Monday, June 29, 2009

'It was good ... to slowly find my way'

Here's Part 2 of my interview with Vestal McIntyre, author of Lake Overturn.

Read Red: Lake Overturn seems to me to be quite a class-conscious book. By that I mean it doesn't assume the sort of bland, boring middle-class sameness that so many current novels seem to. It acknowledges that there are different classes, and places the characters within them. Why was it important for you to do this?

Vestal McIntyre: It would be hard for me to write about any characters without writing about class. Where we came from economically is so much a part of who we are, especially in how we compare ourselves to those around us. I grew up in a comfortable environment -- my dad was a doctor, my mom a nurse, and they had a private practice connected to our house in the country. My family had been relatively wealthy when my older siblings were growing up, much less so when I came around. This was partly because my parents were socially conscious, and never pressured people to pay if they couldn't. Also, they had a lot of people live with us for varying periods -- people who had nowhere else to go. So I got a lot of perspective on my own wealth growing up (because even the poorest doctor's kid is rich in the grand scheme of things). Then I went to college in the East and saw what real wealth was. All of this interests me, so I write about it.

RR: Your being awake to this helps account for much of the vitality of this book, I think. So now that you've spoken some about your background, which was the next thing I was going to ask, let me ask about the next steps you took that brought you to this point. You moved to the East Coast ... you came out ... did you move away from the strong religious views you had as a youth? Did you get involved at all in gay activism? At what point did you begin writing seriously?

VM: Around the time I left Idaho to go to college, I started having serious doubts about my Christianity. I was completely exhausted by the guilt associated with my sexuality. I'm prone to anxieties anyway, and I came to realize that's all Christianity was to me at that point -- a huge monolith of anxiety throwing a shadow over anything bright in my life. I was having a lot of doubt anyway. The style of Christianity practiced in Idaho sets itself up for complete ejection. It teaches, for example, that if you don't believe that God created the Heavens and the Earth in seven days, you may as well throw out the whole Bible and become a heathen. (Fundamentalism, basically.) So I did. I also had a lot of anxiety coming out, though. It took me a very long time to grow up. The writing, though, was a constant. I knew when I was nine or ten that I wanted to write books.

RR: Did that become something to believe in?

VM: Yes, I suppose it did. There are times I step back and realize how incredibly lucky I am, that I've had the peace of mind to focus on this goal and see it through.

RR: Well, we the readers are lucky too.

VM: That's very kind. In a way, a writer is a demanding type of artist. He asks for hours of undivided attention. I'm glad that for you it was time well spent.

RR: I've got a bit more to ask you about your writing career and your writing life, and then I'll let you go because you're well into the evening there in London.

One of the things I find refreshing about you, about your story, is that you didn't go the MFA route. No disrespect to those who do, and, as I've written about recently on my blog, I wish I could have, but it's nice to see that it's still possible for a writer to make his/her way without going through one of those programs. Did you consider it, though? Why didn't you do the MFA thing?

VM: I was accepted to an MFA program just a year after graduating college, and I almost went. My old writing teacher, Jonathan Strong, who's still a mentor to me, told me to consider how much I'd owe afterward, and how little my earning potential would have improved. He was of the school that writers should go live around non-writers. So I listened to him. It was very good for me to live in New York City and be a waiter for ten years and slowly find my way as a writer. I would have been easily bullied in an MFA program. I think that happens sometimes, students bully each other into sounding alike. MFA programs can be very enriching if you're immune to that type of bullying.

RR: Living around non-writers! And you even write about non-writers! Novel concepts.

And yes, the sounding alike. The sameness. I have my doubts about whether your own true voice, which seems to me to be strong and essential, could have been stomped down, but I can see how it might have been a struggle to defend it. How much more worthwhile to just live and write. I make these editorial comments because I work as a secretary and have for many years, and when I feel sorry for myself as I'm trying to find the time and energy to write, I do remind myself of just this, that my life experience in the real world is enriching in its own way.

