About the Author
A Conversation with John Dalton author of
The Inverted Forest
Q. Your first novel, Heaven Lake, was set in Taiwan and featured a disgraced missionary who journeys to the desert province of Xinjiang, China. The new novel, The Inverted Forest, is set in a Missouri summer camp—a camp where the staff of new counselors must care for 104 developmentally disabled adults from the state hospital. That seems like quite a change. Is it?
A. Not as large a change as you might think. My primary interest in novel writing still comes down to vivid and original characters matched to an engaging plot. At least that’s what I strive for everyday at my writing desk. It’s also what brings me the most satisfaction as a reader. And the preoccupations of both novels are probably similar—how to manage being alone in the world, what does true moral courage look like, how to deal with the thorny problem of desire.
Q. The characters in The Inverted Forest felt well-honed and authentic. Were some of them easier to create than others?
A. There are three main point-of-view characters: seventy-eight-year-old Schuller Kindermann, founder and director of Kindermann Forest Summer camp; Harriet Foster, camp nurse and single mother and the only African American employee at camp, and counselor Wyatt Huddy. They were all tricky to write in their own particular way. Odd as it may seem, Harriet Foster is probably the character I have most in common with. She’s well-intentioned but unsure, qualities that define me, especially as a young man. Schuller Kindermann was the most fun and in some ways the easiest to write. He’s such a prissy, judgmental, foolish man—a real case of arrested development. I’m much more fond of him than I should be. He has at least one longing that I appreciate: he wants the world to be tidy and pure.
Q. And that brings us to counselor Wyatt Huddy, who has a condition known as Apert syndrome. How did you find out about this syndrome? And what are the signs and symptoms?
A. In children with Apert syndrome the skull bones fuse together earlier than they should, and this gives the face a distorted appearance. The mid-section of the face is underdeveloped. The eyes may be set too far apart or a bit uneven. Middle fingers and toes can be fused together. But the condition doesn’t necessarily mean that the individual is intellectually impaired. They can easily have medium-range or higher IQ’s. And, of course, that’s a complicated and isolating thing for a person to deal with: to appear to the outside world to be intellectually disabled, but inwardly to be as aware and knowing as everyone else. It’s an especially acute dilemma for Wyatt, since he’s serving as a counselor at a summer camp among more than a hundred state hospital patients who are, in fact, mentally disabled. I learned of Apert syndrome the same way I learn of lots of interesting facts and gossip and odds and ends. I have five older sisters, one a Registered Nurse, one a Nurse-Midwife. My mother was a nurse as well. Since childhood, I’ve been hovering on the edge of their conversations listening to them talk.
Q. What about the title? The Inverted Forest. It sounds vaguely familiar. Where does it come from and how does it apply?
A. It’s a stolen title. I came upon it years ago when a fellow student at the University of Iowa gave me a smuggled / mimeographed copy of J.D. Salinger’s uncollected stories—those stories not included in Salinger’s spectacular Nine Stories. Among these uncollected stories is a novella about a reclusive poet called The Inverted Forest. The title always sounded alluring to me, and when I realized that I’d be writing a novel about a special needs summer camp in which the disabled campers greatly outnumbered the counselors, it struck me as a strange, inverted world. Then there was Wyatt’s dilemma of appearing disabled but being intellectually sound. The Inverted Forest seemed to capture some of these peculiar contrasts. So I grafted the title onto my novel.
Q. Your Inverted Forest is a novel about all kinds of outsiders. Do you admire outsiders?
A. Like almost all writers / artists I’ve spent a lot of time on the outside looking in. Show me a writer and I’ll show you someone who—because of a difficult experience or maybe a difficult temperament—turned inward at a young age. So, yes, I do identify with outsiders: the foreign volunteer in China, the one African American employee at a summer camp, a young man with Apert syndrome who is constantly misjudged. I find their situations dramatically interesting.
Q. I’m guessing that you have some experience working in a special needs summer camp?
A. Some, yes. Years ago I worked as a counselor at a Catholic summer camp outside St. Louis called Camp Don Bosco. The first week the camp accepted developmentally disabled adults from the state hospital. The second week was for disabled adults from private homes. The rest of the summer was traditional summer camp for kids. In the novel I draw on the strange atmosphere of camp in general and special needs camping in particular.
Q. Here’s a sampling of how you describe that atmosphere in The Inverted Forest. “A strange place, summer camp. It was a small enough world that the shape of your private life could be widely known or guessed at. And still everyone managed to cling to their unwise behavior…” Can you reveal some of the unwise behavior?
A. I can. For counselors summer camp offers the bright promise of romance and sex. They know they have six or eight weeks away from the real world, and they arrive at camp ready to mingle with their fellow counselors. And why shouldn’t they mingle? They’re young. It’s summer. Everyday they have a hundred opportunities to talk or flirt. At night, in the off-hours, they can easily slip away into the darkened woods. But it’s complicated, too. There’s always the prospect of doing something regretful or unwise. I worked at several camps in the Midwest and New England, and at one of these camps the entire staff of counselors was caught swimming naked at the pool a few days before camp was set to open. The camp administration responded by firing all of them and rehiring a new staff in a matter of days. All this happened years before I arrived. But the story always loomed large in my imagination.
Q. And in The Inverted Forest some of the same unwise or reckless sexual impulses are present in the developmentally disabled campers, too. It makes for some…startling behavior, doesn’t it?
A. It does, yes. As a young man of nineteen, I was astonished to realize that many of my state hospital campers, whom we then referred to as retarded, had sex lives of one kind or another. They came to camp ready to mingle, too. At night there were occurrences in the sleeping cabins that were unsettling and very hard to deter. These same campers were also eager to hug and clutch and fondle the female counselors. All of this seemed so shocking and unlikely that the other counselors and I didn’t talk about it. Ultimately, we decided to view this behavior as if it were mindless or unintentional. But, of course, it wasn’t. The same longings and recklessness and opportunism that existed among the counselors was also alive and well in our disabled state hospital campers.
Q. That’s not a view of the disabled that we often see, is it?
A. Maybe not. But this behavior is no secret to anyone who works with the mentally disabled. From the beginning of writing The Inverted Forest I wanted to try and capture the strange and sometimes sexually charged atmosphere of summer camp that catered to disabled campers. And not just because I thought it was true to the actual experience or shocking or edgy. I find that in order for me to really believe the morally wise and courageous choices my characters make in a novel, I have to first see the world of the novel in all its subtle strangeness and complexity. To really believe in the good I have to also believe in the weird and the bad.
Q. Is it the same in real life? Do you believe in heroism?
A. Not heroism as it’s portrayed in movies and television; I have little or no interest in superheroes. But I see examples of moral courage all the time in real life. It’s hardly ever flashy or calls attention to itself. Often it comes down to people showing up everyday and doing their job well. Social workers. School teachers. Safety inspectors. Nurses. They keep society from going off the rail. Among other things The Inverted Forest is novel about the determination and moral courage of nurses.