Hooked on sweets
The story behind Katharine Weber’s fictional candy company
Start with a opinionated narrator with a spicy tale to tell; stir in a seasoned mix of bitter in-laws and a troubled family business; sprinkle with heady descriptions of melted butter, rich chocolate and burnt sugar; and you have the recipe for an engaging new novel by Katharine Weber.
True Confections tells the delicious tale of Zip’s Candies, a business with roots in Eastern Europe and inspiration drawn from a tattered copy of Little Black Sambo. But Zip’s is more than just a factory to Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky, newly divorced wife of the Zip’s heir, who is more than ready to tell the company’s rags-to-riches story. Alice’s account is persuasive, if biased, and her lively story includes vivid segues into the history of American candy, African cocoa plantations and the Third Reich’s failed plan to establish a Jewish colony on Madagascar.
Weber is the author of four previous novels and a collection of short stories. Her last novel Triangle won the Connecticut Book Award for fiction and was long-listed for several other prizes. She sat down to talk with BookPage about families, history and what candy still inspires her.
It’s obvious that you did an enormous amount of legwork for this book, including interviewing candy company employees and attending candy conventions. What were the highlights?
The microcosmic world of a trade show is always incredibly appealing to me, whether it is BookExpo or a boat show or a flower shower. I always love the too-muchness. Although I spent a lot of time thinking about and learning about chocolate for a couple of years (including making a trip to Tobago to spend time on a deserted cacao plantation), attending the candy convention twice was definitely the highlight for me. It intrigued me that it felt so different the second time around.
When I went to my first candy convention, I was looking for material for the novel. When I went back to All-Candy in Chicago last June, when True Confections (in which significant events take place at candy conventions) was finished, I felt as if I had gone inside the world of my novel. It was now so familiar to me that I began to have a completely deluded sense of being an insider. I even picked out the spot where Zip’s Candies, my fictional candy company, would have had exhibition space.
Your novels often have their roots in a historical event. How do you approach the balance of fact and fiction in your novels?
I never mean to do any more research than is absolutely necessary to make the reality of the novel sufficiently convincing, although sometimes the research can be seductive and distracting and I end up spending much more time and energy with it than I intend. But the balance I want in my novels isn’t between fiction and truth—to me, that isn’t the issue at all. Fiction is a truth, maybe a truer truth than any other. If you are asking about finding the balance between fictional and actual events, then my answer is about aiming for the deepest possible sense of relative authenticity, making the reality of the novel be, for the reader, as seamless as possible.
Were you surprised that the history of the candy industry was so tied in with the history of Jews and immigration?
I don’t think I was surprised, exactly, but I was certainly intrigued to see familiar patterns emerge. So many iconic American candy brands, from Tootsie Rolls to Just Born, share a common history. A peddler arrives in the U.S. from Eastern Europe with little more than the clothes on his back, an entrepreneurial spirit, and then, an idea, an ambition to make something sweet and new. Candy is something a newcomer can make, with a very modest investment in equipment and materials, and many brands began as stovetop enterprises. The history of Eli Czaplinsky and Zip’s Candies is very deliberately cast in that same mold.
The way your narratives are structured is so interesting—from the different sisters commenting on each other’s stories in The Little Women to the collage of articles, interviews, and testimonies that make up Triangle. This work is a long monologue that is also a legal document. Do different novels ask to be told in different ways?
I do think that every novel asks to be told in a different way, but at the same time, without intention to hew to a formula of any kind, I seem to find the textual artifact (letters, journals, transcripts, newspaper articles and so on) to be a huge element in my narrative strategy for every novel I have written so far. I can only say that each time out I have been willing to tell the story in whatever way felt right, and each time I have found myself creating yet another document.
Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky is such a singular character. Tell me about her creation. Did you hear her voice from the beginning?
Actually, she came quite late in my thinking about this novel. I had many of the events of the story in mind before I had a narrative strategy worked out. Who would tell this story, and, most urgently, why? That’s where Alice came into sharp focus. And once I had her voice, and, significantly, her agenda firmly in mind, then it became clear that the story had to be extruded through both those things.
Why is the truth so important to Alice?
Why indeed? How true is every part of her story? Alice is desperate to be believed and understood, and she tries very hard to persuade the reader that her reality is the most valid. She is very clear about all the ways she has been victimized by deceptions and secrets in the Ziplinsky family, but her awareness of her own role falls short of the reader’s perceptions of Alice.
Alice considers herself an outsider. The most obvious manifestation of this is that she was raised Protestant and marries a Jewish man. But her feelings are as conflicted about her parents as they are regarding her in-laws. I know you also come from an interfaith family. Can you address how being an outsider shapes Alice’s behavior?
Alice isn’t speaking for me in any concrete sense, but I am very aware that I have spent my life on the borders between designated categories in many ways. My Protestant relatives think of me as Jewish, my Jewish relatives think of me as Protestant. In my eight years teaching fiction writing at Yale, I had the sense that even though some of my novelist friends thought of me as somewhat academic, my English Department colleagues no doubt regarded me as a flaky novelist.
What has this meant for me? I think I am acutely aware of always feeling as if I am a little bit of an outsider in any group, even when I know simultaneously that I am welcomed as an insider. I am very interested in the ways we define ourselves in terms of other people, in the ways groups inevitably regard outsiders as "other."
The novel takes place in New Haven, which I know is also your home. Does New Haven have a candy connection?
I have lived in a small town just outside New Haven for some 33 years now (in what is called “the Greater New Haven area”) and it is the territory of much of my quotidian family life. . . it has also figured in most of my previous novels. It’s a real city, with a rich mix of intellect and irony and grit. But any candy connections are mostly coincidental, and Zip’s Candies is not based on any family business that ever existed in New Haven or elsewhere.
Peter Paul did start out in New Haven in 1919 before the Halajians moved their fledgling company to Naugatuck in 1922, where they made every Mounds and Almond Joy you ever ate until Hershey, having bought the business from Cadbury in 1988, closed that factory in 2007. My house is only a couple of miles from that sad, abandoned plant. It used to be a very nice thing, driving past that hive of candy-making at midnight in the autumn, seeing the parking lot filled and all the lights on, knowing they were working the third shift in the run-up to Halloween.
You describe the tempering of chocolate in some detail. Do you see the tempering process as a metaphor for relationships?
I do think the tempering process has rich metaphoric meaning, which is why the working title of this novel was, in fact, Temper. There are multiple meanings for the term “temper,” which is a noun and also a verb. They include: “a habitual state of feeling,” “rage, anger,” “to modify by adding a new element,” and, for chocolate, “to bring to a desired texture and consistency by a gradual process of heating and cooling.”
Did you gain weight writing this book—and what is your favorite candy?
Actually I did. (I mean, I really had to eat chocolate every day while writing this novel. Never let it be said that I am not dedicated to my craft. Though at times I was content to sniff the faintly aromatic cacao beans from my trip to Tobago which I have kept in a dish in front of my computer.)
I have gone through Nestlé’s Crunch phases in my life, and at times I have had a thing for Nestlé’s Chunky, but I have to say, even though the candy bar on the cover of True Confections looks as if it would probably taste like a Milky Way or a Three Musketeers, my heart belongs to Baby Ruth.
Lauren Bufferd writes from Nashville.
Read a review of True Confections.