Looking for a Kiss: A Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing is not just a lesbian breakup story. Although the memoir by longtime New Yorker Kate Walter chronicles the rebuilding of her life after her domestic partner of 26 years decided to leave, it transcends sexual orientation. “The universal message of my book is that you can survive a bad breakup. You can heal your life and land up in a better place,” she said.
Readers are brought into her microcosm of Manhattan, which includes browsing at St. Mark’s Bookshop, teaching at Manhattan Community College and attending services at Middle Collegiate Church. Walter moved to the city in 1975, and lived in both the East and West Villages, so we get a glimpse into what those neighborhoods were like before gentrification. And as she begins to date again, she shows us just how small the community of lesbians is here, where it was common that she’d run into her ex or a woman who had dated her ex.
You had some of this book already published in essay form. What were the challenges to writing a memoir? A lot of it was published in essay form and then it was a matter of putting it together. This is the third draft. The first draft I knew wasn’t salable. After the second draft, I got feedback from agents that was very helpful. It also made me realize was what wrong. On the second draft, which I was shopping around, someone said to me, “The reader knows what’s going to happen before the narrator.” You want the reader to be surprised. As you’re reading the book, you’ll see it begins with the breakup and then it traces my life afterwards, which I think is interesting because it shows how I deal with the heartache. The other book, the one I couldn’t sell, ended with the breakup. So the format was wrong. I think a big challenge is finding the right container for your story. Where does it begin? Where does it end? Because when you write a memoir, it’s really not your whole life. It’s a specific portion of your life, so it was a question of what portion did I want to write about.
What feedback have you been getting from readers?One thing that’s made me really happy is that a lot of straight women have read it and said, “Wow, I can really relate to this.” I read at this club in the Village, The Duplex, it was a benefit reading. There were a lot of gay men in the audience and they came up to me afterwards and said, “The piece you read about the bad date; that sounded so familiar.” So I really like to feel it has a wide appeal to a number of readers. I have to say, I haven’t heard any feedback from straight men yet. Although my brother bought it; I’ll see what he thinks. Of course, he’s in the book so he can’t be objective. And my old boyfriend from high school bought it; he’s in the book too.
You became domestic partners with your ex in 1993. After you broke up, you realized that legalizing gay marriage was very important. Well, I mean, you’re not entitled to anything when you’re a domestic partner in New York City. The only thing would be that you can visit your partner in the hospital or you could inherit the apartment if you weren’t on the lease. But as I mentioned in the book, my ex had a lot of money saved up for our retirement, and I wasn’t entitled to any of that. So yeah, it’s crap domestic partnership, and it really made me realize that had we been married, it would have been a whole different ballgame, financially, specifically. And I think that makes the book also more timely with the recent Supreme Court ruling.
Was writing this a form of therapy for you?Absolutely, it was totally cathartic. As I was going on these dates, I was writing these pieces and bringing them in to my workshop and everyone was saying, “This is funny. This really rocks.” And then I realized that I could really write about this aftermath. A lot of crazy things were happening as you see in the book. Like I’d run into my ex and she would touch me and then run away and not say hello. And I’m like, “Why are you doing this?” I couldn’t understand it; I still don’t to this day.
Has your ex reached out to you since the book has been published?No, not at all. I would think she’s read it, but, no, she hasn’t reached out to me. She knew the book was coming out, yeah. She probably read it and who knows what her reaction was.
Throughout the book, you talk about gay groups such as the Gay Teachers Association and Out Professionals. How did socializing through these organizations help you after the breakup?It was good to know that I could get out there and socialize. I mean, I’m a pretty outgoing person. I’m not shy. It was good to know that I could date because I hadn’t dated in about 30 years. And it’s hard to date when you’re older. It was just good to know that these groups were there, so if you wanted to socialize you could go out and meet gay women. And what was also interesting, as I mentioned in the book, is that it’s still a very small world. You’d meet the same people and ones who had gone out with your ex. It’s very small, even in New York City, the world of lesbian dating.
Where you live is so interesting, the artists’ community Westbeth.It opened in 1970 and it’s a big, old building that was a factory. It used to be Bell Laboratories. It has a very cool history; the building is over 100 years old. And a lot of things were invented there, so it went from this place where these creative scientists invented a lot of things and now all these creative artists live. I moved there in 1997 and have been doing workshops at Westbeth. I kind of put them on hold while the book was going on, but would like to resume them.
What was St. Mark’s like in the ‘80s? You lived there and started a block association because it was out of control. There were all kinds of people selling stuff all over the street and a lot of it was hot, a lot of it was stolen. It was a known thing that there was this thieves’ market on Second Avenue by where Gem Spa is located on the corner of St. Mark’s. And at night, it would just become this place where you could hardly walk on the sidewalk. There were all these stolen goods. And it was so brazen; if someone’s apartment was robbed, you’d go look on the sidewalk to see if you could get your stuff back. The St. Marks’s Bookshop- I’m friends with the owners to this day — this was before they had the things you walk through — people would rob the books and sell them in front of the store!
The Middle Collegiate Church is a big part of your spiritual life. What makes it so special to you?That’s a big part of my story. It’s a very welcoming, open place. The theme is you’re welcome the way you come in the door no matter what your religious background is. Gay people are welcome. Transgender people are welcome. Everybody is welcome in God’s house. That’s its motto. A lot of gay people have felt, myself included, pushed out or not welcome in say, the Catholic Church. I mean, there are gay Catholics. As I said in the book, I consider myself an expanded Catholic. I can’t ditch my heritage. I can’t ditch my upbringing. Bu this church speaks to me today and I think it’s a wonderful place.
On July 12, you can find Kate at Middle Collegiate Church, doing a reading after Sunday service. She will also be interviewed by Reverend Dr. Jacqui Lewis, a national faith leader and religion blogger for the Huffington Post.
On July 14, she will be at Bluestockings Bookstore for a reading.
To learn more, visit www.katewalter.com