The Chat with Jessica Westhead

JWesthead-photo-49thShelfTheChat

Jessica Westhead’s work is well known to fans across Canada. She returns to The Chat this month to talk about latest novel, the psychological thriller Worry.

Taking place over 48 hours in remote cottage country, it explores the complex relationship between best friends Ruth and Stef.

Quill & Quire says “Westhead is a concise wordsmith; Worry is a quick and engrossing read."
 
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. Her short stories have appeared in major literary journals in Canada, the US and the UK, including Hazlitt, Maisonneuve, Indiana Review and Hamish Hamilton’s Five Dials. She is the author of the novel Pulpy & Midge and the critically acclaimed short story collections Things Not to Do and And Also Sharks, which was a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book, a Kobo’s Best eBook of the Year and a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. Westhead is a creative writing instructor at the Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University.

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Trevor Corkum: Worry is such a fraught novel, tense in so many ways. What made you want to write this kind of psychological thriller? In what ways would you say this is a

creative departure for you?

Jessica Westhead: Thank you! I love reading suspenseful stories because of the wonderfully quivery, need-to-know-what-happens-next feeling they give me. And from the very beginning, when the idea for Worry first announced itself to me, I was excited about its potential to be suspenseful.

My first novel, Pulpy & Midge, has a completely different tone—it’s much lighter and sillier and sweeter—but with my two short-story collections, I started exploring darker themes and characters with creepier motivations. And as much as my focus was still on awkward social situations and the humour that arises from them, it’s always felt natural for me to combine funny and sad/comic and tragic, so venturing into darker territory didn’t feel like that much of a stretch.

In Worry, it just felt right to go darker, with more serious stuff happening (and now the humour is more in the background, mostly in the form of wisecracks from Ruth’s friends Stef and Sammy). But it’s not a complete departure from what I did in Pulpy & Midge because I’ve returned to the whole “a stranger comes to town” trope. In my first novel, a new boss arrived at the office and bullied the shy and quiet Pulpy, and in Worry, a mysterious neighbour joins in the cottage fun and makes Ruth worry even more than usual. That wasn’t on purpose, though. The idea of Marvin appearing out of the blue and shaking things up came from the movie Dead Calm, which I used to watch over and over again until the plot basically imprinted itself on my brain. I even had a sort of homage to that film in a much earlier draft of Worry. What is now a memory that Stef relates to Ruth about the first time she met Marvin used to be a scene in the present, with Marvin taking Ruth’s husband James (who was at the cottage with Ruth and Fern in earlier drafts, but now he stays home) on a paddleboard tour of the lake. Here’s that scene from an earlier draft in which Marvin paddles back to the cottage beach, without James:

*  *  *

Fern started waving. “Marvin!”

Ruth shielded her eyes and there he was, gliding back across the lake. All by himself.

“Ahoy!” he called, grinning at them.

“Marvin, where’s James?” She was trying hard to sound upbeat. He’s just way behind you, right? Couldn’t keep up? First time on a substantial paddleboard trip and the guy can’t hack it? Haha, that’s so James.

Marvin slid closer. “He told me to tell you that he wanted to stay out a bit longer on his own.”

Did he, now? Here was this man she barely knew who had returned from a so-called “relaxing” excursion sans her husband. What have you done with him, Marvin?

What a silly thing to think. But still, there she was, thinking it.

What was going on here? Was she in that movie with Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane and that other guy whose name she can never remember, what was that movie called, the one where Billy Zane looks super hot and takes Nicole Kidman hostage on her own boat when her husband, played by the other guy, goes aboard Billy Zane’s boat to poke around and then discovers that Billy Zane murdered his shipmates and oh shit, there’s Billy Zane sailing away with his boat as well as his wife, toward whom Billy Zane had made amorous overtures when they all first met, which the husband had initially dismissed as harmless but now that he’s divined Billy Zane’s nefarious plot he’s no longer quite so sure, and oh shit, now Billy Zane’s boat is sinking and the husband has to find a way to repair the damage and somehow find a way to save his wife from Billy Zane, who is incredibly hot? Because it certainly felt like she was in that movie right now.

*  *  *

But with Worry I did have to learn how to write the kind of structure that would support a suspenseful novel. For years now I’ve been drawn to psychological thrillers (ever since discovering Andrew Pyper’s work, which I love), so I’ve been both passively and actively studying how to use foreshadowing, and how and when to withhold and reveal certain bits of key information to keep the reader guessing.

