A Brief Q&A with Author Jessica Leeder

Leeder's story, "The Pines," appears in the Winter 2022 collection of Online Exclusives available in mid-December.
​WTR: You chose a non-traditional main character in Art who is in his 90s. What did you draw from within your world to create such a realistic character?

JL: There were two streams of inspiration for Art. The first was one of my grandfathers, who died in 2022 at the age of 93. He struggled with aging for years and the stripping away of liberties and freedoms that occurs as we grow older. It is inevitable that our capacity for independence will decrease as our age creeps up, yet so many people see this as something that happens to others, not to them. My grandfather certainly seemed to feel this way. While the transition made him sad and fearful of the end of his life, those emotions often manifested as anger, disgust, frustration. They masked the softness at the heart of his true personality and made him appear sour. 

Layered on top of all that is a second stream of inspiration: the impact of the pandemic on elderly people in assisted-living facilities. It seemed to me that the pandemic amplified the difficulty of living in a care home and of grappling with feelings of isolation, abandonment and impending death. It created a desperation that, in my mind, pushed people to previously inconceivable places of mind and body. 

WTR: The Pines ends very bleak. Did you have this intention when you started the story or did this ending evolve during the writing process? 

JL: I did actually have the ending in mind when I began writing, yes. A part of me wanted to find a way to allow Art to liberate himself, no matter how twisted the path. The trick was figuring out how to get him there without turning him into a monster. My hope is that readers will feel some empathy for him. He really was locked into a life and lifestyle that left him very little control or recourse for change. I had to work through several drafts to make sure there was enough nuance in the story to believably get Art over the finish line.

WTR: The Pines in part about the effects of isolation on the individual. What did you intend to say about isolation in this story? 

JL: Isolation and the effect that it can have on people is so often invisible. I think we make assumptions about what it is like to be isolated — truly isolated — without really knowing how it can unwind the mind, the spirit and eat into a person’s physical health. How do we build up the muscle to cope with or guard against this kind of isolation? First, we have to see it, to know the shape of it, to know that it is happening all around us but out of plain sight.

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Jessica Leeder is a Canadian storyteller and journalist who writes fiction and narrative nonfiction. Her debut short story, "The Instructions," was recently published by epiphany magazine. Her reported work has appeared lately in The Walrus and The Globe and Mail. Jessica has an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University; her journalism has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2009), a National Magazine Award (2015), a Digital Publishing Award (2019), and a National Newspaper Award (2010). She is presently at work on a collection of short stories and a novel. She lives in Oakville, Ontario, with her family.