(Like Fire is pleased to be the new home of MJ Rose’s Backstory, originally featured on her blog Buzz Balls and Hype. Backstory is where authors share truths that sparked their fiction, the impulse behind their memoirs or that “AHA” moment that led to a work of nonfiction. First up is Katharine Weber, whose new novel, True Confections, was published by Shaye Arehart last month.)
Until now, the plot of each of my novels has had little apparent relationship to what has come before. My second novel, about a conspiracy to steal a Vermeer from the Queen by an IRA splinter group, did not have any overt connection to my first novel, which concerned a photographer who travels to Geneva on a fellowship to see her former roommate, only to discover that her friend is enmeshed in a worrisome affair with a controlling older married man who is an Auschwitz survivor.
My third novel, a post-modern re-telling of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, had no discernable narrative connection to either of those earlier works. The manifest story of my fourth novel, about a 90-year-old lie concerning what happened to the last living survivor on the day of the Triangle factory fire in 1911, a lie that only comes to the surface in the wake of September 11th, 2001, does not on the face of it flow from anything in those first three novels.
My new novel True Confections is about a chocolate candy factory in New Haven. And so for the first time I am writing about something that does in fact connect—a return to a factory setting—to my previous novel. The germ of True Confections came to me when I was writing an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times for the 95th anniversary of the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire, just a few months before publication of Triangle. My subject was recent Third World factory fires in which children have died making cheap goods for American consumers, just as, I believe, undocumented children died in the Triangle fire in 1911. My point was that the only thing that has really changed from then to now is geography. These days, we buy our cheap goods from factories located in Third World countries, and so factory fires in which undocumented child workers die take place there instead of here. We outsource our tragedies, too.
As I researched the recent, horrific child worker deaths in garment and toy factories in Hong Kong and Bangladesh, I came across the startling facts of child slave labor on African cacao plantations. Right now, today, there are child workers on certain cacao plantations in Cote D’Ivoire, on the west coast of Africa, who are not allowed to leave, don’t get paid, are minimally housed, clothed and fed, and must produce a daily quota of harvested cacao pods in order to avoid beatings.
And so I returned to the questions of Triangle about who makes the cheap goods we wear and consume and acquire without much thought about where it all comes from. What are the lives of those people who handle the substances that go into the products we buy? Think about your shirt, and think about your chocolate. Where does our chocolate come from? A runaway slave from a cacao plantation rescued by an American member of a prosperous candy making dynasty could be a way to tell this story. And then race began to loom larger and larger in my thoughts. The runaway slave in my novel turns out to be a liar, even though his story is true, and meanwhile the story has shifted to a more central focus on the American candy factory and the complications of the family who run it. And so True Confections is a novel about Zip’s Candies—makers, since 1924, of Little Sammies, Tigermelts, and Mumbo Jumbos, all inspired by the problematic children’s book Little Black Sambo.
And meanwhile there is a very strong connection of narrative strategy that threads all five of my novels together after all, because once again the novel depends on its own artifactness, the text that tells the story is an element in the story. A piece of my first novel was a notebook of unsent letters. My second novel was a secret journal. My third novel is a novel written by a character within the novel, annotated with argumentative notes from the “real” people on whom the novel is based. My fourth novel is a patchwork of transcripts, newspaper articles, interviews, and other ephemeral documents. True Confections, my fifth novel, is one long (crazy) Affidavit.