Ottawa Writers Fest: Anxious moments with Jessica Westhead

Jessica Westhead will be at the Ottawa Writers Festival on Oct. 28.

This is an anxious age. We worry about our climate. We worry about our jobs, our health, our finances and even our pets. But most of all we worry about our children. And that one never seems to stop.

Jessica Westhead knows all about that. She’s the mother of a now seven year old daughter. She and her partner had difficulty conceiving and that was something to be concerned about.

“I have to confess I have always been a worrier,” Westhead said in an interview. “I’m the type of person who is a mild hypochondriac and who is always thinking worst case scenario stuff.”

This is the kind of thing that does go with the territory of being a writer. Westhead is a novelist and her latest book is called — wait for it — Worry (Harper Perennial).

It’s  suspenseful story and she’ll be talking about it at the Ottawa Writers Festival on Oct. 28 on a panel with her good friend Lynn Coady and Naben Ruthnum.

Worry is a story about a mother named Ruth who had had trouble conceiving but finally was blessed with a daughter. The novel takes place over a tense 48 hours at a cottage owned by her friend Stef, who has twin girls of her own. Ruth is a bit of a helicopter mom, of which Stef tends to make fun.

“I had the idea for the book just over four years ago,” Westhead said. “My daughter was three at the time. We had some trouble having her and I had had a number of early miscarriages, which I am comfortable talking about. I know a lot of people who are close to me who have had worse experiences and they don’t have a child at the end of them.

“It was an experience that I had that coloured my view of parenting.

“Around the time I had started to digest the experience that happened to me and I don’t feel that I really honoured the experience. Once we had our daughter and she was fine I was felt like I was over it. It came back to me and I wanted to find a way to revisit the experience and, just like in all of my books, I was trying to figure my life out and make sense of my own story.”

In the novel Ruth meets a stranger named Marvin who, while seemingly friendly, is a somewhat unnerving presence, who becomes more sinister over the course of the book as it moves quickly to a climax and a confrontation.

At one point, Marvin, whose own wife has been unable to have a child, tells Ruth that he believes that when you have trouble conceiving you appreciate the child more when she finally arrives.

Battles with fertility do make you see your child in a different light, Westhead said. “I feel fortunate the experience brought my husband and I closer together. But it was a tense journey for awhile there.” But she also believes it’s important not to put pressure on the child by saying they are a miracle.

“The longer I am a parent and the more people I know, the more women I meet who have had fertility issues.” That is the “container” for the psychological suspense in the novel. She says this idea came to her partly because of the movie Dead Calm, in which a couple literally sails into danger when they come across a drifting boat.

“I have watched it many times. I have to admit I think I had a crush on Billy Zane (one of the actors in Dead Calm). I have always been drawn to scary stuff that doesn’t give me horrible nightmares. I can’t watch really grisly stuff.

“I like the feeling of wanting to turn the pages, of being on the edge of my seat wondering what is going to happen next.”

Dead Calm does have the trope of a stranger who comes to town. It’s something she developed in an earlier novel called Pulpy & Midge (Coach House Books) when a bully of a boss intervenes in the life of a quiet shy office worker and shakes up his life and his marriage.

In Worry, the mysterious Marvin is the embodiment of the stranger to be avoided by  children, but he seems to actually be a nice guy who likes his paddleboard and building bonfires.

“I like to play with that uncertainty,” Westhead said.

Another dynamic in the novel exists in the friendship between the outgoing and dominant Stef and the more reserved Ruth.

“People may have those childhood friends. We are attracted to them and maybe they are more outgoing than we are.

“I was quite shy and quiet as a kid. Maybe we are betas who are attracted to alphas. In my fiction I am really interested in that dynamic of people who cross personal boundaries and people who don’t have strong enough boundaries.”

In the case of Ruth and Stef in an earlier draft of the novel the relationship was a lot darker and more black and white, Westhead said. But her editor, Jennifer Lambert, urged her to tone down Stef’s meanness.

“I feel very much that Stef and Ruth are parts of me and those parts battle it out. Stef is the cool girl I have always wanted to be. She seems to shrug stuff off and then you realize she has her own issues and things to worry about.

This wasn’t an easy book for Westhead to write.

“The first draft came out very quickly; in about four months. But then I realized it needed a lot of work.

“The book broke my heart many times. My friend Grace O’Connell who is a writer I really admire said ‘You know you have something when it has a pulse’.

“I knew the story had a pulse. The characters stayed solid even though the plot changed. I had the setting, I had the characters and I had the basic idea. I knew I had something and I had to pursue it, but it was hard work in between.”

Westhead believes that there is a low level hum of anxiety running though our society right now. Writers tend to respond to what is engaging their universe.

“We are responding to an anxiety first and foremost over the state of planet. I also think we compartmentalize things. You just have to go about your day know there is so much scary stuff and injustice happening to people.

“I do my best also to hide my own worrying so my daughter isn’t infected by it. I try to be a happy positive person as much as I can. A lot of people I know are easily struck down by despair.”

In town: Jessica Westhead is at the Ottawa Writers Festival on Oct. 28 at 8:30 p.m. on a panel with Naben Ruthnum and Lynn Coady. For more:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.