An Interview with John Dalton, author of Heaven Lake
Q: Is it true that part of your novel is based on an actual proposition
you received in Taiwan?
A: It is, yes. This happened only a few months after I'd arrived in Taiwan in
1989. I'd moved to Toulio on a whim to teach English in a language school. At
night, after classes, I'd go and have dinner with several other foreign teachers
along a lane of food stalls. We were great rarities in town, often stared at,
frequently approached. Several nights in a row a local gentleman, an
overly-cheery businessman with a fitful manner, came to our table. He was an
enthusiastic beer drinker. One evening, after many rounds of beer, he told his
story. He'd recently been to the mainland to seek out business opportunities
and, purely by chance, had met and fallen in love with a woman whom he described
as the most beautiful woman in China. He wanted to marry her. She and her family
welcomed the prospect. Politically, however, such a union would either be
impossible or result in long bureaucratic delays. And so he made a standing
offer of ten thousand U.S. dollars to our table of foreign teachers for anyone
willing to travel to the mainland, marry the woman under false pretenses and
bring her to Taiwan. Was he serious? Half-serious, perhaps, and drunk. This
gentleman bears almost no resemblance to my character, Mr. Gwa, in Heaven
Lake, but the proposition itself was a kind of gift, an evocative and
story-rich idea I might someday build a novel around.
Q: You said "someday" you'd build a novel -- How long did it
take before that germ of an idea became the book we see today?
A: Quite a long time. I spent several years acquiring the obsessive,
day-to-day discipline that's needed if you want to write professionally, then
several more, highly valuable years studying fiction writing at the University
of Iowa. Heaven Lake took me a total of eight years to write. Like many
beginning writers, I had to make the difficult leap from short stories to
learning the craft and form of a novel. I wrote some three hundred pages, threw
most of them out, and started over. The novel seemed to require a maturity and
breadth of vision I didn't yet have. What I discovered was that this maturity
and vision accrues gradually over the course of many days, months, years of
struggling to be a better writer.
Q: Vincent, too, seeks maturity and vision over the course of the novel.
How much of yourself is imbued in his character?
A: Probably more than I'm able to recognize. There's a degree of irony here
because I specifically didn't want to center the novel around a character like
myself -- an American expatriate English teacher living in Asia. It seemed too
common an experience. But what did seem interesting and singular was the
predicament of several Mormon and Christian missionaries I crossed paths with
while living in Toulio. Part of what's strange and wonderful about being an
expatriate is the attraction you feel, on many different levels, toward this
strange, new, foreign culture. Yet that allurement was especially problematic
for them. My guess is that it inspired a certain amount of longing -- sensual,
romantic, spiritual -- that had to be repressed. And I've always been
sympathetic to repressed characters in fiction (Mrs. Bridge, or the butler,
Stevens, in Remains of the Day are two that come to mind).
Q: Now that you've invoked Kazuo Ishiguro, tell us some of your other
influences, or writers and characters from whom you draw inspiration.
Charles Baxter and Alice Munroe are the two writers I most often read and
reread, trying, hoping, to acquire some of the grace and humor and uncommon
insight layered into their sentences. But I could easily mention twenty other
masterful contemporary writers. Two amazing and very different novels, Disgrace
by J.M. Coetzee and Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout, were not only
exhilarating to read but also helped me sort through difficulties I was having
writing Heaven Lake. Finally, although it's a standard choice for
writers, I have to say Anna Karenina. Even though Anna is the star of the
novel, and Tolstoy's portrait of her is profoundly deep and pure, I'm more drawn
to what for many readers is the novel's less dynamic half, the story of Levin
and his struggle to understand his place in the world and his own contradictory
nature. I tried to shape Vincent in this mold and let him wrestle with similar
dilemmas -- questions of God, loneliness and desire. While traveling across
China, Vincent reads an unnamed Russian novel. In my mind it's Anna Karenina.
Q: We know now that it was your own traveling, and living, in Toulio that
inspired much of the novel...but did you see or experience anything remarkable
during your stay there that didn't make it into Heaven Lake? Which you
might be saving for another novel, perhaps?
A: I had a number of experiences while traveling in general, and in China in
particular, that would fall into the category of remarkable, strange, even
harrowing. And while many of these experiences make good campfire stories, they
couldn't really be used for Heaven Lake because they weren't right for
Vincent. Much of the storytelling aspect of writing is matching just the right
event to just the right character. So I'll probably never be able to use them
directly. But indirectly they're of great value to me. They're a reminder that
the world is an infinitely strange and unexpected place, and in a very
roundabout way they'll inform future scenes I write that have no outward
connection to Asia or traveling.
Q: Thanks for your time, John, and for sharing your thoughts about the
process of writing this extraordinary novel. Is there anything else you'd like
to tell your readers as they embark on Vincent's journey -- or writers, who may
be starting first novels of their own?
A: To anyone who has read or is about to read Heaven Lake, my
gratitude. I hope the book is a complete journey, spiritually and emotionally,
and that it lives on in your imagination. To those of you writing your own first
novels, I would advise you not to waste time feeling ashamed for being an
unpublished writer. Each time you sit alone in a room and give your most honest
and complete effort, you've earned the title of writer, particularly on those
days when you struggle the hardest, when you spend all afternoon and evening
refining an idea or the precise phrasing of a few descriptions, when you're
pushing yourself beyond your own abilities. These hard-fought and seemingly
inconsequential victories accumulate over time and make all the difference.