VM: Rick Moody wrote a terrific essay about MFAs, the good and bad points. He sees a mentorship as a great plus, but the workshops as a drag. They round out edges in fiction that shouldn't be rounded out. Weird geniuses would get squashed in workshops into trying to sound like New Yorker stories.

RR: Rounding out the edges. Squashing weird geniuses. Yeah. I like that.

So you were working as a waiter and just writing away. And then at some point you started submitting your work to literary journals? I understand that you were sort of "discovered" when Open City editors found one of your stories in the slush pile and were overjoyed at this fresh new voice. Did it start getting easier, did you start getting published, after that?

VM: Yes, I suppose it did get easier after Open City. It's a wonderful magazine, very well respected in publishing. And it's a little family. I'm always in touch with Tom and Joanna, the editors. In fact, I'm in the current issue! But it takes incredible tenacity to get stories published. You have to submit and submit, until you're completely desensitized to rejection. I went on some residencies -- the Blue Mountain Center, Ucross, yaddo -- and those were boosts to my writing. Not only did my work change and grow, given uninterrupted time, but I got to really live as a writer for the first time (even though it was just for a few weeks). At dinner I talked about the progress of my writing. The other artists treated me like a real writer. This was all new and wonderful. I wrote most of my short story collection at those residencies.

RR: You Are Not the One, winner of the Lambda Literary Award. Which I'm sure you'll be in the running for again next year for Lake Overturn.

VM: Here's to hoping.

RR: I like hearing how the writing residencies nurtured you too. It's almost as if they're an alternative to MFA programs.

VM: I'd definitely say they are. With the added bonus of having painters and composers and performance artists around. You get to see their work, compare notes on process, and see how others are navigating the world.

RR: So fast forward to June 2009. You're living in London with your husband Tristan -- largely, as I understand it, because he can be your husband there, unlike here -- and you're working full-time, at a bookstore. Is that right?

VM: I'm working full-time at the moment, which is very bad for my writing. Hopefully that will change at some point soon. But yes, Tristan and I live here because U.S. law won't treat us like spouses. He can't immigrate. Meanwhile, the UK treats me exactly how it would a straight partner, and granted me a spouse's visa with no fuss. There's a law before the U.S. Congress now (Uniting American Families Act) that would change this, and allow citizens to sponsor their same-sex partners for immigration. If it passes, Tristan and I will be able to live in the USA.

RR: I assume you're not holding your breath ...

VM: It's got a lot of support, but, yes, I'd be surprised if it passed. Very pleasantly surprised.

RR: Sooner or later -- and in my opinion if you step back and look at how things have changed, 40 years after Stonewall, it's really amazing how fast things have moved. On the other hand, it's excruciatingly slow. My lover and I have been together 21 years and we've yet to be recognized legally or get the benefits.

VM: That's surprising, given that you work for _______.

RR: Okay, let me amend it. I meant we don't get any of the over 1000 federal benefits that married people get. She does get my health coverage. But even that's not equal, because under DOMA her medical coverage is reported and taxed as my income. So I end up paying for it. Which straight married employees don't.

But Vestal, your story, yours and Tristan's, is so romantic. I love how you found each other and found a way to be together. And how you've built a life, working and writing in London.

VM: It sounds pretty exotic, and it is wonderful. But it often is buttered noodles and Big Brother on telly the week before payday.

RR: Sounds lovely to me.

You said working full-time is rough for finding time to write. Are you working on any new stuff now? Can you give a hint?

VM: I'm writing short stories about New York. I think I might be halfway done with another collection. Also, I'm writing a novel about two brothers who work as bail bondsmen in contemporary Idaho.

RR: Wow. So much for no time to write.

VM: I try to squeeze in a few hours on my days off.

RR: Speaking of time, though, I think I should let you go. You've been very patient with my overlong statements/questions. Thank you so much for talking with me. Your generous spirit as a writer, which shines through in your novel, has made itself evident in the thoughts you've shared with me here today. I hope to hear you read next time you're in NYC. All the best to you. Now I hope you can get some relaxing hours in what's left of the night.

VM: It's been an absolute pleasure, Shelley.