Sunday, August 19, 2012

Back to My Monkey Business

Working on The Monkey Helper. Want something? Take a number!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Nazi Chocolate Plot

Much as I have moved on from all things chocolate since the publication of my last novel True Confections two years ago, today's news reveals a story I would surely have included in my novel about chocolate, racism, and the Third Reich's Madagascar Plan for the Jews of Europe.  Wire stories report:

London, July 18 (ANI): Secret wartime papers exchanged between MI5 officials have revealed that the Nazis' plans to conquer Britain included a deadly assault on Sir Winston Churchill with exploding chocolate. Adolf Hitler's bomb-makers coated explosive devices with a thin layer of rich dark chocolate and then packaged it in expensive-looking black and gold paper.

The Germans planned to use secret agents working in Britain to discreetly place the bars of chocolate - branded as Peter's Chocolate - among other luxury items taken on trays into the dining room used by the War Cabinet during the Second World War. The lethal slabs of confection were packed with enough explosives to kill anyone within several metres.

But Hitler's plot was foiled by British spies who discovered that they were being made and tipped off one of MI5's most senior intelligence chiefs, Lord Victor Rothschild. Lord Rothschild, a scientist in peace time as well as a key member of the Rothschild banking family, immediately typed a letter to a talented illustrator seconded to his unit asking him to draw poster-size images of the chocolate to warn the public to be on the look-out for the bars. His letter to the artist, Laurence Fish, is dated May 4, 1943 and was written from his secret bunker in Parliament Street, central London.

The letter, marked 'Secret', reads "Dear Fish, I wonder if you could do a drawing for me of an explosive slab of chocolate...We have received information that the enemy are using pound slabs of chocolate which are made of steel with a very thin covering of real chocolate," the Daily Mail quoted the letter as reading. "Inside there is high explosive and some form of delay mechanism... When you break off a piece of chocolate at one end in the normal way, instead of it falling away, a piece of canvas is revealed stuck into the middle of the piece which has been broken off and a ticking into the middle of the remainder of the slab. When the piece of chocolate is pulled sharply, the canvas is also pulled and this initiates the mechanism. I enclose a very poor sketch done by somebody who has seen one of these. It is wrapped in the usual sort of black paper with gold lettering, the variety being PETERS. Would it be possible for you to do a drawing of this, one possibly with the paper half taken off revealing one end and another with the piece broken off showing the canvas. The text should indicate that this piece together with the attached canvas is pulled out sharply and that after a delay of seven seconds the bomb goes off."

The letter was found by Fish's wife, journalist Jean Bray, as she sorted through his possessions following the artist's death, aged 89, in 2009.  Incredible!  Not only would Alice Ziplinsky have had a lot to say about this, but I would dearly love to have been able to weave it into the Ziplinsky family history and the story of Zip's Candies.  This is exactly the sort of headsmacking item that compelled me to name this blog Staircase Writing.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Working on The Monkey Helper

Not much to say right now because I am working on my novel, The Monkey Helper.

Monday, June 11, 2012

(Re)Publication Day

The Broadway Books paperback edition of The Memory Of All That: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family's Legacy of Infidelities is on bookstore shelves now, with the official pub date being tomorrow, June 12th.  The new cover puts emphasis on the New York-ness of the story, complete with a not-quite finished Chrysler Building in the background. It also features a really terrific, slightly come-hither photograph of my grandmother circa 1928 in her leopard coat and a fetching cloche hat. Here's hoping new readers are attracted by the new cover!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Must Have Names and Facts

My memoir, THE MEMORY OF ALL THAT: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Families Legacy of Infidelities will be out in a pretty new paperback edition from Broadway Books in a couple of weeks.

A question I have been asked a few times since the book's publication last July is about my motivation and indiscretion in writing about family history. Why did I delve into such personal stories about my grandmother Kay Swift, in particular?  My answer each time has been the observation that unlike most family stories, numerous versions of the central events in my family's  history have been in the public view all along. The events and personalities have been scrutinized and gossiped about and picked over for decades, in newspaper stories, magazine articles, gossip columns,  cultural histories, and biographies. Countless people think they know all about my family members. And so what I have written is in many ways a counter-story, a push back against the distorted narrative that has been in public view for a very long time. I know that what I have written is an act of loyalty, love, and devotion. I also know that certain people are both judgmental and truly uncomfortable about my choices.

