About the Author
Zachary Lazar interviews John Dalton about
The Inverted Forest
John Dalton’s second novel, The Inverted Forest, takes its title from an early and uncollected short story by J.D. Salinger (about which more later). The novel, though infused with Salinger’s warmth and empathy, is also more darkly sexual than anything Salinger wrote, and it brought to my mind in a persistent way the photographs of Diane Arbus. Like those photographs, The Inverted Forest is among other things an examination of the marginal and even what many would call the freakish. The book tells of a Missouri summer camp, Kindermann Forest Camp, that for two weeks each June plays host not to children but to developmentally disabled adult patients, all of whom are wards of the state. What sparks the story is sexuality—the sexuality of the teenage counselors and the sexuality of their institutionalized charges. It’s as if Arbus’s photographs of people with Down syndrome merged with her photographs of nudists. Like Arbus, Dalton maintains a steady and humanizing gaze where others would turn away in distaste or fear.
The Inverted Forest is the follow-up to Dalton’s 2004 debut, Heaven Lake, which won the Barnes and Noble Discover Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Heaven Lake told the story of an American missionary in Taiwan who is drawn into a far more complicated world than any he’d imagined. The Inverted Forest continues that book’s explorations of desire and difference, spiritual yearning and ordinary earthy life. It’s a haunting, brave look at human relations and a deeply humane portrait of a mostly unseen America.
Lazar: The book opens with a camp director, Schuller Kindermann, firing his entire staff of teenage counselors because he catches them skinny-dipping. He is horrified in a way that goes far beyond simply enforcing rules—he is deeply troubled—and then has to rush to hire a new group of replacements, which creates grave problems as the book unfolds. Kindermann turns out to be the first in the book’s series of sexual oddities. His oddity is that he seems to have no sex drive at all. I’ve encountered people like this and when I’ve tried to describe them to other people, they often say, “Well, he must be gay and just can’t deal with it.” I don’t think that’s the truth. What would you say? Can you talk a little bit about Schuller Kindermann’s prudishness, for lack of a better word?
Dalton: I have a suspicion that somewhere along the sexual spectrum there are people who are desire neutral. They’re not repressing anything. They’re just not interested. There’s a lot of planning and work that goes into having a sex life—especially if you’re single—and these desire neutral people just can’t be bothered. They lead celibate lives and are mostly untroubled by the fact of their celibacy. Whenever I encounter people like this, people who are desire neutral, I’m always a little envious. I admire their self-sufficiency. Maybe there’s a certain kind of inner turmoil they don’t have to deal with. No recklessness or stupidity. No sudden or gushing declarations via email or Twitter. (No unseemly photographs either.) Desire neutral men and women don’t ever ruin their careers or otherwise make fools of themselves.
When it came to creating camp director Schuller Kindermann, I wanted to explore a question that I found interesting. Desire complicates and sometimes destroys our lives. Novels are the domain of unwise behavior, of men and women made wretched or ridiculous by wanting things they shouldn’t want. But what if you weren’t plagued by desire? What if you never wanted sex or romance badly enough to do the risky and foolish things that sex and romance require? Obviously, you’d miss out on all the rich and heady pleasures that come with sex and love. But I’ve also come to suspect, in writing Schuller Kindermann, that being desire neutral would be an isolating and aggravating way to live. In the real world –and especially a summer camp—you’d be surrounded by a social world that was deeply influenced by sex and desire. Everywhere you looked you’d see preening behavior and ulterior motives. You could withdrawal into your own realm if you liked. But any time you had dealings with other people, you’d be exasperated by their unwise behavior.
Lazar: In his scramble to find replacement counselors, Kindermann fails to prepare his new recruits for a big surprise: what arrives that first week is not a group of children, but a group of disabled adults who need to be attended to in very intimate ways—they need to be coaxed into the showers, dressed, etc. And, as adults, they also turn out to have sex drives. This is the book’s second exploration of a kind of sexuality we seldom see, not Kindermann’s prudishness but the ordinary expression of sexuality among people who the world wants to believe are sexless. Can you talk a little about this?
