John Dalton was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, the youngest of seven children. Upon graduation from college, he received a plane ticket to travel around the world, and so began an enduring interest in travel and foreign culture. During the late 1980s he lived in Taiwan for several years and traveled in Mainland China and other Asian countries. He attended the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop in the early 1990s and was awarded two fellowships at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown as well as a James Michener/Paul Engle Award for his (then) novel-in-progress, Heaven Lake. He presently lives with his wife in North Carolina.
Author biography courtesy of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Dalton:
"I worked for several years at the Barnes & Noble in Ladue, Missouri."
"When I was 23 and graduated from college, my older brother gave me a plane ticket to travel around the world. I went to Hawaii, Fiji, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and then on to Europe, traveling mostly on my own."
"I had nothing to do with the invention of the periodic table."
"I play Frisbee golf as a hobby -- I once threw a hole-in-one."
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In anticipation of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Awards, John Dalton took some time out to answer some of our questions.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
My teenage years were spent reading horror, science fiction, fantasy. This was by no means a misspent youth since the best of these novels (King, Straub, Tolkien) instilled in me a sense of plotting and pacing that other writers raised on classics alone didn't have. I subscribed to Rod Sterling's Twilight Zone magazine, and one day I read a story in it called "Through the Safety Net" by a writer named Charles Baxter. The story confounded me. And yet something about its eccentric style and evocative ending made sense. I checked out Mr. Baxter's book from the library and found ten other rich and compelling stories in the collection. This was the first literary book I'd discovered on my own. My taste (or more likely my dumb luck) was remarkable. I'd chanced upon one of the very best American writers early in his career, and each of Mr. Baxter's books since has been a remarkable expansion on those excellent stories.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee -- One of the most uncompromising novels I have ever read. I've heard other readers say the novel is so bleak that it's soul-crushing. And yet I find its willingness to tell the deepest and hardest truths inspiring, even exhilarating.
The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter -- It would still be a terrific novel if it was just a collection of revolving first-person voices speaking candidly on the agonies and ecstasies of romantic love, but in its final third it becomes, briefly, a heart-stopping thriller and then a sublime and convincing meditation on love everlasting.
Being Dead by Jim Crace -- Crace is an amazing writer. He's had the most original and varied career of any writer I can think of. His prose is masterful. I tend to scare readers off when I tell them what Being Dead is about, so let me say instead that even as this novel strips away sentimentalized notions of death and the afterlife, it's also offering us an awareness of how amazing the world is.
Selected Stories by Alice Munro -- Yes, a typical writer's favorite, but her characters are among the most complex and real in all of fiction. I've come to understand that the passion in her stories, the moments of deep recognition, are achieved through the obsessive practice of un-showy craft. I study her prose more than any other writer.
Atonement by Ian McEwan -- Atonement feels old-fashioned and modern at the same time. Sentence by sentence, it is an exquisite novel. Yet it has a beautiful and concise structure as well. The more I reread Atonement, the more I marvel.
Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout -- This wonderful, perfectly written novel came along while I was struggling with my own novel and made it crystal clear why it would be worth my while to take my time and try and get every paragraph, sentence, word just right.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy -- Yes, of course, for 100 reasons, but one I'll mention here; I love the novel's other story as well, the story of Levin who struggles against the big, impossible issues -- desire, God, purpose -- and understands that he will go on struggling until the end.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry -- I never thought I'd love a cowboy story this much.
Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell -- Still my favorite quiet novel. And what a rich and varied and outstanding career Connell has had.
A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr -- This nonfiction account of an environmental lawsuit is better and richer in its characterization and plotting and pacing than most good novels.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Days of Heaven by Terrence Malick -- Still the most beautiful and heady film I have ever seen.
The Age of Innocence by Martin Scorsese -- Brilliant. Every bit as good as Raging Bull.
The Shining by Stanley Kubrick -- I saw it again and again the summer I was 15. I still find it mesmerizing.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I'm an avid indie rock fan. All-time favorites: Guided by Voices, Wilco, Belle & Sebastian, Joe Henry, Neutral Milk Hotel. Latest favorites: Camera Obscura, Augie March, Sufjan Stevens.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
You Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon -- it's a terrific book club book. It's subtle and discerning enough to sustain serious discussion. And beneath its quiet prose is a terrific page-turner of a plot.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Books of poetry.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
In my mid- and early 20s I would gear up for writing by staying up late, drinking caffeine-rich soda, smoking cigarettes. This, of course, wears you out quick. Now I get up early, read poetry and exercise on the NordicTrak before writing.
What are you working on now?
A new novel, the first half of which is set in 1975 in the Missouri Ozarks at summer camp for what was then termed the mentally retarded.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
Acquaintances are often startled when I tell them it took eight years to write my first novel. Writers barely lift an eyebrow. Some beginning authors write two or three books before they're able to publish. Others, like myself, write the same book over and over. While writing Heaven Lake I went out and did what nearly every struggling writer does: work in a bookstore, wait tables, adjunct teach. On Friday morning I might stand before a class of undergraduates and extol an incisive and passionate story by Alice Munro or John Cheever, and then later that night, embarrassed, I might be called upon to serve one of these students a pizza at the Italian restaurant where I waited tables.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Marshall Klimasewiski. His novel The Cottagers will appear late this year or early 2006 from Norton. His story collection, Tyrants, will come out a year later.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
To those of you writing your own first novels, I would advise you not to waste time feeling ashamed for being an unpublished writer. Each time you sit alone in a room and give your most honest and complete effort, you've earned the title of writer, particularly on those days when you struggle the hardest, when you spend all afternoon and evening refining an idea or the precise phrasing of a few descriptions, when you're pushing yourself beyond your own abilities. These hard-fought and seemingly inconsequential victories accumulate over time and make all the difference.
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