Zoe Whittall on Being in the Cultural Zeitgest and Judging This Year's Room's Fiction Contest

Interview by 
Rachel Thompson
Zoe Whittall

Zoe Whittall's third novel, The Best Kind of People, published this September by Ballantine US (and previously by House of Anansi Canada and Hodder UK) is currently being adapted for feature film by Director Sarah Polley, and was shortlisted for The Scotiabank Giller Prize, named Indigo's #1 Book of 2016, and a best book of the year by Walrus Magazine, The Globe & Mail, Toronto Life, and The National Post. Whittall has worked as a TV writer on The Baroness Von Sketch Show, which Vogue Magazine called the best thing out of Canada since Ryan Gosling, and also on Crawford, a new comedy by the creators of the Trailer Park Boys, coming to Comedy Central in 2018. She has also written three volumes of poetry, most recently a new edition of The Emily Valentine Poems, which poet Eileen Myles blurbed with "This reminds me that I would like to know everything about this person.” Her next novel, The Spectacular, is forthcoming in 2019 with Ballantine in the U.S. and HarperCollins in Canada. 

Room editorial collective member Rachel Thompson interviewed her over email about her recent “zeitgeist” book, sexual harassment in CanLit, how reviews for books by queer writers has changed since her early work, and what she is looking for in submissions to Room’s fiction contest this year.

ROOM: Congratulations on the huge success of The Best Kind of People, which will be adapted into a feature film by Sarah Polley, was shortlisted for The Giller Prize, and named Indigo’s #1 Book 2016. You’ve been working on this novel for six years, and it’s about the aftershocks of rape allegations against a revered person. The timing of its release is uncanny. How has it been for you to have such a zeitgeist book, on such an important topic?

ZW: While I was writing it I didn’t think it was a zeitgeist book at all.  I’m so used to writing work that is somewhat niche—not that I ever wanted it to be—but it took me by surprise when I was proofing the final draft during the Ghomeshi trial and realized it might be topical, and therefore appealing to readers outside my usual demographic. But I also consciously attempted to do several things I hadn’t yet done—I wrote it in a style that was new to me—third person, omniscient, from a distanced POV historically understood to be a more masculine prose style. I was trying to write in the tradition of the big, hefty social novel. I began my career by writing poetry, poetic prose, and novels where I was basically trying to imitate Kathy Acker. So this switch in tone and style was purposeful, a challenge to myself to see if I could do it. Less metaphor, more action, shorter sentences, paying special attention to forward momentum and narrative drive. I used to have a generalized disdain or at least disinterest in plot as a primary focus while writing, and so I decided to investigate that. I wasn’t intentionally looking for a more commercial audience, but the creative shifts and challenges ended up creating a text that was more commercially viable than anything I’d written before, while remaining a literary work. So I paid more attention to suspense and action, trying to create a page-turning, propulsive quality to the text, which is much more difficult than I thought it would be. I’ve noticed, however, that the readers who love suspense or true plot-based novels tend not to enjoy TBKOP, because it’s still a little too character-driven. I can’t get away from that, I don’t think. I’ll always start and end with character.

ROOM: I read you are glued to the coverage of high-profile abuses, like the Ghomeshi trial, and, like you, I am stopped in my tracks every time a young woman speaks up about abuse from a high profile person—doubly so when it involves CanLit. (I refresh my Twitter feed day and night!) I’m also, like you, a forty-something feminist, who deeply admires the bravery and activism of younger women. What hope and inspiration do you draw from these stories coming out?

ZW: I tend to follow most news stories about sexuality and gender, and I’ve written about violence against women and sexual assault since I began my writing career. The first poem I published at eighteen was about rape. I think being queer means that you necessarily have to have a complex understanding of gender and sexuality just to get through the day interacting with the world. And so it’s interesting to feel like I’m at the age (forty-two) where I’m in the middle of this giant perspective shift. In some ways, the discussions that are playing out in the mainstream, about power and harassment, consent and assault, these were discussions I had in university in 1994 amongst my activist peers. I came out right as the “sex wars” were supposedly dying down, and so all of these discussions re: Weinstein etc., are things we discussed decades ago, but that was when feminism was a radical thing that no one in a mainstream newspaper would ever pay attention to, unless it was in the form of a feature article on the Spice Girls. Now it seems like there is an interest, there are articles in Teen Vogue that would previously have only appeared in ‘zines or blogs, and so queer and feminist people my age are watching similar patterns play out that we’ve seen before on a smaller scale. And it’s lovely to watch, and it’s also confusing sometimes, as you say.

ROOM: Do you despair how our age cohort shrugged off stories of sexual harassment? It seems sometimes that there are still many who still think this way—like it’s no big deal.

