Uninterview: Watercooler talk with Jessica Westhead

I started reading Jessica Westhead‘s collection of short stories, And Also Sharks, around the same time as David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. They accompanied each other nicely, and both dealt with different aspects of Office Life – DFW’s massive tome is about boredom and the IRS, while Jessica’s stories are often about the petty, but real dramas that arise when you’re forced to spend 8 hours a day with people you wouldn’t normally choose to be friends with. It’s funny, work, how most of us spend significant chunks of our lives doing it, and yet it’s so rarely written about in fiction. I wanted to talk to Jessica about this. (Incidentally: while I devoured AAS in a week, I’m still 200 pages short on The Pale King. I’m getting there, I’m getting there.)


Actually, I just wanted to talk to her, period. If you aren’t familiar with Jessica Westhead, she’s as sweet and down-to-earth as they come. And funny! And Also Sharks is hilarious – dark, and sometimes crushingly sad – but mixed in with all of that, funny. On top of all of that, she’s also one of the founders behind the Year of the Short Story initiative, which we talk about below. There’s also some talk about a llama, but I’ll let you read that one yourself. There are a lot of links in this interview too – why don’t you kill a little time at your day job and check them all out, yeah?

TV: Many of your stories (your first novel too) revolve around the 9-5 working environment, a setting which tends to be overlooked in fiction. I suppose there’s something inherently unsexy about fluorescent lighting and cubicles? What is it about this setting that inspires you? You capture the weird/funny mini-dramas that happen when you work with near strangers 8 hours a day so perfectly – have you worked in similar environments?

JW: Thank you! I’m fascinated by the office environment because it’s such a strange and often hostile ecosystem. It’s a microcosm of society where many people are at their worst—bored, desperate, outraged, backstabbing, petty. I should point out, though, that I’m talking here about those office jobs where the workers are basically seat-filling cogs; not those where the employees actually want to be there (usually in more specialized fields, but not always). Before I started working more steadily as a freelance editor, which is how I make my living these days, I did tons of office temping. I’m a pretty easy person to get along with, and I worked hard, but I still encountered a lot of unhappy people at numerous placements who really didn’t like me. Once a supervisor asked me to compile a report for her, and then (I learned from a co-worker) she passed my work off as her own in a big meeting. Another time at a different office, my manager made me write up a list at the end of each day to account for every single task I’d performed. Of course, there were great people at these places too, who clearly enjoyed—or at least didn’t mind—their work and therefore had no beef with me. But I think mean people make for better fiction, so I was more intrigued by them. I certainly didn’t go around chirping, “I’m actually a writer, you know. This job is only TEMPORARY for me” (mostly I just kept my head down and kept mum about my outside interests), but many of my co-workers seemed simply to be jealous of my “just-passing-through” status. These were the complacent but clearly unfulfilled “lifers” who were miserable with their lot, but not motivated enough (or able) to make a change. They were stuck there, while I was “free” because everyone knew I wasn’t staying.

TV: I kind of want to hug some of your characters and tell them that things will be okay or recommend them to a psychiatrist or at least just give them a few books to read to expand their worlds a little. Do you have any characters in the book that you feel especially fond of? That you’re rooting for?

JW: I have a special soft spot for Shelley in “Coconut” because she’s clueless–and likely mentally unstable, and possibly dangerous as a result–but she still knows what she’s all about, and she goes after what she wants. Even if that means kidnapping a baby…but I don’t think she even really considers it kidnapping. I think she’s just borrowing him. She wants someone to keep her company and listen to her without judging, and a stolen baby turns out to be the perfect companion and sounding board.

TV: Tell me about YOSS! It seems like it’s been generating a lot of interest – what kinds of things have you been seeing?

JW: I am thrilled that YOSS is generating so much interest and support. Fellow short story writers Sarah Selecky and Matthew J. Trafford and I wanted to bring more attention to the beauty of the short story form, and a wider readership to short stories and collections. Basically, we were hoping to get more people talking about short stories—and reading them. And here people are tweeting about YOSS all over the place, and writing blog entries about it, and taking it on as their own personal challenge to read and write more short fiction! Here are just a few examples:

TV: As a writer, I love hearing about other writers’ writing processes. Can you tell me a bit about yours? Do you have a writing group, a set schedule, a special magic outfit you wear when you’re writing, a mantra?

