Shawn Vestal, a journalist with the Spokane Spokesman-Review and a teacher in Eastern Washington University's MFA program, was recently named the winner of this year's PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, which honors a debut book that "represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise." Vestal's collection of short fiction, Godforsaken Idaho (New Harvest/Little A, 2013), explores the relationship between fathers and sons, and the Mormon faith. We spoke to Vestal about scoring the award, and his experience publishing with one of the most derided companies in the business: Amazon.
How has winning this prize affected you, both personally and professionally?
It feels like a validation of the work, and it’s going to help me buy time to write. It also brings more attention to the book, which is great. A couple of years ago, it seemed unlikely that the book was going to be published at all. Everything since then has felt like a stroke of great fortune, and the PEN/Bingham is certainly a big part of that. The other books that were nominated--Tony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Ian Stansel’s Everybody’s Irish, Said Sayrafiezadeh’s Brief Encounters with the Enemy, and Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees--were each so good, that to have been selected out of that crowd still feels slightly wrong to me. But I’m not complaining.
Godforsaken Idaho was released by a division of Amazon Publishing. Given all the press Amazon's ongoing stalemate with Hachette has received, and the fact that the company is not-so-beloved by a number of booksellers, did you have any hesitation signing with them? Did you worry that your collection might be blackballed by booksellers?
Yes, though the conflicts with Amazon and the publishing world were not quite as dramatic at the time they bought the collection. All of the larger publishing houses, and many of the smaller ones, had rejected the book. The editor at New Harvest (now called Little A) was Ed Park, a writer who I admire, and who has been a wonderful editor for the book. Whatever the broader issues surrounding Amazon are--and I am generally in sympathy with other authors and independent bookstores on this one--I honestly assumed that Amazon would resolve them by the time my book appeared. Instead, they’ve become even worse, and it has been a disappointment that the book has not been welcome, or has been slow to arrive in some bookstores, though I understand the position of the stores themselves. Overall, though, the book has made it into the hands of many more readers than I ever expected, and it is in many bookstores.
What does the title refer to?
It’s not my judgment on the actual state of Idaho so much as a metaphorical place where the stories occur--a place of isolation and extremity. It’s also meant to reflect the fact that many of the characters are struggling with a loss of faith, and some are in supernatural circumstances. And I like the sound of it.
You're a columnist at the Spokane Statesman-Review. When did you start writing fiction? Which do you prefer?
The first fictional story I wrote was in college, though my aspirations and interest in being a writer go all the way back to my early childhood. I’ve always written stories on the side while working at newspapers--what Flann O’Brien called “spare-time literary activities” in At Swim Two-Birds. Like the narrator of that book, I was less than fully committed to those activities sometimes, but I have been writing stories and sending them out to magazines for more than 20 years now. Lots of rejections in the hopper. As for my preference, I relish the place I am in right now as a writer--I write a column for the newspaper, and I am able to devote time to writing fiction, and I love moving back and forth between them.