The Chat With Jessica Westhead

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Jessica Westhead has an uncanny ability to combine humour and despair in her writing. In her latest collection, Things Not to Do, we meet folks at the end of their rope who still manage to unearth wry and gorgeous moments in their day-to-day lives.

The Toronto Star agrees, stating, “Westhead brings empathy and humour to everyday absurdities with believable and recognizable characters.” Steven Beattie, writing for the Globe and Mail, says her writing “is infused with a generosity that is infectious: It draws a reader in and demands an emotional accounting.”

It’s a pleasure to speak to Jessica about her new work.

Jessica Westhead’s fiction has been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards, selected for the Journey Prize anthology, and nominated for a National Magazine Award. She is the author of the novel Pulpy & Midge and the critically acclaimed short story collection And Also Sharks, which was a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book and a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Short Fiction Prize.

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THE CHAT WITH JESSICA WESTHEAD

Trevor Corkum: The stories in Things Not to Do had me laughing out loud, but there are also very dark, introspective moments peeking in around the edges. Many of the stories, in their deep empathy, have an almost George Saunders vibe. How do you balance pathos and humour in your work?

Jessica Westhead: Thank you so much! I’m a gargantuan superfan of George Saunders’ short stories, which have definitely influenced my own writing, so I’m extra honoured by the comparison. I’ve also been greatly inspired by the Coen Brothers’ film style—such a perfect combination of funny and dark there too. My dad is a big movie buff and he first introduced me to their films with Raising Arizona years ago. That’s still one of my favourites. The chase scene gets me every time, holy crap I laugh so hard. But it’s about a couple who can’t have a baby and are desperate for one. I couldn’t comprehend the tragedy of that when I was a kid, but that didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the humour. Now, though, I can appreciate the deep sadness of the story as well, which only makes me love the movie more. The balance is so important. Without the dark, the light falls flat. And if you have the chance to laugh after something upsetting happens, you seize it. The laughter is a relief, and it’s more genuine because of that.

Without the dark, the light falls flat. And if you have the chance to laugh after something upsetting happens, you seize it.

TC: In the acknowledgements, you thank Neil Smith and Zsuzsi Gartner, who are two of the finest short story practitioners around. Who have been some of your pivotal heroes and literary mentors along the way? Any current faves?

JW: Yes, Neil Smith and Zsuzsi Gartner are both such incredible writers, and delightful humans to boot. Other authors whose short fiction makes me swoon are Joy Williams (hysterically funny and creepily off-kilter), Etgar Keret (beautifully absurd and disturbing), and Lorrie Moore (come on—she’s Lorrie Moore), and fellow Canadians Greg Kearney (laugh-till-you-choke hilarious and punch-you-in-the-gut tragic), Heather Birrell (intricate and unsettling and wise), Kelli Deeth (packed with kickass quiet tension), Shari Kasman (wacky and heartbreaking), Teri Vlassopoulos (ardent sadness and playful sweetness), Sara Heinonen (wry and unnerving), Sarah Selecky (shimmering snapshots brimming with anxiety), and Naomi Fontaine (gorgeously stark, intimate, and riveting).

And I just finished Break Any Woman Down by Dana Johnson, which is a stunning collection. The way she fully embodies her characters—and there’s such a wide range of them—and deftly and casually charges her stories with unsettling truths amazed me.

TC: Your characters are so endearing and instantly recognizable. Their voices are so mesmerizing. They feel like parts of myself, or my friends. Do these voices just pop into your head? And does that worry you?

JW: That’s lovely to hear, thank you. Also, heehee. Like most other writers, I do a lot of observing and eavesdropping. I get excited when I luck out and witness a particularly awkward exchange between people, and I thrive on moments that bristle with unacknowledged tension. I mean, those moments make me really uncomfortable, but I LOVE them. I’m fascinated by how we so rarely come out and say what’s really on our minds, even when those thoughts are so close to the surface—or at least I imagine they are.

I get excited when I luck out and witness a particularly awkward exchange between people, and I thrive on moments that bristle with unacknowledged tension. I mean, those moments make me really uncomfortable, but I LOVE them.

Characters arise for me from those uncomfortable moments and exchanges. You can tell (or at least think you can tell) so much from the way people speak to each other, and speak about themselves. I definitely have a soft spot for characters who lack self-esteem, and self-awareness, and I often take that to an extreme in my short stories. Partly for the comedy factor, but also because I’m trying to figure those people out. I used to be quite shy and insecure when I was younger, so I’m familiar with lack of self-esteem. I’d say I’m fairly self-aware, though, and can pretty easily guess how my behaviour will affect other human beings. When I see someone being cruel for no apparent reason, I want to know that reason. I want to empathize with them so I can understand them, and so they’re less scary to me.

My characters are also composites of the worst parts of myself—the worrisome, shameful parts that I wish didn’t exist. But then I’m glad they do, because my fiction is richer for it. Otherwise I do my best to keep them hidden.

My characters are also composites of the worst parts of myself—the worrisome, shameful parts that I wish didn’t exist. But then I’m glad they do, because my fiction is richer for it. Otherwise I do my best to keep them hidden.

TC: Were any of these stories particularly challenging for you to bring to life?

