Vestal McIntyre is the author of the short story collection You Are Not the One–named a New York Times “Editors’ Choice”–and a new novel, Lake Overturn. At 36, he has already won a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. He accomplished these things while working as a waiter at Restaurant Florent in New York City’s meatpacking district, where he eventually ran his career, entertaining his editors, agent, and publicists as they sat cheek by jowl with the restaurant’s eclectic clientèle.
McIntyre moved to London last year with his husband, who is English. He emailed his side of the interview from London.
Your novel, Lake Overturn, takes an entire town as its subject. Did something particular about your hometown of Nampa, Idaho, inspire you to write the book?
Eula is a more compact version of the Nampa I grew up in. Its population is about 10,000 (whereas Nampa’s was 25,000). People are more likely to run into each other at the supermarket. But, like Nampa, there is a lake at one end of town and a giant, hulking, stinking sugar factory at the other, and the rich people live near the lake and the poor people near the factory. Eula is Nampa in how it sees its position in the world. In 1986 Nampa existed in the shadow of Boise, envious of those who lived there, disdainful of Caldwell, the next town over, which was "trashier." Also, like Nampa, it has a big Mexican population. The second generation of Mexicans made their way into society, but the first generation–especially the migrant farm workers–were exploited or ignored.
Are there books that you feel were models for Lake Overturn in content or style?
I wanted to have an old-fashioned third person omniscient narrator, a Victorian-type voice that could say, "Now, gentle reader, I’m going to tell you what was happening at this moment across town in the trailer park." I toned it down in late drafts. In the final version, the narrator no longer addresses the reader. It was just too campy and distracting in a book that is otherwise pretty earnest. But I read Victorians like Dickens and Thackeray while I was writing.
In the novel, you take the point of view of a dozen or more characters, including a Mormon man whose wife is dying of cancer; a sweet, gay middle school boy; and the local school bus driver and his sister, an addict who wants to have a baby. Did you have a method for keeping these interwoven stories organized as you moved between the various voices?
There came a point when I was about halfway through the writing of the novel that all these story lines started stepping on each other. It happened right when some friends loaned me their cabin in rural Maine to write in for two months. I made a huge graph on one wall of the room I was writing in, with the timeline of the novel and all the characters color-coded. I wrote out on index cards every scene I had left to write, and cut a big black circle out of construction paper that I then moved from card to card, down the wall, as I wrote.
That worked pretty well keeping the story lines straight. Much more difficult were the logistics of the narrator. In early drafts, the reader is privy to many more characters’ thoughts. I had to pull back because it’s better, I think, to be simpler. The reader doesn’t want to hear all those voices–especially of characters who don’t play a big role in the story. The effect is kind of like listening to an orchestra tune up. So I made very rigid rules about which characters’ thoughts to allow access to, and when. Some characters I held off until late in the novel–again to spare the reader that barrage of voices at the outset. I never noticed any of these mechanics when reading novels written in omniscient third-person. It was a shock, how tricky it was to manage.
One character whose point of view you left in, though we only hear from her once or twice, is an elderly woman in a nursing home, one of Connie’s clients. Why did her point of view get to stay?
The very first words I wrote of this novel were from the point of view of that character, Adele, who is wheelchair-bound and mute, but has an active inner life made up of memories. When she loses that inner life, no one notices but Connie. The inner, spiritual life is so important to Connie that she is willing to sacrifice her happiness for it. So it was important to me to show what Adele has lost (though she doesn’t die) in the hope that the reader will understand Connie’s struggle better.
That said, I think a good argument could be made that I should have pulled back from Adele too. It was a decision I agonized over.
Do you think you had to leave Nampa to write this book?
I had to leave Nampa to live the life I wanted to live. And I wouldn’t have had the perspective to write this novel if I had stayed. So, yes.
I remember when I was little and my oldest siblings started going away for college–all of them far from home. I used to promise my mom that I would be the one who stayed in Nampa and went to NNC, the local Nazarene college. Then came the events of adolescence–being gay, having friends and teachers turn on me, and having my relationship with my parents alter so completely that by the time I was eighteen I felt I had no choice but to leave.
Where did you go?
I went to Boston, to Tufts University. Then I moved to New York City, where I had always wanted to live, even though I had never been there.
You were a waiter in New York City for eleven years, and now you work at Waterstone’s, a bookstore in London. Good jobs for writing?
Waitering, yes. Bookselling, not so much.
The restaurant where I worked for all that time was pretty special. It was called Florent and it was a real hub for creative people, both as customers and waiters. It was owned by Florent Morellet, a crazy little Frenchman who encouraged us to have fun at work. I was able to run my social life there, while making good money. Friends would visit all the time, as well as editors, writers. My agent would come see me there. Don Weise, who edited my first book, was brought to me there by Michael Carroll, a mutual friend. Customers became friends and readers.
Also, when you’re a writer and your creative life involves endless hours alone, thinking, it’s good to have a job that involves running around, putting on a friendly face, enjoying the occasional screaming fight with the kitchen guys.
I would work like a dog, save up money, then take off for months at a time to write, while the other waiters (most of whom were artists, writers, or actors) would cover my shift. We had a good thing going, but it’s probably best that it’s over now. Florent closed last summer. I drink a lot less now.
The bookstore is another matter. Working in an independent bookstore would be a good job for a writer, but Waterstone’s is a gigantic corporation.
