Jessica Westhead, "Mister Elephant"
It’s December 11. Jessica Westhead, author of Things Not to Do, refrains from using flash photography.
How would you describe your story?
JESSICA WESTHEAD: On a trip to the zoo with his young daughter, a father sees a woman he was once obsessed with, and this encounter forces him to confront his own unhappiness.
When did you write it, and how did the writing process compare to your other work?
JW: I wrote “Mister Elephant” this past January/February. It began with some deleted scenes from another story that I liked, but that never quite came together. I still really enjoyed those few scenes from it, though, and wanted to find them a new home. The previous story was about a creepy guy on a date with a woman he works with, and it always felt a bit flat to me. But when I had the idea to make the story about a father and his daughter, a bunch of new possibilities opened up. Because then he could still be creepy, but he’s also a loving and protective dad (even though he has some misguided notions about how to raise his little girl), which complicated things nicely. I can’t say that I have one particular way of starting a short story; my stories often begin with an image or feeling that compels me for some reason I can’t put my finger on, but in any case, I have a lovely, itchy sense of needing to write that story. I don’t usually start with leftovers from a previous story, though, so that made the writing of this one a bit different (and slightly easier!).
What kind of research went into this story?
JW: None. I generally don’t do much research for my fiction. I might verify the odd fact on the internet, but that’s about it.
What, to you, makes the short story a special form? What can it do that other kinds of writing can’t?
JW: I love that a short story can capture a pivotal moment in a character’s life, and bring that moment into sharp focus, in a way that a novel can’t. The novel is more concerned with how those moments add up and contribute to the overall plot arc, but the short story can shine its spotlight directly on that moment and all the tiny but crucial details involved in it.
Where should people go to learn more about you and your work?
What's the best gift you've ever been given?
JW: I have a vivid memory of the overwhelming joy I felt upon unwrapping the box containing my “Good Puppy” one long-ago Christmas morning. I’m guessing I was about 6 years old. When I squeezed the little plastic bone at the end of the leash (activating the “air-actuated chew/swallow mechanism”), the dog’s mouth would open and close, and I could feed it plastic doggie biscuits! That was pretty mind-blowing.
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