Monday, August 1, 2011

My First Time: Katharine Weber

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today's guest is Katharine Weber, author of the novels The Music Lesson, The Little Women, Triangle, Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, and True Confections.  Her memoir, The Memory of All That: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family's Legacy of Infidelities, has just hit bookstores and is gathering praise from all corners of the book world.  Dani Shapiro (Devotion) said: "To be a writer born into an illustrious and complex family is both a burden and a gift.   In The Memory of All That, Katharine Weber trains her novelist's eye and penetrating intelligence upon what may be her greatest subject: her own family's history as it stretches back, generation after fascinating generation.   Her achievement here is a literary one, to be sure--but even more than the beautiful, elegant story contained in these pages, I am in awe of the strength, tenacity and courage it took to rise up out of this fabled cast of characters and write one of the most powerful memoirs about inheritance I have ever read."  Weber has taught fiction writing at Yale, Goucher College, the Paris Writer's Workshop and elsewhere and is currently a thesis advisor in the graduate writing program at Columbia University.  Visit her website for more information on her books.

My First Rejection of Rejection

People sort of knew in a vague way that I was working on a novel. I was “working on a novel,” anyway, without much focus or devotion, while writing book reviews and literary profiles for a variety of mostly unthrilling publications, though the assignments gave me the perfect excuse and opportunity to sit down with the likes of Philip Roth, Arthur Miller, Madeleine L’Engle, Annie Dillard and John Banville to discuss writing.

One afternoon, for no specific reason I can recall, but perhaps as a consequence of these conversations with writers, I had a burst of ambition, so I sent the best chapter of my perpetually half-written novel to The New Yorker.  Why not?

It was promptly rejected.

This got my attention. I had been rejected by numerous publications in the past, but I felt wronged by this particular form rejection in a new way. I was possessed of an uncanny certainty that The New Yorker’s slush pile reader’s passing over “Friend of the Family” was a mistake.  And so I did the thing I had never done before, the thing you are never, ever supposed to do: I simply submitted it all over again, with no acknowledgment of the rejection.

Dan Menaker called. He loved my story. He called it “Salingerian,” and he said it had “thespian qualities.” He cited sentence after sentence of examples of the tone and originality he found so striking. (Some of those sentences had been specifically criticized by the leader of the writing group in which I had briefly participated. “Cut, cut cut,” she had intoned, “here, here and here.”)

Dan had certain specific suggestions for revising. He wanted to see certain things developed, others re-ordered. If I could do this, he would put the story in front of Tina Brown, who was about to take over as editor. I could do it. “Friend of the Family,” my first fiction in print, appeared in The New Yorker in the January 25, 1993 issue.

Photo by Corbin Gurkin


  1. I love that story, Katharine. Talk about the importance of believing in your work!

  2. Oh wow--goes against everything we here . . . and yet. I love those stories of chutzpah.

  3. Never did it before, never did it again!

  4. When you said, "I simply submitted it all over again, with no acknowledgment of the rejection," I had to keep reading. I believe that when the author has absolute faith in their story and knows that the person reviewing it was dead wrong, the author may (very rarely and possibly never again) do something that goes against what is considered proper etiquette. Thank you for being so honest!

  5. I'd known about your story being published in the New Yorker, Katharine, but the back-story detail is a doozy. Thanks. -- Kat Warren