Author Jessica Westhead; photo by Joel Charlebois/Torontoist.
Toronto author Jessica Westhead is happily married to a photographer named Derek, loves her Riverdale neighbourhood, and published her first novel, Pulpy & Midge, in 2007 to critical acclaim. Judging by such pleasantries, we wouldn’t be wrong in saying Jessica Westhead is a success. Happy. Satisfied.
But she wouldn’t want to write about someone like that in her stories.
“Someone who’s got it all together isn’t as interesting as someone who’s struggling. Writers are attracted to misfits because of that—they’re interesting,” she says.
In her new collection of short stories, And Also Sharks, Westhead explores society’s misunderstood characters: the office perv, the cat lady, the kleptomaniac, and the widowed neighbour are just a few of her protagonists, anti-heroes looking for fulfillment in all the wrong, misguided places. In the tradition of Napoleon Dynamite, The Office, Flight of the Conchords, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, the characters battle against crippling social ineptitude to lead simple, content lives. Yet like a sitcom, which usually leaves its characters in the same bumbling state they were in when they started, so too do these misfits retain their oddities at the end of their allotted ten pages.
“They’re just not quite fitting in, whether or not they know it,” Westhead explains. “There’s a yearning to fit in, to be liked, or to love yourself, but I’m fascinated by the moment you don’t get it.”
Sitting inside a popular chain coffee shop sipping warm drinks and chatting about these unfortunate souls, we can’t help but think that this would be the last place any of them would feel comfortable. If we were set in one of Westhead’s tales, the disgruntled plant caretaker of “The Plant Lady” or the self-help-obsessed loner in the title story “And Also Sharks” would certainly try their hardest to keep up with the friendly mumblings around us, but somehow it would only end up highlighting their social isolation. But even though they’re not exactly the most genial characters, Westhead’s expert use of dry wit and natural dialogue renders them entirely relatable, even likeable. Before we know it, and to our slight alarm, we even see bits of ourselves in their fumbled ventures for fulfillment. After all, who hasn’t seen a cute toddler on the street and thought how easy it would be to just snag him or her up and escape, with the mother none the wiser? …What?
“Well, she’s a bit wacky. I wanted to take that a bit further,” Westhead admits about the main character in “Coconut”—who actually acts upon this impulse. But the fact remains that the majority of Westhead’s neurotic narratives are based in true life. A notorious eavesdropper, the title story in her first chapbook Those Girls was directly inspired by a conversation between a trio of no-nonsense teen girls she overheard on the GO train. Two stories in And Also Sharks, in particular “The Plant Lady” and “The Healing Arts,” recount some seriously unfortunate interactions very similar to those that Westhead experienced herself. And she still wonders about the fate of a woman she spied on at a Lick’s years ago, who pulled out a mysterious piece of paper when her new date disappeared to the washroom.
“I love catching the little moments in people⎯the anecdotes, the drama between couples. I always think about what they’re like at home, what their story is, what they’re like with friends, with family. That means a lot to me.”
This is also what draws Westhead to the form of the short story, where small moments in the plot become crucial and large moments can become mundane. She says there’s no question that short story collections don’t sell as well as novels, often overlooked by the book-buying community as an option for their next reading project, so much that you could say the short story is the social misfit of the literary world. And, being a champion of eccentrics of all sorts, she’s even started an initiative to save the short story by declaring 2011 The Year of the Short Story.
And Also Sharks has already been picked as a book to look out for this spring and has a favourable review in the Globe and Mail, so Westhead seems more golden than ever. But like her characters in And Also Sharks, she counts herself as one who sometimes finds social interactions as off-putting and fear-inducing as the collection’s title.
“I’m an introvert by nature, I used to be really shy in high school. I’m very happy, but even now there are moments when I think ‘Am I good enough?’ ‘Does this outfit look good on me?’ You know, ‘Is this interview going well?’ [Writing stories] helps me exorcise those demons myself, because I like all the people in this book even though they’re fraught with insecurities. You know, together we can all move on.”
And Also Sharks is available now in bookstores and online through Indigo/Chapters and Amazon; the official launch takes place April 20 at the Toronto Underground Cinema (186 Spadina Avenue), 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., FREE.