Upheaval and Innovation: Author Shawn Vestal On Writing and the Current State of Journalism

Shawn Vestal

Shawn Vestal

By Daniel Ford

Perusing through The New York Times Book Review recently, I came across a book with a title that I loved instantly.

Godforsaken Idaho.

I don’t know why it hit me the way it did, but when things like that happen, you don’t question it and immediately email the writer to see if he or she is willing to sit down for an interview.

Author Shawn Vestal was more than willing and provided insight into his praised collection of short stories, his writing process, and the current state of journalism.

Daniel Ford: When did you start writing? Was it something that came to you naturally or was it developed over time?

Shawn Vestal: I always had an interest in language and reading, from a very early age, and my teachers often encouraged me and praised my writing. So I would imagine it was kind of twofold—I had an interest/aptitude, and then I developed it. I wrote my first poems and stories when I was in high school and college, but I sort of dinked around with that kind of writing while working as a journalist as a young adult. I didn’t work on it as hard as I could have.

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you outline? Listen to music?

SV: I just open the laptop and go. Usually, I’m sitting on the little couch in my office at home, but sometimes I’ll move around. I never listen to music while writing, and I try to write for a sustained period before ever dipping a toe into email or the Internet. More and more, I recognize the crucial importance of the time I spend away from the keyboard, thinking about what I’m working on, unconsciously preparing for the next burst of writing. Because my week is divided between journalism and fiction-writing, I usually have gaps of a few days between fiction writing, and in those gaps I try to think through problems or spend time in the mind of the characters. Often, I write quickly and for an appallingly short period of time –a three-hour bout at the keyboard is about as far as I can go, in terms of breaking fresh imaginative ground—and I often write less than that in a sitting, though I can edit and tinker for longer.

DF: As someone who was trained as a journalist and made a living at it for a couple of years, I have to ask what you think of the current state of journalism and why was it something you pursued when you first started out? Also, what’s the most entertaining story you ever worked on?

SV: I fell into journalism accidentally. I was an English major at the University of Idaho in the 1980s, and I dropped out, intending to earn money and return. Instead, I took a job at my hometown weekly newspaper and found that I really loved the work. I moved around the West to different papers, and have now settled at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. , where I am a columnist. It’s a pretty great job. I feel very lucky to have it.

The current state of the business is, of course, struggling. I think that newspapers in particular have seen their means of earning money—and therefore paying for journalism—suffer, and we’re going through a time of all sorts of upheaval and innovation. It’s been bad news, so far at least, for the kind of deeper, investigative reporting at the community and state level. But I’m not sure what journalism will look like eventually. Those of us weaned on the old model frankly don’t have the eyes to imagine it. I think that the essence of journalism, and not the business of it, is what is crucial: reporting on the powerful, serving citizens, and holding government accountable. There is too little truly excellent journalism in the world, but that is not new. I think that the demise of old forms of media don’t at all mean that journalism will go away.

DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters?

SV: I suppose I put only myself into my characters—it’s all I have, really. But I very rarely do it directly and I have never “fictionalized” a real person who I know—taken a real person or circumstance and made a story out of it. What happens is, in the course of invention, I draw upon my own experiences, and so I use bits and pieces of people and my past to patch things together.

DF: We’re big fans of the short story here at Writer’s Bone. What drew you to write short stories originally and why do you think this mode of storytelling is so compelling to readers?

SV: I loved Flannery O’Connor in high school, and Raymond Carver a short while after that. Both made me want to write stories myself. I think there’s something about the compressed impact a great story can have—such potency and such brevity—that I simply want to keep trying to write a great one.

DF: Your collection of short stories “Godforsaken Idaho” has garnered positive reviews since its release in April 2013. How did you go about compiling the stories you wanted to include?

SV: I looked at the stories I had published that I thought were the strongest, and then tried to consider how, or whether, they fit together. Several of my stories have Mormon elements in them, and that became a unifying thread. Ultimately, I organized the stories to move backward in time – from a future afterlife to a fictionalized story about the founder of the Mormon Church in the 1800s. The stories are loosely connected and organized. I want it to feel unified, but it stops well short of a strongly linked collection like Jesus Son or Olive Kittredge.

DF: Having never been to Idaho, what, if anything, do I need to know about the state before I dive into “Godforsaken Idaho?”

SV: For one thing, the Idaho of the book and the title is not the Idaho. It’s not my comment on the state; it’s meant to convey two elements of the book: a sense of existential isolation of many of the characters, and the surreal or extreme types of things that are included, whether it’s an afterlife or a haunting.

DF: When you finished “Godforsaken Idaho,” did you know you had something good right away and how did you go about getting it published?

SV: I never know if I have anything good. I still wish I could revise some things in the stories. The book was published by the more or less traditional route. I got an agent, who submitted the book to publishers, and she persuaded one of them to bite.

DF: What’s next for you following the success of “Godforsaken Idaho?”

SV: I’m trying to write a novel.

DF: What advice would you give to up-and-coming writers?

SV: A lot of very mundane things. Read and write a lot. Work hard. Do not wait around for inspiration—inspiration comes more often when you’re working than when you’re waiting. If you find yourself stuck or blocked, allow yourself to write lines of nonsense, to invent ridiculous scenarios, to write something very, very bad. Lower your standards to get yourself moving, and then raise them again in editing and revision. Find writers you can share your work with and share honest critiques with.

DF: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?

SV: I stopped having anxiety dreams about showing up unprepared on the final day of class as a student, and started having anxiety dreams about showing up unprepared for the first day of class as the instructor.

To learn more about Shawn Vestal, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @vestal13.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive