By Katie Coyle
Vestal McIntyre was born and raised outside Nampa, Idaho, the youngest of seven. He attended Tufts University in Boston, and lived in New York City where he was a waiter at Restaurant Florent for ten years. Lake Overturn: A Novel was published by HarperCollins in April, 2009. It was named Editor’s Choice by the New York Times Book Review and Out Magazine, and a Best Book of 2009 by the Washington Post. It won the Grub Street National Book Prize and Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction, and was shortlisted for both the Ferro-Grumley Award and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Vestal has been awarded fiction fellowships from the NEA and the New York Foundation for the Arts. His collection You Are Not the One: Stories was also a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and won a 2006 Lambda Literary Award for Debut Fiction. His stories have appeared in Tin House, The Boston Review, Open City, From Boys to Men: Gay Men Write About Growing Up, Freud’s Blind Spot: Writers on Siblings, and several other anthologies. Vestal now lives in London, where he is working on a second novel and a collection of stories based on his years in New York City.
Hot Metal Bridge: Was not getting an MFA a conscious decision on your part? At some point, it feels like aspiring writers got it into their heads that an MFA was what it took to make the transition from someone who writes to Writer. How were you able to make that transition?
Vestal McIntyre: For many years I didn’t feel like much of a writer. I worked at a restaurant in New York and customers always asked me what I did. I’d say, “I’m a waiter.” They’d say, “Oh, come on. All waiters are actors or artists or something.” And I’d say, “Nope, just a waiter.” This was partly because I felt inadequate about not having published a book, and partly because I hated the next question: “What do you write about?” How do you answer that? “Oh, people and events.” “Painful and embarrassing moments in life, like this one.”
One thing that helped me was going to residencies. I went to the Millay Colony, then the Ucross Foundation. For these stretches of time, I was a writer. I spent my day writing, then had dinner with people who saw me as an artist and talked to me about my work. It was heavenly.
I did consider going to an MFA program right out of college, but I’m glad I didn’t. I didn’t have a strong enough idea of what my work was to be able to stand up for it, the way one must in workshops. MFAs can be very good for some people–those who have real backbones as artists and who can sort out good advice from bad. But I wasn’t like that, and still am not, really. I tend to believe anything anyone says about my work. So it’s better for me to limit the people who see it until it’s done.
Hot Metal Bridge: Who are the people you show your work to?
Vestal McIntyre: I show my work to my partner Tristan and my sister Casandra, who give me very honest gut-reactions as readers (as opposed to writers) which is valuable because it gives me the big picture. Equally and differently valuable, my friend Michael Lowenthal, who’s a fantastic novelist and teacher of writing, scrutinizes my work and helps me shape it sentence by sentence. I have several other writer friends who I use as a “second round,” including my teacher from my undergraduate years, the novelist Jonathan Strong. He’s helped me with nearly every piece I’ve written since I was twenty years old. I’m very lucky.
Hot Metal Bridge: You ended up publishing two books in the time you were otherwise employed as a waiter. At what point did you start sending your work out for publication?
Vestal McIntyre: I started sending things out when I was still an undergraduate and had this and that piece accepted by magazines and anthologies over the years, but my first book didn’t come out until 2005, when I was 32. My advice is to be tenacious about submitting for publication and applying for residencies and grants. If there’s a steady flow of rejections, they won’t bother you so much. And then there’s the occasional acceptance!
Hot Metal Bridge: What made you take on a project as ambitious as Lake Overturn following You Are Not the One? What were the differences in your experiences of writing the two books? Have you always known you wanted to write a novel of Lake Overturn‘s scope?
Vestal McIntyre: I didn’t know Lake Overturn was going to be an ambitious project, so I guess, by definition, it wasn’t. When I imagined it before I started writing, I thought it would a 250-odd page book about a little tangle of characters in a small Idaho town. When I sat down to write it, I included more peripheral characters. At a certain point, my loyalty turned away from that central plot toward the town itself, and in a sense the challenge became to give an honest, responsible depiction of this invented town, Eula, Idaho. I worked on the manuscript by making dozens of different documents on my computer, and didn’t do a word-count until I was about halfway through. I was surprised to find it was already much longer than my first book.
