Katharine Weber had been to the corner of Greene and Washington Place many times before. Sometimes it was for direct research for the book that became TRIANGLE, just out in paperback from Picador. Later, after the book was published, she would stop by on her way to events and take a moment to reflect on the tragic events of more than 86 years before. But until Monday morning, she’d never shared the experience with anyone, let alone a group of visiting women from all parts of the United States. So after giving a brief talk on the Triangle Fire and pointing to the cobblestones – still there after so many years – Weber read a short excerpt from the beginning of the novel which describes, in almost visceral detail, the horror from the perspective of a girl who grows up to be the oldest living survivor of the fire.
When she was finished, the turbulent emotions were clearly visible on Weber’s face, and everyone else couldn’t help but be moved by the experience.
The excursion was the brainchild of BookWomen, a Minnesota-based bimonthly magazine published by Women’s Press that describes itself as “a readers’ community for those who love women’s words.” But unlike traditional book clubs that meet somewhere and have the author visit – either in person or remotely – BookWomen does the opposite: they travel to meet the authors and see the cities where the books are set. Earlier, BookWomen “gatherer” and the group’s de facto tour leader Mollie Hoben told me, the fifteen or so women on the New York trip had met with Amy Koppelman (author of A MOUTHFUL OF AIR) in her home and were due to meet another author the next day. Other trips in the works include fall retreats to the central Jersey shore, Minnesota north woods and North Carolina outer banks. BookWomen have even traveled as far as New Zealand, which they visited in the fall of 2001. The biggest highlight of that trip? Meeting Booker Prize winner Kerri Hulme and talking about her novel, THE BONE PEOPLE, in her kitchen.
After Weber’s impromptu reading, the group trekked through Washington Square and up 5th Avenue to the Flatiron Building, where the Picador offices are housed. The small group, some of whom had never visited New York before, marveled at the Flatiron’s architecture, and it was hard not to make parallels between the storied triangular building and the tragic events of the Fire (Weber pointed out that the rumor the Fire took place in the Flatiron – because of its shape – persisted for years.) Two full slow elevators took us to the 10th floor boardroom, where publicist Kate Runde had arranged for a waiting lunch and also where the book club portion would take place.
For the next hour, each visiting member of BookWomen introduced herself and brought up a key point about TRIANGLE. Weber then spoke of the book’s structure, the importance of music, her own family history as the granddaughter of Broadway composer (and Gershwin paramour) Kay Swift, why the character of Triangle Fire researcher Ruth Zion (“she’d be at an MLA conference,” Weber quipped when one of the book club members wondered what had been Ruth’s fate) was so compelling even if she was also rather unlikeable, and the equal importance of leaving details out as in to allow the reader to read actively and not have everything spoonfed.
As the discussion continued, I couldn’t help but be amazed. Here were a group of active, passionate readers who combined their love of books with travel. They didn’t concern themselves with publishing matters or with the inner workings of the city. They were incredibly happy to be sitting in an office in the Flatiron talking to one of their new favorite writers. Afterwards, Weber indicated how much she, too, had enjoyed the experience and would welcome doing it again – just as long as the focus was on the novel, and not on the Fire.