The Washington State Book Awards have been announced and for the third year in a row, a writer from Spokane has claimed the top prize for fiction. Shawn Vestal won the 2017 award for his debut novel, "Daredevils."
Vestal has long been a columnist at the Spokesman Review, Spokane's daily newspaper. But he’s been writing stories and poems since he was a kid.
“There’s nothing I love more than really messing around with the factuality of a piece of fiction," Vestal said. “Like taking something that has some foot in the real world but kind of changing it around in a way that you could never do in journalism.”
Also among the 2017 winners was Sherman Alexie, a member of the Spokane Indian tribe, who now lives in Seattle. He claimed his third Washington State Book Award for his children’s picture book, “Thunder Boy Jr..”
The awards highlight a burgeoning literary community in Spokane. The previous two local winners of the state's top fiction prize were Sharma Shields for "The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac" in 2016 and Bruce Holbert for "The Hour of Lead" in 2015.
In 2014, Vestal claimed the prestigious PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for “Godforsaken Idaho,” a collection of short stories.
According to a Spokesman Review story published shortly after, Vestal said people started asking him “What’s in the water in Spokane?” Three years later, he’s still trying to find a way to explain why so many published authors from Spokane get recognized.
“Oh, you know, whiskey? Did I say that then? I don’t know. That’s what I always say,” Vestal laughed.
“You know there’s just something going on here with people wanting to stay. I think that has had a ripple effect.”
He also credited a graduate-level writing program at Eastern Washington University. Vestal attended the program. He now teaches writing classes there.
Vestal also pointed to the supportive writing community he turned to as he penned Daredevil.
“It started as a story that was mostly about a boy growing up in circumstances like I grew up in, and then it evolved to be mostly a story about a girl who was living in a place that I have never been and circumstances that I don’t know anything about,” he explained. “I wrote this story thinking it was about this boy and showed it to friends who edit my work and give me advice. They were like, ‘you know who’s really interesting is this other character over here that you didn’t really write about.’”
“Over the past five years, the literary scene in Spokane has been thriving and growing exponentially,” said Melissa Huggins, the executive director of Spokane Arts.
Huggins formerly directed the Get Lit Festival, a week-long literary festival which will enter its 20th year next spring. She agreed that the writing community in Spokane, bolstered by many successful and well-known authors, is uniquely supportive of new and emerging writers.
“You have published authors attending emerging authors’ readings,” Huggins said.
Like Vestal, Huggins also said writers and authors in Spokane have access to resources from the area’s four universities: Whitworth, Eastern Washington, Gonzaga and Washington State.
“It’s a really positive, welcoming and accessible community,” said Huggins. “There’s a lot more success than the average person would necessarily know about.”
She said some of that success is also due to the lower cost of living for writers in Spokane, in comparison with the Northwest’s two larger cities, Portland and Seattle.
“You can live at a reasonable cost and work and do writing on the side, with an opportunity to thrive,” she said.