Steinhardt Fall (and Summer!) New Student Reading

Triangle, a novel about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, is this year’s required reading for all new undergraduate students entering the Steinhardt School. Debra Weinstein interviewed author Katharine Weber about her novel.

Novelists often begin with a question they want to puzzle out.   What was the question (or questions) that propelled you as you wrote Triangle?

I am not sure I have an answer for each of my novels, but for Triangle it is very clear to me. Hearing Rose Freedman’s obituaries on the radio, reading them in newspapers and online in February of 2001, possessed as I already was with a personal interest in the Triangle fire and a vague plan to find a way to write a novel about it, I found myself wondering what it was like for her, as the last living survivor of the Triangle fire at age 107, to be famous for ninety years because of the day she didn’t die. What was that like, living with that story, telling it for ninety years? Does your relationship to the story change over time, if you tell it and tell it, if people expect to hear your story, and you know you are always regarded in the context of that story? How could it not? And then — pushing the question into the place where novels come from — the place where fiction begins, placing much more at stake — the question became this: What would it be like to tell your story for ninety years? How would your relationship to the story feel over those years? How would you do it, how would you tell the story of the day you didn’t die over and over — if your story is a lie? And from there, what would the lie be? Why would you keep the lie for ninety years?

Your grandmother worked in the Triangle Factory. Did she ever speak about her experiences there?

Not a word to me about it. I was 12 when she died, and she spoke very little about the past in my presence. I regret very much that I didn’t know her more fully. She was an admirable woman who put a sister and a brother through law school, though she herself never finished elementary school. But I knew she had worked in sweatshops from my father, who spoke of it very often throughout my childhood. I have a strong memory of sewing a button when I was perhaps fourteen, and he stood over me watching me sew and then he said with emotion in his voice, “When your grandmother was your age, she was sewing for a living. She didn’t have your comforts. She worked in a factory all day, every day.”

Are you a fan of the historical novel?

Not really. Not in the sense of reaching for novels published in that category. That said, I suppose novels have given me a far more vivid and deep sense of the past than any other kind of text. (Perhaps especially when it comes to war, these are books I would pick up: World War II: Catch-22. The Revolutionary War: Johnny Tremaine. Civil War: The Red Badge of Courage, Gone With the Wind. World War I: Pat Barker’s regeneration trilogy, All Quiet on the Western Front. The Peloponnesian War: Mary Renault’s Last of the Wine.) I do think that in fiction more than in history books we can find the truths, with a small t, if not The Truth with a capital T, that illuminate in essential ways a historic time and place and cast of characters.

How much research did you do? Could you tell us a bit about the process – how you moved from gathering factual data to writing a work of fiction.

I did far too much research. It was fascinating, and seductive, and I read very deeply into books about sweatshops and labor unions, and the immigrant experience, and New York politics of the period, as well as reading everything I could about the Triangle fire. In the end, the greatest value for me was in the voices, the voices of individuals who lived and experienced those events, whether they were union strikers who had demanded workers’ rights in the 1909 uprising, or witnesses to the women jumping from the ninth floor windows of the Asch Building on the day of the fire. Contemporaneous newspaper accounts and the trial transcripts were ultimately the most valuable of all the material.

I read everything I could find, and I realized I had spent too long dwelling with the material without really making sufficient progress past the initial swoop of writing perhaps 75 pages. Finally, I left it all behind and went to our cottage in Ireland to write with only two books in hand, the Leon Stein book about the Triangle fire and a dictionary of musical terms. I wrote most of the rest of the novel that way, with no further referencing of any of the material I had accumulated (until I was polishing and fact-checking much later), just depending on whatever I had metabolized and taken in and made my own. I wrote the entire trial transcript in the novel that way, just from my head, with no source at hand. This way I could begin to find the voices of the characters in the novel and give them those experiences and lives of their own.

After all the work you did in writing your novel, do you feel satisfied that you know everything about the Triangle Factory fire or are there still more questions looming in your mind — and if there are, what are the questions?

I don’t think we will ever know anything more about the fire, and I think there are many unanswered questions. How did the fire start? Literally — who tossed that cigar or cigarette so carelessly? Or did it start some other way? What happened to the children who were presumably working at the Triangle on that Saturday afternoon? They have vanished from the story. When the fire broke out, did Blanck and Harris, the owners sitting in the office on the tenth floor (they received a phone call from the eighth floor, where the fire broke out), think for even a moment about the risk to the workers on the ninth floor before they saved themselves by going up to the roof? Did either of them ever feel responsible for the conflagration and those deaths? Were there heroes that day whose selflessness and identities we will never know? (Some of these questions are the same questions we have about September 11th.)

What advice do you have for students who want to write?

If you want to write, then you have to do it, even if you think you don’t have time or it is something you will do at some other point when you are ready. There is never enough time, and it is never the right time, to write a novel. Wanting to write is insufficient. In order to be productive, if you’re not finding a way to make the sentences appear, then you have to give something up. And that something is the not writing. Are you able to give it up? For some people not writing is far too tempting. Beyond that, anyone who wants to write needs to be a reader. The new writer can find no better education that by reading deeply and widely in every genre, including, maybe especially, the sort of books you think you despise, the books that offer you nothing. If you can figure out why you hate them, then they have taught you something. Every book can teach you something about your own writing. Find out what you love and understand why you love it and you will know something more about your own writing possibilities.

Writing classes and writing programs offer safe harbor for writers as well as a lot of practical assistance, but you don’t need a license to write, you just need the nerve to believe that you have something new to say in a way that nobody has ever said it before, and then you have to figure out how to do it as well as you can. You have to be willing to take risks, surprise yourself, and sometimes to fail, and then, in Beckett’s words, to fail again, to fail better.

Katharine Weber will appear in person this fall to speak about Triangle: A Novel at Steinhardt’s New Student Convocation.

This post appears in the following categories: Inside Books.