Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Author Interviews @ Pickle Me This: Jessica Westhead

I wanted to be friends with Jessica Westhead from the moment I met her, which was at a writing workshop for high school students we both participated in last May. Afterwards we walked down Spadina in the sunshine, and I was so impressed by her warmth, enthusiasm, her kindness and generosity. Over the past year, we’ve kept in touch, and I’ve been recommending her novel Pulpy & Midge to friends and family, and I also had the pleasure of hearing her read from her short stories at Pivot this winter.

On the rainy afternoon of Sunday March 29, Jessica came over to my house for tea and scones, and we sat in my kitchen discussing Whitby and Peterborough, our infinitely loveable husbands, literary people we adore, and the many joys of two-storey apartments. And by the time we’d moved into the living room to start the interview proper, the sun had come back out.

I: You write stunning dialogue. How do you get the rhythms down, and are you an eavesdropper?

JW: I am totally an eavesdropper. This is less about dialogue and more about me observing, but I remember years ago, [my husband] Derek and I went to Licks for Valentines Day—very romantic of us, heehee. We were in line and this couple came in and sat down in front of us, and the guy got up to go to the bathroom and the woman was alone there at the table. I need glasses for distance, and when I’m not wearing them and people are far away from me, I always think I’m just as blurry to them as they are to me. So a few seconds later, Derek had to say, “You’re totally staring at that person.” But I was just intrigued by the woman and what she would do when she was by herself. That’s the voyeuristic side of me.

The eavesdropping side is that I’m always listening to people talk. I used to be more interested in the content of what they were saying, if they were saying something really interesting or exciting, but over the years it’s gotten to be more about the rhythm, and what’s not being said. I really like people talking about nothing and how they—what I’m doing right now, fragments of sentences and I’m not speaking in complete thoughts, and I’m all over the place, and that’s how people really speak to each other. And I think dialogue rings false when people try to make it sound really fully formed.

I: What’s the most remarkable thing you’ve ever overheard?

JW: The first thing that comes to mind, I turned into a short story, which was one of my only short stories that was all dialogue and actually worked. It was two girls on a GO Train. I was on my way to Whitby and they were sitting behind me. And I never actually saw them, I only heard their voices, and how they talked—it was brilliant. Just the teenage voices they were using. I pieced together what happened just from their dialogue. They’d gotten into a car accident the night before, and I think it was a speed-racing accident and they were just talking like, “Oh, my God, we just got in a car accident.” “We almost fucking died—that was huge.” “What are you gonna tell your mom?” “I’m not gonna tell my mom shit...” and it was all this stuff that came out about their families, and their friends, and I was furiously scribbling down what they were saying, and then I got scared because I thought they were these big scary girls who’d see I was writing about them and beat me up.

I: Teenagers are frightening.

JW: Yes, I got a little skittish.

I: Your novel Pulpy & Midge has been compared to The Office and Dilbert—a television show and a comic strip. What do you think of these comparisons?

JW: I think having it compared to The Office is definitely complimentary on the one hand because it’s a brilliant show, but when that first came up I was a little annoyed because I started writing Pulpy & Midge way before I ever saw The Office. But then of course everything is influenced by everything else.

I: They probably got The Office from Pulpy & Midge.

JW: Of course! I’m totally convinced and have a lawsuit in progress, haha... But I don’t think the comparisons are trivializing. I mean, just because the book is funny and set in an office, that’s why those comparisons were made, and just because Dilbert is shy. My characters are cartoonish but I like to think they have different layers as well. Pulpy and Midge are the more complex ones, but I tried to write Dan and Beatrice to be a little bit sympathetic as well. And the receptionist, who is sympathetic but mean to Pulpy at the same time. Some people have said she’s their favourite character in the book because she has all these different layers.

I: And she’s such a receptionist. She misses parties because she has to cover the desk—

JW: So unfair.

I: And she’s constantly put-upon, because she has to buy cards and flowers and cakes, and has to be the eyes and ears of the place, and it’s a lot of weight on her shoulders.

