One Question Interview: Jessica Westhead


Jessica Westhead’s fiction has been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards, selected for the Journey Prize anthology, and nominated for a National Magazine Award. Her stories have appeared widely in major literary journals. Her first novel Pulpy & Midge was nominated for the ReLit Award. Her critically acclaimed short story collection And Also Sharks was a Globe and Mail Top 100 book and a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Award. Her new collection of stories is called Things Not to Do.

I’m really enjoying these stories, in particular the way they’re peppered with excellent observations and description. People on a dance floor at a wedding are “shaking everything God gave them.” And your dialogue rings true. Henry Green said that when he heard conversation “people strike sparks off each other,” and “that is what I try to note down.” Do you do research at times? Or is it just a matter of keeping eyes and ears open, as a writer?

Thank you! I love writing dialogue. It’s a really effective way of showing a character’s personality, and it’s fun to find the right voice. Over the years, I’ve figured out how to write realistic dialogue by eavesdropping constantly. That’s my research. Going out in the world with my notebook and (covertly!) observing how people relate to each other, and noticing that it’s often the things that go unsaid that are the most compelling parts of a conversation.Westheadcover

It’s so interesting, the way we dance around certain subjects that are loaded for us; very rarely do people come out and say exactly what’s on their minds. I’m fascinated by all the stuff that’s so clearly there, just under the surface. Once I overheard a mother say to her small son, “And sometimes Daddy takes off his ring and forgets to put it back on, and Mommy teases him about it. Because it’s fun to tease.”
One-sided phone conversations are great too because then you’re trying to imagine what’s being said on the other line. This is one of my all-time favourites: “So I was talking to Barry.” (Pause to listen.) “Yeah, I know you’re not comfortable, I told him. If you don’t feel comfortable, I’ll protect you. I told the guy.” (Pause.) “Barry’s cool. He’ll just come over, we’ll shoot the shit. I mean, just trust me. I’ve known the guy since I was twenty-four.” (Pause.) “If there was ever anybody you could trust, it would be Barry. He’s my best friend.” (Pause) “No, he’s not going to do that again, I swear.”
Even people’s self-talk can be wonderfully revealing. Once I saw an unhappy-looking older woman in my doctor’s waiting room, flipping through a Canadian Living. She stopped at a page spread, sneered at it, and then muttered to herself, “Ten-minute homemade ice cream. Yeah, right.”
When you listen closely, also, you start to absorb some of the rhythms and cadences that differentiate people’s speech, and that will start to find its way into your written dialogue. Plus you just might stumble upon a bonus line like this: “I don’t really eat soup. I don’t think I properly take advantage of soup.”

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