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John Dalton

img_dalton.jpgJohn Dalton is the author of the novel Heaven Lake, winner of the Barnes and Noble 2004 Discover Award in fiction and the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His second novel, The Inverted Forest, was published in 2011 and selected as a best book of the year by The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Wall Street Journal - Book Lover. John is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He has held fellowships at The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and The MacDowell Colony.

Book Publications
The Inverted Forest: a novel (Scribner, 2011)Heaven Lake: a novel (Scribner, 2004)

heaven lake   inverted forest 

Journal Publications
Story, Western Humanities Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Boulevard

Non-Fiction Publications
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Washington Post, Boulevard

John Dalton Online: 
Read an excerpt from The Inverted Forest

John Dalton's List on Shepherd

Courses John Dalton Teaches:

Graduate Courses:
  • English 5110: Graduate Workshop in Fiction
  • English 5170: Techniques, Methods and Effects in Fiction
  • English 5190: Literary Journal Editing (Boulevard / Natural Bridge online)
  • English 5950: The Teaching of Creative Writing
  • English 5920: Vibrant Lives, Vibrant Writing: Literary biographies paired with the biographical subject’s best work
  • English 5200: MFA Readings
  • English 6000: MFA Thesis


Undergraduate Courses:
  • English 2040: Fiction Writing Jumpstart
  • English 3040: Lying to Tell the Truth: Writing Fiction  
  • English 4140: Polishing Your Stories: Producing a Publishable Short Story
  • English 4180: Novel Beginnings  


John Dalton on Teaching MFA Workshops

"The most valuable thing I can offer a workshop student is also the most practical: A lucid and critically objective assessment of what's working in the manuscript and what's not. To do this, I need to read and edit the story carefully and compose a written response. I understand from my own days as a student writer that it's an anxiety-provoking act to offer up a piece of writing for workshop. As a workshop instructor, I want my students to feel that their brightest achievements have been described and recognized. And I also want them to arrive at a clear and practical understanding of those elements within the story that are not yet working or need careful adjustment."

John Dalton’s Miscellany: Lists, Recommendations, Musings

Popular Fiction vs Literary Fiction 
Two elaborate but still inadequate definitions:

Popular Fiction: The tried-and-true storylines continue to have a powerful effect for the Popular Fiction audience--as long as they sense that the writer is handling the material in a very sincere and enthusiastic fashion. The term well-written means something different to the Popular audience. It means vivid (as in vibrant, identifiable actions and emotions).  It means consistently suspenseful (with each scene the reader has a clear awareness of what is dramatically at stake). It means clear, clean, energetic writing partitioned into short, highly-readable chapters. You sit on your couch, read for half an hour, and are pleased to notice that you've cruised through 48 pages!    

Literary Fiction: A Literary reader wants to look past the usual archetypes and storytelling conventions and see the world and individuals as varied, complex, strikingly real. It's not that they're anti-story; it's that for Literary readers plot is mostly useful as a scaffolding to help organize the novel.  At its best, it generates an air of cool mystery, but its real value is that it allows a variety of deeply interesting departures that grow from the plot like branches from a tree trunk: ruminations on what it’s like to alive in the world, exploration of the inner life.  For this audience each sentence can deliver its own self-contained pleasure.  The pleasure of sound and rhythm. The pleasure of a provocative idea. The pleasure of a sentence that takes an unexpected turn and lands on a startling insight or image. 

More and more in contemporary fiction these two categories blend into each other.

Some Lists of favorite books! (What good is an English Professor if he can’t recommend some books?)

Literary novels for people who usually read popular fiction
  • Demon Copperhead – Barbara Kingsolver (2022)
  • Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow – Gabrielle Zevin (2022)
  • The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennet (2020)
  • Normal People – Sally Roony (2018)
  • The Nix – Nathan Hill – (2014)
  • Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel (2014)
  • All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr (2014)


Popular novels for people who usually read literary fiction 
  • 11/ 22/ 63 – Stephen King (2011)
  • The Witch Elm – Tana French  (2018)
  • Mystic River - Denis Lehane (2001)


Favorite Novels that mix Science-fiction and Literary fiction
  • The Mountain in the Sea – Ray Naylor (2022)
  • Theory of Bastards – Audrey Schulman (2018)
  • Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel (2014)
  • The Book of Strange New Things - Michael Faber (2014)
  • Slade House – David Mitchell (2015)
  • The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell (2014)
  • Skippy Dies – Paul Murray (2010)
  • Never Let Me Go - Kazou Ishiguro (2005)


Favorite Historical Novels
  • Tyll – Daniel Kehlmann (2017)
  • Washington Black – Esi Edugyan (2018)
  • Golden Hill – Francis Spufford (2016)
  • The North Water – Ian McGuire (2016)
  • The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flannagan (2013)
  • Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel (2009)
  • Measuring the World - Daniel Kehlmann (2005)
  • The Known World - Edward P. Jones (2003)
  • The Crimson and the White –Michel Faber (2002)
  • Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurtry (1985)


