On Writing: An Interview with Professor Kate Sterns
By Santiago Eastman Herrera
Kate Sterns was born in Toronto and grew up in Kingston, Ontario. She has written two novels, Down There by the Train and Thinking About Magritte, and two radio plays, The Bagel Philosopher and Once in a Blue Moon, both of which were broadcast on BBC Radio Four. Sterns now makes her home in Montreal and is an associate professor of Creative Writing at Concordia University.
What made you want to become a writer in the first place?
“I didn't, is the short answer. I fell into it accidentally. I fell into it in London, England, where I was living at a time where you met people easily in the publishing world. I had friends who wanted to write, I joined them. I joined my roommate, who was also Canadian. She really wanted to write and she just asked me to come along to a writing group for company. I enjoyed it, I started writing something just to keep up with everybody. And at the end of the day, it was a sufficient interest to the publishers that they published it.”
That's fantastic. Oh my goodness.
“Yeah, it was a ridiculously easy entry into publishing. It doesn't happen that way so much anymore. No, publishing itself is a much bigger business, and the publishers are motivated by money. It's the marketing people who make the decisions.”
Who or what has had the greatest influence on your work?
“Oh, golly, so many things. But I think primarily, a writer who had an enormous influence on me was Grace Paley, who is not read so much anymore. She died a few years ago. I was so privileged to be able to introduce her when she came to get a reading here. It was one of the great honors of my life. She was wonderful. And up until then, I have been a fanatic Dickens fan and I still am. I love the Victorians. I love [Anthony] Trollope. I love [George] Gissing. I love Gaskell, Elizabeth Gaskell. I love all of them. But Grace Paley showed me a way to harness the voice in a way that bypasses a lot of description. I mimicked her rather strongly in passages of my first novel. But I think she's a brilliant writer, I hope her time will come again. I think she was always known as the writer's writer when she was alive. And I hope that people will rediscover her work because she's brilliant.
Shakespeare too. Shakespeare is always the model for me as one of the greats-- and Chekhov. Absolutely.”
What do you feel it’s like being a woman in the publishing sphere?
“Well, I'm so tangential to it now. I mean, when I came up in it, and in England, it was fine. It wasn't even questioned. I was thinking it was - because I was working in London - it was far more weird that I was Canadian.”
“Yes. My first publisher, they tended to publish literary literature and translation. So a lot of Russians, a lot of Germans, and all that. They also published Raymond Carver. And they published me. And I think we were the only two non-Europeans that they were publishing.”
“Oh, and Richard Ford, I think. It was a very small boutique publisher. It was wonderful. And the man who headed it was incredibly intimidating, but also incredibly smart. So, I felt more unusual being a Canadian than being a woman. Now, I don't think it's so unusual being a woman in publishing. And of course, there are a lot of big hitters who are female writers. I think it's rarer now for older women to be heard. And that is a shame because one of - I think - the best writers of the late 20th century was Penelope Fitzgerald, who didn't start writing until she was 66.
But, you know, what publishing wants are the shiny new things. And that's what they're gonna go for. And that's fine. I mean, obviously, you want the new writers out there. You don't want to simply hear from the same tired old voices all the time. And I think there are writers, frankly, who should know when they've written their last book. And in many ways, I count myself among them. I've written my last book.”
Are you currently working on any other projects?
“I would say I'm always currently working on something, but not anything I can articulate entirely. Writing is something that, well, I always quote Kurt Vonnegut's sister, who I think is great: "Just because you have a talent doesn't mean you have to use it." And I feel like I have a talent for writing and when I enjoy it, I really enjoy it. But the last few years have been difficult with COVID, and my family. And I would also say that I'm probably a teacher first - a teacher first and a writer second.
I love teaching, and I find a lot of value in teaching. Not everybody does. I know that it's hard for some people - they want the validation, publication and all of that. But I enjoy seeing all shiny young faces and their new writing. And even if they don't go on to become writers, the fact that they will become educated and invested and thoughtful readers, I think, is amazing. And if I can contribute to that, that's absolutely great for me.”
Can I ask what your favorite part about being a professor is?