JW: I started writing the book—and this is the answer to the “Have you ever worked in an office?” question—when I was an unhappy receptionist. It was my first real job, and I’d applied for it, I’d got it and I was getting something like $20,000 a year, and I thought that was incredible. But I quite quickly started seeing that people were mean at this company, and treated each other badly, and abused power, but I also like that people would just have whole conversations in front of me, like I was a piece of furniture. I got all sorts of ideas from it.

I: You’d also have a computer to write on, and lots of free time, as long as no one’s looking at your screen.

JW: And no one really did. It was a great job for that.

I: But in some ways the comic comparison is understandable. Any workplace comes to take on the same dimensions, in that the petty is magnified, politicized. Minute details take on enormous significance. What about this environment seemed ripe to you for fictionalization?

JW: Before I had this book published, someone asked what I thought the book was about, and I said, “Well, it’s about how it’s not nice to be mean to people” and they said, “That’s not a great catchphrase.” But there just seems to be so much meanness, and there’s no good reason for it except abuse of power—in this workplace in particular, but I’ve worked in so many offices over the years as a temp, where you’re also in a neutral position where people treat you badly because you’re a temp, but they’ll also tell you all kinds of stuff about other people because you’re not threatening. And so I think I took away the cartoonish aspect of mean people who are lording over the peons.

I: There is a language peculiar to office life that you make use of in Pulpy & Midge—slogans on mugs, and kitten posters hanging in cubicles with “Thank God It’s Friday,” and corporate bullshit that means nothing. What was your experience of putting this into prose?

JW: It was fun. Actually, the naming of the mugs was a very good time.

I: Did the mug have drafts?

JW: Well, the duck mug came from my time as a receptionist. It wasn’t exactly my mug, but I just remember loving it, and loving those types of mugs that people have. They’re little talismans which are so important, and you only have so many boundaries at an office, and so when someone crosses them, it’s a big deal. And I just remember this stupid mug with the cartoon duck, and I’d written the exact wording down years ago—“Not another crisis! My schedule’s full!!” And it’s so stereotypical of how a receptionist is, but kind of true. The other mug ideas were just made up, and they came to me pretty quickly. It was fun.

I: At one point the receptionist says, “Work and home... That’s all there is. I get up, I go to work, I go home. Repeat.” And Pulpy tells her, “We all do the same thing.” Which is sort of depressing, particularly when you realize how many of us actually do. For your characters, and for everyone, what is the alternative to this?

JW: At the end of Pulpy & Midge, some people thought, “Oh, Pulpy should just blow everybody away,” or “Blow up the office,” or something crazy and violent like that. Other people thought that he should leave the job, and in earlier drafts, I think he was going to. The ending is very quiet, but Pulpy is a quiet person, and his actually touching Dan and telling him to leave him alone, and to leave his wife alone—that fits his trajectory. But also you know he’s going to work the next day, or the next Monday, and he’ll have to see Dan again, but things are going to be different.

Not everyone can just quit their job and pursue something else, but still, every time someone quits a job that they don’t like, my first response is to hoot and holler and be very excited for them—but some people aren’t in a position to be able to do that, and we’re very lucky, those of us who can. But I think just being able to carve out your own niche at a job is important. It’s about being able to make it as good as possible for yourself and not letting other people walk over you. Pulpy has a victory because he likes the job, but he’s been so miserable with his new boss, so he finally takes a stand. These small victories matter.

I: Every day at lunchtime, Pulpy goes to the payphones at the food court to call his wife. He is ever-devoted, but the system isn’t convenient—he has to wait for the phone, he ends up spilling food on himself, he has to contend with teenagers taking up multiple payphones for “conference calls.” I want to know, why didn’t you give Pulpy a cellphone, the great modern fiction writer’s pass for easy plot twists? What does it mean about Pulpy as a character that he doesn’t have one?

