Interview by Sonal Champsee.
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 (Coach House Books, 2007) and the critically acclaimed short story collection And Also Sharks (Cormorant Books, 2011), which was a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book and a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Short Fiction Prize. Her new short story collection is called Things Not to Do.
The new collection is classic Westhead—funny, awkward, slightly odd characters written with great empathy and heart. Yet at the same time, it reads like you’ve become braver in your writing, and have taken more risks with craft. How did this come about?
Thank you very much! I appreciate the compliment, and I’m extremely tickled to see the word “classic” next to my name, heehee. But I don’t know that I was being brave, really… I did feel like I stretched myself further with this new collection than with And Also Sharks, but I was only able to do that stretching because the writing of And Also Sharks limbered me up for it.
With these new stories, I felt closer to my characters somehow, and their hearts felt more accessible to me; I was slightly more removed from my characters in the previous collection. (Though I feel equally dearly toward all of them.) Maybe the reason for that earlier distance was fear? It didn’t feel like fear at the time, but when I read some of the stories in And Also Sharks now, I can see more wackiness to the humour than I’m currently using. Maybe that wackiness was a sort of self-defense mechanism.
With Things Not to Do, I also went a bit darker, because the world feels darker to me these days. Probably because I have a child now, and I’m often terrified for her. Even though I remain an eternal dorky optimist, and continue to desperately search for the humour in sad or scary situations.
A lot of your stories revolve around small, everyday situations. What’s the appeal in writing about the dailiness of life?
If you look for it, there is so much magic—and drama!—in the dailiness of life. Little triumphs and tragedies unfolding all day long. Yes, sometimes nothing much happens at all. But other times, everything happens in the smallest of interactions. And I especially love all the icky stuff that goes on under the polished surface of things. A brief, seemingly dull conversation about “what did you do on the weekend?” between two moms or dads on the school playground seethes with passive-aggressiveness and one-upmanship and general misery with their lives, their jobs, their spouses. Ahhhh! I can’t get enough of that stuff. Though I have to be careful when those types of situations unfold because I tend to be a starer. Like, really obviously. And since frightening away the people I’m observing is counterproductive, I have to be more careful.
I know no writer ever wants to pick a favourite short story out of a collection, but is there a story that particularly surprised you in the writing of it?
My favourite story in Things Not to Do is “Not Being Shy.” There’s a tenderness to it that I’m quite proud of. Both my own tenderness toward Judy, my protagonist, and Judy’s tenderness toward her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend’s small daughter. I’m also very fond of “Prize.” I started writing that one to make fun of the idea of escape rooms after I first heard about them, but very quickly it evolved into this story that was very much alive, and the plot took a bunch of twists and turns that really excited me. It’s also one of my favourite stories to read aloud.
Did you consciously sit down to write a collection of short fiction? Or was it more like you were writing stories and you found a collection coming together? How do you know when you have a short story collection versus a bunch of stories?
I think the former situation applies more to Things Not to Do, and the latter to And Also Sharks. The manuscript for And Also Sharks that I submitted to Cormorant Books looked very different from the finished book—I ended up cutting a number of older, weaker stories and writing several new stories. I did have an overall theme going for that manuscript from the beginning, but my editor and publisher Marc Côté helped me see that several of my earlier stories didn’t fit, and/or weren’t strong enough to keep. He helped me hone in on what was working, and urged me to do more of that.
With Things Not to Do, the initial manuscript I submitted to Cormorant was much stronger and the collection was already fairly cohesive, thanks to the learning I did with And Also Sharks. I did cut a couple of weaker stories, but instead of writing new ones, I added the strongest material from the deleted pieces to some of the existing ones. Bryan Ibeas was my first-round editor for this book and he did such a marvelous job, adjusting and reshaping my stories and making them so much better. Then Marc swooped in with his keen insight for the final round of polishing. I think you know you’ve got a collection when the stories complement each other. They’re similar in tone, but have enough variation to keep things interesting. And when you put them all together in the right order and read them that way, there’s the rumbling sense of something building.
Humour seems relatively rare in short fiction, but it’s something you’re known for. Any advice on writing humour?
I like laughing a lot. My dad has a wonderfully dark sense of humour, so I grew up joking with him and watching SCTV and “funny-scary” movies like Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. But all along, the gallows humour I gravitated toward was balanced out by my mom’s kindness. As a result, I am the last person who will ever watch an actual horror movie, but I’m the first person to guffaw way too loudly when a character is horribly maimed in a comedy. Then I married a guy with a wicked, offbeat sense of humour who makes me laugh every day, and now we have a child who makes us laugh with her own beautifully bizarre sense of humour. For instance, my dad told me recently that our five-year-old daughter asked him to print and then cut out two photos of babies from the Internet, to make paper dolls. One baby should be very large, she said, and the other baby should be tiny—so that the big baby “can crush it.” That was a proud moment, haha. So basically, in this long-winded answer I’m saying that I’ve been steeped in the kind of humour I write since I was born. And my very basic advice is to stay true to what you personally think is funny. In my case, I wouldn’t say that I ever set out to write a “funny” story. Instead I’m drawn to situations that are ripe for comedy, often leaning heavily on social awkwardness, and from there, the humour (I hope) arises naturally. And I love the humour that results from dramatic irony, because I’m especially fascinated by people who lack self-awareness. And yet I would never hold a character up for ridicule—not completely. I need to find a way to empathize with even my creepiest characters, because without some compassion to balance things out, the story will fall flat for me.
What’s been your biggest challenge as a writer? How do you work through it?
My biggest challenge so far is finishing the novel I’m currently working on. I wrote the first draft crazy-quickly, but I’ve since realized, to my great dismay, that it’s far from completion. I’m trying to figure out how to combine suspense and humour in a way that feels right to me, and that’s been proving annoyingly tricky.
What are you working on these days?
That damn novel I mentioned. But I do actually love it. No, I don’t. Yes, I do! I love you, Novel. Please be good to me.
Sonal Champsee’s short fiction and essays have been published by magazines such as The New Quarterly, Ricepaper, and Literary Mama. She was a finalist for the Writer’s Union of Canada’s 2017 Short Prose Competition for Emerging Writers. Sonal holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC, and lives in Toronto.