Amazing Energy and Uncomfortable Truths:
Sally Cooper In Conversation with Angie Abdou and Jessica Westhead
Angie Abdou has a PhD from the University of Calgary and is a Professor of Creative Writing at Athabasca University. Her first novel, The Bone Cage (NeWest Press), was a finalist in CBC's Canada Reads competition. Jessica Westhead's fiction has been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards, selected for a Journey Prize anthology, nominated for a National Magazine Award, a ReLit Award, the CBC Bookie Awards and was a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Short Fiction Prize. Sally Cooper interviewed them about their work at a recent event at Epic Books in Hamilton, Ontario. Here is an extension of that interview.
Sally Cooper: Jessica, you have written in blogs and in the acknowledgements for Things Not to Do about workshops you’ve taken with writers Sarah Selecky, Stuart Ross and Joy Williams, and how some of the stories in Things Not to Do came out of these workshops. Angie, you’ve written about and acknowledged the extensive process you underwent for In Case I Go. Could you both speak about your creative process and the role of other writers and readers before publication?
Jessica Westhead: Surrounding myself with communities of fellow writers—which I’ve found by attending small-press fairs and writing festivals and other writers’ readings and launches for literary journals, and taking various courses and workshops over the years—has been vital for me. It gives me a sense of belonging and connectedness that balances out the solitary work of writing. I’ve also been part of several writing groups where we offered feedback on each other’s new stories.
These days I have a handful of trusted first readers that I exchange works-in-progress with. I’m not confident that a story is truly finished and ready for potential publication until I’ve shown it to at least one of these brilliant people. My first readers for Things Not to Do were Shannon Alberta, Kelli Deeth, Sarah Henstra, and Grace O’Connell. And Shannon, Kelli, Grace, and Teri Vlassopoulos and Sara Heinonen have been the first readers for my novel-in-progress. They’re all wonderful writers whose work I admire, and they bring out the best in my fiction. When we critique each other’s writing, we always make sure to praise what’s working, but never hesitate to point out (gently!) where the writing feels flat, or that something is missing somehow, etc. (For the novel-in-progess, I’ve also picked the brilliant brains of my friends Ali Bray, an illustrator, and Val Quann, a teacher.) Sarah Selecky, whose writing I love, was an early first reader of mine. And long before she started her online creative writing school Story Is A State Of Mind, Sarah was conducting writing workshops in her living room, and I had the good fortune of attending a couple. They were incredibly inspiring (plus her husband made us soup!), and I generated a lot of new work—much of which ended up in my previous collection And Also Sharks, and a bit more that ended up in Things Not to Do.
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Stuart Ross for a long time as well, through the very supportive small-press publishing community that I discovered by attending numerous zine-and-small-press fairs years ago. I’ve taken a number of Stuart’s writing workshops, which he still runs in Toronto occasionally, and I would highly recommend them. There’s an amazing energy when a bunch of writers get together and write in real time (with Stuart leading the way with a wide variety of writing prompts), and then they have the chance to read their brand-new work aloud to each other (there’s no critiquing component, since the work is so fresh). At first there’s some hesitance and yes, a little fear, but as the hours fly by (all of Stuart’s workshops that I attended took place over a full day, with a lunch break in the middle), pens move faster across pages, and participants get bolder and stretch themselves further, and the result is a whack of new writing that you didn’t have before. I enjoy Stuart’s poetry and fiction very much because it’s original and full of humour and generosity, and he brings that same spirit to his workshops.
I met and drank gin with Joy Williams at the 2011 Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop, where she critiqued and helped to greatly improve my story “He Will Speak to Us.” When I was there, I gave her a copy of And Also Sharks (which had just been published that spring) and later on she told me that she’d read it and loved it, and after that I had to go outside and sit under a tree and cry. She’s one of my favourite writers ever, period.
Angie Abdou: I fight the urge to consult or discuss during initial composition. If I think too hard about what I should or shouldn’t do—or how I should or shouldn’t do it—I won’t make any forward progress. I try not to censor myself in those early drafts too. I give myself no reason to halt progress. I want to get that first draft down before I step back and have a hard look at it. I’m afraid that otherwise, I would never finish anything.
This time, once I got to that stage of stepping back and having a look, I realized I had a lot of work to do, including consultation. One of the themes that emerged in these early drafts centred on truth and reconciliation. A seemingly white character is in a position of discovering a past truth and attempting to make amends to an Indigenous character. My novel includes three Ktunaxa characters, and I wanted to be sure that my characterization was not inaccurate or exploitive or offensive. I hoped that what I’d written would be pleasing to Ktunaxa readers.
I found the concept of consultation intimidating—so I started easy. First, I took a draft to my cousin Frank Busch, the Cree author of Grey Eyes. I wanted him to tell me, from the perspective of an Indigenous writer, if I’d mis-stepped anywhere. I did major rewrites in response to his feedback. In those early drafts, the novel’s Ktunaxa girl was a ghost. Frank suggested that I couldn’t have the Indigenous character as a ghost because it implied that Indigenous people are airy and insubstantial and of the past. The criticism seemed so obvious as soon as I heard it. Of course. So, I revised to make Mary haunted by the past, sometimes possessed, but also multi-dimensional and fully present in this world. With that one revision, I had a ghost story without a ghost.
When Frank and I finished our work, I approached the cultural liaison at the Ktunaxa Nation Council. She and I worked extensively, going back and forth with the manuscript three times. I made many changes in response to her feedback, mainly adding historical details to ground the novel’s apology in the lived-experience of Ktunaxa people. When she thought we’d done sufficient revisions, I approached the Ktunaxa elders and asked if they would be okay with me using their name and language in my book. They agreed I could if I made some more changes and additions—which I made.
