Saturday, August 12, 2006

Katharine Weber, Triangle

One of the first adult books I read as a teenager was a novel about the historic Triangle Shirtwaist fire. I've always been intrigued with this time in history, early New York City and the young girls who worked in the big city so long ago.

With Triangle, Katharine Weber takes us inside the life of a surviving Triangle factory worker, Esther Gottesfeld, who is 106 years old. Set in modern day, the novel looks at the fire through interviews with Esther and an overzealous historian with an agenda of her own, Ruth Zion. Triangle also delves into the lives of George, a composer who is inspired by genetic material and Rebecca, Esther's granddaughter. The themes and plots and characters are seamlessly braided together so well, as only a writer like Katharine Weber is able to do.

Why did you choose to write the book through George and Rebecca rather than from Esther's point of view?

I am not sure I made a decision about this exactly, so much as I just wrote it in a very organic way. I do think I wrote the book with Esther's voice as the organizing spine. I think her voice dominates the story. The story of Rebecca and George is really more of a counterpoint.

Tell me about your paternal Grandmother who worked at Triangle. What did you know about her and her work at the shirtwaist company, did she leave notes behind?

My grandmother rarely spoke of The Triangle to me, though she did work there for perhaps a year, finishing buttonholes, in 1909. She would mend my clothes when I visited her in her Brooklyn house, and she made some very nice little jackets for my dolls, complete with buttonholes. She would say from time to time that I was lucky to be in school, lucky I didn't have to earn a living the way girls my age who worked in sweatshops did, in her day. She died when I was 12.

My father talked more about his mother having worked at the Triangle than I ever heard about it from her.“She was a great lady,” he would say, and then he would enumerate her accomplishments, arriving with her brother, sister, and nothing else in 1900, working first in sweatshops and later in the family grocery store (where my father was born, in the back room, in1910) to support the family and to help put her sister Esther through law school.

Not a lot of books delve into the tragedy that was the Triangle fire, which was such an interesting time in history. What other periods in history intrigue you?

It's hard not to be intrigued by the Civil War, which has offered fertile material to countless novelists. I am also really interested in Irish history of the last few hundred years, and delved into it in a bit in The Music Lesson. I am especially interested in the first half of the twentieth century as well which seems so much richer than our present era.

I always think that serious books are written by scholarly, somber writers. How would you describe yourself and is 'serious' a word you would use ?

I certainly mean to be taken seriously. I feel only somewhat scholarly, however, which is to say the scholarship, crackpot as it is, is only ever there to serve the fiction. I am a novelist above, not anything else. My kind of scholarship is much more like a magpie swooping down on a glittering gum wrapper on the sidewalk than it is like the kind of scholarship necessary, for, say, a thesis.

Does your writing routine revolve around a cat, a pot of Earl Gray and a bit of classical music? That's how I imagine you.

Not quite. Our beloved cat has died, and I am a coffee drinker. I don’t listen to music while I write. I write in my study out in the studio in our backyard in Connecticut, and also at certain times in Paris, and in our little house in Ireland.

What is your writing schedule? Are you a disciplined writer?

I am a wildly undisciplined writer most of the time, and I am mostly unproductive (in the sense of words on the page) for long stretches, but then I write in bursts of very intense long days, and some of that feels more like writing down what I have allowed to form fully. It is a little bit of a manic process. In a way it is like spending a certain amount of time just floating around, becalmed, and then catching a wind in your sails. I have learned to be patient with myself, and to accept that this is how I work, this is my process –- the not writing is an important step in the writing.

When did you decide to become a writer, was it a long road or smooth sailing to get to the point of being an esteemed novelist?

I was always writing and a child, and there is no clear single moment of decision. But I did get a bit of a late start. My first fiction in print appeared in1993, a short story in The New Yorker, taken off the slush pile, which was part of my first novel, then only half-written. I turned 40 the same year my first novel was published. I had done a lot of other writing along the way, I have never studied writing, and taught myself to write by being a reader, pretty much. It has certainly been a very crooked path.

Who are some of the writers of today that you admire?

I have tremendous admiration for Philip Roth, Stephen Milhauser, Richard Powers. Colson Whitehead, EmilyBarton, and Jonathan Lethem are fabulously inventive, and I esteem Allegra Goodman, Binnie Kirshenbaum and Margot Livesey a great deal as well. My admiration is boundless for Vladimir Nabokov, Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, Somerset Maugham. And always, always --Henry James and Edith Wharton. I am sure that on another day I would name a dozen different writers, but some of these are my core mentors on the page.


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