Tuesday, September 11, 2007

12 or 20 questions: for Jessica Westhead
Jessica Westhead is a Toronto writer who has published stories in litmags such as The Antigonish Review, Matrix, THIS Magazine, Geist, Taddle Creek, Forget Magazine, Word, and Kiss Machine. Her fiction was also included in the anthology Desire, Doom & Vice: A Canadian Collection, and her short-story chapbook, Those Girls, was published by Greenboathouse Books in 2006.

She has been involved in Toronto’s literary scene since 1999, when she unleashed her poetry winner zines (a tell-all exposé of the National Library of Poetry, aka poetry.com) on the Small Press Book Fair. Jessica has been featured in several local reading venues, including the Idler Pub Reading Series, Lexiconjury, Pontiac Quarterly, Pages’ This Is Not A Reading Series, and the I.V. Lounge. She also volunteered as a co-organizer of the 2004 Scream Literary Festival Gala. And somehow, on a perfect Cinderella evening, she and her literary partner in crime, Sarah Selecky, crashed the 2003 Giller Awards.

Jessica originally hails from Whitby, and studied English at Trent University. She works part-time as a freelance editor, but has also racked up a lifetime’s worth of “permanent” and temporary office jobs, as a receptionist, filer, photocopier, telemarketer, data-entry clerk, and transcriptionist.

Pulpy and Midge (Coach House Books, Fall 2007), a story about an orange juice legacy, love, and the perils of office life, is her first novel. It’s launching, office-party-style, in Toronto on Tuesday, September 25 at the Gladstone Hotel (with further readings in places like Ottawa and Edmonton). For more details have a look at: http://www.chbooks.com/content/?q=events/sept_25_pulpy_and_midge_office_party
1 - How did your first book change your life?

I have to say it's made me quite gleeful. I was a fairly happy person already, so I didn't need a published book to get that way... But ever since I was a little kid I've dreamed about getting a book published by a press that really cared about my writing. And then it actually happened! So THAT was pretty freakin' awesome.

2 - How long have you lived in Toronto, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?
I've lived in Toronto since the summer of 1998. I started off at the west end of the Annex, and now I'm on the Danforth. I guess city life in general has an effect on my writing, mainly because I write about office life a lot... But I don't reference Toronto in particular in my work--I like to keep things sort of faceless. Ditto, race- and gender-wise.

3 - Where does a piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I usually start with a few lines of dialogue (overheard or imagined), and then I'll see if characters emerge from that conversation. And if I've got an idea for a plot, I'll try to figure out how that conversation between those characters might have something to do with that plot, and then I'll attempt to build the story from there. I'm definitely a person who begins with shorter pieces, but in the process of writing Pulpy and Midge I learned the importance of considering the "big picture" (i.e. plot) as well. Years ago, before I started Pulpy and Midge, I wrote a novella about a girl and her mascot boyfriend, in which I basically just cobbled together a bunch of (what I thought were) amusing scenes. And it fell totally flat because I had no idea where the story was going, so I scrapped it--which was hugely liberating, at least once I stopped thinking about all the effort I'd put into the project.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
Definitely part of it. I love doing readings, and getting an audience's reaction to my work. Way before I had anything published, I was doing public readings. When I'm working on a story, I sound out scenes in my head to see if they'll read well out loud. Considering a live audience also helps my writing process because it makes me think about whether or not a scene makes sense--when you're onstage reading your work to people who aren't familiar with it, you want those people to be able to follow along. Because if your audience gets confused, you've lost them.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Hmm. I don't think I set out to shine a light on any big, serious issues when I write a story. But when I look at the majority of my fiction, certain themes do seem to pop up over and over again. I have a thing about personal space and personal boundaries, and what happens when those boundaries are crossed (usually something bad). And I'm also fascinated by the small ways that people mistreat each other, and get away with it.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
So far I've only had really great experiences with the people who've edited my work, so for me it's been an essential part of the process. I'm also an editor myself, so I have a lot of respect for what editors can do for a piece of writing.

7 - When was the last time you ate a pear?
A few weeks ago. I think it was a Bosc. I meant to eat it with cheese, but then I ate the cheese without the pear so I just cut the pear up on a salad. Which maybe wasn't as delicious as a pear with cheese, but it was still a good salad.

