LF: I've heard you described as a "formalist." How do you feel about that?
Katharine: I'm getting used to the idea. I was surprised when Madison Bell called me a formalist when he was teaching my first novel and I visited his class last Spring, when I was Kratz Writer in Residence at Goucher College. But on reflection it does kind of fit. Okay, I'm a formalist. I do in fact care deeply about structure and form, and it is the way I conceive of my novels and write them. I feel a bit like Moliere's Monsieur Jourdain who, when informed that one can only express oneself in poetry or prose, replies, "By my faith! For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing anything about it, and I am much obliged to you for having taught me that."
LF: The character George Botkin almost took over your Triangle book?
KW: Oh, I don't think so.
LF: Do you struggle to keep your characters in their place?
KW: Not really. I don't understand writers who speak as if their characters were little figures perched on their laptops, hopping on the keys while they sit there helplessly. But then, as a formalist, I would say that, wouldn't I? Seriously, I do feel that my fiction emerges from a character in a situation. How I write it is the narrative strategy, but who that character is, why he is there, what he wants, what he does to get what he wants -- that's where the fiction begins for me. But my characters serve the stories. I have never felt that they have taken over the stories.
LF: Does the distinction between literary and commercial fiction mean something to you?
KW: I think of literary fiction as being character-driven, and I also think of literary fiction as being concerned with the language, with the words on the page. I think of commercial fiction as being about story story story, with quality of language or narrative structure being of little consequence to the writing and of little interest to the reader.
LF: What part of writing is most interesting to you?
KW: I have never thought of writing in parts. I am not sure if you mean process (first drafts, outlines, writing the last pages the first time) or elements of a finished novel (character development, suspense, structure, imagery) or even the business side of it (writing a proposal, submitting a manuscript, getting a contract). ALL OF IT interests me. Which is to say, none of this fails to interest me.
LF: Do you love or hate the process of writing?
KW: Oh, both. Sometimes you write because the only thing -- the only, only thing -- even worse than writing is NOT writing. It's like chipping away in a mine with a bent teaspoon. But that's what you do.
LF: How has your occupation of writing affected you?
KW: I am sure that my daughters could answer this for you very thoroughly, re their childhoods, since I would be that mother who never made costumes for the school play and rarely volunteered for field trips, and so on. When you write you don't have a 9 to 5 job, you are always writing mentally even if not physically. Having a writer for a monther is having a mother who is not always present, even when she is present.
In other senses, being a writer has affected me in every moment of my waking life. Being that person on whom nothing is lost, taking James's famous advice to the young writer, comes naturally to me in the sense that I can be on a tedious line at Motor Vehicles and overhear something entirely worthwhile. Every random experience is potentially intriguing.
LF: What's the story of you and God?
KW: Not much of a story here. I suppose I would cautiously put up my hand for the agnostic group.
LF: What role has Judaism played in your life? Where does "Jewish" fall in your identity? The primary way you classify yourself or an incidental way?
KW: I come from a mixed background. My mother was a Warburg (my maternal grandfather was James P. Warburg) on one side and the daughter of an Episcopalian of British heritage on the other side (my maternal grandmother was the songwriter Kay Swift). My mother grew up with no awareness of her own Jewish identity whatsoever, despite being a Warburg in New York City, where we call the Jewish Museum The Jew Mu because we feel entitled to do so, since it was Uncle Felix's house.
My father was born in the back of a grocery store in Brooklyn in 1910, and was raised in an Orthodox household. So by some measures I am three-quarters Jewish, and I do feel like a Jew, most of the time, I have to say, except when JEWS TELL ME I AM NOT A JEW. Because of the matrilineal requirement. So here I am, with my Jewish relatives telling me I am Protestant, and my Protestant relatives telling me I am Jewish. This is where a novelist comes from, for sure. None of my Jewish identity is about belief so much as cultural heritage and identity. I certainly take this up in a major way in Triangle, which has now identifed me as a Jewish writer. You, for example, would probably not have come looking for me after reading The Music Lesson, my second novel, which features an Irish American Catholic woman embroiled with an IRA splinter group.
