Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Chocolate Sprinkles Have a Name

Chocolate sprinkles have a name, at least, they do if you are over 40. (I mentioned this last week and will now explain more fully.) If you are over 40, you have probably already said "Jimmies!" and you're right, that's what they're called. Why?

The founder of Just Born Candy, famous today for their Marshmallow Peeps, along with Mike and Ike and Teenee Beanees, was Sam Born, who arrived in New York from Russia in 1910. He was a real Rube Goldberg inventor when it came to sweet treats. Not only did he invent the process for making the hard chocolate coating on Eskimo Pies, he also created a machine that mechanically inserted sticks into lollipops. Sam Born opened his own shop in 1923 (where he hung out a sign saying his sweets were so fresh they were "Just Born," and soon after he also came up with a chocolate-sprinkle producing machine, whose yield—Jimmies—were named for the employee who operated the apparatus, a kid named Jimmy.

Another item for True Confections, if I had only learned this sooner.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Still Reflecting

Why didn't I mention the German photo-grapher Ilse Bing, the "Queen of the Leica"? Surely she would be Harriet Rose's role model in Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.

I love this Bing self-portrait, and have long thought it would be a great cover for a new edition of Objects. (Which is in the works, by the way.) Probably no marketing department would agree, however.

Friday, July 17, 2009

One More Reflection in the Mirror

My first novel, Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, is about a photographer obsessed with reflections.

Harriet Rose is young, and tends to be more observant than perceptive. The novel has as a kind of centerpiece the Jan Van Eyck wedding portrait of the Arnolfinis, which was on the very beautiful cover of the hardcover edition (Crown, 1995) and not on the un-good cover of the Picador paperback (Henry Sene Yee is brilliant and this is one of his only flops, ever, in my eyes.) Since publication, I have read a little more about self portraiture (and everything else), and it seems likely that artists chosing to depict themselves really began to flourish in the early Renaissance because of the advent of better and cheaper mirrors, many of them convex, like the mirror in the center of the Arnolfini portrait (which is slyly repeated on the beautiful spine of the Objects jacket, with the two little Arnolfini clasped hands). This is the kind of fact Harriet Rose would possess, or perhaps it is something her friend Anne Gordon would tell her. And there would be mention in this conversation of the Jan Van Eyck self portrait of 1433, which is considered by art historians to be one of the first mirror-influenced self-portraits.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Jews and Candy

My article about the Jewish heritage of many classic American candies ran in Tablet today.

This story has a number of little nuggets I would have stuffed into True Confections (which is, by the way, plenty stuffed as it is), from chocolate sprinkles being called "jimmies" because the guy who operated the machine that made them was named Jimmy, to the reason that Goldenberg's Peanut Chews were made with peanuts instead of walnuts, because peanuts were cheaper than walnuts. Also the way Topps Gum bought up small candy companies to close them in order to get their rationed sugar quotas. Why do I love the candy business so much?

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Wrong Title

As I write, I have always been fairly certain about the title of my novel in progress (though my forthcoming novel True Confections, had another title, and I will write about that soon). I am even pretty sure about the titles of some novels that lie far ahead of me in the years to come.

But I think I got it wrong with my third novel, The Little Women, which was published in 2003. It's a somewhat post-modern (not that I am sure I or anyone else really understands what is meant by that term) appropriation of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. I wanted to convey that, and given the nature of my novel, it seemed quite apt. I still think it was a good title, but I will always believe the title of this novel is one of the main reasons it has been least recognized and has probably sold the fewest copies among my novels, because it probably defined the book in a narrow and misleading way for too many readers. It probably suggested to certain readers that the book was going to appeal only to women. It probably suggested that the relationship to Louisa May Alcott was essential, when in fact, it was not, and my editor, John Glusman, had not even read the Alcott when he bought the novel.

About a year after publication, it occurred to me that I had missed the boat on the title. When Louisa May Alcott was writing Little Women (what is now Part I of the edition most familiar to readers over the generations), her working title was the ironic and perhaps even somewhat bitter The Pathetic Family. Her publisher balked at this, though of course she meant pathetic in the 19th century pathos sense, and he insisted that she come up with something far blander and sweeter.

Michael Cunningham made a brilliant choice to call his contemporary appropriation The Hours, which was Virginia Woolf's working title for Mrs. Dalloway. I now wish I had called my third novel The Pathetic Family.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


Something I would have loved to include in True Confections had I known it before now:

You know Black Crows, those licorice gum drops you see for sale at movie theater candy counters if nowhere else?
Apparently the original intention was to call them Black Rose, but the person charged with designing and ordering the cardboard box misunderstood the request.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

L'Esprit D'Escalier

The French call it "l'esprit d'escalier," stairway wit. The witty thing you should have said that occurs to you only as you descend the stairs at the end of the evening. As a novelist, I find that I have staircase thoughts about each of my novels, even though it has been almost fifteen years since my first novel was published. I am always making discoveries of little details, finding a new insight about elements that would have been perfectly suited for some aspect of the story, always chancing upon something in a newspaper, in a conversation, on a train, in a novel. There is always one more small gesture that I would have appropriated for a character, if only I had found it when I was still writing that novel. (I don't mean that I have second thoughts now about what I did write.)

Do other writers have this experience, this sense that their novels could have been just a little more enriched by something that has only come to mind now, too late?

Two pieces of what I am going to call Staircase Writing to inaugurate this journal :

Today, driving to community recycling, I heard on the radio that the heart beats in 3/4 time. I wish I had known that when I was writing Triangle, because it is exactly the sort of knowledge possessed by George Botkin, the composer in the story whose music is inspired by forms found in nature.

Yesterday, flying back to the U.S. from Ireland, I read about a man who fell into a vat of boiling chocolate and died, in a processing plant in New Jersey, where the chocolate is processed for Hershey bars. If I had read this story a few months ago, when I was finishing my forthcoming novel True Confections, a novel about a chocolate factory in crisis, I am sure I would have found a way to work it into the story.