Jessica Westhead on why her best writing comes out of fear
Jessica Westhead is the author of the novel Pulpy & Midge and the short story collection And Also Sharks. Her latest is a short story collection called Things Not to Do. In her own uniquely humourous and empathetic way, Westhead tells honest, human stories that explore the dark side of ordinary people.
Below, Jessica Westhead takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A and answers eight questions from eight fellow authors.
1. Shari Lapena asks, "What do you find is the hardest thing about being a writer?"
One of the hardest things for me is switching my writing brain on and then off again. I've been alternating between short stories and a novel over the past few years, and I've found that it's easier for me to quickly immerse myself in a short story. While I can hop in and out of the stories without too much effort, once I'm inside the novel, it's almost impossible to snap my brain back to reality when I have to stop writing and do other things.
Like when I see that it's time to pick up my daughter from kindergarten and it feels like I'm slogging through wet cement as I close my laptop and put on my shoes and walk out the door. Sometimes we'll go to the corner store for a popsicle on our way home and I'll still be mulling over what's happening in a scene, and I know she can tell I'm completely spaced out with my glazed, googly eyes.
I try to explain that I'm still in my story and it's sort of like how she gets annoyed when her dad or I interrupt her when she's drawing or doing a craft and then she totally gets it. Or else she's just happy to eat the popsicle. In any case, she and my husband are very patient with me during those dazed, dopey, post-story times and I'm grateful.
2. Claire Messud asks, "What is your favourite book from childhood, and why?"
One of my favourite childhood books was The Churkendoose: Part Chicken, Turkey, Duck and Goose (not to be confused with the Thanksgiving dish called "Turducken," which horrifies me), by Ben Ross Berenberg (illustrated by Dellwyn Cunningham). In the story, an "unusual" bird is born in a henhouse and all the barnyard animals shun him because he's different.
The plucky, good-natured churkendoose likes to tap dance and he happily sings his answers to the other animals' mean-spirited inquiries about what kind of bird he is: "I have a head like a Chicken, and legs like a Duck. Instead of quacking, I say, 'Yuk! Yuk!' I've a body like a Turkey and a bill like a Goose, I feel pretty good, but my legs are loose." But then at the end, the other animals embrace him because he frightens off a marauding fox with his "strange" appearance. In hindsight, their change of heart seems pretty insincere.
They don't even apologize to the sweet little churkendoose for nearly chasing him off the farm. It's all too easy, really, when we're told on the last page: "Now they help each other and learn from each other." But maybe I'm just old and jaded now. At the time, it was quite uplifting. I tried to make this book one of my daughter's favourites too — mostly because it was fun to sing the goofy rhyming songs to her — but she never loved it like I did.
3. Eric McCormack asks, "Honestly, what does your writing tell you — both the good and the bad — about yourself?"
My writing tells me that I generally see the good in most people. That's a positive thing, I think, even if it makes me naïve sometimes. On the negative side, my writing shows me the ugly aspects of myself that I'd prefer to be in denial about —the pettiness, jealousy, anxiety and insecurity that I think I'm beyond, but I'm not. I try to tell myself that it's only my characters who have these flaws, but if I'm honest, I'm really writing about the parts of myself that I'm most uncomfortable with.
4. Kim Thùy asks, "If you had to choose, would you prefer one extremely successful book or many much smaller successes?"
Hmm. The short answer is, I don't know. The longer and more convoluted answer is, I want two things for my writing career: to keep writing (and getting better as I go) and to reach the widest possible audience. Making some sort of extra-big splash would likely help me accomplish the latter, but it's possible that it would hijack the former because there would probably be added pressure to keep on producing "successful" books, which could freak me out and shut me down, or else just give me a ridiculous ego and I'd lose all perspective and the ability to be critical of my writing.
That said, I know several authors who've had great successes and just keep on working and doing well and staying humble and realistic and delightful. I've certainly enjoyed all of my small successes over the years — opportunities to see my fiction published and to read it aloud and receive feedback, to connect with kind readers who like my work and to meet wonderfully supportive fellow writers and publishing people. And now, most of all, I love that my daughter knows that her mom is a writer.
5. Robert Currie asks, "What writers do you read, not only because you admire their writing, but because you think you can learn from them?"
Three of my favourite writers are Joy Williams, Kelli Deeth and Greg Kearney. Joy Williams writes wild and wacky and dark, Kelli Deeth is a master of having a billion anxious and dramatic things seething among her characters in seemingly quiet scenes and Greg Kearney conjures stories that are both over-the-top hilarious and shockingly tragic. Their writing thrills and inspires me.
I'm always looking for stunning short stories that make me desperate to figure out, "How did they do that?" Two stories that have blown me away recently are indinawemaaganidog/all of my relatives by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson in Islands of Decolonial Love and Virgins by Danielle Evans in Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. There is so much menace bristling just under the surface of both — I wanted to race through to see what happened next, but I kept stopping to ooh and ahh over the vivid prose. I can still picture shimmering scenes from each story.
6. Nazneen Sheikh asks, "Have you ever been frightened by what you write? How and why?"
Yes. I think some of my best writing comes out of fear. When I explore those parts of myself that are upsetting to me and I allow myself to picture worst-case scenarios (which isn't all that difficult because I'm a hardcore worrier), the fiction that results feels more alive than what I write when I don't push myself to confront the icky stuff. It's more interesting to me, which makes me hopeful that it might be interesting to other people too.
7. Russell Wangersky asks, "Which do you like better? The heady rush of the first draft or the controlled precision of the edits and re-edits? Why?"
A few years ago, I wrote the first draft of my novel-in-progress in just a few months, and I thought it was done and that I was Superwoman. Then I realized I'd only written a first draft, and it wasn't even remotely close to being finished. Still, those were some heady months. I was waking up in the middle of the night and writing for hours in my notebook by flashlight, trying not to disturb my poor slumbering husband but who was I kidding, really. The story basically exploded out of me — it actually felt like it was being told to me and I was just transcribing it. I'll never forget what an incredible experience that was, it was such a gift.
But then (thankfully!) the self-doubt kicked in, and I wasn't able to feel good about the story again until the Magical Revision Phase started. That's the best part for me — it's a more pragmatic sort of headiness — when I have some perspective (and, ideally, some feedback from my trusted first readers) and I can see the story clearly but I can still get in there and muck around and I understand the characters much better, and previously unknown aspects of the story begin to reveal themselves to me.
8. Anita Rau Badami asks, "How do you choose your next novel or project?"
I don't think I'ver ever consciously chosen any particular project — I'm more of a wait-and-see kind of writer. I mostly just try to observe what's happening around me and keep my eyes and ears open for the bits of life that catch my attention and make me wonder "What if?" And over the years I've figured out that when an idea really sticks with me and is compelling enough, I'll get a sort of anxious, yearning, twitchy feeling that tells me I want to make it into a story. I love it when that happens!