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December 6, 2001 Kate Sterns' characters quirky and poignant



Jason Camlot, Kate Sterns

Jason Camlot and Kate Sterns at the Quebec Writers Federation gala

Photo by Jean-François Majeau

by Barbara Black

Kate Sterns’ novel Down There by the Train is an outrageous tale about a baker who tries to bake a life-size portrait of a dead woman in bread dough. It’s full of wordplay — one character talks about “the school of hard Knox” and objects to an idea “on legal grounds, moral grounds and coffee grounds!”

It’s also full of arcane bits and bobs of knowledge, particularly about William Harvey (1578-1657), who discovered the human circulatory system. A physician’s daughter from Kingston, Ont., Sterns grew up around medical books, and was entranced by an early English translation from Latin of Harvey’s Exercitationes de generatione.

When Down There by the Train appeared last spring, Sterns was given a full and admiring interview by Noah Richler, the books editor of the National Post, who knew her from her time in London. Her first novel, Thinking About Magritte, was published there, and was well received.

Although she spent nine years in London and left behind many friends, whom she calls her ultimate family, she has no regrets. “I could never be that poor again, for one thing,” she said. After England, she went to the United States to do her MA at Johns Hopkins University.

She’s in her second year here, teaching a graduate course in creative writing and an undergraduate course in play-writing in the English Department.

“It’s a wonderful department, with a great chair [Terry Byrnes] and smart, supportive colleagues,” she said in an interview. “It’s unusual to have creative writing and English literature close together like this.”

Writing and teaching are a perfect combination for her, because she writes relatively slowly, and she likes the stimulation of having people around her.

“I love teaching,” she said. “For me, an academic setting is so comfortable. I need to do research for the sort of novels I write, and I’m inspired by my colleagues. I’ve never had such stability.”

Can you teach other people to write? “No,” she said immediately, “I teach them to read. The best teachers you’ll ever have are the writers out there, from Homer on down.”

Insofar as she can guide her students to find their literary voice, she urges them to ask, What does this character want, and what is the consequence of that desire? She starts her own novels with an image of a character doing something.

In the case of Down There by the Train, it was a young man called Levon, recently released from the Kingston Penitentiary, gazing at his reflection in the window of Sweeney’s Bar. Lonely and depressed, Levon sets out across an icy island to find a bakery where he’s been offered a job. Along the way, he meets Obdulia, who is grieving for her mother, a local wise woman.

Drawing on life experiences

Strange as the story may be, Sterns vowed that “almost everything I wrote about came from life.” She was exploring how we cope with loss, particularly now that we have replaced religious faith with science, and she has used her quirky imagination to do this.

There’s something irresistible about a priest who would feed his communicants bits of paper with words on them, and a baker who wants to bake a woman’s effigy and serve it up to her family.

It’s hard to let these lovable characters go when the book is finished, Sterns admitted. “The time between books is one of anxiety for me. For a while, these characters were the only steady community I had.”