H e thought for sure Anthony Marra was going to win, for his “freaking amazing” book “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.”
“I was not sitting there thinking, ‘I wonder if I’ll win,’ ” said Shawn Vestal, author of “Godforsaken Idaho” and a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. “I was thinking, ‘Yeah, Tony’s getting ready to win.’ ”
So when the esteemed novelist Louise Erdrich read his name Monday night to present him with the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, one of the nation’s most prestigious awards for debut works of fiction, Vestal was thunderstruck.
“People afterward were asking me if I was OK,” he said. “I guess I seemed like I’d been hit in the head or something.”
Winning the $25,000 award – the richest writing prize awarded by the PEN American Center – was a shock.
“It was already a heady experience without winning the award,” Vestal said. The acclaimed writer Zadie Smith sat two rows away, and the playwright David Rabe was there. Vestal and the novelist Joseph O’Neill chatted in line. “It was already super cool.”
That heady experience was coupled with something else pretty cool. While he was in New York City for the PEN events last week, he kept hearing one question:
What’s the deal with Spokane?
“I can’t tell you how many people, most of whom know Jess (Walter), said something to me about Spokane,” Vestal said. “ ‘Spokane! What are you guys doing out in Spokane? What’s in the water in Spokane?’
“There’s definitely some kind of regional energy going on right now. And it’s an exciting thing to be a part of,” he added. “A big part of it is just this community, support and friendship among writers. It’s a nourishing dynamic right now.”
The deal with Spokane
Vestal’s award is big news for Spokane’s writing community. An announcement that Jess Walter is not Spokane’s lone literary voice making national waves. Vindication that this burg is no longer a place great writers – Sherman Alexie, Neil LaBute, Tim Egan – leave.
Walter tells a story about being approached by someone years ago who took his hand, squeezed it and said, “Thank you for staying.”
“The truth is, you look at half of those writers in Seattle they’re actually from Spokane. Sherman and Tim Egan and Jim Lynch and Lynda Mapes. We’ve been an exporter of writers for a long time,” Walter said. “I always have to stand up and say there were always writers here. This has always been a writing town.”
Terry Davis got the nation’s attention in 1979 with “Vision Quest,” leading the way for other writers in the young adult genre, from Chris Crutcher and Terry Trueman to Kelly Milner Halls and Kris Dinnison, whose debut novel comes out next year. Kenn Nesbitt is the U.S. children’s poet laureate. Then there’s Bruce Holbert and Sharma Shields. Shann Ray Ferch. Dan Butterworth. Chris Howell. Nance Van Winckel. John Keeble. Thom Caraway.
Your story, Walter quipped in an email, might just end up a list of 200 names.
Paul Lindholdt. Gregory Spatz. Polly Buckingham.
It easily could.
Former Spokesman- Review arts reporter Jim Kershner – a Washington Book Award finalist for his biography of Carl Maxey – posted on Facebook last week about the wealth of talent. He noted his book club features Vestal, Walter and Dinnison. His neighbor, naturalist and writer Jack Nisbet, has won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award and the Washington Book Award.
“Does anybody else find this as extraordinary as I do?” he asked.
It may seem extraordinary, but it’s also been building steam for more than 30 years, to when Eastern Washington University (then college) opened the state’s first master of fine arts program in creative writing. Eastern, and the MFA programs at the University of Idaho and the University of Montana, have produced some of the region’s best writers. And rather than leave after completing their degrees, many of those writers stayed, creating a critical mass of talent.
Spatz, who runs Eastern’s MFA program, said the cumulative effect of writers staying in Spokane has enriched the whole.
“I’ve seen a lot of people show up, and they hate it here,” he said. “They can’t believe they’re stuck in Spokane. Then they never leave.”
Sam Ligon, who teaches at Eastern and who edits the university’s literary journal, Willow Springs, said it’s not just Eastern. Teachers in the undergraduate programs at Whitworth and Gonzaga – and at the community colleges – are sending their students to work on Willow Springs, bringing graduate and undergraduate students together.
That energy people are sensing is the result of a community that is collaborative, rather than competitive, Ligon said. He, Vestal and Walter, for instance, are always showing one another their work.
“We’re trading work all the time. We’re hanging out. We’re drinking together. We’re going to readings together,” he said. “We’re reading books together, and we’re reading each other’s work, and we’re talking about each other’s work, and we like each other.”
Spokane’s writers and readers are coming together. They’re turning out for visiting writer events at Eastern or GU. They’re going to readings like Pie & Whiskey – held during Get Lit – and the recent Lilac City Fairy Tales.
“The slam poets are coming out to other events and page writers are going out to slam events,” Ligon said. “Someone like Thom Caraway, poet laureate of Spokane, is also joining these communities. You have a whole bunch of places where they’re linking up.”
And it’s spilling over. Walter pointed to Terrain, the popular night of music and art held this past Friday, and a thrilling music scene.
“I think it’s part of a larger thing that Spokane is a great place to be 25,” Walter said. “I don’t think anyone would have said that was true 15 years ago.”
Still, even with all this booming artistic energy, Walter makes an important point: Writing is a lonely business.“There’s a famous story about all these writers going to Paris trying to find Hemingway and they could never find him,” he said. “He wasn’t in the bars and cafes, he was up writing.”