Dalton: In my early twenties I worked at a Catholic summer camp outside of St. Louis. Most of the summer we hosted and cared for children from the St. Louis area, but for the first two weeks of the summer, the camp accepted a large contingent of mentally disabled adults. One group of these disabled adults came from private homes. The other group was institutionalized men and women from Missouri state hospitals. Both groups were challenging to care for, but the state campers (as we called them) were especially difficult. At age twenty, I was shocked to have to help my campers shower and use the toilet. And it was a greater shock to realize that many of our state campers had sex lives—active sex lives of one sort or another. At night, in the large sleeping cabins, they indulged in sexual behavior that they’d likely been practicing back in their various institutions. The other counselors and I slept in the cabins. We were privy to what went on among the state campers, and this sexual behavior seemed so distressing and unlikely to us that we didn’t really discuss it. We couldn’t deter it, either. To keep the campers from mingling we would have to go without sleep and patrol the sleeping barracks the entire night. And many of our state campers were ready to mingle where and whenever they could. They’d happily reach out and fondle themselves or a female counselor. The other counselors and I pretended as if this were accidental or mindless behavior. It wasn’t.
To make matters more complicated, we, the counselors, also came to camp ready to mingle with our fellow counselors. We were hoping for romance or sex, hoping to slip away into the darkened woods and embrace a fellow counselor. But at that age—nineteen and twenty or twenty-one—our sexual behavior seemed urgent and original and somehow pure, whereas the state campers’ sex lives seemed freakish and distressing. We weren’t able to recognize the similarities. We couldn’t appreciate that the same current of desire that was present in us, the young counselors, was also alive and well in our state hospital campers.
Lazar: Among the counselors, there turns out to be a sexual predator, Christopher Waterhouse, who, unlike the adult campers, is perceived by many people to be not only “normal” but also likeable, charming, and attractive. One of the female counselors, even as an adult, clings to this romantic view of Waterhouse. The real “deviant” is invisible. Can you talk about Christopher Waterhouse and how he operates? How people like him in general operate?
Dalton: This is one of those topics that’s soul-crushing and exhausting to deal with in real life but is fascinating to talk about in the realms or psychology or fiction.
These labels we have—sociopaths, deviants, predators—are really blunt ways of talking about intricate personalities. Even so, the labels and Modus Operandi often ring true. Sociopaths lack empathy. But the few sociopaths that I’ve known are also falsely or mistakenly arrogant. They have an ingratiating personality that they’ve studied carefully and borrowed from other people, especially people that are popular and widely-trusted. But it isn’t a perfect fit. Many of us get an unsettling feeling when we’re around sociopaths because the seams of this borrowed personality show. The performance feels slightly false. Yet the sociopath believes, arrogantly, that it’s a perfect performance; he or she doesn’t register our misgivings. The problem is that after the first few encounters with a sociopath we get tired of registering our doubts and feeling ill at ease. We let our guards down. Months go by and the sociopath steals our credit card, hacks into our email, or spreads a vicious lie. Having grown weary of our misgivings, we’re caught by surprise.
In The Inverted Forest Christopher Waterhouse is both a sociopath and a sexual predator. He’s figured out how to charm his way into various social worlds. At Kindermann Forest Summer Camp he becomes popular among the counselors and starts spreading lies. But he’s also impulsive, a sexual opportunist. He’s ready and willing to do cruel and risky things. Ironically, when Christopher Waterhouse becomes aware that the state hospital campers are having sex in the cabins, he has a strong reaction. He’s outraged. He’s offended.
The general research I did for The Inverted Forest seemed to indicate that most sociopaths aren’t violent, but they do a lot of lying and manipulating. They can be very disruptive in a family or work environment. But they are rarely successful over the long haul. They tend to crash and burn in early adulthood because of addiction problems and impulsive behavior.
It seems to me that some people have especially acute radar when it comes to ferreting out sociopathic personalities. Other people are more helpless and vulnerable. To make matters even trickier, there’s a cultural aspect to judging personalities. For example, I found that when I lived in Taiwan, I had a much harder time recognizing problematic personalities. It took me a couple of years of living in Taiwan before my radar adjusted itself. I bring this up because in The Inverted Forest the only African American employee at Kindermann Forest, camp nurse Harriet Foster, has trouble evaluating Christopher Waterhouse. He’d be easier for her to identify if he were a black narcissist or schemer or sociopath. With Christopher it takes her a while to get her bearings.
Lazar: Wyatt Huddy, one of the book’s central figures, is a counselor who happens also to suffer from a condition called Apert syndrome that disfigures his face and may or may not diminish his intelligence. What were the challenges of making Wyatt a character that we come to deeply empathize with, not just as a victim or an underdog but as a human being?