JW: I don’t have a set writing schedule, though lately (while I don’t have any major projects I’m working on) I’ve been writing in a notebook for about 20 minutes most mornings. I write for longer stretches of time (and at different times of day) if I’m working on a specific story. Right now I’m just doodling and scribbling. I’ll usually do my notebook writing in our living room, on the couch. I have a little sunroom office where I do my computer writing. I don’t like to commit a piece of writing to the computer until I’ve sketched out a strong beginning, middle, and end in my notebook. Any of those can change at any time, but at least I’ve got a basic framework to start from. I’ll transcribe what I have into a Word document, then print that out, and handwrite more notes on the hard copy. Then transcribe those notes, and print out that draft, etc. (I recycle!) I’m in a four-member writing group called The Jupiter Group, and when we meet, we taking turns giving each other writing exercises and then reading our new work out loud to each other. There’s something really energizing and inspiring about that process. There’s a magic combination of “I want to impress these people, but I don’t feel pressured to be perfect.” Also, I keep a miniature llama by my desk. It was a free gift from a travel agency—I saw it advertised outside and walked in, and asked them if I could skip the mandatory info session and proceed directly to the gift, and they just gave me the llama!

TV: Will you be launching your book in other cities?I vote for Montreal! How did your Toronto launch go? It seems like it was a bit different from the regular book launch in a bar kind of thing – can you tell me how it came about? And how you managed to have not one, but TWO book trailers?

JW: I recently returned home from three weeks out west, where I read with Cara Hedley and Samantha Warwick at Calgary’s great indie bookstore Pages on Kensington, and I was on the roster for the W2 Real Vancouver Writers’ Series (as an “honourary Vancouverite”!). On Wednesday, June 15 I’ll be reading with Matthew J. Trafford and Linda Besner in St. Catharines for The Niagara Literary Arts Festival. And on Thursday, June 23, I’m going to be reading with Jennifer Whiteford and Iain Reid at Ottawa’s delightful indie bookstore Octopus Books (they made this amazing invite and everything!). I don’t have a Montreal date lined up yet, but I love Montreal, so I’m hoping to do that.

My Toronto launch was a blast! A friend recommended I check out the Toronto Underground Cinema, and it turned out to be the perfect venue. I wanted lots of people to come and drink and eat popcorn and watch shark movies and have fun, and that’s exactly what happened. I did a short reading, and we showed the two book trailers on the big screen, which I was really excited about. And we sold a bunch of books, bonus!

About the book trailers (which are basically commercials for my book)–I was inspired to make this trailer by my brilliant artist friend Rob Elliott, who’d suggested we figure out a way to combine his drawings and my writing. I started thinking about what we could do, and then I got two other great artist friends involved, Evan Munday and Aaron Leighton.

I gave each of them one story (so, three stories in total) from And Also Sharks, and asked them to draw two scenes each from their story. Then my friend Derek Humphrey composed the “Panama”-inspired soundtrack, and my friend Mike White did the video editing. When I saw the finished video, I was all like, “Yeah! I’m a PRODUCER!” Haha. I still bang my head to the music when I watch it.

And for the other trailer: In January 2008, I chose a silent film clip titled “Preparing Meals: 10-661D Dinner” to narrate for CounterNarratives that February. The event was curated by 8 Fest programmer Jonathan Culp and held at Stacey Case’s Trash Palace cinema, with performers giving live voice-overs to vintage educational shorts. I needed to make up a story to accompany footage of a faceless woman’s manicured hands assembling a meal of boiled and chopped hot dogs, diced onions, and a horrifying white sauce. And for dessert—a single glass of (possibly) juice, four bowls of what appeared to be watery Jell-O, and the reappearance of the white sauce in a wobbly (and presumably sweet!) form. With Bryan Ibeas at Cormorant Books, I recorded an excerpt of “And Also Sharks” (the title story in the collection) over a section of this film clip, then he added the creepy waltz soundtrack, and another book trailer was born!

TV: Thanks for answering my questions, Jessica! If you come to Montreal, I’ll totally cook you a meal involving chopped hot dogs and watery Jell-O as a thank you present. Promise. Oh wait.

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