JW: I think it says a lot about him that he will not make a personal call at work, and clearly this is something he’d established before Dan came on the scene. It’s not just his fear of authority, but he has a strict work ethic, and personal calls aren’t appropriate, but Midge is important to him, and he prioritizes her. And I love the idea of him having to talk to her on a payphone. Cellphones are so ubiquitous now, and it would be easier if he had one, but I see Pulpy and Midge as relics of a slightly earlier time. They’re innocent and they don’t have to jump on bandwagons. He’d still have to leave the office to use his cellphone anyway.

I: I think there is only one instance in the whole novel where Pulpy is actually working. With this, what are you trying to say about modern corporate culture?

JW: Really, that’s been my experience. The office jobs I’ve worked in, the temp jobs, it’s the feeling of literally filling a seat from 9 to 5. I learned over the years that to be a good temp, you don’t ask people for work, because they’re too busy, or they’re too busy trying to look busy. They don’t want you to realize that they’re doing nothing all day. For jobs like this where you’re just paying the bills, the work really wasn’t the point. The social side meant more. These are people you spent more time with than you do with your family, and I just thought that was really interesting—especially when you’re just a cog in the wheel.

I: Pulpy’s boss, Dan says, “Oh, the joy of it... Of this! Of me and you, here, doing work. Doing our jobs. If it wasn’t for men like us, being in offices, accomplishing things, then where would we be?” Can you answer his question, Jessica? Where would we be?

JW: Well, of course that’s just bullshit. But I did wonder how I was making money at these jobs, because they were so easy, so pointless. And I think there are people—some great people, some strange people—who like that type of work where you don’t necessarily have a point. But at least you have a place to go every day, people to see, a seat to fill, so I think while there’s a lot of people doing those jobs who can’t stand it, some people don’t want to do anything else.

I: But those people maintain this illusion that anything is actually going on.

JW: And they’re terrified that somebody’s going to expose them. But there is a point to it all, I guess. It’s commerce, like Dan says.

I: You’ve written a comic novel. Do you take humour seriously?

JW: It’s funny, because I get freaked out when people call my work funny. I should be flattered, but especially, it was the comparison to The Office, and I panicked because, I think of people going to comedy shows, and there’s always that guy sitting there going, “Oh, yeah—you’re funny? Make me laugh, funny man.” And so, especially when I do readings, I’m afraid someone is going to introduce me as “Comic Writer, Jessica Westhead!” because I don’t think of myself that way, and then there’s that expectation. I think of myself as writing literary fiction that has some humour and some sadness. I just want people to not know what to expect, though I guess eventually as you publish more books and get some sort of reputation, people end up pigeonholing you in certain ways.

But the funny I like—like the humour in Lorrie Moore who’s one of my favourite writers—though I didn’t actually discover her until I was done Pulpy & Midge—it’s a lot of darkness and sad stuff, but I don’t think you can have one without the other. So I think when people talk about humorous writers, like Lynn Coady, who’s a really great writer and she writes a lot of funny stuff—

I: Mean Boy is so good!

JW: Mean Boy is wonderful. But it’s not just budda-bing, joke-joke, punchline. We laugh because the humour is so organic to the piece and that’s what I really hope happens in my writing. The humour that I like comes out of uncomfortable social situations, which in Pulpy & Midge is all over the place, and in my short fiction I address that too. I’m just happy when I can make myself laugh, but that’s only when I’m really in the writing. It has to come naturally, because if you set out to write something funny, 90% of the time it fails. It has to grow out of the piece.

I: Is humour taken seriously by the literary establishment?

JW- I don’t think so. I was reading somewhere about Douglas Coupland, how it’s like he’s in a separate canon because he writes funny. He’s won awards, but he gets awards in different categories. Like how at the Oscars, comedies almost never win, and I don’t understand that, because writing humour is quite difficult.

I: Who are some other comic writers, however dark, that you like?

