AUGUST 15, 2016
ALL AMERICAN NOVELS, on one level or another, have to contend with the allure of the road. Shawn Vestal’s Daredevils explores the nuances of that allure in a milieu that manages to read both as stylishly classic and beguilingly strange. Set in a flyspeck Idaho farm town in the early 1970s, Daredevils follows two teens, the Evel Knievel–obsessed Jason and his cousin Loretta — a would be runaway, recently forced into an arranged marriage to Jason’s fundamentalist Mormon uncle, Dean — as they grapple with the stakes and meaning of escape. I caught up with Shawn via email to delve into what makes his hilarious and poignant debut novel tick.
SETH BLAKE: What inspired you to write Daredevils?
SHAWN VESTAL: I don’t think I was inspired by any single event or thought. In fact, what I envisioned with this novel changed through the process of drafting and revising it. Originally, it was told exclusively from the first-person perspective of the teenage boy growing up in Idaho — a boy whose life is very similar in some ways to my own. Over time — and with a lot of encouragement from friends who read the drafts — I tried to move the story toward Loretta, the young woman in the polygamist family, and to include more perspectives. This took me a long time. I’d say in the final year of working on the novel, I developed a somewhat clear idea of an overall vision for the thing — something akin to an inspiration in retrospect, almost. Like I finally realized what I had been up to.
Tell me about your relationship to Evel Knievel. This is a person whose name I’ve always known but whose cultural significance I feel I’ve never properly understood — I wasn’t there, you know? There’s a certain way my parents talk about him, an almost offhand reverence, though neither of them were, to my knowledge, especially enamored of him. They seem to take universal familiarity with his heroism as a human given. Obviously, Jason is the only one we meet in Daredevils who’s really in thrall to him, but he illustrates how much this person and phenomenon came to mean, or could mean, if you happened to be in the right place at the right time.
It’s almost hard to believe that Knievel became such a cultural icon, even for me. It’s baffling. I was a fan as a kid — watched the jumps, had the toys, rode my bike off ramps, etc. But then my true, deep fascination with him really came later, when I began to see all the reasons one should not revere this guy. The whole persona was such a creation — the Americana, the clothing, the way he spoke and took himself so seriously, as well as the enormous amount of media attention and product that attached to him. Even the courage was false in a way. He definitely did risky things, and it took a certain amount of fearlessness or control to do them, but they were risks that he sought and that had no real meaning. It wasn’t like he was defending someone, or standing up for a principle — though he, and the media surrounding him, often made it seem that way. Underneath, he was in many ways a rotten person, and the more I came to see this, the more fascinated I was by him. His persona contained so much grandiose, excessive American life and mythology, and one of the most interesting things about such mythologies to me are the sordid underbellies.
Well, you do an incredible job capturing this — he really comes across as a kind of megalomaniacal carnival barker, and he’s just so sleazy, especially when we meet (or would seem to meet) him in person later on. It’s so much fun to read, but at the same time it’s a sort of guilty pleasure. The Evel voice reminds me a little of Uncle Sam in The Public Burning — another great novel of, if not set in, the ’70s — and there’s a resonance with Trump, too and, I don’t know, maybe Burt Reynolds’s “the Bandit”? I guess there are a lot of characters like him in American life — a great tradition of blowhards — but were you inspired by anyone in particular? Was this how he actually talked?
Trump is so perfectly Knievelesque — just a genius of grandiose American bullshit. But no one other than Knievel really inspired these scenes or that voice. It was really just the man himself. I like the idea that you might not feel so great about enjoying the Knievel sections — they’re meant to be that way, to be paradoxical or contradictory, to be kind of fun and awful at the same time. Like this man, as I have imagined him. I would say I have exaggerated Knievel’s personality to a degree, but not much of one. I watched a documentary about his life a couple of times, and he’s just an amazing talker. Watching that helped me capture the voice, I hope.
All of the primary characters in Daredevils seem to be planning their escape, and part of what the book delves into is what happens when fantasies of escape turn into reality. At the same time, it’s not exactly a traditional road book, structurally speaking. There’s a lot of great build up and then, about three-quarters of the way through, everything kind of blows up. Any particular reason you approached it this way?
What I thought the most about was how to wind these two strands of the story — Loretta’s and Jason’s — together, to have them move ever closer to one another in time and place, until the POV is shifting between them in the same scenes. I don’t really remember how this became the structural imperative, but it definitely did — the perspectives pinging back and forth between these two characters, and moving ever closer together. Then, I wanted to interrupt the symmetry of that — to blow up the neatness of it, or at least complicate it. So I brought in the Evel Knievel monologues, and added a couple of historical scenes that were way out of the main period of the narrative. In addition, I wanted to interrupt and complicate the moment when the road trip enters the story — that event would be a little explosion in the world of these families, and I wanted to explode the pattern of the book a bit, to bring in a bit of the inner lives of more characters, before the final act.