Last week I came across a particular letter, dated Saturday November 9th, 1940, one of hundreds of letters from my grandmother to her lifelong friend Mary Lasker, to whom she wrote nearly daily from the ranch in Oregon where she had lived for a year by then with her second husband, a cowboy. At the time of the letter, Kay was 43, thirteen years younger than I am now.

I read through all the letters a few years ago, but I didn't recall this particular passage, which seems especially pertinent at this moment, and I am very glad I found it.  She ended the eight-page rambling and reflective letter to her closest confidante with this passing thought: "When I'm 75 my autobiography would be good reading -- but that is fairly far off; and no discreet autobiog. is any good at all. Must have names & facts."

Monday, May 14, 2012

Finding Vermeer

My second novel, The Music Lesson, is about an IRA splinter group's plot to steal a Vermeer from the Queen. In the course of the story, the mysterious circumstances of the unsolved theft of paintings from the Gardner Museum in Boston are explained. (Make that "explained" for the literal-minded among us. It is a novel. But my fictional explanation may well be on the money.) The 1990 theft (the largest single property theft in American history) of thirteen paintings and objects has never been solved, and today the Gardner continues to exhibit the empty frames of the missing masterpieces.

Last week, the FBI swarmed the Manchester, Connecticut home of "reputed mobster" Robert Gentile (aren't all "mobsters" invariably "reputed"?) , who federal prosecutors apparently believe has a link to that heist.
Gentile, 75, is being held without bail pending his federal trial on drug dealing charges. The FBI used a ground-penetrating radar device as well as dogs in the search. Most intriguing is the site of a filled-in swimming pool on Gentile's property. While the search warrant was apparently for weapons, Gentile's attorney told the Boston Globe "We all know what they are actually looking for - and they are looking for the paintings." Evidence obtained that day is now being sifted. Obviously, they haven't found a cache of paintings. Yet.

Readers of The Music Lesson, published in 1999, nine years after the Gardner theft, will recognize why this latest development is of particular interest to me. Saying more would be a plot spoiler.

"The museum continues to offer a $5 million reward for information leading to the recovery of the artworks in good condition," museum officials said in a statement. "Anyone with information about the theft, the location of the stolen artworks, and/or the investigation, should contact the Gardner Museum." On its website, the museum also urges those in possession of the stolen masterpieces "to conserve them in recommended temperatures and humidity levels."

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Next Adventure

I am delighted to report that I have been named the next Richard L. Thomas Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College, a five-year appointment to teach both fiction and nonfiction writing workshops in the spring terms.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

"Drawing Rooms Are Always Tidy"

When Edith Wharton was a little girl, she used to entertain herself with a game she called “making up.” Long before she had learned to read, little Edith Newbold Jones would hold an open book and walk around the house pretending to read aloud, at the top of her voice, a stream of invented stories about her relatives and other people. According to Wharton’s memoir, A Backward Glance, all this obsessive pacing and shouting had a nearly erotic aspect, which made her parents anxious. Apparently her mother attempted a few times to write down her shouted stories, but they went by too quickly. The family's concern grew larger when Edith asked her mother to provide entertainment for children who had been invited over to the Jones household to play, because she was too preoccupied with her "making up" to stop and spend time with them.

By the time she was ten, Edith was spending hours of each day writing -- not only stories but also poems and dramas in blank verse. Her first novel was begun at age eleven. The opening sentences were: "Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Brown," said Mrs. Tompkins. "If only I had known you were going to call, I would have tidied up the drawing room."

In A Backward Glance, Wharton described “timorously” showing the start of her novel to her mother. How did Mrs. Jones respond to her talented child's efforts? “Never shall I forget the sudden drop of my creative frenzy when she returned it with the icy comment, ‘Drawing rooms are always tidy.’”

