It's not very often that popular American or British novels focus on life in Taiwan, and it's even rarer for them to focus on the countryside. But Heaven Lake, a prize-winning US novel by former Yunlin County resident John Dalton, takes exactly that angle to tell the story of a Christian missionary who experiences life (including forbidden love with a teenage girl) in south-central Taiwan's Toulio Township.
Dalton, 40, a native of St Louis, Missouri, came to Taiwan for four years in the late 1980s, taught English at a cram school in Toulio and began taking notes for what would eventually become Heaven Lake.
Published in 2004 in hardback by Scribner Publishers, a prestigious publishing company in New York that nurtures young writers, the book came out as a paperback earlier this year, and in March was selected as one of the Barnes & Noble bookstore chain's annual "Discover Great New Writers Awards" for important new fiction.
Heaven Lake tells the story of a young man who comes to Taiwan to be a missionary, gets a job teaching English in his local church, falls in love with a teenage student who leads him astray from his religious vows, and learns about life in long midnight conversations with other foreigners and local town characters.
Expat life has found a fluent raconteur in the voice of John Dalton, and this may be the Great Taiwan Novel that many foreigners to these shores have been aiming at.
Dalton, married to a Taiwanese woman from Toulio, now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and teaches creative writing.
In a recent e-mail interview, he talked about his four years in Taiwan, his international marriage and the genesis of Heaven Lake. While most Westerners who come to Taiwan to teach English usually choose to live and work in the big cities of Taipei, Taichung or Kaohsiung, Dalton went to small-town Toulio and it made all the difference.
"I was traveling in Cambodia before I came to Taiwan, and I met a British teacher who had just left a job at a language school in Toulio," Dalton said. "He gave me a job contact, and it turned out to be a good fit for me, since I've always found large Asian cities a bit overwhelming. The small-town life in Yunlin County ended up agreeing with me, and I met my future wife there, too!"
When asked how his wife, Jen Jen Chang, currently a doctoral candidate in public health at the University of North Carolina, feels about his book and its literary success in the US, Dalton said, "In addition to being hugely supportive of the entire creative process in writing, editing and seeing the book published, over a 12-year period, she also absolutely loves and believes in the book. She tells me that my depiction of Toulio, her hometown, makes her homesick every time she reads it!"
Heaven Lake has done well for a first novel, according to sources in the US publishing industry, with over 30,000 copies sold in hardback, followed by a healthy first printing for the paperback edition, too.
Dalton has always loved to tell stories, he says, beginning when he was around 8 years old.
"I remember asking for and receiving an old cassette recorder so I could speak my stories onto the tape without going to all the bother of writing them down," he said.
"So I've had an awareness of myself as a writer, a storyteller, for a long, long time, but I wasn't able to develop the demanding work ethic it required to actually begin writing a novel until I was around 27 years old. For Heaven Lake, I began doing early stories and sketches of Taiwan while I was living in Toulio in the early 1990s, and I used some of that work when I applied to attend the Iowa Writer's Workshop for my master's degree," Dalton said.
"So in a sense, I was inching my way toward this novel even back then. ... I began the book project in earnest in 1993 and finished in 2001.
"The last time I was back in Toulio was in August 2003," Dalton said. "I was struck by how fast Toulio was growing. There's very little about it now that still feels small-town. People are more worldly and sophisticated. There's less staring at foreigners, for example. With this worldliness comes a certain loss of innocence as well, but I guess this is inevitable and probably necessary."
With the book's religious overtones, some readers have wondered if the author ever worked as a missionary in Taiwan or elsewhere, but he says no and explains more about what the novel is really about.
Dalton says. "I've never been a missionary, and I'm not a practicing Christian, although, much like my main character, Vincent Saunders, I've come to realize that we can love the mystery of our existence as much as the believers love their God, or gods. Readers who really like and understand Heaven Lake understand that Vincent is naive and self-righteous and unaware of the local Taiwanese culture he's mixing with, but that he means well and he's struggling, like we all struggle, to be a better, more open-minded and self-aware person, and that the inner journey he's taking is a brave one."
Dalton is now working on a second novel, but it's a story about life in America and has nothing to do with Taiwan or Asia. When asked if he might revisit Taiwan in some future work, Dalton says: "It's important to me that I have a varied career as a novelist. I love Asia, and my time spent in Taiwan was a particularly happy one, but I don't want to make a career writing solely about one place or idea. Having said that, I'm sure my years living and traveling in Asia will find their way into my work, fiction and non-fiction, in the years to come."