JW: Definitely George Saunders, who’s amazing. I really like Russell Smith’s writing, and he gives great readings as well. My friend Sarah Selecky, who’s got a book of short stories coming out in Spring 2010 with Thomas Allen. I’ve been friends with her for a long time and her stories are great, with these sparkling moments of humour that are so organic. And Meg Wolitzer, who’s a wonderful storyteller. Like Lorrie Moore, I wouldn’t say she’s a “comic writer,” but those are the writers I like. George Saunders isn’t comic either, he’s literary, but so much of his stuff is funny. It’s almost like when someone says someone is a comic writer, it just limits them somehow, which is strange. It’s writing with humour in it—I like to think that about my stuff as opposed to it being comic.

I: What are your fixations as a writer? What do you deal with over and over again?

JW: Well, definitely dialogue. I love writing it, and I love the way that people speak. Peter Darbyshire, whose writing I like a lot, years ago read one of my short stories and he took time to meet with me for lunch and he very kindly told me, “You write really great domestic dialogue, but there’s nothing in between. You’ve got to think about what’s between the lines.” And now that’s what I really try to do. Of course you can have the most banal dialogue, and it’s funny because it’s banal, but there has to be something going on beneath the surface. So it’s trying to guess someone’s story when I’m listening to them speak, and the pauses or stuff they don’t say, and of course it’s just me inserting my own ideas, but that’s what I love about dialogue.

I’m also fascinated by—and it’s pretty clear from Pulpy—shy, quiet characters who require a massive effort to speak up for themselves. I used to be really shy in high school and I’m more outgoing now, but I’m fascinated with how I used to be. But I also have a lot of sympathy for people who are introverted and shy because I’m still that way lots of the time. Shy people, quiet people, insecure people, I definitely keep going back to that. The humour of awkward social situations, how you get out of them and deal with them.

I: How do you name your characters?

JW: The name Pulpy was just such a gift—I have no idea where it came from. It began in a very short story where Pulpy and Midge were at an office party, and it was bizarre, they were different characters, but the essence was still there. She had earrings, and she’d spiked cocktail shrimp onto her ears and had Pulpy eat them off, which was strange, and Pulpy was always Pulpy and Midge was always Midge. Dan and Beatrice also, but they came later.

Right now I have a basic outline of a character and it keeps coming to me in fits and starts but the worst part is I don’t know the name, so it’s not really born in my head yet. The name is very important to me. I know people who can just make up a name and then switch it later on, but I’m just hesitant about that. I once named the character in an early idea for a story and it died right away because that just wasn’t who she is. Sometimes what I do—you know when you get spam in your inbox? I get inspired by the random names that come in. And I go to baby-name websites for ideas. I get more confident if I have a name, and if it isn’t right, it just nags me.

I: What writers were your early influences, and how have your tastes in literature changed since then?

JW: I actually remember pretty vividly, my dad who’s a retired English teacher, getting exasperated with me because I used to read Sweet Valley High, Dean R. Koontz, and Stephen King but...

I: He’s literary now.

JW: Exactly. And Flowers in the Attic. I feel like I squandered years reading this useless stuff, but they were page-turners. I certainly don’t think they were influences, but they were fun to read. Over the years I’ve discovered authors that friends have suggested to me, but that’s what first comes to mind. I also think of Gordon Korman, and Eric Wilson. I loved the Eric Wilson mysteries.

I: I joined his club! I used to get his newsletters. With that brother and sister who solved mysteries at Canadian landmarks. Murder at Green Gables—I think that was one.

JW: I don’t have that one, but I have The Kootenay Kidnapper!

I: When did writing become a major occupation for you?

JW: Well, I’ve always written stories. It’s kind of exciting but also terrifying to know what you want to be since you were a kid, but I always wanted to write. When I was little I sold homemade books instead of lemonade on my front lawn. And I was always lucky in public school and high school to have teachers who took an interest in my writing.

