Northwest Passages is the new book club sponsored by The Spokesman-Review. Each month, Spokane-area readers will be invited to read along, join in the conversation and attend author events.
Up first is Shawn Vestal, a familiar name to Spokesman-Review readers. Vestal’s day job is as a columnist for the newspaper. He also writes award-winning works of fiction, including “Daredevils,” which took top honors at the Washington State Book Awards in October.
Vestal won the PEN/Bingham prize for his story collection, “Godforsaken Idaho.” He is among the featured writers in the new “Pie & Whiskey” anthology, and he is a regular contributor to The Spokesman-Review’s Summer Stories series.
“Daredevils” is a coming of age story set in the American West. The novel centers on a Mormon teenager who longs to escape her polygamist community. Along the way, she gets help from a mainstream Mormon boy, and has an encounter with Evel Knievel. “Readers are advised to hang on for a wild and rewarding ride,” wrote Tim McNulty in his review for The Spokesman-Review and the Seattle Times.
In this email interview, Vestal talks about the response to “Daredevils,” Evel Knievel and moonlighting his way to success as an author.
Q. It’s been a year and a half or so since “Daredevils” was released. Is there an insight you’ve gained about the book that you didn’t have before?
A. I’ve come to better understand the process I went through in trying to write a main character who’s a 16-year-old sister wife – a character so far outside my own experience. I started writing the novel as focused on a teenage boy living a life not too different from my own childhood and revised it several times to highlight the girl’s experience. While I was doing it, it just felt like a struggle, an imaginative leap I wasn’t sure I could make.
In retrospect, I feel that my whole attitude toward that – my “fear” of “writing a girl” – was based on a lot of dumb attitudes of my own, limited or sexist views, an expression of my own failure to treat this fictional girl as a human being. I was “othering” her, to use the social justice lingo. That’s a huge problem for a novelist, of course, and the solution I found – if I indeed did find it – was a somewhat basic recognition of all the shared humanity I had with her. I started to see through her eyes, just a bit, and it really did change my perspective in ways I could not have predicted. I got kind of angry on her behalf – as well as wondering why in the world I hadn’t been angry on her behalf before.
Q. What’s the most common question you get about the book, and how do you answer it?
A. Whether I’ve got any polygamy in my own family. I say not yet.
Q. A large chunk of the newsroom knew you’d won the Washington State Book Award days before you did. What was your reaction to winning it?
A. I was shocked, happy and desperate for something to say at the podium. My 10-year-old son, who had complained his way through the ceremony, wanted me to go up there and dab with the award in hand. But nobody wants to see that.
The fact that the newsroom knew about it makes me furious at the rest of you for not telling me, just another betrayal by the hacks at the Death Star.
Q. Your literary career is the very definition of the “slow burn” – it took you a long time to find success as a fiction writer. Were you ever tempted to throw in the towel and just stick to newspaper writing?
A. Lots of times. But this kind of writing is just deep within me, and I’d probably keep doing it even if no one else ever read it. The thing is, whatever “success” is at this work, I find it hard to ever really feel it, despite the fact that I also really recognize, and am grateful for, the things that have come my way in recent years. Mostly what lives with me as a creative writer is the sense of falling short, of being stuck against whatever current imaginative struggle is going on in the work, of feeling that the finished work wasn’t finished enough…
Q. Did you ever hear from anyone in the Knievel family about your portrayal of Evel?
A. No, but I frequently run into people with Evel Knievel stories, of course. Lots of people here in Spokane knew and interacted with him. More than once I’ve heard from women who worked in bars or restaurants with stories about what a grabby boor he was.