Edith Wharton lived in Paris for the latter part of her life, while continuing to "make up" one brilliant novel after another about the denizens of New York and their drawing rooms, tidy and untidy. For many years she lived on the Rue de Varenne, in a building I often pass by when I am in Paris, just off the Rue du Bac, and it is always a thrill to imagine her walking these same streets, buying a baguette at the nearby bakery, or lingering over coffee at the cafe on the corner.  A plaque on the outside of the building describes her as “the first writer of the United States to settle in France out of love of the country and its literature.”  Perhaps this was one of her reasons for leaving New York.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Cruel Hoax, Someone's Idea of a Performance Piece, or Simply Spam?

In my email today there was an "invitation" about which there have been warnings issued in recent weeks. The peculiarly-worded email reads as follows:


"Respected Katharine Weber,

I am Prof. Mark Kennedy from King’s College Campus Here in London UK.
We want you to be our guest Speaker at this Year King’s college Seminar which will take place here in UK. We are writing to invite and confirm your booking to be our guest Speaker at this year’s event.

King’s College Campus.

The Venue as follows:
VENUE: King’s College campus in Strand
London, United Kingdom
Expected audience: 850 people
Duration of speech per speaker: 1 Hour
Name of Organization: King’s College Campus.
Topic: ”Mystery of Life and Death”
Date:30th May 2012

We came across your profile on and we say it’s up to standard and we will be very glad to have such an outstanding personality in our midst for these overwhelming gathering. Arrangements to welcome you here will be discussed as soon as you honor our invitation. If you have any more publicity material, please do not hesitate to contact us.

A formal Letter of invitation and Contract agreement would be sent to you as soon as you honor our Invitation. We are taking care of your travel and Hotel Accommodation expenses including your Speaking Fee. If you will be available for our event, include your speaking fees in your email so it can be included in your CONTRACT AGREEMENT.

Stay Blessed
Prof. Mark Kennedy
King’s College Campus.

Tel: + 44 702 408 2535"

I am puzzled about the intention of the author of this email. Is it designed as a cruel hoax to smack authors for their egos? Is there some point when one's credit card details would be required? Is it someone's Joe Orton-esque idea of a literary performance piece?

When I was writing True Confections, in an early draft I included a Nigerian hoax email as a plot element. My wise editor, John Glusman, persuaded me to take it out, and I am glad I did. It's all far too "familiar" at this point.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


(*AWP is the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs)

1.Denial — "I feel fine here.” “I am an equal among equals."

Denial is usually only a temporary defense. This feeling is generally replaced with heightened awareness of other writers having drinks together, other writers with better publishing deals, and other writers who always get much more attention from NPR.

2.Anger — "Why not me? I’m way better than she is!” “My last book should have had that front page review they gave his mediocre collection!” “Why didn’t they invite me to be on that panel?” "Why didn't anyone invite me to that party?" “Why didn’t they give me that award?” “Why didn’t they choose my piece for that anthology?” “It’s all who you know and logrolling!" “They only nominate gay men!” “They only nominate women of color!”

Once in the second stage, self-pity and rage can cause the writer to contemplate posting counterfeit positive reviews of his own books or toy with creating a sock puppet Twitter account to stalk and snipe at all his writer frenemies.

3.Bargaining — "I'll do anything for a PEN award." "I will spend my entire next advance for a great publicist if I can find a genius who can make it all happen..."

The third stage involves the hope that the individual can somehow postpone or delay the death of the next book. Usually, the negotiation for extended shelf life is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. Psychologically, the individual is saying, "I understand my books will die, but if I could just do something to buy more time..."

4.Depression — "I'm so marginalized, why bother to do readings or speak on panels anyway?” “I will never go to another conference.”

During the fourth stage, the writer begins to understand all too well the realities of writing, publishing, the academic rat race, and the interlocking sociopolitical structures of the tiny kingdoms that make up the literary world. Because of this, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time crying and grieving. It is not recommended to attempt to cheer up a writer who is in this stage. It is an important time for grieving that must be processed.

5.Acceptance of the Need for Perpetual Denial — "It's going to be okay." “People will always buy books and even though publishing is changing, I know success lies ahead.” “My next book will be my breakout book, I can feel it!” “I have a perfect idea for a panel for next year’s AWP.”

In this last stage, the writer begins to drink more heavily and/or make more frequent appointments with the therapist.