Shawn Vestal is a journalist and a columnist for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. He made a splash in 2014 when his collection of short stories Godforsaken, Idaho received the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize and was shortlisted for the Saroyan Prize. His debut novel, Daredevils, was just released by Penguin Press. The book is a meditation of freedom and family, Mormonism, losing faith, and the myth of the West. It tells the story of two teenagers in Idaho in the mid-seventies: Jason, a young man obsessed with Evel Knievel, and Loretta, who was forced to marry Jason’s uncle. We spoke one night while he was on book tour to promote Daredevils.
The Rumpus: This is your first novel, your second book. Where did the story start?
Shawn Vestal: It developed in a long and meandering way. One of the first things I wrote was a chapter in which the teenage character Jason goes against his parents’ wishes to see Evel Knievel jump Snake River Canyon. That’s really the genesis of the novel, even though it doesn’t explain the main narrative spine. When I was eight I lived in Southern Idaho, where Jason lives basically. When Evel Knievel was coming to jump the canyon my parents wouldn’t take me. I know now as a parent—who has an eight-year-old—that I very likely would not take him to that event for many, many reasons. What I remember is that my parents said we couldn’t go because it was on a Sunday. We were Mormon and we kept the Sabbath day holy. I sometimes say that that was when I started to leave the church. In a very real sense, that was a dynamic that I had in my life and that I think feeds into the novel. This idea of being restrained and wanting to go out into something more worldly and dirtier and more dangerous and more interesting.
Rumpus: I was curious if you were a big fan of Evel Knievel when you were a kid.
Vestal: I was a big Evel Knievel fan. Then I became a big fan of using the Evel Knievel persona in writing fiction. Most of it never came together, but over the years I had tried to write stories that had him in there or that were about him or that were about people who were fans of his. I’m just I’m fascinated with his persona in terms of the image versus the reality of him. Particularly the idea that he was a hero for kids. I mean, most of us couldn’t live up to that kind of scrutiny, but boy, it would be hard to image someone less suited to be a role model for children than Evel Knievel. [Laughs]
Rumpus: How hard was it to write in his voice?
Vestal: It wasn’t hard. I want to say it was fun. It was joyous in a way. I felt pretty free to do it. I watched the documentary about him, I’ve seen interviews with him, I’ve read books, and I feel fairly familiar with the way he communicated. It’s invented obviously and it’s an elaborate grandiose invention. When the idea of writing it in the royal “we” came to me, after that it was just play. The rest of the novel I was trying to make sure I didn’t veer too far off in this direction or that direction. To make sure that I was at least somewhat accurate in the way I was depicting things, especially the polygamist world, a world I don’t really know about apart from research knowledge. In the Evel Knievel sections I was just as free and filthy and unrestrained as I wanted to be.
Rumpus: I know that you grew up in Idaho and grew up in the LDS church, and Jason seems drawn from your life, but where did Loretta come from?
Vestal: She’s totally invented. My interest in polygamy comes from my interest in the Mormon Church and, similar to with Evel Knievel, how do you tell your story, and how do you include or omit the less praiseworthy parts of your story. For me, growing up in a mainstream Mormon family, there are parts of LDS history that are shoved off to the side, but they’re still in there.
Loretta, the teenage girl, is in the most dramatically rich situation. There have been books written about the polygamist world, but not a lot. I’m not familiar with fictional work from that perspective. I wrote early versions of this book that were first-person stories from Jason’s point of view. My friends—we read each other’s work—were always more interested in her and would ask me questions about Loretta and what’s up with her. Draft by draft, doing a little research, thinking about it, struggling with my fear about writing someone whose experiences are so different from mine, it grew into her story.
Rumpus: You were writing a broad range of characters in your story collection. What was it about Loretta that caused such fear for you?
