Vestal McIntyre grew up in Nampa, Idaho as the youngest of seven siblings in a devout Christian family. He left to attend college in Boston, then lived in New York, and recently settled in London. In 2004 he published a collection of short stories, You Are Not The One, which previously appeared in magazines including Tin House and Open City, and received a Lambda Literary Award. His new novel, Lake Overturn, is a great, engrossing read, brimming with sensitively rendered stories of the inhabitants of Eula, Idaho. I interviewed McIntyre via email about his writing process, how he came to base his novel around a middle-school science project, and how being part of a large family and growing up in the West shaped him as a writer.
New West: Can you discuss the process of writing Lake Overturn? Which characters or storylines came first? Did one set of characters prompt another in your mind, or did you find ways to make them converge after you’d developed them separately?
Vestal McIntyre: The central structure of the novel—best friends Enrique and Gene and their mothers Connie and Lina—had been in my mind for a very long time, since I was little more than a teenager myself. But I started the actual writing of the novel with some minor characters who had also been brewing for a while: Adele, a semiconscious old woman in a nursing home, and the principal, Mr. Campbell, who’s kind of a clown. I started on the periphery and eased my way into the center.
Working with that central plot and characters prompted the creation of some of the other characters, with one notable exception: Wanda. I was nearly two years into the writing of the novel when I felt a void in the book—a gap in the emotional spectrum, and a missing social type for the town, Eula, Idaho—and Wanda was how I filled it. She became one of the main characters.
NW: Did you write one character’s story all the way through, or did you switch back and forth in the order the events occur in the finished novel?
VM: I switched back and forth and wrote the novel more or less chronologically, sometimes running a little bit ahead with this or that character. I felt like I had to keep a loose hold on all of them, or one might fall out of the book, logistically. Sometimes I’d write a character until I got bogged down, then I’d switch. When I was really stuck, I’d write about Connie, who is a very conservative Christian woman, very rigid in her beliefs and very lonely. For some reason, I knew her and her motivations very well, and always found her easy to write about.
NW: How did you come up with the idea that the novel would revolve around Enrique’s science fair project, with each section’s theme taken from a part of the scientific method?
VM: I always knew the novel would follow a science fair, because I remember at that age what a comfort it was to pour myself into a school project, especially one where I got to make little models of things from clay, construction paper, pipe cleaners, rubber cement. For me, those models bridged the gap between studying and playing with toys. It’s the same for Enrique, a thirteen-year-old who would still play with dolls if he could. The section names came much later, when a reader who I trust told me I should divide this long novel into sections, to help readers organize their thoughts. I considered breaking it up according to seasons, then realized that the natural breaks didn’t correspond to the seasons, but vaguely mirrored the steps of the scientific method, which had become important to Enrique beyond the scope of his science fair project, as a method of observing the people around him. It was one of those happy discoveries—I think the sections help the novel make sense, and readers have responded positively to them.
NW: What sparked your interest in the phenomenon of lake overturn?
VM: I remember coverage of the disaster at Lake Nyos in Cameroon in 1986, but only vaguely—1700 people had died pretty much instantaneously, and scientists were trying to figure out what had happened. I didn’t follow it at the time, as my characters do. This came back to me after I had been working on the novel for a while, not knowing what the boys would do as their project. I was at Yaddo at the time, and I spent a couple of days in the computer room there, researching what had actually happened in Cameroon. It’s a fascinating phenomenon. Lakes that are deep and cold enough can hold gasses in their depths for years, until the pressure becomes too great, and it bubbles up. They’re called “exploding lakes,” and can kill people instantly even if it’s not a poisonous gas that’s been stored. It’s a very real threat—Lake Kivu, which is on the border of the Congo and Rwanda, is an exploding lake, and it’s highly saturated. Lake Nyos had a couple thousand people living within its range; Lake Kivu has a couple million.
Anyway, lake overturn, the phenomenon, became a kind of organizing metaphor for the book.
NW: You wrote with such sensitivity about the religious beliefs of your characters, which was striking because in contemporary literary fiction, religious characters are more often satirized (with some notable exceptions, such as Marilynne Robinson’s work). What led you to this approach?
VM: I’m not a Christian now, but I was one growing up. Heaven and Hell were very real to me—as real to me as this world. I struggled constantly to lead a good life and to resist sin. I was very anxious about it and prayed constantly for strength. So, with a character like Connie, I’m writing about a struggle I myself went through.
Also, my parents were very devout Christians, and really took the lessons of the Bible seriously (which led them to be politically liberal) and my brother is a Southern Baptist missionary in Bangladesh. It was more interesting for me to portray religious people from this close perspective with some degree of accuracy than to satirize them. Lake Overturn isn’t a satirical novel.
That said, I’m pretty angry about how Christianity functions in America today. My life is made difficult because Christian organizations are spending a lot of money to keep the laws as they are, which means I have no choice but to live in the UK, where I’m seen as my partner’s spouse, and have been granted a work visa. He can’t get the same in America, because of the anti-gay immigration laws. It may sound dramatic, but I really am a kind of political exile.