The art of becoming a writer
The art of writing is solitary. And it is personal. The stories in “Godforsaken Idaho” are works of fiction, but they have their roots in Vestal’s life. In those nine stories, he deals with questions of faith and love, and of relationships between fathers and sons.
Vestal, 48, was raised in a Mormon family in Gooding, in Southern Idaho. As a kid, he was fascinated by Evel Knievel, and in third grade he obsessively read Nancy Drew mysteries and the “NFL Championship Year” series. In “A.K.A. Charles Abbot,” a short memoir he published as a Kindle single a year ago, he describes a pretty typical childhood.
Until he was 11. That’s when Vestal’s father packed up his pregnant wife and seven children and drove to Canada, fleeing as authorities were about to arrest him for forging $60,000 worth of checks. Ultimately, he was sentenced to 120 days in jail and ordered to pay restitution. It was not the last time he would be in jail.
His father is a subject that crops up, unintentionally, in Vestal’s writing.
“I don’t ever think, ‘Oh, I’m going to write about Dad,’ ” Vestal said. “Then I write something and I’m like, ‘Oh, there he is again, in veiled form.’ ”
He’s there, in veiled form, in “About as Fast as This Car Will Go,” about an ex-con father and his teenage son who go on a crime spree. He’s there as the father who abandoned his children before dying young in “The First Several Hundred Years After My Death.”
It wasn’t until he became a father himself, at 42, that Vestal started to see his work published.
“If you grew up reading a certain kind of writer at a certain era, like Hemingway or Raymond Carver, you might have gotten the idea that the right way to be a writer was to be super selfish, drunk all the time,” he said. “So many writers – male writers – said so many disparaging things about the impact of children on writing, that I had this idea I didn’t want kids.”
Then he and his wife had a child. Of course, it changed everything.
“It just remade me in a way that I feel like (I became) a more contemplative person, maybe a little nicer. It made me feel like a fuller person.
“And I can’t exactly say how and why, but I feel like it expanded me as a fiction writer.”
He’d written fiction for years. He wrote his first story when he was in college at the University of Idaho, and he dabbled in poetry. “I guess I thought I was a writer in high school,” he said, “but I probably didn’t write very much.”
In 1987, during what Vestal assumed would be a break from his studies at the University of Idaho, he starting doing a few assignments for the weekly newspaper in Gooding. From there, he landed his first full-time job at the newspaper in Jerome, Idaho, and plans to finish school receded.
His journalism career took him to the South Idaho Press in Burley and the Coeur d’Alene Press. He did two stints at the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, with a stop in between at the News-Review in Roseburg, Oregon. He left Bozeman to take a job with The Spokesman- Review in December 1999. He’s been an editor and a reporter and has penned a column for four years.
Always, Vestal was writing fiction on the side. He admits, however, that he wrote it much as a deadline journalist writes: quickly and with little revision.
After a few years at The Spokesman-Review, Vestal enrolled at Eastern to finish his bachelor’s degree. He then entered the MFA program there and completed his degree in 2008.
Vestal wrote the stories in “Godforsaken Idaho” for his MFA thesis. Spatz, who taught Vestal in a few classes, said Vestal was a great student.
“And toward the end, he was so in command of his voice and his aesthetic,” Spatz said. “He started strong. We thought he was pretty talented. His first story came in and it was a little haphazard, and I think it was a wake-up call for him … that he was going to have to work a lot harder. His next story, he hit the ball out of the park, and it was published.”
Ligon read all those stories as they evolved, through every revision. “So I got to talk with him about the work as it was coming into being,” he said, “which was really exciting because it was clear to me as the work was being developed that it was phenomenal work.”
What stood out to him about the stories in “Godforsaken Idaho” was Vestal’s ability to balance light and dark, levity and gravity.
The collection’s first story, “The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death,” which depicts the afterlife as a cafeteria, is a great example, Ligon said.
“That story’s really funny, and it’s really playful, and it’s imaginative, and at the center of that story is incredible gravity and sense of loss,” he said.
Walter, who like Vestal found his first success as a writer in journalism, said, “Anyone who has read Shawn’s stuff knows he’s a real talented writer who has a sharp sense of humor and real sense for humanity. I’d make a fiction writer out of those things anytime.”
For Vestal, the award will give him some freedom to finish his first novel, which he’s in the process of polishing. It centers on a mainstream Mormon boy who marries a fundamentalist Mormon girl from a polygamist family. “She wants to get away, he wants to help her,” Vestal said. “And then there’s Evel Knievel in there.”
As in “Godforsaken Idaho,” he’s visiting Mormon themes. He keeps thinking he’ll stop writing about his former faith. “But it’s like writing about Dad,” he said – it just keeps happening.
In the meantime, he’s not quitting his day job.
“I take journalism very seriously. I love the job that I have. I love doing that work. It’s as big a part of my life as the fiction writing,” he said. “I take it very seriously. But when I’m writing fiction, I abuse facts like crazy. I put real things in there and mess around with them.”
Like having Evel Knievel in his novel?
“Like having Evel Knievel in my novel. Exactly.”