The characters in Jessica Westhead’s stories often refrain from speaking their minds. It’s the kind of self-censorship that, Westhead believes, can kill your best writing. “Get it down, no matter what. If it scares you, your fiction will probably be the better for it."
Westhead’s short story collection And Also Sharks (Cormorant Books, 2011) was a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book, a nominee for the CBC Bookie Awards and a ReLit Award, and a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Short Fiction Prize. In 2012, CBC Books named Westhead one of the “10 Canadian women writers you need to read now.” She lives in Toronto.
"He Will Speak to Us," Westhead's short story in the Fall issue of Maisonneuve, is told from the perspective of the father of a teen singing sensation as he sucks back beer and reminisces at a media event organized around his son's public apology. The piece examines the subtle and overt effects of celebrity culture on family and fans alike.
Westhead spoke with Erica Ruth Kelly (who, incidentally, also has a piece in our Fall issue) about writing, motherhood, food, and futuristic ewoks.
Erica Ruth Kelly: I understand that in the past year, you've become a mother. Congratulations! Has parenthood affected your writing in any way? Has it affected your process or the content?
Jessica Westhead: Thank you! I love being a mum, and I enjoy seeing how it's been affecting my fiction. Before my daughter came along, I used to worry that having a child might have a negative impact on my writing. That I'd never have any time, and/or be totally exhausted and lose the inclination to write, etc. I would corner writer-parents at parties and demand to know how they made it all work. And the most common answer I heard is now my own reality—"When you have time, you use it." Pre-baby, I'd have oceans of free time and I'd waste most of it. Well, "waste" might be a bit harsh--I wasn't doing NOTHING, but I also wasn't doing as much writing as I could have been. Now, when I have a few hours to myself at a café, I'm scribbling new ideas in my notebook or fixing up short stories in progress. Which is not to say I've been incredibly prolific since my daughter was born—I've written two new stories in just over a year. But since I don't have the luxury of procrastinating anymore, there's also the danger of being TOO go-go-go. It becomes extra important to give my brain the chance to shut off occasionally—I'm still working on that.
Content-wise, babies seem to be creeping into my fiction lately, even if they just end up with a cameo. And my stuff is getting a lot darker. I was talking to a friend recently and wondering why that would be the case, when I've got this amazing tiny person now who makes me laugh every day. He very wisely suggested, based on his own thoughts around the same subject, that maybe it's because suddenly I have so much more to worry about. You have this completely vulnerable being entrusted to your care, and if you let yourself get overwhelmed by all the possible bad things that could happen…well, there's the darkness.
ERK: I couldn't help but notice that food is often a focal point in your work, whether it be ham casseroles, macaroni salad, or cream cheese and bagels. How do you feel food works within your stories?
JW: I write about a lot of food that I don't actually eat. Maybe it's a wish-fulfillment thing…"Mmm, I'd really like a [insert junk food here], so I'll get my character to eat one." I'm not saying I never eat junk food, but my characters consume way more of it than I do. I can't pinpoint any motivation beyond that... I guess I could say that the empty calories speak to the emptiness of my characters' lives, but I've never consciously set out to make that point—it just occurred to me right now!
ERK: In the latest issue of Maisonneuve, it's written that you are fascinated by the bad behaviour of famous people. "He Will Speak to Us" seems to speak to the idea that famous people can have a different set of values—certain things seem forgivable whereas others are not. The dad appears to forgive his son's crime, and forgives himself for flirting with a prepubescent girl, but can't forgive the fact that his son hasn't mentioned the raisins he used to put on the cream cheese the dad would slather on a bagel. Do you feel that one's sense of morality might get warped with celebrity?
JW: I think the whole raisins-on-the-bagel thing sticks in the dad's craw so much because he sees it as his son taking a deliberate dig at him (whether he is or not). He interprets the omission of this childhood detail as a hidden message designed to piss him off. But I'm pretty sure he wants to forgive his son for this transgression too. Ultimately he's a sad, lonely man who misses his kid, and feels abandoned by him. But he's also living in a dreamworld because—aside from one idyllic memory that may or may not be real—he wasn't the greatest father, and he and his son never had a good relationship. As for the idea of a warped morality…yes, I think that can happen with celebrity. It's the absolute-power-corrupts-absolutely thing, right? Even non-celebrities, when they become infused with self-importance, can fall into this trap. For instance, me. I was a quiet, shy, nerdy girl in high school, but when I got to university I felt freer to be myself and was much more outgoing. I made a bunch of friends and my confidence increased, and I remember that for a while there I was flying high over my newfound popularity, and I became a little delusional. Once, I had a small part in a community-theatre production, and two of my new friends very kindly came to see me in the play. Afterwards, we planned to go out for a drink together, but I still had all my make-up on (I was portraying some sort of futuristic Ewok-type creature—I didn't even have any lines) so I asked my friends if they wouldn't mind if we went back to my place first so I could take a quick shower. They very sweetly agreed to wait in my living room. The thing is, they were both my friends, but they didn't know each other very well. So that meant they'd basically agreed to sit and engage in awkward conversation. Any normal, considerate person would have performed their ablutions as quickly as possible. However, giddy with my performance and flush with what I interpreted to be the awestruck admiration of my peers...I TOOK A BATH. A long one. I LOUNGED in the tub. Somehow I had the ridiculous notion that my pals would be thrilled to sit twiddling their thumbs while I took, like, an HOUR getting ready to go out. What was I thinking?? Ultimately, they were wonderful friends and they DID wait for me. But they both took me to task for taking advantage of their goodness (which had at least given them plenty to talk about while they twiddled their thumbs). I think we all still went for a drink after that, but I was rightfully chastened. So there's my experience of being warped by my own (completely imagined) celebrity.