After years of writing about county land deals, police investigations and state legislation for The Spokesman-Review and other papers, Shawn Vestal finds himself on the interview end of a reporter’s notebook.
That’s because, after years of sending off short stories without getting much interest, he’s taking the spotlight as a sharp and imaginative new voice on the fiction scene. His debut collection of short stories, Godforsaken Idaho, comes out this month, and it’s already been gathering high praise: Kim Barnes says Vestal “finds startling moments of grace and unexpected redemption.” Jess Walter calls the book “wickedly funny and surprisingly profound.”
Vestal is more understated about the validation of finally being published.
“When you write fiction for 20 years and nobody publishes it, it’s a little bit hard to say, ‘All right, family, I have to ignore you for the afternoon to go sit in the basement by myself, and not help with anything because of this important thing that nobody in the world wants me to do,’” he says.
The themes that emerge in the stories — absent fathers and the Mormon church — were influenced by Vestal’s upbringing in Idaho. But he didn’t set out to write “Mormon fiction,” as the book’s been labeled, or about his father.
“It’s more like I’m writing stories about these struggles that people are going through, and I tend to be interested in those questions of faith and meaning, and this is what I have.”
Vestal grew up in a large, devout family in the small southern Idaho town of Gooding, which figures into the stories. His father was a local businessman, a one-time president of the chamber of commerce, a leader in the the church. But when he ran into financial trouble, he tried to cover it up by embezzling.
“It just turned out this picture we had of him was really dramatically wrong,” Vestal says.
He gave his father’s name to one of the criminal dads in the book, though it was something he thought to do later in the writing process. Pieces of real life appear in the Gooding of his short stories; other places and names are entirely fictional.
“I like to manipulate the facts,” he says. “Maybe I’m responding to my journalism in some way there. I can do whatever I want.”
Vestal knew he wasn’t interested in a Mormon life by the time he left home. In college he saw himself becoming a writer and teaching English, but he left the University of Idaho just short of graduation and turned to newspaper writing.
“I had kind of a snobby attitude about journalism when I got into it,” he says. “I considered it almost slumming for a while when I got started. But then I just loved it.”
It was during the industry upheaval and layoffs in recent years that Vestal started thinking about a post-newspaper life, and he made the pivotal decision to enroll in Eastern’s MFA program. A newspaper writer has some advantages — no fear of the blank page, no fear of an editor constantly over the shoulder — but also the deadline tendency to quit a piece once it’s good enough. Vestal says he got schooled in working harder, with his adviser and now friend, Sam Ligon.
“He was just relentlessly unsatisfied, in a supportive way,” Vestal says.
Vestal and Ligon will take the stage together at the Get Lit! festival, along with Walter, a fellow Spokesman-Review reporter-turned-author. Vestal says he considers them both friends and good examples.
“That would be the nicest thing my mother could say about anybody, that they’re ‘good examples,’” he says. “To have a literary life and live in this town, and not leave this town … is hugely important.”
Shawn Vestal at Get Lit! • Sat, April 13, at 5 pm • Barrister Winery • 1213 W. Railroad Ave.