An Interview with Kate Walberg
What was your initial inspiration for The Gardens of Kyoto?
My father's cousin, Charles Webster, was killed on Iwo Jima during what they
called a "mopping up" operation -- essentially after the battle had
been won. Charles was the only son of his beloved Aunt Maude, and they lived
just a mile or so down the road from the land my father's family farmed on the
Eastern Shore of Maryland. My father had been quite close to his cousin, his own
brothers off fighting in Europe, but he never spoke of him to us except to
describe the day Aunt Maude received the telegram announcing Charles' death. It
was a single image, really, not a story at all. He simply recalled how Aunt
Maude came and sat with his own mother at the kitchen table. The image stuck
with me -- two silent women at the table, one with sons in battle in Europe, the
other with a son dead in the Pacific -- and I supposed I wrote the initial story
to try to give voice to that image.
You originally wrote The Gardens of Kyoto as a short story? How did
you come to expand it into a novel?
The voice of the story surprised me. The narrator wasn't my father at all,
but a woman of my mother's generation who had lost her cousin on Iwo Jima, a
woman who repeatedly said she "didn't know him that well," and yet
slowly divulged more and more of his life. Still, I felt by the story's end that
she was hiding far more than she let on. There were mysteries to certain lines.
I went back to solve the mysteries.
A book about the gardens in Kyoto, Japan, plays a key role in the novel;
descriptions of the gardens from this book are woven into the narrative, and the
book itself is passed between the central characters. Does such a book actually
exist? Have you visited Kyoto? How do you see the gardens complementing the
themes and structure of the novel?
The book as it exists in the novel is imagined. I have always been fascinated
by old, worthless texts and postcards that can be found in junk shops, usually
piled high in cardboard boxes and exiled to the far corners. Even the look of
the faded ink on the page seems to contain past lives. I liked the idea of such
a book being passed from one pair of hands to another, particularly one with an
evocative inscription. I can see it quite clearly though it resembles no book I
have ever read.
Several years ago I returned to Japan after a long absence; I lived there as
a child from 1963-1965. I visited The Gardens of Kyoto and was struck by
their odd, singular beauty; in one of the guidebooks, the editors wrote how the
gardens were organized by "fragments in relation." It seemed like a
perfect metaphor for writing.
Many of the male characters serve in war, either World War II or Korea.
Your father is a veteran. How did his experiences inform your writing?
As with the story of Charles, my father rarely spoke of his experience in
Korea, though as a young girl I was fascinated by the few photographs we had of
him at the front lines, standing in uniform in front of sandbags, smiling. When
he did tell stories, they were almost like fairytales in nature -- sitting in
the trenches waiting for the rats to get to the tip of his boots before shooting
them off, that sort of thing, the realities of the war itself something he
clearly would rather not discuss. But the fact that I was writing about Charles,
or that Charles had been the point of departure for the novel, intrigued him,
and he began to answer more than the direct research questions I asked, filling
in with anecdotes about his own experiences, and those of my uncles on the
European front. Our discussions thoroughly engaged him, seeming to permit him to
speak freely of that time. This has been one of the most unexpected and
wonderful results of writing the book.
The protagonist is a woman coming of age in the late 40s and 50s, a time
when a woman's choice was limited by societal expectations. You were raised
during different, more "progressive" times. What drew you to this
period? How are your female characters affected by conceptions about a woman's
I have always been interested in the women who came of age in the late
forties and fifties and believe that they were affected by the wars -- I mean
the Second World War and the Korean War -- in subtle and devastating ways. It
was naturally to the women that men turned on their arrival home to make
everything sane again; and yet nothing was as it had once been. They went along,
building their families and their husband's careers through the fifties and
early sixties before the notion of a woman's happiness solely as a caregiver
came into stark question. This generation is my mother's generation, one that, I
believe, is unlike any other in what was asked of them.