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.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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