A few years ago Shawn Shiflett went back to Puerto Escondido, the gritty Mexican beach town where he spent some time in the 70s. He was doing research for his new novel, Hidden Place, and wanted to make sure he had the lay of the land right. Back then the place was often referred to as the next Acapulco, a coastal refuge for traveling college kids and other ne'er-do-wells. Twenty-five years later, where once a single dirt road wound its way down to the beach from the campsite where hippies used to hang out, there were now paved roads, hotels, and shops. Some things, however, hadn't changed. "I stayed in the nicest hotel in town, which was about 50 bucks a night," Shiflett says. "There was a message on your bathroom door: 'Do not go out at night,' it said. 'We're sorry. Our police are corrupt. They will not protect you.' I said, 'Oh, I got that right.'"
Set in 1976, Hidden Place (published in January by Akashic Books) elucidates the inevitable conflict between bliss-seeking tourists and the indigenous population of their adopted utopia. Narrator-protagonist Roman Pearson is an awkward but brave beatnik trying to keep his relationship with his girlfriend alive. His mission takes the couple from their Chicago apartment to a vacation in predevelopment Escondido, where they meet Jay, an Oklahoma shitkicker with an alarming propensity for random acts of alcoholic violence. After Jay torches a local cabana, killing a little girl in the process, tourists and locals are swept up in a deadly spiral of violence. It's fiction, but some of it's based on fact: shortly after his most recent trip to Mexico, Shiflett met another writer at a conference whose friend had been raped and killed on the Escondido beach late at night.
At 49, the longtime Columbia College fiction writing professor is longer in the tooth than the average debut novelist. Before starting Hidden Place seven years ago, Shiflett spent years tooling and retooling a different manuscript, "Hey, Liberal," a tale of a white kid at a predominantly black high school loosely based on his own adolescence at Waller High (now Lincoln Park High) in the 60s. In the mid-80s a few chapters of the story were published in Columbia's F, a journal for novels in progress, and Al Zuckerman, president of Writer's House (then in its infancy), asked to see the complete manuscript.
"I was still in my 20s," Shiflett says, "and I naturally thought his contacting me meant success was just around the corner. Well, it was, sort of--just a 19-year corner." Zuckerman shopped the manuscript around over the course of several years, but nobody bit. After a while both he and Shiflett gave it up for dead and Shiflett concentrated on teaching. After a young reader at the agency got a look at the first 50 pages of Hidden Place, and loved it, the house was briefly interested, but staff turnover soon relegated it too to the bottom of the pile.
After years of back and forth, Shiflett was getting frustrated. The agency had gotten huge, and he was, in his own words, "small potatoes." One day five years ago, he came home from the doctor to find an e-mail saying he'd been dropped by the agency. He says he wasn't that upset: "I just took that as a sign that this wasn't a good fit."
As he was putting the finishing touches on Hidden Place he came across an article in Poets & Writers that surveyed the rising crop of independent U.S. publishers, among them Johnny Temple, who'd started Akashic with money he made as the bassist for Girls Against Boys and was looking for "urban, political fiction." He sent in the manuscript, and Temple was immediately taken with it, having been more than once to the beach Shiflett describes. He thought Shiflett's depiction of the tension between Escondido locals and tourists was dead-on.
"The guy is disgustingly wise," Shiflett says of Temple. "It's amazing because he's at least 15 years younger than me, but we've got a close connection on a lot of things. He went to a mostly black high school, spent time traveling in Mexico, likes Hispanic writers." In Temple and Akashic, he says, he feels like he's finally found a literary family outside Chicago. As for his own belated success, he's sanguine. "It feels good, you know. I thought this was gonna happen to me 20 years ago, but you turn around and you're almost 50. Maybe it just took me a little longer to get some of the rough edges off."
On Monday, March 22, Shiflett appears with Robert Arrellano at 7 PM at Quimby's, 1854 W. North, 773-342-0910. On Wednesday, March 24, he'll read at Story Week's "Literary Rock & Roll" night at Metro, 3730 N. Clark. See the Story Week sidebar in Readings & Lectures for other appearances throughout the week.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.