Tuesday, January 19, 2010

True Confections

ROBERTA: Ten years or so ago, I attended an all-day writing event in my hometown sponsored by our local bookseller, RJ Julia. I was so impressed with novelist Katharine Weber's presentation that I tracked her down in the hallway to ask if she'd consider mentoring my writers' group. She did and we spent Monday nights for the next semester meeting in her adorable writing studio, sipping tea, and entertained by her adorable dog, Lester. One particular piece of Katharine’s advice still plays in my head as I write: "stay in the moment." So Katharine, let's start with your teaching. Talk a little about your method of teaching fiction and your best bits of advice for aspiring writers.

KATHARINE: I am not sure I have a patented method exactly, but it is always my goal, whether it is teaching Yale undergraduates (which I did for eight years), or teaching brief intensive workshops (which I did at the Paris Writers Workshop for three summers), or doing thesis advising for Columbia MFA students (which I have done for the past four years just about every other semester), or teaching a weekly workshop like the one we did together, Roberta, to help writers find their own voice and write whatever it is they mean to be writing. I would never want to hijack someone's writing, which I think certain writing teachers do all the time, either consciously or unconsciously, because they only know how to write the way they do it, and they aren't necessarily able to tune in to whatever it is that is going on for any other writer. I think we all know of writing workshops where everyone in the room is there because of an ambition to write just like the teacher, superficial strategies for which are exactly what will be offered. I would be horrified if a student starting imitating me, and it would feel like a failure to me as a writing teacher. My goal is to help people find their own voice every time, to do whatever it is they are doing, only better.

ROBERTA: Katharine's brand new book True Confections, is just out from Shaye Arehart Books--and it has the most gorgeous cover! Please tell us about the book, including how you came upon the idea of setting a novel in a candy factory.

KATHARINE: First of all, that cover! I love it, It was the product of a lot of brainstorming and going back to the drawing board. It was really a collaborative effort, conceptually, among my editor, the art director, and me. I suggested the concept of the candy bar having all the typography on it, and I supplied an old advertisement that this candy was based on.(Dedicated aficionados recognize at a glance that the candy bar on my cover is inspired by the original Goldenberg's Peanut Chew.)

My last novel, TRIANGLE, was set partly on the premises of the Triangle Waist Company, which went up in flames on March 25th, 1911. So this is a return to a factory setting. But it was writing about the Triangle fire for a New York Times Op-Ed piece

and writing about the undocumented children who died in that fire, just as children today are dying in garment factory fires in Third World Countries, now that we outsource our appalling labor practices and our tragedies that go with them, that led me to chocolate.

Because there are child slave laborers working in cacao plantations right now in Cote D'Ivoire, which supplies more than half the world's industrial grade chocolate. And while I didn't write about them, since I was writing about children at risk in Third World factories making cheap goods for our consumption, that got me thinking about the moral issues of chocolate, and from there, it was a small leap to a chocolate factory in New Haven where one member of the presiding family has self-serving spasms of guilt over where the chocolate comes from.

This plot element actually moved off to the side before too long, but it was how I got to a chocolate factory in the first place. And from there, it was great fun setting up some more not unrelated moral dilemmas. The narrator is the non-Jew who marries into the Ziplinsky family and is never really able to assimilate, no matter how hard she tries. And Zip's Candies has been making Little Sammies, Mumbo Jumbos and Tigermelts since 1924. These three candies are each inspired by an aspect of the very problematic children's book Little Black Sambo. True Confections is a novel about chocolate, and a family business in crisis, but it is also very much a novel about race.

ROBERTA: Every so often, you may email Katharine and find that she's in the Paris part of her life, which has me completely green with envy. How did you come to live part-time in Paris? And will you give us some insider's tips on what to see and where to eat?

