Visiting writer tries to reconcile Mormonism, personal history

Geoffrey Leach

On Thursday, Nov. 13, Shawn Vestal will give a talk as part of Whitman’s Visiting Writers Reading Series. Vestal will talk about his writing which includes a collection of short stories named “Godforsaken Idaho” and his memoir “A.K.A. Charles Abbott.”

According to Vestal, his upbringing in the Mormon Church plays a crucial role in his writing.

“I’m from a small town in southern Idaho, Gooding … [and grew up] in a [Latter Day Saints] family. [These experiences] form the entire foundation of who I am. At the very least they’ve given me a tendency toward spare landscapes, places of isolation and situations in which religion and questions of faith are a central, prominent preoccupation,” said Vestal.

In “Godforsaken Idaho,” Vestal examines heaven and hell, the work of Mormon missionaries and the early days of Joseph Smith through several short stories. He paints a vivid picture of a dreadful, miserable heaven in “The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death.” In “Diviner,” Vestal portrays Joseph Smith in his younger days, before he established the Mormon religion, when he worked as a treasure hunter.

“A.K.A. Charles Abbott” is about Vestal’s experiences with his Mormon father and his criminal actions. Before going to prison for embezzlement, Vestal’s father went on the run, bringing Vestal and the rest of his family. “A.K.A Charles Abbot” serves as Vestal’s attempt to recount and reconcile his past with his father.

Both of these stories contain themes of religion and faith specifically tied to Mormonism as well as family. Early in his life, Vestal’s relationship with the Mormon Church became strained and he chose to be formally excommunicated from the Mormon Church in 2004. As an ex-Mormon Vestal’s stories often contain personal significance.

“I wind up dealing with certain subjects repeatedly –– fathers and sons, faith and the lack of faith, moral transgression and rationalization. I always end up back in the core of me and my experiences –– though I never set out to return there,” said Vestal.

Vestal attended the University of Idaho but dropped out and took a job at a local newspaper wanting to focus on writing fiction. He would later finish his education in 2008 at Eastern Washington University, earning an MFA in creative writing.

His first published short story, “As Fast As This Car Will Go,” appeared in the literary journal “McSweeney’s” in 2007. Others have appeared in prestigious journals as well, including “Tin House,” “Ecotone,” “The Southern Review,” “Cutbank,” “Sou’wester” and “Florida Review.” “Godforsaken Idaho” is his most recently published work, published by New Haven. It has just won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. This award seeks to recognize new and up-and-coming talented writers.

“I was stunned and thrilled,” said Vestal. “There was a time when I thought that this book would not be published at all, let alone recognized in this way. So it was very gratifying.”

Currently, Vestal works for the newspaper The Spokesman-Review and writes three columns a week. He is also currently teaching as an adjunct professor in the MFA program, creative writing, at Eastern Washington University. Looking ahead, Vestal has vague plans for future projects.

“I am working on a novel that might almost be done, and another one that is just barely started. I’m also writing shorter things,” he said.

Vestal’s talk will start at 7:00 p.m. and will run until nine. It will take place in Olin Auditorium, Olin 130.