We get intimate glimpses of certain characters outside the novel’s immediate milieu, but others are left a bit more mysterious. Loretta’s parents, for example, remain kind of hard and tragic, a little inscrutable. Was it tough to decide who to flesh out? Was there backstory that you ended up cutting?
No one really got cut. I tend to build characters up from sketchier presences in early drafts — one of the main things I do in revision is add to characters, flesh them out. I didn’t really strategize which characters to do that with, so much as move toward those who I felt had more important roles in the narrative. Expanding Ruth’s presence on the page came somewhat later in the drafting process — she was kind of a one-note sourpuss, and I really wanted to give her more substance and agency.
There have been a number of high-profile novels lately that explore the United States in the 1970s — there was an article about it in n+1, in fact, a few years ago. What do you think it is about that decade that has so many turning to explore it in fiction now?
It might just be the pants. Those ridiculous, fascinating bell-bottoms. Or not. I think it must be partly generational — the ’70s represent childhood for writers and artists of a certain age (and certainly for me), so it’s natural that people will make art out of that. Chronologically, it may be in a sweet spot for remembrance — a bit distant in time but still recent enough that a lot of people will connect with it. It’s a time of distinct style, which helps, offers some contrast and interest. I have sometimes wondered if there is a lag time in my own personal life, with regard to writing — if a certain amount of time needs to pass before I write about a given period, if I need to gain a little distance or something, even if it’s not exactly from the chronological time itself so much as the concerns of that time in my life. (But I have also written things about parenthood and fatherhood that are fairly recent in my life, and which would rebut this hypothesis.) If such a lag time exists, maybe it’s happening to several writers at the same time. Or, again, the pants.
P. S. Speaking of 1970s novels, I would just like to say that The Flamethrowers is a thrilling, amazing piece of work.
I still need to read The Flamethrowers. I think the only one I’ve read out of the group that was mentioned in that particular piece is Dissident Gardens, which I liked. This is more of a statement, I guess, and I think a similar point was made in the n+1 piece, but it seems like there’s a weird melancholy to a lot of ’70s media — a lament for lost innocence or something (innocence that never really existed probably) — that gets refracted in current work set in the ’70s — a lament for a flavor of melancholy (a lament for a lament). I found it refreshingly absent in Daredevils, though. It seems very honest and relatable.
Well, thanks. I do think nostalgia is a big part of it, and nostalgia is probably always at least partly false. You are probably right about the melancholic nature of ’70s media and iconography, but that is a note that I never felt too much myself — perhaps that’s the reason it’s not really part of the novel. I do have a certain number of friends on Facebook who are always posting cranky good-old-days stuff — they seem to think everything from math instruction to parenting decisions were so superior during the ’70s, which strikes me as comical.
The world of Daredevils feels extremely lived in. There’s a level of specificity in even casual details that’s so alive and yet so subtle — stuff like the Tussy ad and the preparations around the rabbit drive. If it’s heavily researched, it doesn’t feel like it. Is the book autobiographical in any way?
Some of the settings certainly are, and I suppose some of the tensions of the characters — young people wanting to grow up, be free, get away — are, as well. I grew up in Gooding, Idaho, so that landscape and culture comes straight from my childhood. But none of the events happened to me — I didn’t get to see Knievel’s canyon jump, and there were never bunny bashes in my exact part of Idaho, though they had them in other places. And the world of the polygamist fundamentalists in Arizona and Utah was entirely invented, though based on research.
It seems like interest in Mormonism is also very high right now among American gentiles. Beyond, or maybe in spite of Mitt Romney, why do you think that is?
I think the church is becoming a bit more mainstream, generation by generation, and in addition to that there are more and more loosely attached Mormons or former Mormons out there. So I think Mormonism and discussion of Mormonism may be worked into the culture more deeply now than it might have been before. Romney’s run led to a certain amount of media attention on that front, and you have things like The Book of Mormon musical, which is so goddamn brilliant. And underneath all of that is the simple fact that Mormonism is — in my opinion as an ex — simply fascinating in so many ways. It’s got a strange theology, a fascinating culture, a bizarre and argued-over history, odd little habits like the underwear and the prohibition against drinking and smoking, and church members have been in the middle of controversies like Prop 8 in California. I’m biased, of course, but I don’t think there’s a more interesting church in the world.
This is your first novel, but you’ve published many short stories. Did you always envision the project as a longer work?
I always envisioned this as a longer work, and I had reached the point where — having written many stories, and thinking perhaps I would only write stories — I specifically wanted to give the longer form a try. I have now been writing stories again — stories and sundry other short pieces — and am eager to finish a bunch of those before I try another longer work.
What are you working on next?
A few short stories, a novel idea, even some poems. I’m still trying to land in the thing that will seize me and take over my mind. And I write two columns a week for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where I work, and that is something that sustains my writing life and mind as well.