I am married to a Jewish man. One of our daughters identifies herself as Jewish and the other doesn't, though we certainly identified ourselves as Jews in their childhoods. We didn't belong to a temple, but we had an annual tradition of attending services at Yale Hillel, and we would usually storm out in the middle when the rabbi would make a statement about how being a Jew is remembering who your enemies are, and then we would drive home and discuss our outrage -- so that is pretty the heritage of our family and how we honored the high holy days.
LF: Do all of your books have equal meaning to you or is one special and why?
KW: They each have certain meaning for me. I can't really pick one out and say this is the best, or this one is different. It really is like having four very different children. My four published novels are each very different, one from the other, which is the only way I know how to work. I cannot imagine tilling the same row finer and finer the way some writers do.
LF: How do you know when you've done good work?
KW: I feel it. I know it. I am a very critical reader. Most of what I read disappoints me, even though I am a very optimistic and generous reader. When I have written something that really succeeds -- and I know how grandiose this sounds, but what the hell, I'll say it -- it moves me.
LF: What have you sacrificed to be a writer?
KW: A certain amount of socializing, a loss of time spent on other pursuits, from tennis to gardening to travel to developing other sorts of skills....but ultimately, the greatest sacrifice of all, the thing you have to give up if you want to write? That would be not writing. You have to give up the not writing to get to the writing. It's hard to do, and for some people, tragically, it is impossible to do. I got a late start (my first novel was published the same year I turned 40) but I figured it out before it was too late.
LF: What do you do best and worst as a writer?
KW: What I do best as a writer? Oh, find the best reviews and unpolitic blurbs and see what the critics say. What do I do worst? I feel very unproductive and undisciplined. I think I do worst at just engaging with it, getting it done as thoroughly as I know in my heart I should be doing it. .
LF: Were there any events in childhood that prefigured your adult work?
KW: My entire childhood was in effect several lifetimes worth of material for my sensibility as a novelist.
LF: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
KW: An adult. Seriously. I couldn't wait. Now that I have been an adult all these years, I think I have a much clearer sense of the playful little child inside me who in fact helps me do my best work.
LF: Could you have a protagonist you hated?
KW: To a degree, yes, but not entirely. I have certainly featured characters who are not very sympathetic, from Victor the toeless, adulterous Auschwitz survivor in my first novel to the possessed, relentless feminist scholar Ruth Zion in Triangle. But they do have some redeeming features, in the end, and they are not the main characters.
LF: Do you ever have trouble entering and leaving your vivid fantasy world?
KW: Yes, in the sense that it is hard to return to quotidien needs and dinner time and going to the dentist and being with family members at certain moments in the flow of writing. This is why going off to write alone for two or three weeks at certain key moments in the writing of my novels has always been a really productive and sane thing to do.
LF: How has marriage/motherhood affected your writing?
KW: I am married to a writer, which is mostly a good thing for the writing, but sometimes we are both in the same place with our work and it's hard. I think being in the swim of life, being so deeply connected to other human beings in all these profound ways has given me far more insight into how people are than I could have ever imagined it on my own as a solitary disconnected writer in a garrett.
LF: What do you most want from your kids aside from their happiness?
KW: I want them to be people who give more to the world than they take from the world.
LF: You seem so serious in all of your pictures.
KW: I don't think I am so serious, really. I think you would find some sunnier, earlier author photos if you Google images, and on my website -- for Triangle it just seemed wrong to be too lighthearted-looking, you know?
LF: Who is your husband?
KW: My husband is Nicholas Fox Weber. He is the author of the controversial biography of the painter Balthus (whose biggest secret was his Jewish background, by the way), Patron Saints, and many other books, mostly about the visual arts. His new book (out next year) is about Le Corbusier. And he runs the Albers Foundation.