I had never before accepted so much input from readers. Initially I found the process a little intimidating and uncomfortable. I’m not generally good at group work! However, in the end, this back and forth with Indigenous readers became my favourite part of the process because of the lessons learned, the substantial improvements to the book, and (most of all) the new friendships developed.
At my launch, the interviewer Gordon Sombrowski asked if I felt censored by this process. An interesting question! In formulating my response, I came to understand that I felt the reverse. Before I consulted, I felt very limited and anxious about what I could and couldn’t say. Once I started engaging in this work with Ktunaxa readers, I felt liberated. With their okay and with that ability to double-check that my work remained respectful, I felt freed to do what was best for the novel.
SC: You’ve both been praised in reviews for the humour in your books. Angie, you’ve satirized gentrification and your characters’ consumerism. Jessica, your humour infuses your characters’ voices and their cluelessness about the situations in which they find themselves. I’m wondering if you could each speak about the role of humour in your fiction, especially in work in which humour isn’t necessarily the focus. What role does humour have in a more complex novel or in stories about what not to do, works that examine, more often than not, our failings?
AA: I love laughing. I don’t even mind if I’m the butt of the joke. In fact, I’m quite used to it. I’ve enjoyed satire ever since my first reading of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” in a high-school English class. I’m drawn to the idea that by laughing at our problematic behaviour we can work to improve that behaviour. Laughter is a gentle way to encourage change. That’s one kind of humour in my work. Also, I often deal with tough social issues—inspired by Alistair MacLeod’s instruction to write about what worries you—but I know that the job description of writer includes entertaining readers and keeping them turning the pages. Humour can work in that way too—giving readers some levity as a break from high seriousness or darkness. Readers have told me they laughed while reading In Case I Go—mostly at the environmental scientist’s expense but also at Tamara who bursts into the book right when readers needed her energy. That readers enjoyed the book in this way makes me very happy. I do see novels as a space in which we can examine the way we live and ask hard ethical questions and face uncomfortable truths, but I also want readers to walk away from my book with pleasant feelings about the time they spent there. I hope the comedy works in that way.
JW: Until recently, I’ve always preferred to discuss the sadness and darkness in my stories, rather than their humour. This was mostly out of self-defense; if I didn’t openly admit that I wrote funny things, then I could never be accused of not being funny. It’s the fear of the hecklers in the crowd sitting back with their arms crossed going, “Oh yeah, you think you’re funny? Make me laugh, clown.” But now, what the hey, I’m owning the humour in my writing. I like to make myself laugh, and my hope is that I’ll make readers laugh too. And if they don’t, then I’ve got the old, reliable sadness and darkness to fall back on! In any case, it feels natural to pair comedy with tragedy. It feels balanced. Although I don’t set out initially to craft funny stories. Instead, the humour arises out of socially awkward situations, or my characters’ lack of self-awareness. That doesn’t mean I want to hold my characters up for ridicule, though. I’m trying to figure them out by searching for common ground with them, and that process usually involves shining a light on the parts of myself that I’d prefer to keep hidden. But recognizing and then giggling at our own most shameful flaws can be very cathartic. I’m always suspicious of—and intrigued by—people who refuse to laugh at their own failings. Those people show up a lot in my fiction, and are the only characters I will occasionally make fun of, because I find them hilarious. And sad. My favourite combination.
SC: I’d like to speak about fear, too. In a recent interview, Jessica, you said “I think some of my best writing comes out of fear.” Angie, you mention being inspired by Alistair MacLeod’s directive to write about what worries you. Could you each talk about the role of fear in your creative process? Where/how it drives you, how you respond to it?
JW: I’ve always been a worrier, so I’ve gotten pretty good at imagining worst-case scenarios. Not to the point where my anxiety becomes debilitating, fortunately, but it’s ever-present—sort of a constant low-level background hum. I worry about bad things happening to my loved ones (becoming a parent took this to a whole other level), and I’ve always been a bit of a hypochondriac. The world is an especially scary place right now too, so there’s also that. I’m generally a hopeful person, though, and I know that worrying is not a productive or helpful activity—unless I can funnel it into my fiction writing. And when I’m scared of something and want to avoid thinking about it, that’s a good indicator that I need to think about it, and then write those thoughts down. Because where there’s fear, there’s also energy and emotion, which are essential elements of a good story. Whether I’m afraid of external threats like tornadoes or food-court shootings or mentally unstable sexual predators who have access to our potential nuclear destruction, or internal ones like insecurity and jealousy and all the other unpleasant feelings I’d rather deny that I have, it’s all compelling stuff that I can use to enrich my writing. I can explore through my characters what it would be like to experience those worst-case scenarios, and then go back to hoping upon hope that they will never actually happen in real life.
AA: Often I write out of anxiety, to make something of my nervous energy. I have a lot of nervous energy. Writing seems like the most productive use of it. The Bone Cage stemmed out of fear for my little brother and how he would transition to his post-Olympic life. The Canterbury Trail grew partly out of anxiety about the environment, especially in my own beautiful mountain town. Between addresses the guilt of the upper middle-class mother who relies on a Filipino nanny in order to make an already privileged existence even easier (so the novel addresses fears around entitlement and exploitation). Now with In Case I Go, I wrote out of my fear that the mistakes of the past will weigh upon my own children and all children of future generations. I keep coming back to a rarely-used version of “worry”—the definition of worry as to touch or disturb something repeatedly, to poke at something, to pull or fiddle with it—like a child worrying at his shirt sleeves. That’s what I do with a novel—I keep touching and poking and pulling at my own anxiety. All that poking and pulling from different angles shapes it until my anxiety becomes a story, a world that readers can slide into. Ideally, those stories will start conversations that will gradually lead to awareness and then to positive social change. That would be perfect.