Do you find yourself promoting certain writers in the bookstore or turning your own book face-out on the shelf?
Actually, they’ve done that for me, which is really kind. They brought in my book and did it in the book group. They have signed copies on display.
And, yes, I’m always pushing my favorites. I brought in Adam Haslett’s You Are Not a Stranger Here for the "Staff Picks" bay, along with Alice Munro and The House of Mirth. I’m always pushing Bel Canto and The Remains of the Day on customers, because I love them and they’re crowd pleasers. And when I sense someone can deal with an oddball, I’ll give them Denton Welch.
You didn’t attend an MFA program, something a lot of young writers do. Did you consider it?
I was accepted to the Columbia MFA right out of college, and almost went. It was the advice of Jonathan Strong, my writing teacher who to this day is still a mentor to me, that kept me from going. He told me to consider the amount of money I’d owe at the end. And he said that in the old days writers went out and got jobs and lived around non-writers, and this was good for their art. I’m glad I listened to him. I was too young and hadn’t grown a backbone as a writer. I think MFA programs can be good for people, as long as they have a clear idea of what their writing is, and will stand up for it against a tide of bad advice.
You won a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006 on the strength of your collection of short stories, You Are Not the One. Had you started writing Lake Overturn by then? Did the award affect your writing?
I was about a year into Lake Overturn when I got that fellowship, and it had a huge effect on the book. At just the right point, I was able to take six months off to work uninterrupted. If I had to keep working on it bit by bit whenever I could afford a week away, I might have given up. That works for stories, but not a big, ungainly novel.
Do you write daily as well as in larger, concentrated blocks of free time?
No. I’m trying to get to that point, but I’ve never been able to balance a job and writing. I can’t sit down between laundry and emails and write for an hour before rushing off to the bookstore. There has to be a period of emptiness and quiet before I can even start. That’s why trapping myself in places off in the woods has always worked well for me.
You had a distinctive childhood–your father ran a birthing center from your house. You have six siblings and were raised in a conservative, religious home. Did your childhood influence your decision to be a writer? Was it a decision?
The birthing-center was a relatively brief experiment. Starting in about 1977, when I was five, my dad did natural childbirth in his clinic, which was connected to our house. My mom was his nurse. It was difficult for me, because I was five, and both my parents would disappear out to the clinic for an entire day, sometimes longer, leaving me at the mercy of my six older siblings, who loved nothing more than to tease and torture me. I remember escaping them once to one of my dad’s exam rooms where there was an eight-track player. I loved to dance to the soundtracks of My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music. I have a very detailed memory of dancing to "Climb Every Mountain," while, in the background, a mother was howling in the agonies of labor.
After two years, he gave that up.
We had an unusual home. My parents were devout Christians, and pretty conservative in their religious beliefs, but politically liberal and socially active. They often had people living with us–foster children, exchange students, sometimes ex-cons with nowhere to go. In the Eighties they got involved in an organization that brought Afghani soldiers wounded in the war against the USSR to America for medical treatment. Over thirty of these soldiers stayed with us for varying lengths of time.
Also, my dad had been the doctor at the State School and Hospital for the mentally disabled before I was born. Several people from there had lived with us, and others were frequently dropping by. So I was surrounded by "outsiders" growing up–some of whom I considered family members, and with whom I would fight for bathroom time. I think having some insight into their lives–along with feeling like an outsider myself growing up–gave me my subject matter.
But being the youngest of seven had an even more profound effect on me. I watched my siblings grow up, leave, start families. I’ve watched a few of them enter middle age. A lot of my stories come from their lives. I’ve always been an observer–I guess all writers are.
Did you ever think you’d get married?
When I was little I thought I’d marry a woman! And be a missionary in Africa. (It turns out my oldest brother became a missionary, not me.)
But no, I never thought I’d get married. For many years I thought marriage was wrong, limiting, contrary to human nature, all that. Then I met the man I wanted to marry.
Now that I think about it, I wonder why I was so dead-set against marriage when the closest example I had, my parents, was such a positive one. My parents had a great marriage from which they derived a lot of strength. They were better people for being married.
Do you enjoy being an expat?
Living in the UK has been interesting in a thousand different ways. There are different birds here, and they have different songs. I look out my bedroom window and see a chapel that was built 100 years before the Declaration of Independence. The weather, the way clouds move across the sky, is completely different. I love that stuff.
The culture is much more different than I had expected. It’s good for me as a writer. People savor language here in a way that Americans don’t. English people add a little artistry to their speech, even if they’re cursing you out. There’s an emphasis on accuracy that Americans don’t bother with, and kids are taught to debate and challenge each other about ideas in a way that would make Americans uncomfortable. People care more about literature, too. There’s ten times more discussion about the Booker Prize every year here than there is back home about the National Book Award and the Pulitzer combined.
Still, I often feel isolated. A lot of what people say goes over my head, even though we’re speaking the same language. And I miss American friendliness. It’s a comfort laughing and talking like old friends, even when you’re not. English people don’t understand that.
Well, I’ve started a short novel about two brothers who work as bail bondsmen in Idaho, but it’s pretty slow going. I think it’ll be something I leave and come back to. In the meantime, I’m writing stories about New Yorkers. It’s a relief, after Lake Overturn, to write about fast-talking, urbane people. It’s a relief to be satirical.
Photo © 2008 Mark Tusk