, and in some unexpected ways. For one thing, it really expanded my capabilities as a writer in some practical ways. I knew how to write a novel,  or at lest, after five novels I knew how to teach myself how to write each of those novels and will know how to teach myself to write the next novel, and the next. But I didn't know how to write a book like this, a book based entirely on actual people and actual events, an amalgamation of what I experienced and remembered about them, what I knew about them, and what I discovered as I researched these many very different family members and their stories. I kept getting deep into the material and losing my perspective, feeling that every tiny fact and discovery had equal value and weight for the story, which wasn't the case.

If I had been writing fiction, I would have been able to recognize the extraneous material as I wrote it or at least as I revised it, so I would have had better control of the shape and pace of my narrative as I wrote. Instead, I labored over pages of material, revising and revising, only to recognize (often thanks to my editor John Glusman, who read and line-edited the manuscript thoroughly for each of three drafts) that I had overdeveloped something that didn't really serve the story at all and it needed to be eliminated.

John also confronted me with the chaotic and associatively unruly order of the first draft. Once again, my experience as the author of five novels had not prepared me to write in a less organic and more pre-determined and straightforward structure. I can trust my novelist's instinct when it comes to layering a narrative with associative and tangential interludes, while always keeping the narrative arc in mind and moving the character development and story forward, often in very nonstandard ways. But that same narrative instinct had led me to craft something far too organic the first time through -- which is to say I had lost control of the narrative because I was inside it and hadn't succeeded in maintaining a long view at all.

And at first I didn't have a "voice" for the story, because I wasn't inhabiting a narrating character, whose needs and wants would be clear to me, I was telling my own story. I always interrogate my narrator as I write, asking her, What do you want? What do you do to get what you want? Can you change in the course of this story? Do you change or do you fail to change? In what ways does this matter to this story? But I had failed to question myself. I needed to develop my own narrative voice, which I think I did, in the end write the book the way I would write a novel. So on the one hand I was to dependent on my experience as a novelist, and on the other hand I wasn't at first aware of the necessity to work at developing the narrative voice in exactly the same way I would for a novel. All of this was a giant learning curve.

Perhaps the change and surprise for me that came out of The Memory Of All That was realizing at the very end that I now had a profound understanding, for the first time, of the difference between grievance and grief. I think I moved from grievance to grief from the start to the finish of the book. So that is the answer to the question I pose to the main character of every novel, among the questions I had to pose to myself, about change, and how it signifies for the book.

I'm very interested in process.  Can you talk about what you're working on now and how you work at it?

I am writing a new novel. I have been spending a lot of time with it in my head, though I have very little to show for it yet on the page. It has taken me a long time to accept that this is my process, this stage of development which might look like "not writing" to someone else. There is value for me in holding the increasingly complex vision of the novel until it has, to quote Virginia Woolf "grown heavy in my mind."  When I discovered something Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, when she was beginning to write The Waves, it was a huge relief to me -- I had a revelation about this process of developing a new novel with which I had previously struggled. Something I had always thought was a liability, this delaying of the moment when I would begin writing it all down, I now understood was actually an asset, and it gave me permission to write the way I write. This is what she said: “I am going to hold myself from writing till I have it impending in me: grown heavy in my mind like a ripe pear.”

What kind of legacy do you think our families leave us and how can that be understood in writing?

What an intriguing question, Caroline. I think it varies tremendously from family to family, don't you? Starting with how families define for themselves what a legacy is. In some families, the legacy is absence, secrets, mysteries, lost connections, disappearances, missed opportunities. In other families it's Aunt Polly's good silver, the earlobes that mark you as a Worthington, the family tone deafness, and the right to be buried in a family plot where all your ancestors have been laid to rest since the Pilgrims landed. How we write about legacy seems to me the basis for many of the great novels and plays. Our heritage, our legacy -- does it define us, or do we define ourselves in conflict with it?

I think one of the most intriguing written documents of legacy that human beings create is very literally about legacy -- a Last Will and Testament. In my case, as I write in The Memory Of All That, I discovered that my father had cut me out of his Will in response to the news that I was pregnant with my first child. In my novel True Confections, disputes about the intentions underlying ambiguous language in a Will are central to the plot. What someone leaves behind in his or her Will, in addition to material objects and money that can delight or harm the recipients, can be anything from fantastic generosity to cruel rejection.

Can you talk about your writing process? Are you an outliner?

I have learned to be an outliner because, challenging as it is to do it, working from a solid outline can save you from wasted energy going up a lot of blind alleys and it can make you a more efficient writer. On the other hand, my method is pretty much to make an outline and then deviate from it significantly at certain junctures. If I stuck to the outline all the way through a first draft, to the end, with no deviations, that would herald a failure of some kind on my part. It would be a sign that something about this draft wasn't really succeeding.

Your novels have been optioned many times for films--how difficult is it to let go of a project and see it transformed, sometimes into something very different?

I would love to have more experience with this sort of difficulty, I assure you! I have seen a lot of scripts, but nothing has made it to the screen yet. However, a short story of mine, "Sleeping," has been made into an award-winning  short film by Doug Conant and Group-Six Productions, and that was an intriguing experience. (See the trailer here.) I loved the look and feel of the film, and the casting was terrific. The ending was changed -- in my story there is ambiguity, while in the film there are concrete explanations. I wouldn't have scripted it the same way. However, it's not my film, it's Doug Conant's film.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad I found this. I saw the play GEORGE GERSHWIN, ALONE last week, went home & Googled Kay Swift, and found Weber's new book! Looking forward to its release:)

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I found this. I saw the play GEORGE GERSHWIN, ALONE last week, went home & Googled Kay Swift, and found Weber's new book! Looking forward to its release:)

Leora Skolkin-Smith said...

I am loving reading Katharine's poignant and vivid.

Wall-to-wall books said...

Are you the same Caroline Leavitt who wrote Girls in Trouble? If so - I loved that book!
I just happened upon your blog due to a link on the James Paterson article last year.