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Westbeth writer Kate Walter on her new book on life during lockdown

INTERVIEW BY MICHELE HERMAN | “Behind the Mask: Living Alone in the Epicenter,” a memoir in essays by Kate Walter, comes out Nov. 16 from Heliotrope Books. Many of these essays originally appeared in some form in The Village Sun.

Village Sun writer Michele Herman interviews her neighbor and colleague about her new book. Kate and Michele are both dedicated members of the Bliss Singers class, which meets at Westbeth every Friday. They are happy to be singing in person again. Kate has lived in Westbeth Artists Housing, the main setting of her book, since 1997.

Kate will be giving a reading at the Westbeth Community Room, at 155 Bank St., on Wed., Dec. 1, at 7 p.m.

Q: Did you always want to be a writer or can you point to a moment when the desire was born?

A: I always loved writing. I was on the staff of my high school and college papers. I started writing professionally when I was still in college. I began as a music reviewer for The Aquarian Weekly back in the late ’60s, early ’70s when I was still living in New Jersey. A major turning point for me was when I was living in the East Village and sold my first opinion piece to The New York Times in the ’80s. After that, I honed my voice as a columnist and essayist and wrote for many outlets.

But I always had a distinctive voice. When we held our 50th high school reunion, a friend brought copies of the school paper, and I reread some of my opinion pieces. My teenage thinking was unsophisticated but my writing style, my sentence structure was apparent at 17.

Q: What’s the best writing advice you ever received?

A: Just get words on the page. Revise later. Always get feedback from trusted people and rewrite.

Q: What’s your favorite piece of writing advice that you give your students?

A: Same as above. And don’t send out your work until it is ready.

Q: Like me, you moved to the Village as an adult, and living here has given you not just a home but a community and identity. Do you ever imagine what your life would be like now if you had stayed in Jersey?

A: Funny question but my answer is No, I can’t imagine. I knew I would land up here. It was inevitable.

Q: I’m curious about whether you have to do “code-switching” when you go back and forth between the world of Westbeth and the world of the Jersey Shore.

A: I don’t do code-switching. I think that comes across in the chapter “Return from Trump Land.”

Q: What was the hardest part of writing the book?

A: It was challenging to write about something that was ongoing — the pandemic — and that kept changing from month to month. After I finished the book in June, I had to add a postscript.

Q: What part was most enjoyable?

A: “Enjoyable” may not be the right word but I felt what I was writing was important, historic. I was documenting an unprecedented experience in New York City. Similar to when I wrote about Sandy and how Westbeth was devastated by the storm.

Q: If you couldn’t be a writer, what profession might you have chosen?

A: Definitely something related to music. I would love to be a radio DJ. My book includes a tribute to Rita Houston, the legendary DJ, who died in December 2020. Her Friday night show “The Whole Wide World” on WFUV helped me get through the lockdown and the isolation. What a loss for music lovers.

Q: You were writing columns throughout the pandemic, many of them about loneliness of being single and living alone. Aside from church, what were some of the little things that helped you get through those hard months of isolation?

A: Little things would include the brief conversations on the sidewalk or hallways of Westbeth with friends and neighbors and staff. Like that time last year when I ran into you and your husband at the AIDS Memorial. All this is described in my chapter “Brief Encounters of the Pandemic Kind.”

Q: The book began as a series of columns. At what point did you think maybe you had a book, and how did you go about filling in the pieces and finding a structure?

A: By the end of 2020 I was pretty sure I had a book, a memoir in essays, so I pitched Naomi Rosenblatt at Heliotrope Books, who had published my first memoir. She liked the idea very much and we came up with a deadline.

The structure is chronological from March 2020 to May 2021. But I went back and filled in some places, and I wanted to add new material that had not been published before. I went back and added a chapter about the day Biden won and how joyous that was in the Village.

The hardest part was figuring out where to end the book since the pandemic is ongoing.

I’m very excited about the fact the book has photos. I took most of them and my publisher added a few. Little did I know when I took a picture of the ministers in front of Middle Collegiate Church in October 2020 that it would not be there two months later. I feel sad when I see that photo.

Q: Any recent news about your church?

A: Yes. In October, Middle Collegiate started holding services at Calvary-St. George’s Church in Gramercy Park. It was great to worship in person but I miss the beautiful sanctuary of Middle Collegiate. Services are also still streamed. After the tragic fire, the church membership grew and many of those folks are not in the area. Of course, fundraising to rebuild continues.

Q: Can you tell us one thing about yourself that most people don’t know?

A: The house where I grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, was in my family for over 100 years. It was built in 1903 after the great fire destroyed the original family homestead. We sold my childhood home after my mother died in 2017. Many of my dreams take place there. I wrote about that house in this new book. After the pandemic section, there are four bonus essays about my life before the virus. One of them is “Cleaning Out a Century of Family Life.”

Q: What made you add writing prompts to the book?

A: That was my publicist’s suggestion. What a great idea. That section was fun and easy  to create since I taught writing for many years at N.Y.U. I think it is important that everyone
process what we all went through. Writing can be a form of healing. It was my salvation and got me through the fear and loneliness. I offer it in my book as a tool for others.

Q: What comes next for you as a writer?

A: What was very cool about this new book is that I did not set out to write a memoir in essays. It just happened organically. As I wrote pieces for the Village Sun, I was inspired by the positive feedback from Lincoln Anderson, the publisher, and from the readers. I knew I was onto something.

Right before the lockdown I was working on a queer mystery novel. I read part of it in the Westbeth community room, probably the last event there in March 2020. People really liked it but I put it aside to write this new memoir. Maybe I will go back to that, but it feels kinda frivolous now. I feel changed, like a different person since the pandemic. The last chapter of my pandemic memoir is called “I Know I’ve Been Changed.”

The paperback version of Kate Walter’s “Behind the Mask: Living Alone in the Epicenter” will be available on Nov. 16. You can preorder the Kindle version now. To order a copy or for more information, click here.

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