The first thing I asked Kate Walbert was how she titled her fourth novel, The Sunken Cathedral. She answered: “The title came by way of my best friend’s mother, who took up a painting class later in her life and did an amazing series of Manhattan landmarks underwater—this all before talk of global warming or flood zones, probably 25 years ago. She named one painting of the series The Sunken Cathedral, and it was only a year ago or so, while I was completing the book and had a character loosely inspired by her, that I asked the origin of her title. She told me the Debussy reference [“The Sunken Cathedral” is a piano prelude written by the French composer] and I went from there.”
Wonderful, strong, self-aware, and often slightly quirky women are at the center of Walbert’s books, including Where She Went (Sarabande, 1998), her debut story collection, as well as The Gardens of Kyoto (Scribner, 2001), a luminous debut novel that Francine Prose called “as delicate and elliptical as an Asian ink-brush painting” and that was inspired, according to Walbert, by her father’s stories about his time as a soldier in the Korean War. (One episode that stays in this reader’s mind involves an enemy soldier being crucified and left to die on the battlefield.)
Born in New York, Walbert grew up in several different places: Pennsylvania, Georgia, Texas, Delaware, and Japan. She went to Northwestern University outside of Chicago, then returned to New York, where she lives with her husband, an architect, and their two teenage daughters. She has a graduate degree from New York University and, for many years, taught creative writing at Yale.
Walbert was a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award for Our Kind (Scribner, 2004), a novel organized as stories narrated in the first-person plural. The book gives a moving and witty account of the lives of several women, each with her own distinctive voice, who came of age in the 1950s and now—due to circumstances such as divorce and widowhood—find themselves left on their own and marginalized, or, as one of the women in the novel pithily puts it, “Years ago we were led down the primrose lane, then abandoned somewhere near the carp pond.”
A Short History of Women (Scribner, 2009), named one of the New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, tells the story of a family from the point of view of five generations of women and how their family ties resonate, affect, and even alter them, despite both geographic and generational disparities. The novel’s 15 chapters reveal episodes of different women’s lives, and each is described by reviewer Leah Hager Cohen in the New York Times as “an exquisite slice of cake.”
The Sunken Cathedral begins in the near future, with a huge storm battering and destroying Manhattan, specifically the Chelsea neighborhood, where the novel takes place and where Walbert lived before she moved uptown. Was she inspired to write about her old neighborhood by nostalgia? “The move away,” Walbert says, “gave me more perspective. Those years in Chelsea were so transformative for that neighborhood and the city in general—9/11, the Anthrax scare, the influx of money and surge of construction around the High Line.”
At the center of the novel are Marie and Simone, two old friends who lived through World War II and now take painting classes together. Walbert has a deft eye and empathy for older people, as well as an unerring ear for how they speak, and I asked her if this was the result of having had particularly kind and caring grandparents. She answered that although she did not really get to know any of them well, one of her grandfathers was a great raconteur. “I have always been interested in this generation—how they negotiate their losses, how memory intrudes, disrupts, buffers their daily lives, how they grow increasingly invisible in our ageist culture.”
Accidents occur, anxiety is prevalent, school children drill for emergencies, the future is uncertain—a sense of impending doom permeates the novel. Marie mourns the sudden death of her best friend, feels unsettled by her son’s worry for her, and becomes more and more confused. Elizabeth, her young tenant, feels similarly apprehensive but occasionally finds a respite: “For a moment, it was simple and she did not feel the speeding up of urgencies or sense the lengthening shadow of the past; she did not seek the accumulating dark at the limit of the light.”
All of Walbert’s novels are written in similarly lovely, luminous prose. Her descriptions are both wry and sympathetic; her observations of nature are marvelously fresh and contain off-kilter sentences that make the reader reread and reconsider. “I am only interested in how certain word arrangements and juxtapositions often get to what feels true, or more true, to experience, than declarative sentences,” she says, and at this she succeeds mightily.
Notably, The Sunken Cathedral also tells a second narrative using footnotes. The footnotes vary: they can invoke the past or simply digress. When I asked Walbert about this, she said, “It’s odd to say, but the footnotes almost insisted upon themselves. They seemed to best mimic our increasingly fractured, distracted lives—to best mimic the way our thoughts are often elsewhere. The footnotes literally put a physical distance between the memory, or history, invoked by the word or moment in the real-time scene. I liked that, the shift in space on the page, the way they took me to an entirely different place altogether.”
The Sunken Cathedral, Walbert told me, “was initially inspired by my landlady in Chelsea, a supremely elegant and fascinating elderly woman, a widow, who with her husband bought a brownstone in the neighborhood in the ’50s and raised her children there.” Walbert’s inspiration has resulted in a beautiful and moving novel about a vivid time and place, and the irrevocable changes that occur in a particular New York neighborhood—no doubt, most neighborhoods—which forever alter the lives of those involved. It is written with fierce intelligence, wit, and wisdom.
In addition to her four novels, Walbert has written several plays. She describes Genius, the latest, as following “two ambitious New York couples over the course of a boozy dinner”; it premiered recently at Profiles Theater in Chicago, known for producing some of the darkest and edgiest new theatrical works. When I asked Walbert how writing plays was different from writing fiction, she hesitated before replying: “I haven’t found there’s all that much overlap between writing plays and writing fiction—I wish I could say I felt more, so I could feel as if I were farther along in understanding how to write plays. Obviously, dialogue is key, so there’s that, but since my stories and novels have never been long on plot, the whole notion of actually animating characters on stage can be a challenge: oh right, they’re real people, they are supposed to move around.”
Whether Walbert writes about real or imagined people, and whether they are on the page or on the stage, makes little difference. Her characters are gloriously alive: Ellen, Randall, Daphne in The Gardens of Kyoto; Canoe, Esther Curran, Bambi in Our Kind; all those Townsend women, mostly named Dorothy, in A Brief History of Women; and now Marie, Simone, and Elizabeth in The Sunken Cathedral.
Lily Tuck’s latest story collection is The House of Belle Fontaine; her novel The Double Life of Liliane will be published by Grove this fall.