“Oh, well, it's undoubtedly the students, of course. No, there's no question. There's lots of administrative stuff that you have to do that isn't all that fun. And I would say the university has changed over the last few years. I am all for the nuance. My feeling is, I want to have a space where people feel free to ask questions, not everybody has determined for themselves how they feel about X, Y, and Z.
I find you all incredibly open-minded, incredibly gentle, and respectful of each other, which is so lovely to see. So yes, of course, there's no question that my interaction with all of you is the highlight. And I know - 'She would say that, wouldn't she?' But it's true, but it is true.”
I love it. That’s great. So, how do you go about creating characters in your novels?
“Well, in my first novel, they were based on people that I knew - not well, not friends - but people I used to see in Kingston. We used to have a big psychiatric hospital that closed, and so there was a real a community of people who lived very much on the edges of Kingston society, which is a very conservative town and is literally split north and south, between a dividing street. So, the South has a university, and hospital, and a lot of middle-class people. And then on the North, because we also have five prisons in Kingston, or we used to before several of them closed down. So, a very different kind of community north of Princess Street. So some of it was just based on them. I often draw from people I know, like a mixture of qualities that I note in people that I think are sort of relevant to the character.”
“Yes. So, sometimes they come fully formed, like the little guy up there from my first novel. His name was Gonzino Bay - I don't know where the hell he came from. I don't know where that came from. But I just fell in love with him. And he stayed in the novel and gave me great, great pleasure. And so, sometimes people, characters just do sort of spring fully formed.”
Absolutely, yeah. So, how do you write characters that aren't like you? How do you write someone that's completely different from the way you think?
“Well, first thing I would say is, you probably never do. I mean, there will always be some aspect of your experience or your thinking that infiltrates the character, because it's your way into them. But ultimately, the responsibility is to put the character in the situation that you've created for them, and to try to think,- 'How would they behave? How would they react?' In part, you're also trying to figure out how to get them to behave in a way that's both true to themselves but also true to this larger story that you're telling.
I would say it's just really a process of getting to know the character, and writing and saying, 'Is that what they would say?" Not being afraid to change things up, not being afraid to get rid of a character if they're not working. But I think the more time you spend with them, the more real they become. I mean, it's a cliché, but it's true. They start to tell you, 'I wouldn't say that.' They start to talk back to you. They become very unruly, and when they do that, you know you've done your job. Because they become real people to you.
I would say with my second novel, there was a character that I never cracked. I never ever could get to know who he was. And I don't quite know why I resisted it, but I did, and it showed. The character just didn't work. And so, that's a lesson, you know, you have to really make sure that you feel like if you had to sit an exam on this character, you could answer all the questions. That's why things like the Proust questionnaire, and all that, they can be ways of tricking yourself into creating the character at the beginning. It's an interesting exercise at the beginning to take the Proust questionnaire, you know - all those questions? What's your greatest happiness and all that? Try it at the beginning - when you don't really know the character - and answer the questions, and then put that aside and never look at it again. And then later, when you spent real time with your character, and you feel like you really know them, then answer those questions. Try not to refer back to the original questionnaire. And then think and see how you'd answer. Because I'll bet you it'll be different.”
Any last comments or words of encouragement for our readers?
“Oh, well, there's always hope. I would say - there's less now - but there was always talk of safe spaces, and so on. And I think truly the only safe space in life is literature. Because there's a story where everything is being played out, good and bad. But we understand why things are playing out, we understand the consequences, we understand, to a certain extent, the significance of all of it. And then we can sort of emerge and go and have a drink with our friends. Right? But that sense of facing things, and trying to understand, and mostly trying to understand everybody's point of view, which is what a writer has to do, is really essential.
And if people are having a hard time writing, just remember, there is no blueprint for a successful creative career. None at all. You're making the blueprint as you go. And so, you may be a bundle of energy and productivity in your early 20s. Or, it may hit you in your 70s. And anytime in between. The main thing is do you love what you do? Are you getting something out of it? And if the answer is yes, then just carry on. If the answer no, the answer's no. Don't be afraid to say, "you know what? I'm a reader."