An Interview with Katharine Weber

Katharine Weber’s Triangle is a Litblog Coop Summer 2007 Read This! Nominee. I had a chance to ask Katharine a few questions about this enigmatic novel:

Levi: Your grandmother once worked in the Triangle factory. Can you tell us more about her, and about the way you heard about the Triangle tragedy when you were growing up?

Katharine: I cannot recall my grandmother ever mentioning the Triangle to me. She died when I was twelve. But my father talked about her work at the Triangle quite often, and about the impressive trajectory of her life from there, her last job in the garment sweatshops, finishing buttonholes at the Triangle in 1909. She left that job because she was pregnant with my father. Pauline Gottesfeld Kaufman had very little education, but she helped support both her brother Ben and her sister Esther through law school. She was, as they say, street smart, and starting with a tiny grocery store on Stagg Street in Brooklyn (my father was born in the back of that store in 1910) she and my grandfather (who had begun living his American dream in 1905 as a pack peddler and then a pushcart peddler, switching from pants to fruit and then finally to that store), went on to own the building, and own another building, until they owned a row of tenements on Ten Eyck Street, and an auto supply store. I have always had the sense that she was the more motivated and canny of the two. (My one memory of Sam Kaufman, who died when I was six was that when we visited he would go into the coat closet and close the door behind him to drink schnapps from the bottle he kept in an overcoat pocket. This fascinated me because it was a closet with a light that went on when you opened the door, and I could see him swigging from the bottle because he didn’t close the door all the way when he went in there.) Once when I was perhaps eleven and was sewing a button on a shirt, my father stood over me for a moment, watching, and then he said, “When your grandmother was your age, she had to work for a living doing that all day long.” It made a huge impression on me.

Levi: While your book is obviously a work of fiction, you based the courtroom scenes, in which Esther Gottesfeld’s testimony is discredited for appearing too rehearsed, on the actual trials of the Triangle owners (readers can learn more about this in David Von Drehle’s historical account Triangle: The Fire That Changed America). Did you feel you were skating on the edge of non-fiction with this part of the novel, or any other aspects of the novel? How did you approach the balance between truth and fiction as you were writing Triangle?

Katharine: Although I had read the trial transcript in the Von Drehle book, I wrote the trial chapter in my novel sitting at a desk in Ireland, with no supporting materials of any kind at hand. In that sense, I simply made it up, and I never looked again at any historical documents or records. I was especially focused on the way Max Steuer, the brilliant attorney defending the owners, had neutralized the power and effectiveness, just about nullified the truth and meaning of the testimony altogether, of one key witness, an easily intimidated garment worker whose testimony, while true, was clearly memorized. By forcing her to repeat her testimony twice more, he was able to demonstrate just how memorized her words were. It was a clever strategy that may well have been the turning point for the trial. Given the immense significance that repetition plays in Triangle, from the various iterations of Esther’s story to the fundamental way that all music depends on and has a relationship to repetition for its pleasing form, this was something I wanted to appropriate and give to Esther’s testimony.

The names of the attorneys and the judge in the trial transcript in my novel are the true names of those people, but since it is the testimony of a fictional character whose experiences, motives, and intentions are all fictional, I never felt that I was any closer to the edge of nonfiction in this chapter than in any other appropriations of the actual events of the Triangle fire. I hope it is evident that I have been respectful of true events and the true experiences of people who were there on March 25th, 1911. In a way, I hope it is clear how much my novel honors those true experiences. At the same time, I am not a historian, and for me it is always about the novel, about serving the fiction, about telling a story. A novelist appropriates facts, but you never want the facts to get in the way of the story.

Levi: I bet many readers were surprised, as I was, to find an experimental musician who uses molecular biology as the basis for his compositions at the core of Triangle. I think this works, but I’m not exactly sure why. Can you shed any light? Would you say that DNA is a significant metaphor in this book?

Katharine: Triangle is a novel about all the ways information comes to us, all the ways history is transmitted. Your history is in your DNA. Your DNA tells your story — in a certain way. How do you know what you think you know about anything, starting with your own molecular structure?

I have been asked why I put all this music in a novel “about” the Triangle fire. I can only say that the novel was conceived in my mind with this music as an essential and integral part of the story before I wrote a word of it, and that the eway the novel concludes was something I had fully worked out before I had written any of it, as well. The music was always going to be the key that turns in the lock.

Levi: You’ve mentioned to me another personal source of inspiration for this book, involving your other grandmother. Can you tell us more about this? (Another way of asking this question: Is there a reason your musical genius is named “George”?)

Katharine: Triangle is dedicated to both my grandmothers. In a clear sense, they are both very present as inspirations for the stuff of the novel. My maternal grandmother was the composer Kay Swift, who is probably best known in musical theater circles not for her own work but for her romantic involvement with George Gershwin. I was very close to her, I am named for her, and I am quite involved in all kinds of projects around her music, from works towards reviving her 1930 hit Broadway show “Fine and Dandy” to consulting on a feature film in development about Kay, George, and the complex triangle that was a consequence of her romance with him, given that it occupied the last ten years of her marriage to my grandfather, James Warburg. As I was writing Triangle I was involved in the production of a restoration recording of Fine and Dandy with PS Classsics, in the studio with a 26-piece orchestra and a wonderful cast of Broadway talent. And so while I am actually a musical illiterate, I do spend a certain amount of time in a musical realm, and I know that there was a lot of cross-pollination. The machine shop opening number of “Fine and Dandy” certainly has its echoes in the “Triangle Oratorio” with which the novel concludes.

