In House Guest, we invite Ecotone and Lookout authors, cover artists, and editors from peer presses and magazines to get comfy and tell us what they’re currently working on, to discuss themes in their writing or unique publishing challenges, to answer the burning questions they always hoped a reader would ask. We kick things off with our first house guest, Shawn Vestal, whose stories have twice appeared in the pages of Ecotone. His story “Winter Elders” is reprinted in Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone’s First Decade.
My Two Hats
As a writer, I have a split personality: Jekyll the journalist, Hyde the inventor. Jekyll writes a newspaper column, and though he expresses his opinions, he is faithful to facts. Hyde writes fiction, and he cheats on facts with abandon, betrays and abuses them, comes sneaking home at daybreak, reeking of unfamiliar perfume.
People often ask me if I have a hard time moving between these two forms, and I never know how to answer—in part because I don’t have a hard time with it, and in part because I’m not exactly sure what type of a problem I’m expected to have with it.
Is it that I might be tempted as a journalist to invent facts—people, tales, statistics from a government report? I’m not. Jekyll is highly susceptible to any number of illicit temptations, but making up a sexy newspaper story has simply never been one of them. He can live with the pedestrian and the plain, if he must.
Hyde takes a perverse pleasure in not simply making things up, but in taking the real, the actual, and forcing it through the prism of invention to arrive at something strange and new.
Or is the expected difficulty that I might have a hard time departing the realm of verification for the realm of anything goes? Again, I decidedly do not. I don’t mean that I don’t struggle to invent fictional people and scenarios, but simply that I embrace the freedom to do so. Hyde is eager to come out and play. And more than that—Hyde takes a perverse pleasure in not simply making things up, but in taking the real, the actual, and forcing it through the prism of invention to arrive at something strange and new.
Hyde steals from Jekyll. He will insert real people—people who lived and experienced certain specific things—into his make-believe, and he will have them do or say things they did not do or say. He will haul real events into his make-believe, and use what portions of that reality he wishes, discard the parts he doesn’t like, and add in whatever he wants. He will use real names for made-up people, or put made-up words into the mouths of actual historical figures. He is no respecter of facts, this Hyde. He loves the appearance and manipulation of actual personae, and he has a long list of literary works at the ready to justify this faithlessness to the truth, from Julius Caesar to Libra.
I am not claiming that the line between the fictional and the factual is a false one. I think it’s real, though often blurry in the extreme. Whenever the defenders of memoir fabricators arise, claiming that it is priggish or naïve to expect truthfulness or factuality in a form that claims the mantle of those qualities, I think there is already a realm where you can move smoothly between the actual and the invented, where you can raise the priorities of language and beauty and imagination above all other priorities. It’s Hyde’s world, and there you can do whatever you want.
Hyde steals from Jekyll. In the case of my story in Astoria to Zion, “Winter Elders,” he lifted certain pieces straight from my life. When I wrote the story, I was a new father, and my city was being besieged by the worst winter in a century. Hyde took those details. As a former Mormon, I am frequently visited by missionaries, each of whom I politely inform that there is no need to keep stopping by. Hyde lifted this, as he did my experience as a man afflicted with various shades of selfishness and ugliness.
Then he made the man monstrous, as Hyde is wont to do.
Shawn Vestal is the author of Godforsaken Idaho, a collection of short stories, and A.K.A. Charles Abbott, a memoir published as a Kindle Single. He writes a newspaper column for the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he lives with his wife and son.