Cooking Up a Novel With Katharine Weber

By Beth Kissileff

Published January 13, 2010, issue of January 22, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Katharine Weber is the author of the award-winning novel, “Triangle” about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Her new novel, “True Confections,” plays with the characters’ and readers’ sense of truth. In the spirit of protagonist Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky, the narrator of “True Confections,” the following interview may not have happened exactly as written. But these words nevertheless record truth and were approved by Weber.

Sweet: The author of ‘True Confections’ Katharine Weber.
Sweet: The author of ‘True Confections’ Katharine Weber.

Beth Kissileff: How did you become a writer?

Katharine Weber: I taught myself to write by being a reader. I wanted to be with other writers and did many journalistic interviews with writers. After an interview with Erica Jong, she said to me: “You’re a writer. I’m a witch about these things, and I think you’re going to be successful.” It was a brilliant thing for her to say to someone who was going to write a profile about her! Another time, I was writing a profile of Philip Roth. He wanted to approve all the quotes, everything I put in his mouth. I made up some; they were things he was saying or meant to say, I just helped him to say them. And he approved all of them!

I do want to acknowledge that this is not good journalism, it’s fiction writing, and when I did this I recognized that it was time to be a fiction writer and stop skating along this dangerous edge.

I was working on a novel, but it went on the list after other things, after my journalistic work, packing lunches, cleaning the cat’s litterbox. The world was not waiting for my novel. I sent a story to The New Yorker in 1993 and got a rejection. I rejected their rejection. I thought it was a good story, so I sent it back. A different reader read it, liked it and took it to Daniel Menaker (then fiction editor), who loved it. After it was published, I told Menaker the story and he thought it was hilarious! They made a mistake.

Tell me something about the identity shifts in the novel.

All the characters become something different. The first generation founder [of fictional Zip’s Candies] Eli Czaplinsky changes himself from a Hungarian Jew to an American, and when he moves from New York to New Haven, Connecticut he remakes himself again. Alice, the narrator, leaves her family and identity as “arson girl” to become a Ziplinsky [Note: We won’t spoil the plot by explaining]. There is a runaway from Africa who shifts his identity. Julius Czaplinsky, in Madagascar, goes native.

Does Alice change over the course of the novel?

She is, by the end, more Ziplinsky than Tatnall.

Do you have a careful plan for your novels?

You write fiction wanting to be surprised. If you have a plan, deviations are fruitful. If there is no deviation, something fails. All this is true even more with an unreliable narrator. It is usually desirable for an author to know the truth about a character’s motives. But I don’t know what happened with the accident [Note: A fire set by Alice, the narrator]. It is generally bad for an author not to know, but here the ambiguity is necessary. In my earlier novel, “The Music Lesson,” are two characters really cousins or not? I am raising questions, not answers. Alice is a character who is willing to be a victim.

I’m fairly well versed in Jewish history and I haven’t heard of the Madagascar Plan. Is it real?

All the factual information in the novel is real. If I were going to write a book on it, I’d call it “The First Solution.” The Third Reich wanted to relocate 4 million Jews to Madagascar, but they didn’t win the Battle of Britain. The Third Reich thought they would win, and then they would have the British fleet at their disposal. This is a crucial turn of events in the history of the Madagascar Plan’s failure battle with Britain, [that they] didn’t have the resources for transportation. The other thing about Madagascar is that cacao is grown there. All the places cacao grows are 20 degrees from the equator.

How much do you live in your invented world?

I went to candy conventions, twice. The articles about them are on my Web site. The second time I went, I felt as if I could have hallucinated the Zip’s Candies booth there on the convention floor. I wanted to tell all the people around me: “You’re in my novel! I invented you!” Each time you write a novel, you have to learn how to write that novel. They’re all different.

Read the Forward’s review of “True Confections” here.

Beth Kissileff is the author of a forthcoming novel, “Questioning Return,” and is currently working on a second novel at Yaddo. She has taught at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.

Find us on Facebook!
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.