Shawn Vestal on Spinning Experience Into Short Stories, his Mormon Past
Shawn Vestal pursues writing in two directions. As far as he can tell, they never intersect.
The Spokane journalist spent years writing straight news, features and opinion columns for The Spokesman-Review newspaper before emerging as a writer of fiction. His short-story collection Godforsaken Idaho appeared in April, yielding praise for his tales’ finely wrought language, their rich characterizations, and their rather fearless inquisition of the Mormon faith Vestal abandoned as a young man.
Vestal says although journalism has proved good training for the craft of fiction, he’s far more likely to mine his own past for stories than those of the people he meets and interviews.
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“I haven’t ever, that I can think of, tried to write something that grows directly out of a real experience that I had as a journalist,” he says. “I have done that with some things in my own life, although you get further and further afield from the reality of it as you work on it. There may be sort of an imaginary wall in my head that keeps (these parts of my life) separate. I don’t usually act out of an impulse like, ‘That would make a great story.'”
Still, great stories happen. Vestal went back to school for his master of fine arts degree, a step that immensely improved the short fiction he’d been attempting throughout his newspaper career. Publication in some prestigious journals followed, including McSweeney’s and Tin House, and then came the book contract with Little A/New Harvest that yielded Godforsaken Idaho.
The Idaho native reads a new work in Spokane Sept. 20 as part of the Bedtime Stories program, a fundraising event for Humanities Washington. He’ll appear alongside fellow authors Jess Walter and Sharma Shields and Washington State Poet Laureate Kathleen Flenniken.
Humanities Washington: Several of your stories involve spiritual dislocation and communication, which you see in some of the magical realist authors. Did you take influence from that style?
Vestal: Yeah, I think so. In fact, that might have been a larger influence me than Mormonism or thoughts of faith. I like writers like Aimee Bender or Kelly Link, who write stories that are fantastical in any number of ways … just inexplicable, surreal occurrences and the way that they press upon — and maybe give you a way to examine — real life. I’m not in any way interested in advancing an argument about an afterlife, but it’s a model or a system through which I could think about real life.
(I’m not influenced by) so much the Latin American school of magical realism, although some of that I enjoy too, but (rather by Franz) Kafka, Steven Millhauser — this surrealist tradition. What I love about Kafka is, in his best work, there’s a dream logic or an alternative logic that somehow coheres. It relates to the real world, but it’s different enough that it somehow opens a gap in which you can ponder real life. I think of “In the Penal Colony,” and that machine that tattoos the punishment upon the criminal until they die. It is at once radically different than anything that could exist in the real world and resonant with the real world at the same time.
HW: A lot of great fiction writers got their start in newspapers, but now there are far fewer newspaper jobs. Do you think you’d be able to accomplish your goals in fiction without that training ground?
Vestal: It’s so hard to say. I think being a journalist is good for you as a writer in a lot of ways, and then there are also ways it’s not so good. When I went into an MFA program, somewhat late in life at Eastern Washington University, a lot of the young adults I was in the program with struggled with getting started. They would often find themselves just unable to write. For better or for worse, being a journalist I think gets you past that. It gets you past the terror of writing something. At first, it’s really hard to deal with, but you get over yourself a little bit, and you get used to having to write something — even if it’s falling short of some mental standards you have in your head. And of course, therein is the downside too. I’ve worked in journalism for a long time, and there’s some point in the day where it’s done, no matter how good it is. It has to be done, because the clock says X, which is not necessarily the best way to write.
HW: What about Idaho as a setting lends itself well to fiction?
Vestal: The honest answer is, I don’t know. There was a time when I would say, ‘I don’t even think about Idaho,’ but that’s not quite right. It’s just where I’m from, it’s just where I was formed — so my assumptions, the foundations of what I think about things, are Idaho. I don’t choose it from a series of alternatives. It’s the only alternative, really.
I’ve written things that are set in other places, but if you’re trying to imagine something and you’re trying to come up with the pieces of that world that are going to make it authentic and believable, I at least am always going back to what I know myself. It just comes naturally from that process, rather than from me having selected Idaho just because I think it’s a particularly good ground for fiction. I don’t know if it is, honestly.
HW: Is the afterlife we see in “The First Several Hundred Years After My Death” the same one you were promised as a young Mormon?
Vestal: No! But a lot of what I’m up to in that story and in others is sort of rethinking the ways that what was portrayed to me as either heaven or the afterlife — or the way that we communicate or are led by our ancestors — might be looked at in another light. There was some point early in my life where I thought, What if heaven’s boring? What if it was like a Sunday at my house, which is worship, family, no television, no fun? That’s how I viewed it at the time. Is an eternity of this any good? Something like that was what I had in mind when I wrote it. But it’s definitely not at all like the LDS view of heaven. I don’t know if I ever had an idea of what it would be like in a really practical sense, what your days would be like, but (the LDS Church has) a kind of three-tiered afterlife idea: The Celestial Kingdom, the Terrestrial Kingdom, the Telestial Kingdom. Basically those are sort of ranks of righteousness, and if you’re in the top level, then you would spend eternity with your family.
HW: You write with the perspective of a former LDS Church member. Have people still inside the church read your work and responded to it?
Vestal: There has been some negative responses that I assume come from church members. There are online reviews that are very, very angry-seeming about the book, and I assume (religion is) part of it. Almost all of my family is still LDS, and some of them have read it, and some have not. My mother and I have talked about it, and I think we’ve concluded it’s not her kind of thing. I have heard from a friend in high school who let me know she respects my right to do what I want as an artist, but I am treading on sacred ground for her — and that’s been an interesting and productive conversation.
I view what I’m dong as not an attack — it’s not meant to be — but I can’t slide away from the fact that I know it will be taken as such. I try to explain myself, but I also am often talking to people that I knew would react negatively to the work, and I accepted that and went forward anyway.
I look at it as sort of the material of my life. That’s all I have. That’s all an imaginative artist has, is memory. I have come to feel that imagination is directly linked to memory. I wrote a lot of stories that didn’t have a whole lot to do with my own life for a lot of years, and they were not very good stories. The more personal I got, the more the stories improved. That’s how I have tried to express it to people who might not like the subject matter: I’m trying to not be disrespectful, and I’m trying to use the material of my life, (material) that’s my heritage as just as much as it’s your heritage.