John Dalton | The Long Journey

I realized I was writing a novel about the question of God and the question of desire and the question of loneliness, and understanding that was a big help in helping me shape the novel.

 

John Dalton expects his next novel will take considerably less than eight years to write. That’s how long Dalton, an assistant professor of English at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, spent working on Heaven Lake, his first novel. When he tells people that, only non-writers are surprised, he said.

“The common notion that people have of writers is that there are some people who are just touched by God and have all of this talent, and that at some point they sit down and write out a manuscript,” he said. “And in the movies…they’re typing away and the calendar flips by a few months, and they’re sending it off to their publisher.”

If only it were that easy.

“It’s not as if some people are touched and some people aren’t,” he said.

Heaven Lake is about Vincent Saunders, a Christian missionary from Red Bud, Ill., who travels to Taiwan to help establish an English language school and bring his faith to the local citizens. After a disastrous liaison with one of his own students, though, he’s forced to leave and accepts a Taiwanese man’s business proposition: go to mainland China and marry the woman he loves and bring her back to Taiwan. What follows is part travelogue, part adventure, and part unlikely love story, with Vincent questioning everything from his religious convictions to his own feelings.

“I think thematically what I came to realize—and I didn’t know this when I started; this happens over years of working on it—I realized I was writing a novel about the question of God and the question of desire and the question of loneliness, and understanding that was a big help in helping me shape the novel,” Dalton said. “I think novels are shaped and held together by ideas, even though they have to be great entertainment on top of that.”

The creation of the novel itself was a long journey for Dalton, and he said his faith in the novel ebbed and flowed as he worked on it.

“One thing I did realize was that I was writing a novel that was more ambitious and bigger than most first novels,” he said. “My single hope was that publishers would at least kind of smile on the ambition of what I was trying to do, and that it wasn’t a first novel in terms of trying to put all these elements together.”

His publisher was not the only one that bought into it. Dalton credited Barnes & Noble with a great deal of the novel’s success. In 2004, the bookseller selected Heaven Lake as one of the winners of its Discover Great New Writers Awards. Not only did the award help increase sales of the book, but it put Dalton in a better position for his second book, in which his publisher is very interested.

Not that it made the act of writing any easier, though. “Writing is still very hard, meticulous work. There’s nothing that’s going to change that,” he said. “No degree of success is going to make that any easier.”

After a year as visiting assistant professor in the University of North Carolina – Greensboro’s M.F.A. program, Dalton’s current job finds him teaching creative writing at UM-St. Louis and working on his second novel. As a native of St. Louis from “a big Catholic family,” it was a welcome return. “I like the Midwest a lot,” he said. “I’ve never had a strong urge to try to move to L.A. or New York and settle there, even though I love both of those places, New York especially. I essentially consider Heaven Lake a Midwestern novel in a lot of ways. I know that seems strange, but I think it’s got a Midwestern sensibility to it.

“I think there are a lot of fine Midwestern writers. So I never find myself sitting in my home wishing I lived in a more exciting place. St. Louis has everything I need.”

UM-St. Louis provides a unique teaching experience for him, as well. “The students tend to be older,” he said. “They tend to have careers. They have complicated lives. They haven’t spent their whole lives in school, and that brings a richness to their writing. I really like students like that.”

Teaching is also a way that Dalton brings balance to the solitary nature of the writing life. “You know, you can drive yourself crazy if you do nothing but sit in your room and write all the time,” he said. “So it’s a real pleasure to step out of my cave and sit in a classroom with other people who are as passionate about books as I am.”

Dalton’s next novel is a departure from Heaven Lake, at least in terms of plot and setting: it takes place in 1975 in the Missouri Ozarks at a summer camp for mentally retarded adults. At the same time, he hopes that readers will find it as well crafted and thoughtful as Heaven Lake.

“I’m not going to take eight years to write this one,” he said, “but at the same time, I’m not going to be a writer who finishes a book every two or three years, either.”

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