KATHARINE: Let's not forget how all that terrific the chocolate available in Paris was essential to my work. (I am actually somewhat serious.) In 2000 my husband was beginning to write his majestic biography of the architect Le Corbusier, and he was on a sabbatical leave from the Albers Foindation, which he directs here in Connecticut, to do resrearch in Paris. So there was a rented apartment, and one of our daughters enrolled in a high school semester at the International School of Paris while he was there, and I was back and forth a great deal. Next thing, the high school was too good for her to leave, his research was taking longer...somehow, we ended up buying an apartment "for the duration," which made good economic sense, sort of. Charlotte got her International Baccalaureate from the ISP and went from there to a British university, Nick finished his research and found that it worked well to divide his time more and more between Connecticut and Paris, his Le Corbusier book was published here in 2008 by Knopf, and in France in 2009 by Fayard. We seem to be able to keep it going indefinitely, as Nick has a great deal of work that takes him to Paris all the time. He is there right now, about to go to Senegal as part of his work with the American Friends of Le Kinkeliba.

Katharine, thanks for stopping by Jungle Red today--and also congratulations on the terrific review in the New York Times! Read more about Katharine and her books at her blog. She'll also stop by JRW later today to answer comments and questions.


  1. OH, what a marvelous idea. The "chocolate" theme for candy and race is so touching and accessible...your descpription almost makes me cry to read about it.

    Did you write a big, all-encompassing synopsis of the book? Is that when the plot changed? Or during the actual writing?

    Thanks so much for visiting today! (We'd love to come visit you in Paris..sigh.)

  2. Hi Katharine,

    I was in your workshop with Roberta. All of your advice was right on, but most of all I appreciated how you taught me to find my own style. Several from that group went on to publish.

    I enjoyed TRIANGLE and I’m looking forward to reading TRUE CONFECTIONS.

    BTW, you gave me an excellent recommendation for a hotel in the Saint-Germain District of Paris. That made my wife’s birthday extra special that year and earned me a lot of points as well. Thanks.

    Ang Pompano

  3. Hi Katharine,
    Welcome to Jungle Red. I've always been fascinated by the Triangle Waist Company fire, so I'll have to pick up your book.

    I'm also interested in your teaching style. I used to sometimes deal with editors who always tried to make people's material sound like THEM. I'm curious about your method in making sure writers develop their own voices instead of mimicking someone elses. Are there any tricks??


  4. Thank you, Roberta, and everyone for your great followup questions. First of all, I completely flaked on food recommendations in Paris.

    One -- never take a crepe that's lying there in stack, just ask nicely for a fresh one made in front of you.

    Two -- in cafes, there is a world of difference between jus d'orange (nasty out of a box) and orange pressé (freshly squeezed) but no waiter will bother to ask you which it is you sre ordering.

    Three -- the best soufflés in Paris are at Restaurant Cigalle Recamier.

    HPR -- yes, I did write a big synopsis first, but it was a map, not a three dimensional replica, and I deviated all over the place in the actual writing.

    Ang -- that was the Hotel Du Dragon, as I recall, a wonderfully situated modest place.

  5. Jan, I think sometimes the first step is for inexperienced writers to learn what it is they've got, to recognize their own voice, their own unique style or perspective or use of language. What makes you YOU as a writer? One useful exercise to identify strengths and weaknesses is to write a parody of your own writing.

    Once a writer has begun to know and understand something of his own writing strengths, then I think the next step is to figure out strategies for capitalizing on them. Be willing to be surprised at all times. Have no preconceived notions about limits and impossibilities. You have to trust your own strangeness much more than we are conditioned to do to in ordinary daily life.

  6. Trust your own strangness--that should be our new mantra at JRW! thank you Katharine for all the great information.

  7. You are very welcome, Roberta.

    Off to RJ Julia presently for tonight's True Confections reading. There will be free candy!

    Here's the list of finalists for Left Coast Crime! Congrats to all!!

    The Lefty … a humorous mystery, given at every Left Coast Crime Convention:

    Donna Andrews Swan for the Money
    Mike Befeler Living With Your Kids Is Murder
    Denise Dietz Strangle a Loaf of Italian Bread
    Rita Lakin Getting Old Is a Disaster
    Kris Neri High Crimes on the Magical Plane

    The Bruce Alexander … a historical mystery set before 1950, given at every Left Coast Crime Convention:

    Tasha Alexander Tears of Pearl
    Rhys Bowen In a Gilded Cage
    Rebecca Cantrell A Trace of Smoke
    Gary Phillips Freedom's Fight
    Jeri Westerson Serpent in the Thorns