Favorite Literary Fiction (elegant writing, remarkable insight)
  • Lessons – Ian McEwan (2022)
  • Festival Days – Jo Ann Beard (2021)
  • What Are You Going Through – Sigrid Nunez (2020)
  • Washington Black – Esi Edugyan (2018)
  • Tyll – Daniel Kehlmann (2017)
  • Sing Unburied, Sing – Jasmine Ward (2017)
  • Slade House – David Mitchell (2015)
  • All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr (2014)
  • Life After Life – Kate Atkinson (2013)
  • The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flannagan (2013)
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi  (2013)
  • The Orphan Master’s Son – Adam Johnson (2012)
  • The Round House -  Louise Erdrich (2012)
  • The Marriage Plot - Jeffrey Eugenides  (2011)
  • Olive Kitteridge - Elizabeth Strout (2008)
  • On Chesil Beach - Ian McEwan (2007)
  • Flights – Olga Tokarczuk  (2007) 
  • Black Swan Green - David Mitchell (2006)
  • Saturday - Ian McEwan (2005)
  • Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell (2004)
  • Runaway - Alice Munro (2004)
  • Atonement - Ian McEwan (2002)
  • The Corrections - Jonathan Franzen (2001)
  • The Love of a Good Woman - Alice Munro (2000)
  • Amy & Isabelle - Elizabeth Strout (2000)
  • Feast of Love - Charles Baxter (2000) 


Dark Novels (these ones are worth it because they take you to some remarkable places)
  • The North Water - Ian McGuire (2016)
  • The Narrow Road to the Deep Noth – Richard Flannagan (2013)
  • The Road - Cormac McCarthy (2006)
  • Disgrace – J.M. Coetzee (1999)
  • Being Dead – Jim Crace (1999)


Cerebral Novels (It’s not about the story. It’s about exceptional ideas, intuitions, insights)
  • The Guest Lecturer – Martin Riker (2023)
  • Outline Trilogy – Rachel Cusk (2014-18)
  • The Throwback Special – Chris Bachelder (2016)
  • Autobiography of Red – Anne Carson (1998)
  • Flaubert’s Parrot – Julian Barnes (1984) 


These are the poets I depend on and whose collected poems I am constantly dipping into for inspiration


  • Phillip Larkin
  • Edward Hirsch
  • Wislawa Szymborska
  • Jane Kenyon
  • Wallace Stevens
  • Stephen Dunn


Favorite Story Collections (like a good rock album each story in the collection is a hit or near-hit) 
  • There’s Something I Want You To Do – Charles Baxter (2015)
  • The Tenth of December – George Saunders (2013)
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan (2010)
  • The Imperfectionists - Tom Rachman (2010)
  • Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned - Wells Tower (2009)
  • The Thing Around Your Neck - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Music Through the Floor - Eric Puchner (2005)
  • Runaway – Alice Munro (2004)
  • Drinking Coffee Elsewhere - ZZ Packer (2003)
  • Among the Missing – Dan Chaon (2001)
  • The Love of a Good Woman - Alice Munro (2000)
  • Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri (1999)


 Favorite classic books
  • In Cold Blood - Truman Capote (1966)
  • Revolutionary Road - Richard Yates (1962)
  • The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson (1959)
  • To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf (1927)
  • Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy (1877)
  • Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert (1856)



Quotes (Two Writers Unafraid to Address the Big Picture!)
  • The world - whatever we might think when terrified by its vastness and our own impotence, or embittered by its indifference to individual suffering, of people, animals, and perhaps even plants, for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain; whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets we've just begun to discover, planets already dead? still dead? we just don't know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we've got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world - it is astonishing.  –Novel Prize Winning Poet Wislawa Szymborska
  • Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and being alone won't either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You have to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes too near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could. ~Louise Erdrich
Quotes (these ones say the most in the fewest possible words)
  • We’re all one beat away from becoming elevator music—Don DeLillo
  • At first we want life to be romantic; later, to be bearable; finally, to be understandable. --Louise Bogan
  • You are the universe    Expressing itself as human   For a little while           -Eckhart Tolle
Quotes that manage to capture the true difficulty of writing
  • To write you have to face the failure at the heart of writing—the failure to put the whole truth on the page. –Julie Phillips
  • ....the translator says that a sentence is born into this world neither good nor bad, and that to establish its character is a question of the subtlest possible adjustments, a process of intuition to which exaggeration and force are fatal.    --Rachel Cusk
  • It takes something more than intelligence to be able to write intelligently. It requires something closer to echolocation, an acute sense, in mid-flight, of where you are.   --Dwight Garner
  • If it confuses you, that's normal. If it makes you feel blank, that's normal, too. If it seems to flow and then you look at it and what flowed seems stilted, sloppy, flat, unmusical and forced, that also is normal. You are bound to have wildly divergent feelings about it at different times. It's completely within the borders of creation to have the conviction that all of it is too deeply flawed and riven with your own shortcomings to be anything anyone else would want to see; and then only a moment later to find yourself with the pleasant suspicion that it might actually be good. Sometimes, you may even have the sense that it's better than good. But this very quickly dissolves in doubt because you see all the little places where the language is only its seemingly pedestrian self, and yields up nothing but things. Objects. People talking. Except that this is what novels are made of. And finally you get to thinking of the whole thing as a STORY. And you start over, getting a little smarter about it as you go. And then even when it is done and there isn't anymore you can see to do with it, you still go back and forth, believing on some days and doubting on others. And mostly doubting. That's our nature. And it is all completely normal.  – Richard Bausch
  • Write. Find a way to keep alive and write. There is nothing else to say. If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you. If you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. Discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.   --James Baldwin