Heaven Lake

By John Dalton

Scribner, 464 pp., $26.00

John Dalton spent eight years of his life writing Heaven Lake, a novel about a young, naive missionary who goes to Taiwan and comes of age. He spent another 10 months editing the book. By that time, he’d moved from his native Missouri to Carrboro, N.C., and spent his days cloistered in his apartment, trimming and tightening his prose, trying to push his talent to the next level.

“The editing period is an intense time,” Dalton says. “The novel is there and it feels solid and vivid but you’re still trying to make it fractionally better and you really have to push to do that.”

By the fall, the novel was in Scribner’s hands and Dalton was exhausted. He needed a break. He needed a job. And he needed to move back into the real world instead of the one he’d conjured up for his book. Dalton took a position gathering data for UNC’s School of Public Health, where his wife, Jen Jen Chang, is a student. Each day, he climbed into a white government van with graduate students, retired and second-career adults, and stay-at-home moms. They met when the sun was still weak and drove to middle schools and high schools in Vance, Person and Moore counties. There, they passed out surveys on sex, drugs and smoking.

“We’d get up in front of the class and explain the questionnaires and some of the kids would be throwing paper wads at us,” Dalton says. His isolation was effectively over.

A few of the workers slept during these hour-long rides up and down winding, rural roads; the rest talked. When they learned Dalton was a writer, they asked him to read aloud from his book. And when advance copies floated onto the Internet, they ordered them and read the book themselves.

“It was really weird,” says Dalton, 40. “I’d given readings before, but this was the first time I’d ever watched people read one of my books, and there they were, holding it and reading it. It’s both exhilarating and a little distressing. You think ‘Oh, they should be laughing now,’ or at least sighing with pleasure.”

The first autograph Dalton ever gave was to one of the data gatherers. He scrawled “This is the first book I ever signed,” or something to that effect, across the title page.

Since then, he’s signed more than 400 copies. He’s received praise from Newsday and Publishers Weekly, and he’s visited 15 cities at the behest of Scribner (though it took eight years to write the book and another eight months to find an agent, the New York publishing company bought Heaven Lake in six days).

Dalton got the idea for the novel during his own travels to China in the late 1980s. His brother had given him a plane ticket around the world for his college graduation. After the trip, Dalton returned to the United States for a year and a half, then moved to Taiwan. “Of all of the places I went, Asia was the one that kept surprising me,” he says. “All of the others seemed vaguely American.”

He’d been living in Taiwan for about four months when he met a businessman in a tailored suit who claimed he wanted to learn English. The man joined Dalton and his friends, all English-teaching foreigners, at an outdoor cafe. It was near midnight and after a few drinks, the businessman told them about The Most Beautiful Girl in China, a girl from the Mainland whom he wanted to marry. He did not, however, want to wait the year it would take to cut through red tape and regional politics. It would be easier for a foreigner, the man explained. He offered a payment of $10,000 if Dalton or one of his friends would go to the Mainland, marry the woman, and bring her home to him.

“He was flaky and he was drunk,” Dalton recalls. “But I knew right then that he’d given me a gift.”

The proposal became a central plot point for Heaven Lake, a sprawling novel in which Vincent Saunders, a repressed 24-year-old from small-town Illinois, goes to Taiwan and opens a floundering Jesus School. He succumbs to the advances of a young student and is shoved and pummeled from grace before he has time to fall. To escape the community and the student’s hostile brothers, he accepts a $10,000 marriage quest from a calculating (and less flaky) businessman. Complications mount along with emotions and tensions, as a changing Vincent makes his way to Mainland China and back again.

Though Dalton is already at work on his second novel–this one set at a summer camp in 1970s America–Heaven Lake is creating many new opportunities. There have been whispers of movie options, though he isn’t holding his breath, and he was recently offered a yearlong creative writing visiting professorship at UNC-Greensboro, which begins in August. (Dalton had been losing choice faculty positions before he published his novel.) Meanwhile, just last week, a National Public Radio story listed Heaven Lake as recommended summer reading. Though most of Dalton’s touring is over for now–save a “Meet the Author” tea at the Chapel Hill Public Library in September–he’ll begin touring again next April, when the paperback version of his book comes out. His publisher says that’s when things are really supposed to take off. “But I think they always say that,” says Dalton.