Vestal: Honestly, for me the concern was gender. The concern was writing a girl and feeling like I could get that wrong in a way that would doom the novel. I struggled with it a lot. I worried about sex, and I worried too much about sex. Like a man, I suppose. Not to revert to crass stereotypes but I it took me a while to just stop worrying about writing her “as a girl” and just write her as a person. It was a weird experience for me to come to feel very much like Loretta sometimes. I don’t know how to put this exactly but sometimes if I’m in a room with men and women, I feel a little bit like I’m seeing the men with new eyes. The way they act towards the women. Little things like the way we dominate conversation. I feel that more acutely than I did before.
Rumpus: As far as religion, you’re no longer a member of the church—do you feel a hesitation about writing about it?
Vestal: No. I did for a while. I didn’t really want to write about Idaho, and I didn’t want to write about Mormons, because it’s my own life. I didn’t grow up reading novels about Idaho Mormons so I didn’t really aspire to write novels about Idaho Mormons. [Laughs] But it’s the old cliche, you can write out of your own experience even when you’re inventing things.
I’ve talked this through with some people of faith in my life—including a friend or two that feels like I’m being irreverent or sacrilegious towards something that’s sacred to them. That faith is what I grew up with. It’s my language for how to talk about family and love and faith and doubt. It’s as much mine still as it is for someone who stayed in the church. I feel if someone comes to me and says, you don’t have the right to write about this or you shouldn’t, my answer to that is, yes I do. This is my heritage. I am exactly as much an owner of it as you are. I’ve put that to rest in my mind.
Rumpus: I don’t live in the region, but Mormonism plays such a huge role culturally that, even if you’re not in the church, it feels like it’s part of your background and life.
Vestal: Often when I talk to people I know not from the West, some of them have a view that Mormons are very exotic and very out there. It’s woven into life out here in a way that’s hard to overstate. I’m not a Mormon anymore, but there are tons of people like me who were in the church and left it. There are tons of us who have an uncle or an aunt or a relative in the church. It’s very uncommon to meet people who don’t have a personal tie.
Rumpus: I know a lot of people who consider themselves culturally Jewish and I can’t help but think that there are a lot of people who were raised in the Mormon church who have a similar sort of identity.
Vestal: I have some friends who I think would call themselves culturally Jewish and I sometimes wish we had a little more of that. More of a way to come together. We stay in touch with our families and friends, but I wish there was an ability to celebrate major holidays, for example. A way that is inclusive rather than exclusive.
Rumpus: You have a line early in the book, “With every amen lately, Jason feels a small, hollow place where something else used to be.” I read that and recognized it completely and felt, here’s a writer who fell out of faith.
Vestal: Thanks. People have asked me if there was a time when I knew and there really wasn’t. There was a time when I “knew” one thing and I felt it to be true and later, the opposite. I lost faith and lost the sense that there was any truth to it.
Rumpus: The book has a “bunny bash” which is something I’ve read about and know happened for a long time, but was it still going on in the 1970s?
Vestal: I never went to one and the one that’s in the novel is made up, but there was one in Southern Idaho as late as 1981 in Mud Flats Idaho. I remember seeing pictures of that in the newspaper when I was in high school and seeing the picture of a father and son holding baseball bats and being kind of turned off by it. I say “kind of” because I’m still from that world. Farming is a world of death. [Laughs] You have to kill animals. Rabbits are a huge problem for farmers. It’s a horrific thing to me, but when I’m writing fiction I try to be less judgmental than I am in my regular life. I believe that was the last one. Some of the reaction that is in the novel attended that one in 1981. I think the New York Times wrote about it. It was widely disliked culturally and I think they just I think people just realized they couldn’t do that anymore.
Rumpus: You’re a journalist. Have you always wanted to write fiction?
