Between The Lines

Kate Walbert Explains the Story Behind The Sunken Cathedral

Kate Walbert, May 26, 2015

The Sunken Cathedral started out as stories that began to grow together. Years ago, I consciously set out to write “place stories.” I’d think of somewhere I’d been and then try to capture more the feel of the place in a story rather than anything else. These stories became my first book, Where She Went. I believe I unwittingly did the same thing with The Sunken Cathedral. I lived in Chelsea for twelve years and moved to a different neighborhood only a few years ago. Once I moved out, I was better able to view where I’d been—but, like my place stories, it’s a novel of impressions, not an attempt at a realistic portrait. I’m after the feel of this neighborhood, or how I experienced it through the transformation of New York in the early twenty-first century.

The street and the people on the block where I lived in Chelsea from 2000 to 2012 may have inspired the characters of The Sunken Cathedral, but that’s where the “truth” of the novel ends—in fact, not knowing anyone’s “real” story allowed me to imagine ones that felt much more organic and truthful to the novel. The Sunken Cathedral renders a particular moment in time—possibly now, or in the near future—in a place moving at warp speed. For a while I fought the introduction of footnotes, but they seemed to best mimic our increasingly fractured consciousness and interrupted attentions—both visually and narratively.

The title refers to a Debussy prelude, “La cathédrale engloutie,” inspired by the medieval legend of the lost City of Ys (off the Breton coast), a fabled city destroyed by a tempest. I would never have known of the legend, or the prelude for that matter, if not for my best friend’s mother, Jane. For more than twenty years, Jane took daily painting classes at the National Academy. There, long before any talk of global warming or extreme weather, she completed a watercolor of several Manhattan landmarks underwater. When my two octogenarian characters wandered into a painting class, I very loosely based one of their classmates on Jane, or rather the subject of her work—Manhattan underwater. It wasn’t until years into the writing of the book that I had the opportunity to mention this to Jane, and when she then filled me in on why she called it The Sunken Cathedral, the background story of the Breton legend and Debussy’s prelude, suddenly, as in the moment you find the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle, everything fit into place.

The Sunken Cathedral

The Sunken Cathedral

By Kate Walbert