TC: At its heart, it’s a story about motherhood, and the kinds of anxieties and fears so common among mothers (and parents generally) in the age of online media and “stranger danger.” In what ways do you relate to Ruth’s fears?

JW: There is so much pressure on parents these days to be ever-vigilant, to never let their children out of their sight. Because what if something bad happened when they weren’t watching? That pressure can be overwhelming, especially when coupled with the ever-present judgment parents are always at risk of encountering, from other parents or from society at large. So for many parents and guardians, it’s much less stressful to keep the kids at home playing video games than it is to send them outside to play, because at least then you know where they are, right? Because what’s worse—too much screen time, or scary strangers and all the other harmful unknowns out there in the big, bad world? But while I completely understand the fear behind that impulse, I don’t want that for my daughter. I want her to find joy in reading books before she picks up a tablet or a phone. I want her to continue to feel free to use her imagination in any way she chooses. I want her to keep having real-life fun with her friends. I want her to go outside and play. And I want to keep her safe, always. But I know that I can’t always be with her. I can’t always be watching her.

For many parents and guardians, it’s much less stressful to keep the kids at home playing video games than it is to send them outside to play, because at least then you know where they are, right? Because what’s worse—too much screen time, or scary strangers and all the other harmful unknowns out there in the big, bad world?

So instead of worrying about that (but of course I still will), I’ve realized that the best strategy is for her dad and me to help her be her best self. We want her to be confident and to love (and like) herself, and to listen to her gut. To know that she has every right to exit an uncomfortable situation, or speak up if something doesn’t feel right. I know that no matter how well we may prepare her, there is always the looming possibility of circumstances beyond our control, and that is terrifying. But I don’t want to pass that fear along to her, if at all possible. I also don’t want her to be afraid, or immediately distrustful of (and disrespectful to) adults.

A wise parent I know made a remark about this, which stuck with me—“You want your kid to have the capacity to trust those adults and authority figures who are actually good people, and who have your child’s best interests at heart.” Those are also people who your child could turn to for help, if help was needed. And when it’s called for, I do think manners and politeness are important. Consideration for others and gratitude for what others give us—that’s how we get along with each other. Of course, manners should be completely thrown out the window if a child’s safety is at stake. Fuck politeness in that case.

TC: The novel also deftly explores Ruth’s struggle to develop boundaries with her best friend. Ruth and Stef are unlikely friends, bound as much by the past as they are entangled by life’s present circumstances. How challenging was it to explore the many layers of their relationship?

JW: I’ve always been fascinated by people who either cross other people’s personal boundaries, or don’t have clear (or strong) enough boundaries themselves, and I’ve explored this theme with lots of my characters over the years. When I was younger, I wasn’t very good at standing up for myself, so I definitely identify more with Ruth (who is quieter and more socially insecure) than with Stef (who is louder and wilder). Because of that, in earlier drafts, Ruth and Stef’s friendship was much less nuanced: Ruth was the “good” friend and Stef was the “bad” friend.

I think I always knew I was taking the easy way out there, and that it was unrealistic and unfair to make Ruth the hero and Stef the villain. Fortunately, Jennifer Lambert was my editor and she is a freaking genius. She has a special knack for suggesting subtle but very effective ways to enhance and clarify characters and their motivations, and she pointed out that I needed to have Ruth speak up for herself and lighten up a bit more, while also dialling down Stef’s meanness. It was important to even the score between them somehow.

I think I always knew I was taking the easy way out there, and that it was unrealistic and unfair to make Ruth the hero and Stef the villain. Fortunately, Jennifer Lambert was my editor and she is a freaking genius.

So I did that, and also somewhere between my first and second set of revisions with Jennifer, I figured out a past wrong that Ruth had inflicted on Stef, which ends up being part of the reason for the problems in their friendship. Of course, the tension in the friendship couldn’t be all Stef’s fault, because if she was just a complete and utter jerk with no redeeming qualities, then what does that say about Ruth if she’s still friends with her? Why would she put up with such awful treatment?

Now, they’re both to blame. There are numerous chains binding them, and there’s some good stuff between them too. Friends are drawn to each other for different reasons, but they only stay together (in an unhealthy friendship) if there’s something positive that makes the negative bearable.

TC: You set the novel in cottage country, a place where regular civilities and rules sometimes don’t apply. (“It’s the Cottage!!”). What was the best part about setting the story outside the confines of urban life?

