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. Its 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!
Its also full of arcane bits and bobs of knowledge, particularly
about William Harvey (1578-1657), who discovered the human circulatory
system. A physicians daughter from Kingston, Ont., Sterns grew up
around medical books, and was entranced by an early English translation
from Latin of Harveys 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.
Shes in her second year here, teaching a graduate course in creative
writing and an undergraduate course in play-writing in the English Department.
Its a wonderful department, with a great chair [Terry Byrnes]
and smart, supportive colleagues, she said in an interview. Its
unusual to have creative writing and English literature close together
Writing and teaching are a perfect combination for her, because she writes
relatively slowly, and she likes the stimulation of having people around
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 Im inspired by my colleagues. Ive never had such stability.
Can you teach other people to write? No, she said immediately,
I teach them to read. The best teachers youll 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
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 Sweeneys Bar. Lonely and depressed,
Levon sets out across an icy island to find a bakery where hes 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.
Theres 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 womans effigy and serve it up to her family.
Its 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.