June 04, 2015

Kate Walbert

A New York state of mind
Interview by
We asked award-winning novelist Kate Walbert a few questions about her luminous new novel—and her own relationship with New York City.
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Kate Walbert has always been a keen transmitter of women’s voices, from conforming suburban wives in the 1950s or British suffragettes during World War I. Her new novel, The Sunken Cathedral, offers a complex chorus of female characters in contemporary Manhattan, a city  transformed by radical climate change, tragedy and new wealth. 

We asked Walbert a few questions about her luminous new novel—and her own relationship with New York City.

What was the initial inspiration for this book?
I lived in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York for many years, and after I moved uptown I missed it so much I guess I wanted to imagine my way back. I suppose I could have hopped on the subway . . .

What is the significance of the title?
The title refers to the Debussy prelude “La cathedrale engloutie,” sometimes translated as The Engulfed Cathedral and sometimes translated as The Sunken Cathedral. Debussy’s prelude was inspired by the medieval legend of the Lost City of Ys, a fabled city off the coast of Breton that—due to the devil and an evil daughter (naturally)—is destroyed by a tempest and sinks into the sea. The story goes that on especially calm days its cathedral bell can still be heard. In the book, a character peripherally inspired by my best friend’s mother, Jane, who for more than 20 years took daily painting classes at the National Academy, works on a painting she titles The Sunken Cathedral, as Jane once did. It was Jane, always the smartest person in the room, who later told me the legend behind the title, and the origin of the Debussy prelude.

I was in New York last month, after not being there for several years, and it was amazing to me how much of the city I remembered was gone. What is your New York, and is any of it left?
This is such a great question. I love the concept of “your New York,” because I think anyone who has spent any time here has one, or several. There’s something so personal about the experience of the City because of the chance interactions, weird juxtapositions, abrupt encounters that happen here—all of which are somehow both banal and profound. You bump into someone on the bus and it’s a story. You see something unfold on the street and it’s another story, and then all these stories accrue and become your New York. Maybe it’s because the City moves at warp speed and is constantly changing that you write your history in these small daily encounters—that’s where the humanity of the place comes through. I think New Yorkers are the friendliest people in the world. They have to be. It’s almost a miracle we all survive together. But that’s not really answering your question, is it?

My New York has a lot to do with where I’m living at the time and the stage of my life. For instance, for the first year of graduate school I lived in a rent-controlled studio on Grove Street in the West Village, one of those quintessential Woody Allen New York streets that smell of wood-burning fireplaces on cold winter nights. How I got to live there at all involves a shady philosophy professor at NYU and his scheme to make a little extra cash but that’s a different story (and a different New York). What I remember best is the wisteria that grew up the front of this place, a brownstone painted pink, and how, if I left my window open during a sunny day, the tendrils would snake into my studio and wrap around the closest thing they could find. So that’s one New York that’s mine. And then when my girls were very young, my New York was the various downtown playgrounds—seal park, circle park, Bleecker Street park, the beautiful park in Battery Park City with the granite slide straight from the Albany quarries—I can still rattle the names off like a mantra. I haven’t been to these playgrounds in years but if I were to walk by them today they would be filled with other mothers, fathers, nannies; maybe this is the point.

Many of your male characters are veterans or are serving in the army. Both Simone and Marie’s husbands served in WWII, and one of the footnotes explores, briefly, a moment in the life of a minor character’s great-uncle in Korea. What is your interest in the military experience?
I’m not a military brat but I should have been—my father, who served on the frontlines of Korea—was a chemistry professor at West Point when he and my mother married. She convinced him to leave the Army (he took a job with DuPont) but the Army always loomed large in our house. We went to Army – Navy football games. Dad taught us what it meant to eat a “straight meal,” explained the rituals of hazing at VPI, where he went to college, and generally extolled the military life. The one thing he kept to himself was the experience of his time in Korea. Growing up, I never knew his brothers, but I knew they were in WWII (one in the Infantry, at Omaha Beach, the other a bomber pilot over France), and that his beloved cousin, Charlie, who had lied about his age and enlisted at 16, was one of the last soldiers killed on Iwo Jima. All the family details around the military have always fascinated me—especially for the history left unsaid, the stories untold.

By the end of the novel, most of the characters have left New York, yet the city continues on. Do you think of the ending as pessimistic or optimistic?
I think so much of a reader’s experience of reading is what she brings of her own life into it, whether a city dweller or not—so that’s a difficult question to answer. The city does continue on and that’s ultimately hopeful—think of those mothers and fathers in the playgrounds. I ended with the church bells from the General Seminary in Chelsea, the ones that, when I was there, marked the passing of the hours and other things, such as the anniversaries of 9/11, the moment of that morning when the planes hit the towers. It only occurred to me after finishing the book that the experience of hearing church bells ring, marking occasions both happy and sad, is universal and somehow outside of time and place.

Why did you choose to use to put vital information about your characters in footnotes? How do you think separating out parts of the text impacts story?
I believe there’s an increasingly fractured way of being in the world, our lives barreling forward on many parallel tracks, our focus constantly interrupted, redirected. This is what I came to understand the footnotes to be: the things we don’t say, the history, the regret, the stories that are submerged (to keep the water metaphor) and yet constant. Vital information, yes, but not necessarily of the kind the characters would put forth easily, or readily if they had more time. I’ve come to understand that the footnotes carry what is left unsaid but always present.

A lot of your work is about the restrictions that were or are put on women. Do you think aging releases us from some of those limitations?
And leads us to others, she said, laughingly.

Perhaps. But I guess I would also say that in our culture if age releases us, it may do so for the wrong reasons—we move (or are shoved) out of the sphere, the whirlpool of everything. We are suddenly invisible. I could say this gives us a greater freedom to do whatever we’d like, as if we’d suddenly gone underground and can get away with murder, but that doesn’t feel entirely right. Yes, it’s great progress that Joan Didion is the new face of Celine, but let me get back to you about this question in a few more years.

Your novels take place in Japan, England and the United States, and span periods from the 19th century to the current day. Is there a time or place you haven’t covered yet in which you are interested?
I never start out knowing where my books are going to go—I don’t write from an outline, or with any clear plot or story in mind. I follow the voice, the sentences that seem to carry a certain pressure, a particularity that suggests secrets, complications that may prove interesting to explore. It’s the voice that dictates—that gives the clues to the setting and the situation. For instance, A Short History of Women begins “Mum starved herself for suffrage, grandmother claiming it was just like Mum to take a cause too far.” When writing those “mums” I knew I had to be in England, and clearly in the early 20th century, but I hadn’t planned on any of it and so had to feel my way along from there. Who was this speaker? Who was her mother? Her grandmother? Why suffrage? Why England? In other words, it’s anyone’s guess where the voice might take me next.

Who are some of your favorite writers? For inspiration? For curling up and reading?
There are so many writers to admire. In the past five years, Jane Gardam’s Old Filth trilogy has been my constant recommendation—and I find the work of Hilary Mantel enormously inspiring for the clarity of the point of view and the way in which she constructs these amazingly idiosyncratic sentences that seem to speak directly from the characters’ hearts, not just the brilliant and wildly popular Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, but others as well—The Giant, O’Brien one of my particular favorites.

What are you working on next?
I’m completing a collection of short stories, most of which are set in New York City (but not necessarily Chelsea!).

RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of The Sunken Cathedral.



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The Sunken Cathedral

The Sunken Cathedral

By Kate Walbert
ISBN 9781476799322

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