8 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I've got three: 1) "A writer writes." -Lorne Hicks (a wise and hilarious man I know) 2) "You're not invisible! They can see you!" -Derek Wuenschirs (my husband--he hisses this in my ear whenever I'm staring open-mouthed at the people I'm eavesdropping on; I'm near-sighted and don't wear my glasses too often, so I figure since the talking people are blurry to me, I'm just as blurry to them) 3) (I'm paraphrasing here, but only slightly:) "Wake up and enjoy every day you've got--life's too short to be miserable. Also, when you see a bench in a mall, sit on it. Ahhh, benches." -Marion "Matriarch" Westhead (my 93-year-old grandmother)

9 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
When I've got a story going, I like to write in the mornings-- usually for three or four hours at a time. If I'm between stories, I don't have much of a routine... I try to carry paper and a pen with me at all times, so if an idea or some overheard dialogue grabs me I can write it down right away. I usually start a story from one of those scribbled ideas--I'll type them up and start a computer file for the story, and then I'll print out a hard copy that I can write on. Then I'll transcribe that new text into the electronic file and maybe print it out once more--which is not very tree-friendly, but I have a hard time generating new ideas when I'm sitting at the computer. Walking helps to get me thinking, and so does commuting on public transit. I also like to sit in pubs and write, but I have to start out drinking tea and THEN a beer, because if I start out with beer, I lose all concentration. Because writing's fun and all, but I love beer. A lot.

10 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I like to read "how-to" writing-craft books that have been recommended to me. That way, I can justify not writing because I'm still doing something writing-related--not beating up on myself for not writing is definitely half the battle. Plus, often in the middle of reading one of these books I'll suddenly be struck by an idea, and then I'll start writing something. Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft is excellent, and I'm currently reading and enjoying How to Become a Famous Writer Before You're Dead by Ariel Gore, and From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction by Robert Olen Butler.

11 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?
Aside from the scrapped novella, I only wrote short stories before Pulpy and Midge. I celebrate whenever I finish a short story, but when I finished writing the novel, I went all out. Sparkling wine, chocolate, Kool & The Gang. That was a really good day. Writing a novel is hard!

12 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I'm definitely influenced by the books I read... But when I'm reading, I'm reading--I'm not also thinking about my own writing. But I've noticed lately that when I'm around other creative people who are doing their (non-literary) thing, I'm able to slip into that wonderful, dreamy headspace where writing ideas float around. For example, if I'm at a concert and I'm enjoying it but I'm not totally into whatever song the band is playing at the moment, or if I go along with my photographer-husband on a picture-taking jaunt and just stand back and watch him snap away, then I can pretty easily enter that blissful right-brain state where a story starts revealing itself to me. This usually only happens when I'm in the midst of working on a particular piece, though.

13 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Some of the fiction writers I'm excited and inspired by are Raymond Carver, Lynn Coady, Ernest Hemingway, Amy Hempel, David Mamet, Lorrie Moore, George Saunders, Sarah Selecky, Russell Smith, and Craig Taylor. As for writings, I'd say certain writing-craft books, like the ones I mentioned in my #10 answer. And I'm also in love with my old, battered copy of Roget's College Thesaurus In Dictionary Form--a gift from my English-teacher dad, ages ago.

14 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a second novel. Mmm, yeah.

15 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Well, I'm currently a writer and a freelancer editor, and I love being both. But if were to pick a totally different occupation just for the heck of it, I'd say a professional sports player. Any sport. That would be pretty cool, because I totally suck at all of them. And I don't even watch sports. I don't like sports at all. I wouldn't say I hate them, because hate is a pretty strong word. But if I was suddenly amazing at a competitive sport, I would like to make a million dollars playing it.

16 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I've just always wanted to write, and I've always written. Instead of running a lemonade stand when I was a kid, I sold my stories on our front lawn (never mind that my only customers were my parents and my babysitter--my dad still raves about my grade 2 epic "The Zombie Cats: My Scariest Dream"). I wrote and put on plays with neighbourhood kids in our garage. I loved The National Enquirer and The Weekly World News, so I made up my own versions. In my Grade 12 Drama class I wrote and acted in plays and the cinematic triumph, "Five Youths Spend a Weekend at an Old, Deserted Cabin and Die Violently." And several years ago I was telling my friend Cyla about my fears of "not making it" as a writer, and wondering whether I should give up, and she shrugged and said in this great, deadpan way, "Well, what else are you going to do?" And I didn't have an answer for her, so I figured I should just keep writing.

17 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The last great book I read was Lorrie Moore's Birds of America. Her writing makes my eyes bug out of my head. The last great movie I saw was Superbad--I haven't laughed that hard in a theatre since I don't know when.

18 - What are you currently working on?

I'm in between finishing up a collection of short stories, and turning some longer, related stories into a novel. This was fun-- thanks for the interview, rob!

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