You know, sometimes we get lucky and find a famous writer who agrees to spend a Saturday afternoon with us. On other occasions we’ll get a well-established professional who decides to share their wealth of knowledge out of some personal magnanimity, altruism or simple desire to move it forward. This time we managed to get both; for some reason known only to the writing gods, we somehow secured for March (wait for it) . . . Katharine Weber.
Katharine is in her 7th year as the Richard L. Thomas Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College, and previously taught at Yale and Columbia as well as writing workshops in Paris, Mexico and Ireland. In addition, she’s written several books praised by the New York Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune and L.A. Times. And if that’s not enough, her most recent novel, Still Life With Monkey, made the Washington Post’s list of ’50 notable works of fiction in 2018.’
And now, on March 30th, she’s going to be speaking to BCW about crime writing in popular fiction, from books such as The Great Gatsby to the more recent Mockingjay. Touching on subjects such as what makes great crime fiction, why it’s important/enduring, how it’s influenced other genres, etcetera. So if you feel the need to jump-start your creative juices and get some fascinating insight into the history and mechanics of crime fiction, this is a no-brainer. What next? Go open up Outlook, pencil in your calendar or write on your forehead the following: Katharine Weber, Gahanna Library, Sat. 3/30/19, 12:30 – 2:30. And per usual, please feel free to hang with Katharine and the crew for lunch at a nearby restaurant afterwards, where we’ll discuss the mysteries of life (like why does the waitress always wait until you’ve got a mouthful of food to ask if you need anything), and other existential conundrums. Until then, keep writing.
In advance of the March 30 presentation, our president, Patrick Stuart, conducted an interview with Katharine Weber about her recent book Still Life With Monkey). Read on below!
PS: OK, let’s set the scene: you are Katharine Weber, the Richard L. Thomas Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College (who also taught at Yale and Columbia), and the author of several critically acclaimed books including Still Life With Monkey, which was picked for the Washington Post’s list of “50 notable works of fiction in 2018.” The novel involves Duncan Wheeler, an architect in Connecticut at the beginning a successful career when a horrific car crash renders him a quadriplegic, not to mention killing his young apprentice. Duncan’s wife Laura discovers an organization in New England that trains capuchin monkeys as helpers for people with spinal cord injuries, and they adopt Ottoline to help with Duncan’s daily needs (turning pages, picking up dropped items, etc.). So how did you come up with the storyline?
KW: A friend from high school, Andy Zerman, one of the book’s dedicatees, became a quadriplegic some 25 years ago in a boating accident that took someone else’s life. His circumstances and choices in life are completely different from Duncan (Andy was a gay Broadway show casting director, who lived and worked and continued to work for many years after his accident in New York City). But Andy’s situation, and the day to day needs, were familiar to me. I first heard about monkey helpers long ago. As a novelist, sometimes the spark that ignites is the juxtaposition, no matter how unlikely, of two separate things that I find intriguing and filled with narrative possibility. For me, developing plans for a novel is never one single moment of aha! but the gradual accumulation of ideas and situations, many aha!s, and then comes the gathering feeling of the need to bear down on something particular in a particular way. Andy died in January, very unexpectedly. I am very glad I had seen him just a couple of weeks before, and that he lived to see publication of a book dedicated to him. He was an avid reader and he was very willing to answer questions from me about everything from the function of a tenododisis grip (which he called his “teena” — I can show you what this is and why it matters with damaged hand function) to his depression when he was first recovering from the accident — he told himself “I’m going to give this a year.” That was an aha! moment for me — my ticking clock! All fiction needs a ticking clock.
PS: Full disclosure: I have an architectural background (as well as a son named Duncan), so this novel hit home for me. The amount of detail in Duncan’s background is spot on (well beyond the typical Wikipedia/Google search), as well as an important part of his character. A similar amount of detail was evident with the fictitious Primate Institute where Ottoline was trained (based on an actual organization), Laura’s job as an art curator, and other areas. Exposition is important in establishing realism in a story; what’s your process for gathering such detailed background information?
KW: Wikipedia? Please! For one thing, I worked in an architecture office (Richard Meier) as a ghostwriter and general office and archive clerk of the works. I have intimate knowledge of art restoration. I read deeply into monkey behavior studies, and I spent time behind the scenes at Monkey College, where Helping Hands, in Cambridge Mass, trains capuchin monkeys. They are the real thing on which my fictional Primate Institute is based. When I don’t have personal knowledge, I certainly do read deeply, but I also ask people questions, I delve into the personal relationships with professions or circumstances as much or more than I gather concrete information. If you operated a garbage truck I would want craziest/best/worst/stories, I would want to know if you dream about your work, as much as I would want to know how you actually operate the truck.
PS: The novel shifts perspectives between Duncan, Ottoline, his wife Laura and his twin brother Gordon. There isn’t so much a linear path as several views from different vantage points. Was this intentional or did the story structure grow this way organically?
KW: It was both intentional and organic. I am not being coy. I very much wanted to write in the close third person, what kids these days call free indirect discourse. Most of my previous novels depend on first person narrative much of the time, and here the only true first person narrative comes late, in Duncan’s long farewell letter to Laura. The close third person isn’t limited to one point of view as much as a first person story really is. I also wanted to write in a male perspective, which I have not done before.
PS: (Spoiler alert to readers: this question involves the ending): Duncan’s identical twin brother Gordon is the polar opposite of Duncan’s personality. Whereas Duncan is independent, Gordon is dependent on everyone around him. Duncan is controlling and driven to succeed, whereas Gordon prefers his daily routine and is a bit of a ‘squish,’ etc.. But after the accident they seem to switch places, and Duncan is forced to rely on others as Gordon steps up to become more responsible for his brother. Duncan can’t make the adjustment and eventually takes his own life; definitely a tough subject, but in Duncan’s eyes he did what he thought was right. Was this always Duncan’s ending, and how did their dichotomy play a part in his decision?
KW: I am very interested in copies, mirror images, matched pairs that can never really be perfectly matched. We can discuss the role of these twins, the way Duncan isn’t content at all, and maybe despite his enjoyment of all sorts of things he was never fully content, given his deeply hidden (from himself too) homoerotic attraction to Todd, while Gordon is content with his life in ways others don’t recognize. What is a successful life? Gordon and Duncan would define very differently. I am interested in the limits of how much we ever really know about other people, what we think we know, the difference between the inner life and the outer life.
PS: Chekhov came up with that great quote about a gun being shown in the first act of a play necessitating firing by the second act. One potentially unfired gun in SLWM (in my highly subjective opinion) involved Todd Walker, the apprentice killed in the car crash. There appeared to be something beyond a working relationship developing between Duncan and Todd. But then the accident happened and the issue kind of disappeared. Intentional? Unintentional?
KW: It didn’t disappear. It drove Duncan’s desire to end his life. Nothing unintentional here. Just subtle. Starting with the scene riding back on the ferry, with Duncan gazing at Todd (a close paraphrase of a scene in Death in Venice, when Von Aschenbach is gazing at Tadzio (Todd, todt = death in German).
PS: And lastly, in a blatant rip-off of James Lipton and his t.v. series Inside the Actors Studio, what is a) your favorite word, and b) your favorite (literary) curse word?
KW: My favorite words may vary from one day to the next, but today:
Favorite word: lunch
Favorite literary curse word(s): numpty fuckwit (I spend a lot of time in England and Ireland)