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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Interview: Jessica Westhead

Jessica Westhead's recent short story collection is And Also Sharks (Cormorant, 2011). See also her website:

What's a recent short story you've read that reminded you why short stories are the greatest genre on earth? What was it about the story that set off fireworks?

That would be Greg Kearney's story "What to Wear" in his collection Pretty (Exile, 2011). There's a string of dialogue that had me laughing out loud, and then re-reading it because it was so much fun, and then I giddily read it to my husband when he asked what I was laughing about. In the scene, a middle-aged, HIV-positive gay man (the "I"), who's been deformed by the side effects of protease inhibitors, is being driven to dinner by his distracted sister:

"I'm so happy for you," I say. "Do you enjoy it? The personal training?"

"I love it! It's freaky how much I love it. Sometimes I just catch myself and I'm like, 'do you have any idea of how fulfilled you are?' And I totally don't. Because I'm just so happy."

"That is so great. Where are we going?"

"It's--FUCK OFF!" She slams on the brakes.

"What is it?" I say.

"That asshole is following too close behind me! Umm. Tammy's."


"The place I'm taking you. Is called Tammy's. It's on the Danforth. It's a--oh, what do you call it?"


"No. It's like a café, but like they have in Europe? You know..."

"A pizzeria?"

"No! Shut up! What is the fucking word I'm trying to think of? Bee--"


"Bistro! Shit! Thank you! Bistro."

There's so much going on in this seemingly simple exchange. And so much energy! The way the dialogue zips along between the two characters, the speed of the car, the way the conversation gets away from the protagonist, his sister's out-of-control all reflects how the protagonist's life (and appearance) has veered out of his control--it's all there.

There's hardly any narrative in this scene but I can picture it exactly, I'm right there with them. Kearney has a great ear for dialogue--he's got it down, and it's unique to his writing, as well. The way he captures his characters' slightly mannered ways of speaking is brilliant and hilarious.

The whole collection grabbed and delighted me this way. I loved it, and now I want to read more of his work.

Cats or dogs? Why?

My favourite is cats that act like dogs. You get all the neatness and quietness of cats, minus their sneakiness and plus canine friendliness. The ultimate would be a dog-like cat that was a kitten forever. Kittens are the best. Also, it would be furless but with the ILLUSION of fur. Bingo--no shedding or hairball puking.

Work-life balance is usually framed as work-time versus family-time, but for writers it can be work-work versus writing-work. Your short stories often take work-life as the subject (or at least framework) of the story. Is there something in particularly interesting (or absurd) about work-life that engages your imagination? Can you integrate examples from your book into your answer ....

I've worked at a ton of 9 to 5 office jobs (the majority of them as a temp). Always there was the eerily familiar atmosphere--the fluorescent lighting, the cubicle mazes, the photocopier room, the receptionist's desk, the kitchenette. And that surface civility that everyone has with each other, but underneath it, the whole place is seething with barely contained resentments and jealousies and ambitions and hopeless complacency.

It's an artificial environment with all these written and unwritten codes of conduct that have to be navigated, where alliances are formed and enemies are made. There's the thrilling freedom of the lunch break or the smoke break or the walk break, and the eager counting-down-the-days anticipation of the weekend or the week-long vacation. Then afterwards, trading wistful stories about how the weekend or the vacation went.

There is so much great (and absurd) stuff in all that!

One element that my office-themed stories have in common is the sense of being trapped. In "Our Many-Splendoured Humanity," a woman is constantly being corned in her cubicle by her boss, Lee-Ann. In "We Are All About Wendy Now," a dying employee can't even escape her co-workers in the hospital. It's funny, because only four of the 14 stories in And Also Sharks are office-themed, but lots of reference has been made to the office content. I think that's because it's something that resonates with a lot of people.

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