Shawn Vestal's first collection of short stories, Godforsaken Idaho (New Harvest, $15.95), spans from the earliest days of Mormonism, to life in Southern Idaho in the 1980s, to the afterlife. As I'm also from godforsaken Idaho, I read the book (spoiler alert: It's very good) and then called Vestal to chat about faith, daddy issues, and what stands for optimism in a book where God is absent.
Mormonism is big in the area of Southern Idaho where you're from—you were raised Mormon. That said, is the book title a dig?
No, actually it came to me as, I don't know, a joke? I was trying to think of titles, I thought of Godforsaken Idaho, and it felt right. It sounds bleak, existential, beyond help. I was probably reading Beckett at the time. It conveys a sense of post-something-or-other—I'm hesitant to say postfaith or postreligion, because I don't want to declare something that large about it. But the characters are operating in some godless state.
The first story takes place in a prisonish version of the afterlife, where souls bounce from their individual cells, souls can relive memories of their lives at will, and a communal cafeteria only serves them meals that they ate in life. Is this your version of heaven, hell, or eternity spent in the absence of religion?
I don't believe in heaven or hell. The story is about how in looking forward to either, we might miss what is heavenish or hellish in this life. The elements that seem hellish in this story seem not unlike the hell of life—you're always wanting what you don't have, waiting for a moment to come, and you can't undo the stupid stuff you did or said. The obsession of looking ahead to [the afterlife] tends to lead people to unhappy places in this life.
The first half of the book seems to take place in or around Gooding—a farming community best known for its processed-cheese factory—in the 1980s, which is where you were raised. How much of your fiction draws from autobiography?
My father was a white-collar criminal, an embezzler, so I used my father's name for one of the criminal fathers in the book, but almost none of it comes from my experiences. However, there's an undeniable emotional element that's at work. I'm always poking around daddy stuff. I don't do it intentionally. I find myself frustrated at the degree that it happens almost accidentally.
Halfway through the book, we see a dramatic shift in time—suddenly we're in the 1800s to early 1900s—and elements of magical realism pop up. Opposition in All Things depicts another version of the afterlife—one that involves a man's spirit attaching itself to another man's body, like a sidecar. Explain to me the shift.
I start my process trying to figure out what the stylistic boundaries of a story will be. The box. I'm totally not into narrative possibility. I rely on my early view of what the style is. The conceit of this story was a dual consciousness. So I started mechanically trying to create that. The setting, time, and theme come in almost secondary to it. I'm just trying to fit a puzzle together. [As for magical realism,] at the time I was reading a lot of Aimee Bender and Kelly Link. And I always liked Kafka.
The book begins in death and ends just before the birth of Mormonism. Where do you stand with your faith, and how does the book intersect with that?
I left the church when I left home. By the time I was going to college, I just knew I was done with it—both the ideas of the religion, which I was prosecuting in my mind, and culturally. I just did not want that kind of a life—eight hours a week of devotional boredom.
As for the book, I feel like I'm writing less about Mormonism than I am about ex-Mormonism. I'm focusing less on faith than I am on leaving faith or losing faith. It's a delicate balance. A friend read "Winter Elders" and thought that I was poking fun at the Mormons, and that wasn't what I was getting at. Anyone can make fun of the faithful. My point was [to explore] the certainty that you get either through belief or unbelief.
Given its godlessness, what is the most optimistic moment in the book for you?
The last story and the choice that the narrator has to make: Do I maintain this connection with my daughter in the face of what I believe and what I'm against, which is the choice she's making with her life? He makes this concession to be near his daughter, and to me that's an expression of what I think. I think it grows out of my experience with my family. We try and stay close and loving, even though we don't agree on things. Maybe that's the only thing real, the only thing worth chasing, this connection with others. Sometimes it fails us, but the best hope we have for a good life, a happy life, is to try and connect with each other.