Writer Quinn Dalton on finding permission and place


Quinnby Joanna Rutter

The only thing that stood between Greensboro writer Quinn Dalton and publishing her second novel, Midnight Bowling, was a decade and a half of pressure, panic attacks and mixed feelings, having two children and the heavy lifting of turning a short piece into a full-length work.

Dalton said she almost “broke up” with the book — twice.

“I kept getting stuck at the 200-page mark,” Dalton said. She’d always seen herself as a short-story writer.

“With short stories, you can date around, and if you get stuck, you’ve only invested 10 pages or so, and [you think] ‘This isn’t working out’ and date another story,” she said.

“A novel is a marriage. You have to show up every day.”

Fortunately, the book — a multi-generational drama centered on a teenage bowling prodigy — was published last month by Durham’s Carolina Wren Press.

Her choice to commit is evident in the emotional strength and complexity of Midnight Bowling.

The novel strikes two distinct tones of melancholy using the voices of dual narrators: the emotional kaleidoscope of a teenager falling in love while grappling with her destiny, and the brewing resentment of a man harboring Steinbeck-style hatred for his brother. Set against the backdrop of ’70s suburban Ohio, the story carries both a stark sadness and a thread of hope that hints at redemption.

The intricately woven tale is easily followed thanks to Dalton’s unassuming prose that only draws attention to itself for glistening observations, like, “Women pour themselves out for you, but I didn’t know that yet, standing in the kitchen that morning with Louise. What I did know was that I wasn’t sorry my brother was dead, because he’d made his wife do without sugar.”

It’s not obvious from her detailed bowling descriptions that Dalton set out with almost no knowledge about the sport. She took a trip to Ohio bowling alleys for research and watched hours of pro bowling tape.

“We get bombarded as writers, ‘Write what you know,’” Dalton said. “My feeling is, you should be writing what you don’t know. If you don’t know where you’re going, you don’t take anything for granted. Any artistic pursuit is a journey and your judgment does get better over time.”

Dalton, 45, can’t recall a time from her own journey when she hasn’t been a writer. As a kid growing up in Clemson, SC, she would often ride her bike to the library and take her books to a neighborhood church to read somewhere cool and quiet.

“[Writing] was a natural outcome of being such a voracious reader as a child with limited hand-eye coordination,” she said.

Moving to Kent, Ohio at 13 years old was “life-changing” for Dalton and her family, largely due to better-funded schools, she said. She was able to attend Kent State University for free since her father taught architecture there. Dalton chose to write a novella as her senior thesis, and a professor suggested she consider a creative writing MFA program. She didn’t know they existed.

“I was thinking about going to law school — I was coming up with something responsible to do,” Dalton said.

She moved to Greensboro and started at UNCG’s creating writing program in 1992 at 21 years old. After earning her degree, she applied to the Americorps VISTA program, hoping to be “cast somewhere,” only to receive a call that the program had found her a placement right in Greensboro with Reading Connections.

“I was going to leave, because Greensboro was a very different place then than it is now…” she said. “I was expecting this big adventure and felt thwarted!”

The challenges of the job — especially interacting with people at both extremes of the class spectrum — “definitely opened up Greensboro as a town for me,” Dalton said. Shortly afterward, she met her husband, who worked across the hall in the Guilford Building (the circumstances of their meeting had been predicted by a palm reader the year before).

Twenty-odd years later, she’s still here.

“I think [Greensboro] is a very nurturing place for artists of all stripes,” Dalton said. “It’s really fertile ground to be an artist, and it’s just supportive in general.”

Dalton names fellow alums Marianne Gingher and Julie Funderburk among those in her Greensboro support community, and she’s currently co-writing a book with another MFA friend, Julianna Baggot. Her local involvement extends to education as well — she’ll be teaching a master class on scenework at the NC Writers’ Network Conference in April at UNCG.

Gingher connected her to other teaching opportunities at UNC a few years ago, and Dalton especially appreciated encouraging students questioning the value of pursuing writing careers, a question that had haunted Dalton ever since she exchanged her law school applications for MFA applications.

“Being an artist, [it] felt like it had this self-indulgence to it squarely opposed to the Protestant work ethic,” Dalton said. Somewhere along “hanging in there” with Midnight Bowling, though, she managed to kick that sense of having to justify her art.

When the earthquake in Haiti hit during her first term at UNC, she said her class felt useless against pain and suffering. Dalton doesn’t look at it that way.

“If you’re bleeding, who do you want, a doctor or a writer? But the answer is both,” she said.

“You want someone who can help you survive physically, but you also want someone to bear witness. That’s your value. Just because [art]’s not a matter of life and death doesn’t mean it’s not critical to our existence.”

Quinn Dalton’s newest novel, Midnight Bowling, can be found at Scuppernong Books in GSO or online at carolinawrenpress.org.