Katharine Weber has published five novels and teaches fiction writing at Columbia University. She has numerous reviews and articles to her credit, for publications such as the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, the Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Katharine’s memoir, The Memory of All That, has just been released. If you take a close look at her office, you may be able to glean a few clues about the subject of her next book.
What does your desk—the bare desk itself—look like, and how did you acquire it?
My desk is made of natural cherry with a waxed finish. It’s a simple, Shaker-style design, and I bought it in New Haven at Fairhaven Woodworks about fifteen years ago. It is one of the only contemporary pieces of furniture I own, other than my wood and aluminum computer desk that sits at a right angle to it, so I am surrounded on two sides when I work. Almost all other furniture in my house and in this writing studio out in the backyard are quite old, many of them inherited.
What’s on your desk?
A three-mouse French “souriciere” (mousetrap), a silver fish fork with the monogram JKW ( which belonged to my grandparents, Kay Swift and James Paul Warburg, when they were married to each other), my father’s O.S.S. ID card, a rock in the shape of a heart from a beach in Ireland, correspondence concerning permission to publish Elinor Wylie’s poem “Velvet Shoes” as the lyric in a song by Kay Swift, a vintage deck of Happy Families playing cards, a deck of hand-drawn regular playing cards, a dish of vintage marbles, and a pencil cup holding some rare Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 pencils.
What do you wish wasn’t on your desk?
A pile of un-dealt-with papers.
Are there artifacts in your office that relate to your current project?
Always. The fork and the OSS badge are connected to the book I have just published, The Memory Of All That, and the playing cards are connected to the novel I have just begun to write. I always like to have totems at hand when I am writing. As I worked on Triangle, I kept in front of me a dish of pennies, nickels and dimes that were all from the years preceding the 1911 fire, money that would have been in the pockets of the garment workers that day. As I worked on True Confections, I breathed in the aroma from a dish of cacao beans from a pod I had cut from a cacao tree in Tobago. (The mousetrap doesn’t have to do with anything I am writing; I bought it in a hardware store in a Normandy village simply because I thought it was so pleasingly bizarre and French.)
Are there living things in your office (besides yourself)?
There are often mysterious ladybugs that hatch on the windowsills, year round. I like them.
Many shelves of books—my own, in multiple editions, and many other books, including a fair number of reference volumes, such as Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. There are also many family photos in frames that come from the houses and apartments of all my relatives who have died, a green glass milk bottle about which my mother was obsessed, a papier mache vase of papier mache flowers made by one of my daughters, a painted wooden 18th-century library stepladder, and a bird’s nest made of fluff from horse blankets.
What’s on the walls?
Posters of most of my book jackets, an Anni Albers lithograph, an Arthur Getz pastel New Yorker cover drawing that was rejected, a Mitchell Johnson painting of a farmhouse, a 1950 movie poster for Never a Dull Moment, starring Fred MacMurray and Irene Dunne (which was based on my grandmother’s book about her marriage to a cowboy), a photograph by George Gershwin of his own reflection in a mirror with my mother, taken when she was twelve, and a framed diploma from the Ken Piccuito School of Dog Obedience (the only diploma I have ever been granted).
What have you lost in your office that you really wish you could find?
A folder containing all my letters from Iris Murdoch. It’s here somewhere.
What tools do you write with?
A Dell desktop computer and very good coffee.
Is anyone allowed to come in and clean?
Yes, about once a month, but I worry about things getting moved around, and more than once, vigorous dusting has reset my old answering machine in regrettable ways.
T. Myers is a writer who keeps her own counsel much of the time.
(All images courtesy of Katharine Weber. Photo of Katharine Weber by Corbin Gurkin.)