Dalton: I write from a number of perspectives in The Inverted Forest—Schuller Kindermann, Harriet Foster, Wyatt Huddy—but I didn’t try and write from the perspective of a mentally disabled state hospital camper. I wasn’t up to the challenge. And to be honest I don’t often find the interior depiction of mentally disabled people all the persuasive in fiction. Instead I decided to view them from the outside and hope they retained some degree of mystery and dignity.
But I did feel that Wyatt Huddy, with his disfigurements caused by Apert syndrome, could be a kind of passport to the interior lives of the disabled. Wyatt appears to be disabled and is frequently misidentified as retarded. Naturally enough, he’s become insecure about his intellectual abilities. And this vulnerability is easy enough for me to identify with. To outsiders it may seem odd. I’m a writer and college professor so I have the credentials to be thought of as smart. But the ability to invent stories and craft sentences is a highly particular skill. It’s doesn’t necessarily translate to other areas. For instance, I love Jeopardy and Trivia Pursuit and Scrabble but my performance at these games is always pretty poor. And there are small, awkward, Autistic-like tendencies I see in myself and other writers that make me believe the boundary between ability and disability is hazier and more complicated than we might imagine.
Lazar: One of the book’s most painful passages deals with the abuse Wyatt suffers at the hands of his sister, Caroline, who is raising him after the deaths of their parents. Caroline cuts Wyatt’s feet with a dirty X-acto blade and leaves him in a barn. This must have been a very difficult scene to write—not just to sketch it in but to fully render it. I think such scenes are crucial in literature, even though they’re deeply unpleasant. How do you decide how far to go?
Dalton: I don’t know if it goes too far or not. That realization will likely come to me several or more years down the line. Or never. I do know that while writing this scene I was especially jittery and anxious—above and beyond the normal anxiety that goes with writing. I wrote the scene for two reasons. First, to clue the reader in to the full scope of Wyatt’s life experience. Second, to add weight and authenticity to the kind and morally courageous behavior that’s on display in the novel. In order to believe in the good, I have to first make the reader believe in the weird and the bad.
Lazar: Can you talk a little about Caroline Huddy, who is perhaps the most malevolent figure in the book?
Dalton: Caroline Huddy is Wyatt’s older sister—older by fifteen years. She has a rampaging personality. In high school her classmates called her “Viking Girl.” She’s large and angry and abusive. When she can’t get her way via anger and violence, she’s liable to break down and cry and tell an invented version of her sorrowful childhood. Caroline is miserable, and the main source of her misery is that she despises other people and at the same time longs for their companionship.
Lazar: On the other side of the spectrum, Harriet Foster, a black nurse at the camp, is Wyatt’s ally and ultimately even his savior. It’s a common idea that “good” characters are hard to make interesting, while evil characters are always compelling. What’s your opinion about this?
Dalton: This is one of the main things I thought about while writing The Inverted Forest: how do I make good characters persuasive. In real life good people are entirely persuasive and authentic. If we have radar for sociopaths and other problem personalities, then we also have radar for people who are authentically generous and kind. I feel as if I can sometime get a strong sense of a stranger’s innate goodness in the first few seconds of meeting her or him, before they say or do anything. And this strong first impression is almost always correct.
I haven’t come up with any real breakthroughs when it comes to writing about good characters. Early on I realized that I had to let Wyatt and Harriet and Captain Throckmorton prove themselves on the page. They had to act with a quiet integrity. I couldn’t play up or exaggerate that integrity, and I couldn’t let the authorial voice of the novel comment or celebrate their integrity. It was the reader’s job to observe them in action and infer their goodness.
Mostly though, I think that real goodness is far more complicated and mysterious than we’re able to depict on the page and the screen. Writing The Inverted Forest has only made me more interested in “goodness”. Eventually, I’d like to write a story or novel that explores this mystery in greater detail.
Lazar: In The Inverted Forest we have outwardly trustworthy people—Kindermann, Waterhouse—who turn out to be deeply untrustworthy. Then we have oddballs such as a Salvation Army Captain named Throckmorton and his friend Ed McClintock, who rescue Wyatt and take a long-lasting interest in his well-being. Throckmorton and McClintock are eccentrics. They may be a gay couple or they may simply be two “confirmed bachelors” who spend their lives in a warehouse of used objects and second-hand clothes. The book is full of eccentrics, but of so many types that they almost amount to a complete picture of the human condition. Was this collection of eccentrics deliberate or was it just how the book evolved?