NW: You did such a great job portraying the pain Enrique feels when he’s teased because he’s suspected of being gay, and his various strategies for hiding his personality to survive middle school. I thought this was especially poignant after I read last month of two 11-year-olds, in separate incidents, committing suicide because they had been teased about their sexuality. Did you ever think of writing a more focused coming-of-age novel on this topic, or did you always see Enrique’s story as embedded in this larger context?
VM: I only ever thought of Enrique’s story as part of the whole. My goal was for his transformation to be going on concurrently with his mother’s, his brother’s, Connie’s, Wanda’s and for these interwoven transformations constitute the arc of the novel. I think I would have felt very shy about writing a more focused coming-of-age novel about Enrique or a gay boy even more like me (although the trials Enrique goes through at school are ones I went through myself), for a few reasons: I learned from writing my short story collection that I do better work when I’m writing about characters further from myself, and the coming-of-age novel is such a well-practiced form in gay literature, I would be hesitant to try it.
I heard about those cases too, and they broke my heart. I would like to think that if people read my book, they might feel more sympathy for people who are different from themselves—whether that’s gay adolescents or their conservative Christian mothers—and that might be a slight nudge toward being less cruel to each other.
NW: Was making the transition from writing short stories to writing a novel difficult? In what way is the writing process for these two forms different or similar?
VM: It would be hard for me to think of ways in which they were similar. When writing short stories, the end is always in sight. Relief is always around the corner, because in the next story you can write in a completely different mode. If you’re tired of being serious, you can be lighthearted. So my first book was, in a way, a collection of experiments in different modes of writing—the experiments I considered successful, since there were quite a few stories I didn’t include. In writing the novel, I had to marry one way of writing for five years—and try to make that way of writing inclusive enough to manage a big, tangled plot. In stories, I could take on interesting questions, but in the novel I felt like I had to take on everything.
NW: How often do you return to Idaho? Did you visit when you were writing “Lake Overturn,” to refresh your memory or for research? Is it easier for you to write about a place once you no longer live there?
VM: Right after I started Lake Overturn, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I started going home every couple of months to care for her. I wasn’t writing much during this period, but these visits were very important to the progress of the novel. This was the most time I spent in Idaho since I left for college in 1990. I reconnected with the look and feel of the place—the dryness of the air, how the clouds look, the sound of people’s voices—all of which is very important when you’re trying to capture a place. And in a certain way, I dealt with my mother’s illness and death through the novel. It’s dedicated to her.
I visited again a couple of years after she died, even though none of my family was left in Idaho. This time, it was specifically to do research. I went to the Nampa Public Library and read the Press Tribune on microfilm for the nine-month span of the novel, from 1986 to 87. It helped with a lot of the details.
NW: Have you heard any reaction from people in Nampa to your fictionalized portrayal of it as Eula?
VM: Not yet, but the book’s only been out a couple of weeks. I’m still waiting for that angry letter from someone who thinks I’ve depicted Nampans as hicks. Eula is provincial in a way that Nampa is not—certainly not today, when it’s three times the population of when I left. But Eula is a smaller town than Nampa was, even back then. And in any case, small towns everywhere are different now. I don’t think small towns exist in the same way they did then. Part of why the mid-Eighties interested me as a time in which to set the novel was because that’s just when access to culture began to really speed up. My older siblings were much more isolated from American youth culture than I was—the only difference being the advent of MTV. And now, with the Internet, those channels have been blown wide open.
NW: You grew up in Idaho and since then have lived in Boston, New York, and now London. How did growing up in the American West shape your imagination? Has writing about that setting always been an asset?
VM: I think changes in environment are very valuable to writers. After going from big sky country to the East, where there’s always a deciduous canopy or a wall of buildings over you, you can look back on your former self and your former environment with a distance that allows you to write. Things about growing up in Idaho—pulling foxtails in your socks after running across a field, for example—don’t seem novel when you’re living here, but do after you’ve been away for a few years. Now, having left New York after thirteen years for London, I’m going through that all over again.
NW: You’ve said that you read Dickens and Thackeray when you were writing “Lake Overturn,” and wanted to write a big novel with lots of characters. Do you think you will always write long books?
VM: Oh, no. I might never do it again. It was very hard.
NW; I have an odd question for you—I wonder if being one of seven siblings contributed to your ability to juggle multiple storylines. I also think of the way your characters each have different, distinct relationships with one another—for example, Enrique seems one way to himself, another to his mother, another to his friends, brother, and teachers. The reader is the only one given the 360-degree view of these characters. (My mom is one of nine, and she always seems to keep up on everybody.)
VM: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Being the youngest of seven has everything to do with my having ended up a writer. Watching my siblings grow up, make mistakes, move in and out of relationships, gave me a lot of my subject matter. And, as a “good kid,” quiet and observant, I saw how they portrayed themselves differently to each other, to their friends, and to my parents. I loved them all and would take everyone’s side in an argument, which made me into someone sympathetic to different people’s points of view—sometimes to a fault. It’s hard for me to make my case in an argument with a bank teller or a rude customer when I was a waiter, because I always am able to see the other person’s position. It drives my partner crazy.
NW: What are you working on now?
VM: I’m writing short stories based on my years in New York City. They’re very different from Lake Overturn—the characters are urbane and sharp-tongued, and I do allow myself to be satirical.