This is Jessica Westhead, author of And Also Sharks here to share her thoughts on writing, crafting characters, and her fascination with social awkwardness.
1. What drew you in to writing? How did you get started?
I can’t pinpoint anything exactly that drew me to writing–I feel like I’ve just always written. Since I was a kid, I was making up stories, and making little books out of those stories. I wrote plays, cast neighbourhood kids in the roles, and staged performances in our garage (mostly rip-offs of productions I’d seen with my parents–my masterpiece was a remount of Dracula complete with flying-bat-on-a-string special effects;) and I made my own versions of my favourite tabloids with fake news and illustrations.
2. What motivates your writing?
I’m actually so fascinated by socially awkward, unhappy, and unfulfilled characters that sometimes I worry I’m writing myself into a corner. I think maybe I need to bust out and write about something totally different…but then I’ll be walking down the street behind an older couple, and the wife says to her husband, hopelessly, “If you still want the onion powder, we could get it now.” And the husband replies with a sigh, “No, it’s okay. We’re probably fine for a little while.” And I’m in heaven imagining the relationship between these two sad people. So, what can you do?
3. How do you relate most to the characters in And Also Sharks?
I was fairly quiet and shy in high school, and was really insecure in social situations (beyond those with my family and close friends.) I’m a lot more social today, but overall I’m still an introvert–I can only handle so many big crowds. So I have a tender spot for those people who are unsure of and anxious about their place in the world, and who stumble around trying to figure out where they fit in. The majority of my characters in And Also Sharks are like that, so I relate to most of them.
4. Of your works, do you have a favourite story or character?
I have a few favourite characters, but the one I’m thinking of right now is Lee-Ann, who is a bit player in my story “Our Many-Splendoured Humanity” in And Also Sharks. She’s this passive-aggressive goof of a boss who annoys the crap out of Deb, the main character. In one scene Lee-Anne is eating St. Hubert chicken in Deb’s cubicle, and her hands are all greasy and she drinks the sauce right out of the container and says, “Mmm, this is good chicken sauce.” I love that part!
5. What advice can you give aspiring writers?
Attend other writers’ readings and book launches. Support your independent booksellers. Read, read, read. Get some peer writers together in a writing group, meet regularly to critique each other’s new work, and encourage and learn from each other. Help to thicken your skin by treating your writing like a business (not while you’re writing, of course, but when you have something ready to submit)—for instance, keep a record of where and when you send something for publication (and the result.) Be kind to yourself, and to your fellow writers (and everybody, really.)
6. What book do you recommend everyone to read? How come?
Joy Williams’ short story collection Honored Guest amazed the hell out of me. I read it as I was finishing up And Also Sharks, and it showed me a way of writing that just really clicked for me. It’s hilarious and weird and dark and sad, and deceptively simple—so much is going on beneath the surface of her everyday situations. There’s something shimmering and surreal about her fiction—it’s a little odd (in the best possible way), but hard to put your finger on why.
7. What’s in the works for you in the near future?
I’m currently working on another short story collection that I’m starting to get pretty excited about.
8. How do you keep your life playful & brilliant?
The most important thing for me is balance. My energy spirals up when I take a bit of time just for myself to do something frivolous that makes me happy, like go to a movie or bike around aimlessly or eat really good ice cream. And when I spend time with my husband and our baby daughter, especially doing stuff that’s outside the “okay-let’s-get-this-done-let’s-make-lunch-let’s-get-dressed-let’s-clean-up-the-toys-let’s-pack-the-diaper-bag” obligation parts of the daily routine. Derek and I like exploring random fancy hotels–and it just so happens that a small child is the ultimate credibility prop. It’s also fun letting Luisa crawl around in places that aren’t technically intended for that use. The Bay’s furniture department, for example, is a baby-crawling wonderland.
Thanks for sharing with us, Jessica. I love your curiosity of the elderly couple with the onion powder. That would definitely put me in heaven too! Such a touch of ordinary.