Vestal: I definitely wanted to write fiction before I got into newspapers. I have always tried to. Not always with the best dedication and effort but when I went to college after high school I was studying English and what I had in mind is that I would be a writer and teach. At the time I looked down my nose at journalism. I wasn’t interested in it. I left college supposedly to earn a little bit of money and go back to college. What a quaint thought that is that you could earn some money and then go back and pay for college in less than a lifetime—but you could. I ended up dropping out slowly and part of that slow dropping out was I got a job at a newspaper and I loved it. It was my hometown weekly and pretty soon a full time job opened at a newspaper ten miles away. Pretty soon I was doing that, not saving any money for college and trying to write fiction on the side. As I said, not always with great dedication, but sometimes, and in my forties I decided to go to the MFA program in the town where I live, Spokane, Washington. That really changed fiction writing for me. I think being a journalist was bad for me as a fiction writer. I would write fiction in the same way I would write journalism, which is quickly and once. Or with very little revision. At the MFA program I worked with some great professors and fellow students and really what it came down to with them was revise it, revise it, revise it, revise it. I started publishing then. Nobody had ever published a story of mine before that.
Rumpus: You think journalism affected your fiction negatively, at least initially?
Vestal: I think it’s probably more complicated than that but I do think that’s a negative. In journalism you’re done when the clock says you’re done. I had to get to some other way of evaluating and getting past my natural desire, which is to want to be done. I like to write, I enjoy it at times, but at other times it’s work. What I really aspire to, I think, is to have written. [Laughs] To have written something I can be proud of. I’m still this way. One of the things I do now is to try and be more patient. Write something and then try to let it go cold and come back and look at it so I can see what’s wrong with it a little more clearly.
On the upside about journalism, it’s not hard for me to start writing something. I feel comfortable opening up a page and launching off into something that feels terrible. A lot of students, when I was in the MFA program and when I teach now, struggle with just starting. Feeling like they can’t start until they’re more fully prepared or until the whole idea is in their head. I don’t have that. I feel pretty comfortable writing something that’s terrible and I know I can delete it. I don’t live in terror.
Rumpus: Did you know that Daredevils would be a novel from the beginning?
Vestal: I think so. Maybe there was a time when a piece of it was separate, but I wanted to write a novel as much as I had a story that I wanted to tell. I think many of my writer friends want to tell specific stories. I just wanted to create a story. I have ideas for stories but sometimes I just have little ideas and will work them. With Daredevils, I had a few things I wanted to do which had changed over time, and as I wrote more of the story I found things I wanted to do and it really evolved a lot.
Rumpus: I know people who grew up in Spokane, or got their MFA there. What is the literary scene like?
Vestal: It’s felt really exciting and fresh and interesting lately. I’m sure that’s partly to do with the fact that I’m in it more than I was. Jess Walter lives here and Jess is a great author and he’s a friend of mine and he’s a friend of a lot of people who write. I think he’s helped the town develop a sense of itself as a place that people don’t just leave. There’s a lot of great writing being done. There’s a lot of great poets, there’s novelists and short story writers, slam poets. It feels like a particularly vibrant moment in Spokane right now. It’s a fun, energizing time and it’s supportive. It doesn’t feel petty or competitive.
Rumpus: I don’t want to spoil the ending, but it really captured a lot of my feeling and experience of the West.
Vestal: The ending was not in my mind specifically. I wanted something like that to happen. This sounds cold, but I don’t care that much about the characters. I feel comfortable having bad things happen to them. Usually. But I wanted Loretta to get out. I wanted her to have freedom. I didn’t want it to be an easy soft freedom, but I came to wish that for her. I have a friend who has suggested this is me being patronizing and patriarchal towards my teenage girl character. That may be. I don’t know. I wanted the novel to end somewhat abruptly. I like short stories that have that minimal resolution. A lot of things are not resolved but hopefully the core is.
Rumpus: It ties back with freedom, which is part of the myth of the West, and finding yourself in these wide open spaces.
Vestal: I’m trying to answer the question, in another format right now, about what I think of the West. There are the mythologies of the West, but to me there’s very little that feels like the West, as I have experienced it, as being in a car driving somewhere and not really being close to anything. To me that’s a primal or a fundamental experience of the West. That’s one of the things I do when I get back home—I drive somewhere by myself for no reason. Just listen to my own music, be in my own car, driving aimlessly.
Author photograph © Dan Pelle.