The writing of You Are Not the One couldn’t have been more different. It’s a collection of stories that I think of are very different in mood, voice, etc. This is a result of a kind of healthy impatience on my part—I’d quickly get sick of the mode I was writing in, so with the next story I’d try to do something completely fresh. In writing Lake Overturn, on the other hand, I had to marry one voice with one set of rules and stick with it for several years. It was a wide, far-reaching voice, and the rules were liberating rather than restrictive, but still the metaphor stands—Lake Overturn felt like a marriage, the collection felt like dating.
Hot Metal Bridge: How much of the fictional Eula, Idaho is based on your hometown of Nampa, Idaho? Were you at all worried about how residents of Nampa would receive Lake Overturn?
Vestal McIntyre: Eula has the same layout as the Nampa I grew up in. There’s a sugar factory at one end and a lake at the other. But Eula is a smaller than Nampa was even back then — much, much smaller than Nampa is now. In the years since I left, Nampa has tripled in size and is now around 80,000 people. In any case, small towns aren’t the same now as they were in the 80s. People feel much more connected to the wider world through the internet. So I don’t think current-day Nampans see themselves in the novel. I was a little worried about trying to portray life in the trailer park when I grew up in a comfortable house in the country, but I’ve only gotten positive feedback from my readers in Idaho.
Hot Metal Bridge: I want to ask a little about the narrator of Lake Overturn, who gets into just about everyone in Eula’s head at some point or other—what made you choose this voice as opposed to fixing on just one or two of the characters? Were there any characters who you felt particularly attached to? How did you keep track of the various threads of the novel?
Vestal McIntyre: I chose that type of narrator because I enjoy it so much in 19th Century novels and I thought it would suit the story. Again, I didn’t suspect how difficult it would be, because in Dickens and Balzac and James it seems such a natural way of storytelling. But once I tried it, I realized that I’d have to put a complex set of rules into place to help the reader manage all these points of view, and do it in such a way that the reader would feel these rules and depend on their working without being able to name them. An easy and intuitive example: I never switched perspectives midway through a paragraph, and always demarcated the change clearly. But it got more complicated. At one point I had to go through the first sections of the manuscript and narrow down the number of characters I got inside. Then I made a rule that only when it was necessary for the story would I add a new POV, and that this addition would be justified to the reader. For example, I didn’t enter Jay’s thoughts until about midway through the novel, and only then because his motivations have to be made clear for the plot to progress. I announced it to the reader by saying something to the effect of, “…but they were all wrong about Jay, because what he was really thinking was this…” After that point, we had free access to Jay’s thoughts, same as the other characters. Again, I didn’t want the reader to notice these rules, but unless I set them up and followed them, the reader would say, “Hey, if I can hear Jay’s thoughts now, why couldn’t I the whole time?”
So, setting up the narrator was one of the most arduous and rewarding aspects of writing the novel. I tried to talk about it on a panel once, and the audience practically fell asleep before my eyes. It’s not something readers care about. But writers should think about this stuff. I hope they teach you things like this in your MFA classes. It’s something I wish someone had taught me!
As far as which characters I feel attached to, Connie was very easy for me to write. I understood her because I had known women like her growing up, and had once had many of the same religious concerns she does. Enrique is the one whose life circumstances are most similar to mine (at age thirteen) though he responds in completely different ways than I did. Abby is the one I like the most.
Hot Metal Bridge: Besides 19th century novelists, what writers inspire you? What was the last great book you read?
Vestal McIntyre: A lot of my favorite contemporary writers are short-story writers: William Trevor, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant. The last great book I read was a memoir, What to Look for in Winter by Candia McWilliam. She’s a Scottish novelist who wrote these fantastic, very dense, inventive novels in the 80s and 90s, then went through a long dry spell. A few years ago, she started to go blind, not because her eyes stopped working, but because her eyelids refused to stay open as a result of a rare neurological condition. Her response was to hire an assistant and start dictating her memoir. Her story is painful—alcoholism, self-hatred, a family history of suicide—but the book never descends into the class of “misery memoir” because the quality of the writing is so high (nearly every page has some beautiful, exhilarating insight) and because her voice never jaded, always forgiving, which, for me, heightens the heartbreak.
Hot Metal Bridge: And, finally, what are you working on now?
Vestal McIntyre: I’ve just finished my second short story collection, and am editing it. Thematically, it’s much more focused than my first; all the stories are set in downtown New York in the last ten or fifteen years. It’s kind of my goodbye letter to the city.