My composer George Botkin is indeed named after George Gershwin, but he is not based on Gershwin as a personality, his music is not like Gershwin’s music, and the relationship between Rebecca and George is nothing like my grandmother’s relationship with Gershwin. However, the genius and endlessly imaginative ambition to make new, wonderful music — that’s borrowed from the spirit of Gershwin. The public’s confusion with Botkin’s music — is it high or low? The critical suspicion of this inventive music that is so deeply appealing — that is very directly inspired by the way our culture has never known quite how to locate Gershwin on the high/low continuum. (Let’s not forget that Virgil Thompson dismissed so viciously the “gefilte fish orchestration” i
n “Porgy and Bess.”)

Levi: I really enjoyed the intimate and realistic portrait of a lovingly married couple in post Sept 11 New York City. How do you feel when you hear Triangle described as an example of a “Sept 11 book”?

Katharine: I am pleased by that, because writing indirectly about the events of September 11th seemed like the only solution, and in a way, writing about the events of March 25th, 1911 became a gesture in the direction of September 11th inevitably, like it or not. But the contrast and relationship will be so present and vivid for the reader, it would have been less effective for the novel had I instructed and made that any more literal or obvious. My editor, John Glusman, was very wise about this, counseling me against writing that day into the story. It’s there anyway. Even though I wrote the first chapter of Triangle before September 11th, 2001, it can only now be read in a post September 11 world.

Levi: How do you feel about the way Triangle has been received?

Katharine: I have been immensely gratified by the reviewers who really got it. I have been bemused by the readers and occasional reviewers who really didn’t get it. In that sense, this is what publication has been like for all four of my novels. I have had a lot of wonderful response for this novel of a kind I have not had in the past, in a commercial sense (Book of the Month and Literary Guild, a large-print edition) to a lot of blog interest, including the Litblog Co-op attention. On the other hand, although my first three novels were New York Times Notable Books, Triangle was never reviewed in The New York Times. But it got wonderful attention on public radio. So — win some, lose some. Triangle was a finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize and for the John Gardner Fiction Book Award.

One thing that’s different with this novel is that I am being read for the first time by readers who don’t especially read fiction, who have no interest in literary novels, but they have a lot of interest in fire (fire in general, and the Triangle fire in particular), or Jewish history, or labor history, or New York history, or women’s history, or some combination of those things. I hear from a lot of people whose mothers or grandmothers or great aunts worked in the needle trades in New York in the first decades of the 20th century. I don’t disagree when a great number of people tell me at readings or in email or mail that their great aunt or grandmother worked at the Triangle but “she didn’t feel well and didn’t go to work that day,” even though there are a lot of reasons this isn’t entirely likely. (For one thing, if you didn’t go to work at the Triangle because you didn’t feel well, you lost your job.)

Firefighters have come to my readings. A number of people who were in the towers on September 11th have come to my readings or written to me to talk about the relationship between my descriptions of Esther’s experience and the fire at the Triangle in 1911, and their own weirdly parallel experiences surviving the events of that horrific day.

I will always wonder if Triangle would have been receieved differently, or written about and talked about differently, if it had been written by a man.

Levi: Can you give us a hint what the next Katharine Weber novel will be?

Katharine: I am under contract for my next two books with Harmony, where John Glusman, who edited my last two novels at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is now Executive Editor. My fifth novel, Temper, is about a fourth-generation chocolate candy business in crisis. If I finish it on time, which is my intention, it would presumably be published in 2009. After that comes a memoir, Symptoms of Fiction, so I am thinking about that all the time in the background, and doing a certain amount of reading and note-writing for that as well.

4 Responses

  1. Triangle still standing?Is
    Triangle still standing?

    Is the Triangle that well-known wedge of a building that appears in so many photos of NY, or am I thinking of something else?

    Enjoyed the interview. Katherine Weber’s novel sounds like a welcome addition to the ever-expanding catalog of historical novels.

  2. Interesting guess, Bill, but
    Interesting guess, Bill, but no, that’s the Flatiron Building on 23rd Street, one of the best and most photographed buildings in Manhattan. The women of the Triangle factory would have died in high style if they’d jumped from this building.

    The factory building is in a surprising spot, though, on a nice-looking block just east of bucolic Washington Square Park, in the vicinity of New York University. The fire was fierce enough to kill over a hundred workers but barely damaged the structure itself. You can stand there and look around at the attractive setting and try, only try, to imagine what the scene looked like on that day nearly a hundred years ago.

  3. Another great oneThanks for
    Another great one

    Thanks for another fine, in-depth interview, Levi. I look forward to reading more.

  4. I’ll second that.I just read
    I’ll second that.

    I just read DeLillo’s Falling Man and it is the best book that I’ve read about “September 11th” since the 9/11 report, the one that was put out by Congress that was very readable.

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