The PEN Ten with Shawn Vestal
The PEN Ten is PEN’s weekly interview series. This week, we speak with Shawn Vestal, who made his literary debut with Godforsaken Idaho, a story collection that won the 2014 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize and was shortlisted for the Saroyan Prize. A graduate of the Eastern Washington University MFA program, his stories have appeared in Tin House, Ecotone, McSweeney’s, The Southern Review and other journals. He writes a column for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he lives with his wife and son.
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
I can’t remember not wanting to be a writer. As a child I would write creative notes to my parents, and in school at an early age I would try to be inventive or funny in my written work—establishing a pattern of getting attention for my writing, which is probably what I do to this day. That said, I have always had a reluctance that I don’t quite understand to calling myself simply a writer. I have written for newspapers for almost 30 years, and have published short stories and essays and two books, and, still, when people ask me what I do, I cobble together an indirect answer. In some ways, though I am obviously a writer, my sense of identity remains aspirational: I want to be a writer. I still feel I have some line of authenticity or legitimacy to cross.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
So many. Right now, the one who comes to mind is Thomas Bernhard, for capturing that wonderful sense of fevered, circular, relentless, inescapable thinking.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
Sleep, humor, comfort, dishonesty, intoxication, kindness, cruelty, food, fatherhood, cooking, Shakespeare, murder as entertainment, murder as social meaning, politics, pizza dough, sex, properly fitting T-shirts, money, music, regret.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
I don’t think of anything I have written as daring. I have written things that have been uncomfortable for people or embarrassing to me, and I have written things that might rankle some folks in my home state of Idaho, and I have written columns in the newspaper that have invited argument, and some of this work has required a willingness to endure backlash or disagreement. But I feel that the work I do, as a privileged American, is not daring but an expression of my good fortune.
When, if ever, is censorship acceptable?
It’s tempting to say never—that governments must not be granted such authority over individual expression, and certainly not over political speech. But I am leery of absolutes, and am tempted to think that there must be a positive social interest in certain, very rare limits. Fire in a crowded theater, etc. But then I think that this very idea—that I have a personal limit that must be adopted by the larger system—is far too slippery. It’s the very reason that censorship is wrong. I can instinctively get on board with censoring child pornography, for example. That seems utterly right. But perhaps that’s not a question of censorship as much as it is the criminal behavior that underlies that activity. The question of censoring the ideas involved—what happens when a government decides that Lolita is child pornography?
What is the responsibility of the writer?
To see and tell it straight, and to refuse to obey the many cultural influences that want us to lie about what we see.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
I’m wary of claims that the artist has a purpose or responsibility beyond the art, or that the truth-teller must serve a goal beyond the telling of truth. And yet I do think that writers all share a similar individual purpose, and that this purpose grows from the authority of a person to act with freedom, and that this puts the writers in an inherently political and purposeful position to assert the dictates of their own conscience against all other requirements, to advocate for the just treatment of the individual and work against abuses of the state and other systems of authority.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
I spent an embarrassing night in jail during my 20s, because I had failed to insure my rattletrap car, and subsequently had my driver’s license suspended. I let this lapse go on far too long, without realizing how seriously it would be taken. It was an enlightening experience—one that I think most of us would benefit from having. Losing your freedom and coming under the total control of the state—however deserved it is—feels like nothing else: You lose authority over the smallest details of your life, from what you wear to how you use the bathroom to when the lights go on and off.
Having that experience colors my view of the uses of arrest and incarceration in our country—when do we arrest and imprison people, and why? Too often, the answers to this question break down along socioeconomic lines, which is a grotesque way of trying to achieve justice. We are much more likely to imprison the people who are the easiest to imprison—in terms of social power—while those with more social power often are punished in much different, and less restrictive, ways. Which is to say nothing of the incredibly unjust outcomes of the drug war, for example, or the manner in which the courts turn unpaid fines for minor offenses into jailable felonies for the poor.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
I can’t imagine that such a leader would be influenced by a book, but I would give them Kafka’s In the Penal Colony and cross my fingers that they might imagine themselves as a victim of that incredible machine.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
Intention, I guess. We all observe each other, but if I observe my neighbor with the intention to catch him doing something, I cross that line. Surveillance extends a kind of state control toward the observed person with an implication of extending even further control—arrest, imprisonment, punishment—and so it is a governmental power that citizens must constantly check and reevaluate and limit.