Monday, April 29, 2013

My First Time: Shawn Vestal

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Shawn Vestal, author of the just-released short story collection, Godforsaken IdahoVogue had this to say about the book: "[It] lies somewhere between the classically chiseled narratives of Richard Ford's Rock Springs, the satiristic imagination of George Saunders, and the comic stylings of The Book of Mormon.  Vestal's dark, often very funny, and deeply probing stories have one foot in God-fearing Mormon country and another in godforsaken characters-at-the-end-of-their-rope realism."  Readers of The Quivering Pen already know how excited I am to read Godforsaken Idaho.  Vestal's stories have appeared in McSweeney's, American Short Fiction, EcoTone and Tin House, among many other publications.  He is a columnist at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., where he lives with his wife and son.

My First Publication as a Father

For many years, I feared that having a child would be the death of me as a writer.

When would I write, yoked down with a child?  I had taken to heart Richard Ford’s famous desire not to have children—a sign, I thought, of his devotion to literature.  I had admired the heretical bravery of Raymond Carver, who once wrote that his children had been a “heavy and often baleful influence.”  I had registered the stories about writer after writer whose literary success was accompanied by, and possibly even dependent on, parental failure and reckless selfishness.

I hadn’t noticed, somehow, that over twenty years of adult life as a childless man-boy with plenty of leisure time, I hadn’t published any fiction.  I hadn’t noticed, somehow, the large number of actual, working writers I knew who were also apparently excellent mothers and fathers.

I was forty-two when our son was born in June 2007.  It was shortly after I had published my first short story.  But it was the next publication—my first as a father—that subverted what I thought I knew about writing and parenthood.

Less than a week after our son’s birth, I got a call from Ben George, then an editor at Tin House.  Ben was not calling to accept a story.  He was calling to say that a story I had submitted might be accepted—might be—if I sharpened it through revision.  This was in the heat of initial fatherhood, that can’t-catch-your-breath time of feeling overtaken by a new regime, a kingdom woven entirely from threads of responsibility.

I loved my son, was awed and filled with wonder, was utterly, without question in thrall to the experience.  But I was also daunted, tired, obsessed—yoked.  I felt then that parenthood would simply eclipse everything else, and I was anxious, selfishly, about the survival of my selfish self—the reader, the writer, the layabout.

Could I even begin to consider working on a story?

Of course I could.  And not in some way that compromised me as a father, either.

I revised the story in those weeks of firsts, stealing time where I could, thinking of the story so often that when I arrived at the keyboard I was filled with it.  I could already tell that my perspective had altered in a crucial way: the story I was writing, “The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death,” concerns a father who has abandoned his family.  Becoming a father myself had given me crucial insights into the character and his experience that I hadn’t had before.  It helped me understand the depths of his betrayal, and the depths of the guilt he sometimes accepts and sometimes rationalizes.

Ben worked closely with me and helped me refine, focus, and improve the story.  He also spoke to me as a fellow father, which may have been as important as his excellent editorial instinct.  The story was published in Tin House, and it’s the first story in my collection, Godforsaken Idaho.

It seems so obvious now, but seemed so impossible then—I would continue to exist as the individual I was.  I would press ahead with life and all that meant to me, and because life for me means language and story, language and story would live on in me, and not only live on, but grow and deepen and change as I did.  It is true that, since my son was born, I have less time to write.  But it turned out that I didn’t need more time in my life; I needed more life in my life.  I needed to be drawn out of myself and into the world, to be forced to consider my own existence in the context of someone who would look to me as an example, to be forced to confront, more gravely and less glibly, the parts of myself that might fall short of that standard, and all of this made me a more reflective, contemplative human being, and therefore a more reflective, contemplative writer.

Which is merely obvious, I suppose.  Not earth-shattering or revelatory.  And yet it was in those early days as a first-time parent and first-time author that I realized—for the first time—that I would be better for having been both.

Photo by Dan Pelle

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