On the cloudy Tuesday of Sept. 25, audience members gathered in Finn House’s Cheever Room for the latest installment of the Kenyon Review’s Reading Series. The reading focused on the newest work of Katharine Weber, Richard L. Thomas visiting professor of creative writing.
David Lynn, editor in chief of the Kenyon Review, introduced Weber and praised Weber’s literary achievements and contributions to Kenyon, where she has been for the last seven years. He listed the accolades her new book, Still Life with Monkey, had received in advance, and mentioned her article about monkeys as a literary device on Literary Hub, a website for online literary content.
Weber has been working on Still Life With Monkey since 2011, when she was first being considered for her position at Kenyon. She nurtured the small-yet- promising book idea, centering around a protagonist and his service monkey. At the reading, Weber described the ways her time at Kenyon had influenced details in her book. For example, she named a fictional dog, Ferga, after Fergus and Durga, dogs belonging to members of Kenyon’s English faculty, and gave another character an Ohio background. She proceeded by reading a section from the beginning of the book. It carefully described the novel’s protagonist Duncan Wheeler, who is quadriplegic and feels more connected to his service monkey than he ever did to the human workers who helped him.
Weber moved on to read another couple selections, each full of wit and vivid description of character and action. Duncan goes about his daily life making many seemingly-unimportant observations, and finding comfort in the familiarity of his interactions with other characters. These small details bring out the reality of his world.
Weber described how she creates her distinctly real characters by trying to use as organic a process as possible. “I do make a plan,” Weber said. “And then I deviate from that plan.” She compared it to “shooting in sequence,” stressing how the first draft often will not hit all the points the author wants if the characters act as they naturally would. If they get off track they can find their way back, and it may turn out that the part was not needed. This should be embraced, however, because characters should not be “obediently trudging along.”
She then revealed the inspiration for her story: A close friend of hers has been quadriplegic for 25 years, and she became interested in the day-to-day lives of people with disabilities. Later on, she saw someone using a service monkey. “[It] got loose and caused pandemonium,” she said. Ever since then, she has been interested in service monkeys. Although Weber says that she is “still learning,” she explains that she is now more aware of accessibility issues.
When asked about how she comes up with so many books, Weber said, “Coming up with ideas is not the issue, but rather filtering them down.” She taught herself to write novels and takes pride in her process: “I would like to write books that I would like to read,” she said. She was never in an MFA program; she just wanted to write books “You don’t have to have a certification to write a novel,” she said. “You just write a novel.”