I always thought writing was what I’d do. I didn’t know how I’d go about it, but both my parents were supportive, and never said I couldn’t do it. Even though my dad is more the reader in the family, reading my stories and critiquing them, my mom would seek out writing workshops or events for me. And she introduced me to my friend Jim Munroe, who taught me a lot about writing and the small-press scene, and I joined a writing group with him when I first moved to Toronto. I was in high school when I met him—my mom was working as a court reporter with Jim’s stepmom, and they made the connection that we were both writers and put us in touch.

I had some stories published when I was young, and in university, but university for me was more about having fun, not being serious about writing. I was really nerdy in high school, and then I got to university and I thought, “I’m going to have fun!” (but I still managed to get good marks, luckily). But I just thought writing would happen, and then I realized that I’d have to work at it. Jim introduced me to a lot of great Toronto literary people, and I remember going to literary events and launches with him and being so intimidated—not that I’m never intimidated now, but I guess less so than I was. So I came to understand that this was part of it—going to these events, supporting people, getting to know other writers and being part of a community. And without that introduction, it would have taken me longer to figure that out.

And also to understand that it’s about more than having random stories published. You have to have a plan, so it was about a year after I moved to Toronto in 1998 that I decided I was going to do this, and around the same time I quit this receptionist job and decided to start temping. I realized I couldn’t work at a full-time job, so I had to find a way to support myself doing part-time work, or do full-time work for a certain amount of time, quit, take time off to write and then find another job. Which worked for a while, until I started freelance editing, which has been great. But I just knew that if I didn’t make time for the writing, I wouldn’t do it. I wasn’t the kind of person who could work at a full-time job and make time for writing in the morning or at the end of the day. I’m just not disciplined enough.

I: What was the leap from short stories to a novel like? Was a novel a logical extension or was it something altogether different?

JW: I think what reassures me now, since I’m not sure what my next story is going to be but I think it’s going to be a novel, is that with the first draft of Pulpy & Midge, I never even considered it a draft. I just had these ideas based around Pulpy and Midge, and the receptionist who was very strong, but she was in a separate story and then I joined them. I made this skeleton manuscript from all of these connected ideas and ended up having 90 pages or something, so that was, in hindsight, the first draft.

Alana Wilcox, who was my editor at Coach House and incredible—she read a much later draft, of course—and she pointed out that it was structured like: Pulpy wakes up and talks to Midge, Pulpy takes the bus to work, Pulpy talks to the receptionist, Pulpy goes to his desk, talks to Dan and Beatrice, has problems, goes home, talks to Midge. Repeat the next day. That was it, and thank God for Alana, because she took it from 300-something pages down to 220 or 230, and I never thought I could lose that much material. But she said, “You needed that structure as a scaffold to help you build the novel, and now that you know the story, when you go through it again, all that unnecessary stuff will fall away.” And she gave me the confidence to go through it, and she was right.

The jump to novel-writing didn’t feel like a logical extension, though. I mean, it didn’t feel forced, because I was confident in the characters, but the next (second) draft was very flat. There was really no plot arc at all. And I know the plot arc now is not huge, but something still moves the story along. Plot didn’t come naturally to me, though. It’s getting easier now, but for a short story all you need is a moment, or a few moments, and a novel needs a series of events, and a beginning, middle, and end. But I had this structure that was scene-oriented, scene-driven, and I think probably my next novel will be too because that’s how I write. I had to write in these little bits, sections, for it to be able to flow. And it was quite exciting when I realized I could cut the scenes that didn’t matter, but I needed to write them initially to get the novel into being.

I: What book would you recommend every fiction writer to have read?

JW: I have an answer to that! Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. It’s amazing. I read it when I was halfway through Pulpy & Midge, and it talks about the craft of fiction in an accessible way, and gives great examples using some of my favourite writers.

I: What are you reading right now?

JW: I’m reading Elizabeth Ruth’s first book, Ten Good Seconds of Silence, and I’m really enjoying it. I’m also having fun reading Stripmalling by Jon Paul Fiorentino and illustrated by Evan Munday, who is the publicist extraordinaire and all-around good guy at Coach House. And I just finished reading Fruit by Brian Francis, which I loved.