Jessica Westhead is a Toronto author whose short stories and poetry has appeared in various publications. She is also an editor and creative writing instructor at the Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University. Her latest book, Worry, came out in September ($22.99, HarperCollins).
Congratulations on the release of your latest work Worry:
“Ruth is the fiercely protective mother of almost-four-year-old Fern. Together they visit a remote family cottage belonging to Stef, the woman who has been Ruth’s best friend – and Ruth’s husband’s best friend – for years. Stef is everything Ruth is not – confident, loud, carefree – and someone Ruth cannot seem to escape. While Fern runs wild with Stef’s older twins and dockside drinks flow freely among the adults, they’re joined by Stef’s neighbour Marvin, a man whose frantic pursuit of fun is only matched by his side comments about his absent wife. As day moves into night and darkness settles over the woods, the edges between these friends and a stranger sharpen until a lingering suspicion becomes an undeniable threat.”
Q. Why did you want this story written?
A. I wanted to write a novel about everyday fears that feels like a thriller. I wanted to explore where our fears and worries come from.
I love reading suspenseful stories and watching suspenseful, edge-of-your-seat movies and TV shows, but I can’t read or watch stories about children or women (or anyone, really) being hurt or killed. There’s enough real suffering in the world, and my skin is too thin as the mother of a young child to fill my head with images of fictional children in pain.
There is tragedy in Worry, but I didn’t want to force anyone to sit and watch something horrible happening to my characters. I did want to write about the fear of that happening, though. Because, of course, parents live with that fear constantly. And yet we have to push that fear aside and focus on the good stuff, and shield our kids from our own frantic worrying so they can grow up feeling empowered instead of afraid.
Q. Can you tell me your writing/publishing journey for Worry?
A. I wrote the first draft of Worry very quickly, in just a few months. I was waking up at all hours of the night and writing feverishly in my notebook by flashlight (disrupting the sleep of my poor husband, but he never complained).
It felt like the characters and the action were all around me, and I was living the story as it happened. Whenever I had time to write, I’d get so excited to just immerse myself in the story. My brain was so electric with ideas, all pouring out of me at once. (I had written a basic plot outline too, and I think that helped a lot.) But, eventually, the rose-coloured glasses came off, and I could see all the things that were wrong with the manuscript.
The ending in particular never felt right, in the early drafts. I had to work very hard over the next three years to fix the problems with the story, and I was often discouraged along the way.
But I knew I needed to keep going, to figure it out, because there was something there that was compelling me – I had to tell this story, and I wanted to tell it the right way. I’m also fortunate to know a number of wonderful “first readers” – writers I admire who know my work and who push me to do better and cheer me on along the way. I showed three sets of revisions to those early readers, and their feedback was invaluable.
Q. How did HarperCollins pick up this book?
A. With my agent, I submitted an early draft of Worry to publishers much too soon. We got rejections across the board, from several independent and larger presses. But it all worked out in the end, thankfully, because the manuscript caught the attention of Patrick Crean at HarperCollins.
He expressed his interest in seeing a revised version of the novel, and met with me and my agent informally a number of times, to encourage me as I worked on the (extensive) revision. Once I’d completed that new version of Worry, we submitted it to Patrick exclusively.
He liked what he read, and showed the manuscript to the rest of the HarperCollins editing team. Ultimately, it was decided that Jennifer Lambert would be my editor, since we’re about the same age and have kids about the same age, so she would (and did!) have a more intimate understanding of Ruth’s journey as a mother.
Q. In addition to writing, appearing at book clubs and being with your family, you are also a creative writing instructor in The Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University. What is the best part about teaching?
A. I started teaching my two online courses at The Chang School last fall: CWWR410 Short Fiction Writing Level 1 and CWWR952 Creative Travel Writing. I love this work.
My favourite part is the interaction I have with students, and watching them exchange feedback with each other on their assignments. It’s wonderful to see them being encouraging and enthusiastic with each other, and respectfully offering suggestions for improvement.
And of course, by teaching the elements of fiction writing to newer writers, I always learn something new myself.
Q. What are you working on right now?
A. I’ve written a few short stories for a new collection, and I have the very early glimmerings of an idea for another novel. But right now I’m mostly just concentrating on giving my energy to putting Worry out in the world, in the hopes that it reaches the widest possible audience.
I’ve been extremely gratified by the lovely reader feedback I’ve already received. I’m reading lots of other writers’ books. Two recent favourites are Shut Up You’re Pretty by Téa Mutonji (a wry, vivid, and unsettling collection of linked short stories about a young woman’s coming-of-age) and Watching You Without Me by Lynn Coady (a sinister and suspenseful novel about a personal care worker who gets much too familiar with the family he’s helping).