Thursday, June 25, 2009

'Like most writers, I'm overly empathetic': interview with a Lambda Award winner

I recently interviewed Vestal McIntyre, whose latest book and first novel, Lake Overturn, has been getting strong reviews (including from me, last month). He lives in London and I live in New York, so we did not meet face to face but rather Facebook to Facebook, which worked well. Except that I talked too much, for which I apologize. Anyway, I'm going to run the interview verbatim, in its entirety, in two or possibly three parts.

Read Red: First of all, congratulations on the glowing review of your new novel Lake Overturn in today's New York Times Book Review. I was so tickled when I came to it this morning. Of course, this is only the latest in a string of raves. I believe they're well deserved. I found your novel an engrossing read, a glowingly humane work especially notable for its compassion and empathy for an unusually wide range of characters. When I finished reading it, I found myself thinking of Dickens. How your book is similar to his work, not stylistically, but in the way that you bring to life a gamut of characters, and allot each one her or his full humanity.

I was very moved by this, this broad authorial embrace, which is unusual in contemporary U.S. fiction. At the same time, these characters are portrayed at a particular time and place, small-town Idaho during the Reagan 80s, and so your palette is at least implicitly political, it seems to me. This too reminds me of Dickens. Although your story is very specific and each character delineated very particularly, there's also a grand scale of social commentary at work here. How did you come to take on such an ambitious, and in so many ways Dickensian, project? What drove you to 1980s Eula, Idaho? What did you want to say about these intersecting lives, this place, that time?

Vestal McIntyre: I looked to Dickens while I was writing it. I love how he visits his characters at different points along in the story, and we get to see how they've changed in the meantime. And he's so generous to them--he's the most big-hearted writer I can think of, sometimes to a fault. It can go over a border into kitsch, I believe. He loses me then, but I still love him.

I never intended it to be "big" in this way when I first started out. I had a basic structure that revolved around Lina, Connie, and their boys. Other characters started to weave in and out. Then at a certain point it naturally began to embrace the town as a whole. That's when the voice--what I think of as the "Victorian Voice" really kicked in. I played around with the omniscience of the narrator. It was difficult to work out the rules: when to lean in to this character, lean away from that, and when to take a big step back and say, "Across town, this was happening."

Why 80's Eula? I guess it just came naturally because that was the Idaho I grew up in. I'm Gene & Enrique's age.

RR: You're their age--and yet I found this so different than so many first novelists' tendency toward solipsism. I want to ask you about this a little more, about the range of your characters, but since you brought up Gene and Enrique, let me stick with them for a minute. Because there is something so sweet and painful, raw and real about both of them. I guess a reader might assume there are aspects of yourself there, certainly in Enrique's grappling with coming to terms with his gayness, but there's also so much else about each character that seems, at least, to differ from your experience. Or no? Are these two the closest to you? Were they your starting point?

VM: Enrique is the character who has the most experiences that I had growing up. His negotiating of Junior High society, and his struggles with his own mind, are straight from my own experience--as is the way he's targeted as the "fag" at school. But he's a little more mercenary than I was at that age, and his relationships with his mother and brother are totally made up. Enrique was a starting point, but so was Connie. Connie's quest for sanctification is also straight from my growing up. I was very religious and very concerned with doing what I had to do to please God. I tell people I'm as much Connie as I am Enrique and people roll their eyes. Of course, all my characters are sides of me--means by which I try out different ideas, positions, experiences. But that's Lit 101.

RR: It may be Lit 101, but it's not easy to get an A. I'm intrigued by what you said earlier about how the story seemed to open itself up from the core of the two women and their sons, and how you were conscious of a Dickens-type approach. Far from straying into kitsch, it seems to me that you pulled off that sort of structure while also achieving what you call the big-heartedness of a Dickens tale, and I'd guess that's where your identification with Connie as much as Enrique kicks in.

For those who haven't yet read this novel, let me say that the central characters include a white woman who tries to leave behind drug use and a down-and-out life via a surrogate pregnancy for a yuppie-ish couple; a not-quite-autistic boy trapped in his oddness, his otherness; a Mexican-American woman who cleans well-off people's houses and finds herself in an affair with the man of one of them; a cancer-stricken woman who spends her last days carrying out a Mormon ritual to save the souls of dead people; and Connie, who you just mentioned, a white devout fundamentalist Christian trying to reconcile her loneliness and personal needs with her beliefs. If you tell me you are all of them, I believe you, because otherwise how the hell did you get so fully and effectively into the heads of these very diverse characters? How did you make them so vivid? Make us care about all of them so much?

These may be impossible questions, trying to get to the heart of the mystery of authorial empathy.

VM: You're right, that might be the one impossible question. I hope with all my strength that the characters ring true, and I tried my best to inhabit each when I was writing her or him. It's enormously gratifying that you think I succeeded. I'll try to get around to an answer by two routes and hopefully I won't sound like too much of a wanker. One, I was writing this book over a period of more than five years. The characters started off very small in certain ways, then grew. I visited them all as I was working, riding the subway. I was always thinking of little additions to add here and there, like little dabs on a huge painting. That might contribute to their feeling full. Secondly, I, like most writers, am overly empathetic. It's hard for me to hold my own in any argument, even with strangers, because I'm always taking the other side in a way. It makes life difficult and makes me shy. But I think it helps me in this type of multi-character writing.

RR: You're always occupying another point of view. Let me use that, the question of your perspective and your ability to see from various other perspectives, to shift to another aspect of the story and how you wrote it.

Coming soon, more of my interview with Vestal McIntyre: class, sexuality, the writing life.