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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Vestal’s own private Idaho

S-R columnist’s collection of short stories takes dark, often funny look at family, faith

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle)

Next week, Spokesman-Review columnist Shawn Vestal earns a new title: published fiction author.

Vestal’s debut collection of short fiction “Godforsaken Idaho” (Amazon Publishing/New Harvest, $15.95) will arrive in bookstores and online on Tuesday. It contains stories set in North Idaho, Southern Idaho and Montana – and, memorably, in a cafeteria in the afterlife.

Kirkus Reviews described the book as a “provocative and revelatory debut, filled with stories about losing faith and trying (often in vain) to find purpose.”

Vogue book critic Rebecca Bengal called “Godforsaken Idaho” “dark, often very funny and deeply probing.”

We asked Vestal about the collection:

Q: Most of our readers know you as a columnist and reporter. How did you become a published fiction writer?

A: My “spare-time literary activities” – as the Irish writer Flann O’Brien put it – have been more or less a lifelong habit. I’ve written short stories for more than 20 years, but never did it with serious, sustained effort until I entered the Eastern Washington University MFA program in 2006. I learned from a lot of good professors and fellow students that I simply had to work harder – to revise and revise, to set higher standards, to stop thinking the stories were done before they really were. In 2007, I published my first story in McSweeney’s, and I’ve published several since.

Q: How has working as a journalist prepared you for writing fiction?

A: The upside is that I don’t struggle much with writer’s block. I can always write something, or almost always, and I’m not scared of putting down words that might not be any good, at least at first. The downside is that journalism teaches you to stop working on a piece based on the time of day, which, it turns out, is a horrible approach to writing fiction.

Q: The cover of “Godforsaken Idaho” contains an image of Joseph Smith and another of a bee. The book has been praised in a Slate article about Mormon-themed fiction. Do you consider this a book about Mormonism?

A: It definitely has Mormon characters and themes, and Mormonism is the lens through which I write about experiences that I hope are universal – faith, belief, heresy, rebellion, etc. I can’t deny the church is in there in a very big way, but I do not set out to write “about” the church as much as it’s the material on which I draw to invent stories. It’s what there is in my bag of yarn.

Q: What is your own personal relationship with Mormonism?

A: I grew up in the faith, and left it as an adult. But it remains a huge part of me. Most of my family remains in the church, and we negotiate our differences and maintain strong relationships. Most of my adult life, my feelings about the church have bounced around – I can feel harshly critical of it in one moment, and then come to its defense the next. The idiotic anti-Mormon stuff about Mitt Romney drove me crazy.

Q: The book’s final story is about Joseph Smith, in his days as a somewhat disreputable treasure hunter before he founded a religion. Have you had any reaction to that yet? Do you expect a strong reaction?

A: I haven’t and I don’t. I expect most people who would find that story objectionable would just never come across it, or would avoid it. But I recognize it’s a provocation. It was the last story that I wrote, and I decided to use that historical background about Joseph Smith with a certain amount of intention. These mythologies and this church remain my heritage, and writing about them is a way of claiming them for myself, on my terms, through my eyes.

Q: The settings in your stories include North Idaho, Southern Idaho and Montana. Tell us about your personal history with these places.

A: I grew up in Gooding, Idaho, went to college in Moscow, worked in Coeur d’Alene, and lived in Bozeman, Mont. And though those places are all different, there are a lot of regional similarities, too. I sometimes feel like my home – though I have come to really love Spokane in my 13 years here – is more the wider Northwest than any particular point within it.

Q: Your writing shows off a wide range of styles. The opening story has a metaphysical feel, set in a heaven that resembles a mundane cafeteria. Others have a gritty, realistic feel, such as the story about a teenager mixed up in a crime with his ex-con father. Does any particular style come more naturally to you?

A: The first-person sarcastic is probably my most natural mode of expression. Because of that – because it’s so available to me as a fiction writer and columnist, and because I have employed it so much – I spend a lot of time trying to avoid it. Some of the other stylistic considerations, such as whether a story is surreal or realistic, don’t really strike me as very different from each other, since all of these things are invented. Even when I’m relying on a real place in my real hometown of Gooding, Idaho, for example – the Lincoln Inn, where I must have eaten 7 million hamburgers – the Lincoln Inn I’m creating in the Gooding I’m creating is no more real – no more bound by the gravity of actuality – than a fantastic afterlife. Anything is bound to happen in either place.

Q: Despite the breadth of voices and styles, some common threads are evident. What are the collection’s unifying themes?

A: Failures of faith and family, as well as the sustaining possibilities of each. Hunger and regret. Men of dubious honor, trying to get a little better. Insistent little glimmers of hope in the twilight.

Q: Do you have a novel percolating?

A: I do. At this rate, it may never be brewed.