Dalton: I don’t think of my characters as eccentrics—at least not in the droll and purposeful way of many of the eccentric characters that appear in fiction and film. My concerns are less heady and more practical. I have a lot of secondary characters in The Inverted Forest and I want to make each one distinct and easy for the reader to place. But I also find that in real life people are much more varied and contrary than we’ve been lead to expect. I’m certain there are small town, Christian, middle-aged men who are lovers or life partners. Their sexual orientation might not be the first or second or even third way they choose to define themselves.
I run into these kinds of contradictions all the time—not obvious or entertaining eccentrics, but people who have such an unlikely assortment of habits and beliefs that they take you by surprise.
For instance, a few years back I was sitting at a campfire with a middle-aged woman who was telling me that she was leaving soon to spend her summer in China—or more exactly, to spend eight weeks with her church group smuggling Chinese-edition Bibles from Hong Kong into mainland China. I sat and pondered this for a moment. When I turned back to her, she’d pulled out a pipe and was in the process of smoking a bowl of marijuana. She was a dedicated marijuana smoker and she lamented that fact that she’d have to go without her pot those eight weeks she’d be smuggling bibles into China.
Lazar: To follow up on this theme: We’re used to odd/freakish characters in writers such as Flannery O’Connor. Her eccentrics are closer to grotesques. Your novel is stylistically very different from the grotesque. If anything, you downplay the grotesque aspect of the characters. How concerned were you that readers would have a hard time accepting a novel full of such odd people?
Dalton: In the first few years of writing The Inverted Forest I sometimes had a sinking feeling while working on the book. I knew I was writing a novel populated by institutionalized adults with various mental disabilities, a novel set in the strange, sexually-charged world of an isolated summer camp. (Just summarizing the novel this way makes it sound deliberately off-putting.) And yet, now that I’m done, I feel certain the novel has a compassionate center. I’ve also come to understand that while some potential readers may be put off by the novels subject matter or willingness to consider sex, there is a sizable portion of readers who are looking for something they haven’t seen before—something original and compelling. I’m one of those readers. Years ago I remember reading a description of Jim Crace’s Being Dead in the New Yorker: a man and wife, married thirty years, are walking among the sand dunes and are suddenly attacked and murdered. Much of the rest of the novel is a rapturous description of their undiscovered bodies breaking down and decomposing into the beach sand—a biological afterlife. What an audacious project! I set the magazine aside and wagged my head in amazement. Then I jumped in my car and headed straight to the bookstore.
Lazar: You were a counselor at a camp once attended by J.D. Salinger. What was it like?
Dalton: After working for three summers at the Catholic summer camp in Missouri, I wanted to head to the big leagues. So I landed a job at a deluxe camp in Maine. The facilities were pretty amazing: a gorgeous lake and swimming dock, a massive barn which housed, among other things, a fully functioning theater. (The production that summer was Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Nights Dream). The food was pretty good. One night we had lobsters. The kids came from all over the world and attended one or two four-week sessions. I was originally hired to teach canoeing, but when one of the other counselors / teachers flaked out, I got switched to teaching screenplay writing and filmmaking.
The camp had a ninety year history. J.D. Salinger was said to have attended as a boy. All summer long I imagined J.D. Salinger, a skinny Boy Wonder, sitting on a massive boulder and staring out at the lake with his soulful gaze.
Lazar: Can you talk about the title?
Dalton: I can. As it turns out, this answer also leads to Salinger. When I was in graduate school, I was given a Xeroxed copy of Salinger’s uncollected stories. They were previously published stories that he didn’t think good enough to include in his phenomenal Nine Stories. One of these uncollected stories, about a reclusive poet, is called The Inverted Forest. I always loved this title and a few months into working on my summer camp novel I realized that a special needs summer camp—where the state hospital campers greatly outnumber the counselors—is a world turned inside out. There’s also the matter of Wyatt Huddy’s predicament, of appearing to the outside world to be mentally disabled but inwardly hoping to be in possession of an average or normal intelligence. The Inverted Forest seemed to evoke these two paradoxes. Plus the title sounded cool to me ears. So I grafted it onto my novel. Is it stealing? I’m not sure. When it comes to titles, there’s a lot of borrowing that goes on. Of course, I realize that other Salinger titles are way off limits. You could hardly call your novel Catcher in the Rye or A Perfect Day for Bananafish. To me The Inverted Forest was like a discarded oddity Salinger had left out in his back yard. Salinger didn’t seem to be using it. I was walking by and saw it there gleaming in the wet grass.