JW: I’m a city girl. I like the busy noises of civilization, and the balance of anonymity and connection with lots of other humans around me. But I also love the sound of wind in the trees, and I love cottages (much better than tents). I’ve had the good fortune of staying in many cottages over the years—either rented, or belonging to friends or family—and I always revel in those experiences. But even with a roof over my head and solid walls between me and the wilderness, I feel somewhat anxious in the woods. Even when the cottage is not very remote at all, I feel exposed and vulnerable. It’s too quiet! When I go for walks—always on the road; never in the forest—I keep waiting for creatures to jump out and pounce on me. I have never been one of those people who is at peace in nature, if it’s any wilder than a city park.

Because of this anxiety, the cottage was the perfect setting for my story. It’s close quarters and somewhat claustrophobic (cabin fever can bring out the worst in people). It’s in the middle of nowhere and also somehow removed from “real life,” as you mention—because while there’s that element of being trapped and defenseless, there’s also freedom from the daily grind (you’re on vacation!) and the opportunity to be irresponsible (a welcome state for anyone, but especially parents). People behave differently when they’re at the cottage; they lower their inhibitions. Rowdy and reckless behaviour is not only socially acceptable, but also expected and enthusiastically encouraged. People staying at a cottage are isolated and far away from the rest of society, and there’s a certain freedom—and danger—because of that.

The cottage in Worry belongs to Stef, so Ruth is out of her comfort zone and on her friend’s turf. She’s coerced into going there by her husband but he doesn’t go with her, so she’s on her own with Fern. And then she has to reckon with Marvin. There’s a certain numbness to our day-to-day routines, even if we enjoy them, so the break in that pattern forces Ruth to confront memories and fears that she’s been suppressing. To deal with that, and to make the cottage vacation bearable, she submits to peer pressure to “let loose” and let her guard down, which she would never do at home.

TC: Finally, if you were to take a road trip with either Ruth or Stef, who would you choose? Where would you go and what would you chat about along the way?

JW: Haha, I like this question. Actually I don’t. It’s hard. I can’t choose!

Ruth and Stef were inspired by two very different (but connected) parts of me that are constantly arguing with each other, so I’m basically hanging out with them all the time already. Get out of my head, Ruth and Stef! I do like them both, though. Stef makes me laugh and helps me feel braver and bolder, and Ruth is a good listener and has a kind heart and doesn’t make me feel dorky for being whimsical. The three of us would drive to Peterborough and visit Trent University because that’s where we all went. We would tell each other funny and poignant stories from our childhoods on the way there, and then we’d park the car and walk around the campus for a while and get all weepy and nostalgic. Then we’d go down a set of stairs and climb onto one of the cement supports under the bridge over the Otonabee River, and lie back and listen to the music we used to dance to in our 20s.

**

Excerpt from Worry

Fern starts tossing pebbles into the lake while the twins bob up and down a few metres away, and Ruth relaxes a little. “So what happened with Marvin?”

Stef yawns and stretches and lies back. “Here’s this guy we don’t know asking us to go paddling off who knows where with him, and I’m thinking, Nope, because of course that’s the right thing to think in those situations.”

“Of course.” Ruth nods.

“But then Sammy’s hauling our new paddleboard into the water and saying, ‘Yeah! Sounds great!’ And I tell him, ‘You can hardly even stand up on that thing, bozo. Plus we don’t have any life jackets.’ Because the previous owners left us their board and their boat but not their life jackets, jackasses. And he says, ‘Marvin’s not wearing one!’ All pouty like a baby. So I say, ‘Whatever,’ and Marvin gives me this big, old creepy smile and says, ‘Don’t you fret, I’ll take good care of him.’ And Sammy somehow managed to get on and stay upright, and they both sailed away. Two hours went by. Where the hell were they? And I’m telling myself, Everything’s fine. Marvin’s a good guy. Then I think, But how do you know? Something bad had definitely happened. Way too much time had passed. So I said to the girls, ‘Mommy’s going to take the boat out and look for Daddy.’ And they got all whiny. ‘Whyyyyy?’ Because Marvin might kill him so he can come back and claim us as his own family, idiots. I didn’t say that, obviously. But then I remembered about the life jackets, and I pictured myself falling out of the boat and drowning and then who’d protect the twins, and I know I say I can’t stand them most of the time, but every once in a while they do something cute and I’m glad they exist.” Stef pauses to crack open a new beer. “A few minutes later, Sammy and Marvin came back and we all got drunk together.”

“Wow,” says Ruth.

“Yep,” says Stef. She takes a breath and the two of them sit there, watching their kids play.

Reprinted with permission of the author.

September 25, 2019
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