JW: Some of the stories in Things Not to Do came into being more easily than others, but none of them was a complete slog. Which isn’t to say, of course, that they all arrived intact and I just dashed them off and then I was done. With a few exceptions where whole scenes really did just pop into my brain fully formed, I worked diligently for about six years, writing and revising and polishing, to put this collection together.

(Something that saved me from slogging was having two shelves full of notebooks in which I’ve been writing random ideas and passages and overheard dialogue snippets for years. When I’m stuck for how to expand a short story, or even how to start one sometimes, I sit down and flip through those notebooks and seeing what jumps out at me, and then I use it.)

But writing short stories is such a joy for me, and I’ve been doing it for quite a while—practising seriously for almost twenty years—that I’m fairly confident in my process now. And at this point when I finish writing a story, I can look at it objectively and say to myself, “I like this.”

My novel-in-progress, on the other hand, has destroyed me. I started it in the summer of 2015, and wrote the first draft very quickly. It basically exploded out of me and I was convinced it was a gift from the literary gods and therefore must be unassailably perfect. Then the rose-coloured glasses fell off and I realized I had a lot more work to do. Yikes. I was embarrassed by most of what I’d written, but I knew there was something there—and I also had encouragement from some trusted readers—so I stuck with it.

My novel-in-progress, on the other hand, has destroyed me. I started it in the summer of 2015, and wrote the first draft very quickly. It basically exploded out of me and I was convinced it was a gift from the literary gods and therefore must be unassailably perfect ...

But man, it’s been a rollercoaster, writing this thing. My first book was a novel, but this one is a completely different animal, and as I went along I didn’t have the same confidence to tell if it was any good or not. At one point a few months ago I was especially dejected about it. It just wasn’t coming together and it wasn’t what I wanted it to be. I wasn’t in love with it like I’ve been in love with some of my short stories. Now that I’m closer to being done, though, I think it’s maybe okay. More trusted readers are kindly (but hopefully ruthlessly as well) reading the latest draft, and I’m looking forward to their feedback.

TC: At particular stages in their lives, some of your characters find themselves rueing missed chances and dashed hopes and dreams. In an alternate life, what would you be doing if you weren’t writing?

JW: Back in university, I was drinking too much beer and moaning to a friend one night that I was worried that I wouldn’t succeed as a writer—what if I try and fail, what if nobody likes what I write, what if I’m terrible, etc.—and she said to me in this perfect deadpan, “Well, what else are you going to do?” Basically implying that I would be useless in any other field. She was joking, sort of, but I took that to mean that I should just shut up and do it.

I guess I’m okay at a few other things too. That’s important, because of course fiction writing doesn’t even come close to paying the bills (I’m also fortunate that my brilliant husband makes a good living). But I’m one of those people who has always wanted to be a writer. Since I was a very little kid, when I sold homemade books instead of lemonade on my front lawn. So having actual books out in the world, and doing interviews like this one, with wonderfully supportive fellow authors like you, is my dream come true. And I’m so grateful for it.

I’m one of those people who has always wanted to be a writer. Since I was a very little kid, when I sold homemade books instead of lemonade on my front lawn. So having actual books out in the world, and doing interviews like this one, with wonderfully supportive fellow authors like you, is my dream come true. And I’m so grateful for it.

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Excerpt from “Flamingo” from Things Not to Do

Jeanie told me about this dream she had where she and Stuart were adrift in the middle of the ocean on a flimsy life raft with huge waves all around them. Then her contractions started and Stuart somehow fell over the side and drowned, but she wasn’t too upset (big surprise, I thought) because there were experts monitoring her from the shore, so she knew that she and the baby were in good hands. I said, “What kind of experts?” And she said, “Just smart people, I don’t know.”

It sounded like a nightmare to me, but Jeanie said this dream was very empowering. She also felt calmer because her horoscope earlier that day had told her that THE WORLD IS NOT OUT TO GET YOU, SO STOP BEING SO DRAMATIC!

I could relate, because when I was a mother I used to get bent out of shape about every tiny thing. I was a lot more stressed out. So stressed out that one night, I left Greg and our baby at home and went to a bar and cuddled up to a guy who told me that my hair looked like Daryl Hannah’s hair in Blade Runner. I said, “You think I have replicant hair?” He said, “Fucking right on you do.” We did a bunch of shots and the bartender told me that I should feel lucky because I was drinking with their Regular of the Month. They didn’t have a picture of him up or anything, but it was an honour just the same. I thought that was awesome and said how it’s rare in this day and age when an ordinary person is celebrated. I said, “Where are the awards for Excellent Spouse and Parent, right? Oh, sure, you can go to the bakery at the Superstore and ask them to ice that on a cake for you. You can take the cake home and sit down with a fork and eat the whole goddamn thing and feel good about yourself, until you allow your brain to ponder how many calories you just consumed.”

When I got home, my family was asleep and the house was very quiet. I got my iPod and stuck my earbuds in and put on my Party Singles playlist, and after a while I threw up and went to bed.

Did I feel guilty? It’s hard to say. Sure, my husband tells me I’m beautiful, but do I believe him? Would he marry a woman he found unattractive? I doubt it. But once the three of us were at the park and there was a dog there, and Greg said, “Look at the cute dog!” And I looked at it, and it was hideous. Its jaw was malformed, or something. So there’s that.

Reprinted with permission of the author.

April 18, 2018
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