Spokane writer Shawn Vestal won the $25,000 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction on Monday evening for his collection of short stories “Godforsaken Idaho.”
Vestal’s stories, printed by Amazon’s publishing unit Little A/New Harvest, “dare to charge into the well-trodden arena of the hapless male and make that subject fresh again,” according to judges.
Vestal’s column is published three times a week in The Spokesman-Review.
On his way to a reception in New York after winning, Vestal said he was shocked.
“I was very certain, and I didn’t feel that I was going to win,” he said. “I didn’t prepare a speech.”
Author and friend Samuel Ligon, a writing professor at Eastern Washington University who worked with Vestal, said the award shouldn’t surprise anyone.
“This book isn’t a flash in the pan. This isn’t the result of some kind of luck,” Ligon said. “This is a guy who has real vision and is a great writer and worked his ass off.”
He said Vestal has been working on these stories for many years.
“He created a beautiful and compelling book,” Ligon said. “This is fantastic.”
Vestal’s book draws from Mormon characters and themes.
In a story published last year, Vestal said: “Mormonism is the lens through which I write about experiences that I hope are universal – faith, belief, heresy, rebellion, etc.”
Critics, including Kirkus Reviews, have called his book of nine stories provocative, and yet, “Plainspoken stories filled with profound ambivalence and occasional flickers of redemption.”
Vestal has been published in a series of magazines and has offered readings at many events, including local favorite “Pie and Whiskey,” part of the Get Lit festival held in Spokane each year.
Asked for his immediate plans after winning the PEN award, Vestal said he didn’t have any other than a commitment to fly home in time to teach his class of aspiring writers at Eastern Washington University.
“I honestly did not anticipate winning,” he said, adding that he might try to “take a few weeks to finish (a) novel.”
Spokesman-Review editor Gary Graham called Vestal a uniquely talented author and newspaper columnist.
“We are very proud of our veteran colleague and we look forward to his return from New York so that we can all congratulate him personally and toast him with a suitable beverage.”
Other finalists for the award included Anthony Marra (“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena”), Saïd Sayradfiezadeh (“Brief Encounters With the Enemy”), Ian Stansel (“Everybody’s Irish”) and Hanya Yanagihara (“The People in the Trees”).
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