ZW: I don’t think we shrugged them off as much as it was just obvious that no one in power cared or would care, and that we had no influence. And so that bred complacency, or a kind of toughen-up attitude that seemed like a better choice than despair. And we can see it when we look to my mother’s generation, too—just how much they had to shrug off. If they or we look at what this younger generation considers abuse, if we are to agree with them, that says a lot about the things older women, and the third wave, (to lazily try to group it together), had to endure, and still endure. And so to toughen up or not refer to it as abuse, makes certain things survivable and knowable. I was in a TV writing room with a lot of women and we were discussing consent, and what it was and wasn’t, by today’s definition. And a lot of the older women had to concede that by this new generation’s definition, many of our earliest sexual experiences weren’t consensual. It’s a lot to reckon with. I admire what younger feminists are doing, even if I don’t always get things right away, or agree. I think that’s the inevitability of growing older, there are assumptions I make that I contemplate, and later wonder if I’m wrong. It’s funny to feel like “oh, my instinct to roll my eyes at this probably means there is something to consider, or that I need to read a little more about this.”

For example, when I was twenty if some dude put his hand on my leg and I wasn’t into it, I’d have said “take your fucking hand off my leg, it wouldn’t be traumatizing. But that’s just my experience. There have been other times where I have just frozen, which is also a very common response. I shouldn’t be invested in thinking that younger women describing it as traumatizing isn’t real and accurate. Because at the time, it never would have occurred to me to ask why is this dude so entitled to my body? They just were. I think that this generation is taking no shit and I admire that, even if it takes me a beat to catch up. I look at the nonsense Germaine Greer is saying in the pressyesterday she described most rape as “lazymisunderstandings, and not violent. She’s also, famously, transphobic. How did she go from the feminist voice of a generation to someone so hateful and boring? I think my generation could learn from what we’re witnessing now, not to be condescending and difficult about giving up power and space to younger women. Watching how women react to The Best Kind of People, meeting readers at the book table after events, it’s really fascinating what conclusions they draw from the book and who they empathize with. There are so many older women and men who just want to empathize with George, and his “plight” which is dizzying to me. You can’t ever control how your narrative is read, but I truly find it odd that anyone would get to the end of the book and still relate to him or feel for him. He’s so clearly guilty, and I make that clear in the book, yet readers still want to believe that isn’t true.

ROOM: How scary was it to stand up and write CanLit Has a Sexual-Harassment Problem, given your history with Concordia, and how small this literary community is and what was the best thing that came out of that experience for you?

ZW: Ha, I haven’t thought about it in months. It was very frustrating. There are so many things that it seems like everyone knows, but can’t say publicly, and so to see all the major media outlets write stories that only consider the accused ex-professor’s POV, at a time when the rest of the world seems to be reckoning seriously and consistently with sexual harassment, was so disheartening. I’ve always felt the need to stand up for Can Lit whenever people say it’s regressive, mundane, etc. compared to the vibrant literary scenes elsewhere, but honestly, I don’t really feel that way anymore. Ultimately I found it profoundly embarrassing. Every time Margaret Atwood doubled-down on her ridiculous anti-feminist ideas, I found it sad. But I do find it quite heartening what has happened in its wake, I’m seeing agents and publishers seeking out work by historically marginalized authors, I’m seeing queer, trans, and BIPOC writers finally getting their due, getting real press, awards attention, being taken seriously inside the academy and in the literary scene, and that’s quite lovely and a long time coming. There’s a whole generation of queer and trans writers who were never given the chance to share their work outside of the very small niche queer lit scene, never reviewed, never considered for major awards. I see this generational shift as tremendously exciting. It was just over ten years ago that my first novel was reviewed by critics who felt confident enough to be homophobic in their critiques in major newspapers. (I mostly received generous reviews, but reading even the positive reviews now there is a certain subtle tone and approach to the material in a queer novel you wouldn’t see now.)  

ROOM: I admire how skillful you are in multiple genres. As a fan of your poetry, I keep Precordial Thump close at hand on my bookshelf. You also write for award-winning comedies on T.V. And, you’re prolific as a novelist. It’s awe-inspiring. What’s your writing practice like and how do you decide what to work on in a given day when you have so much to choose from?

ZW: Oh wow, that’s awesome! I like Precordial Thump quite a bit, and it never really got reviewed or sold well, I think of it as my misfit child. My writing practice depends on what I have going on at the moment, but, generally, I write from my home or a cafe down the street. I have a screenwriter friend I often meet up to work beside, as though we are coworkers, and it breaks up the day nicely to have some of that office style chit-chat and also someone to hold you accountable. I’ll work on TV writing if I happen to have a contract at the time—for example, last week I worked for four days on a sitcom I’ve been hired to develop for CBC. Now that we’ve handed something in, I go back to the novel full-time. It definitely always takes me a day or two to transition between the two mediums.

ROOM: Your writing was some of the first queer stories I read that felt so raw and real (thinking of Bottle Rocket Hearts here). What do you think about how LGBTQ writing has developed since you were one of a smaller group mainstream publishing?

ZW: Oh thanks! It’s completely shifted in the last five years or so, as I mentioned above. Not that there still isn’t homophobia, but it’s more subtle in some ways. My second novel was reviewed fairly well, but some reviewers made comments about how the characters were “promiscuous—which is hilarious given there are exactly two sex scenes in an entire novel about relationships. (I’m terrified I’m going to end up on that list of worst sex writing of the year, so I often edit scenes out in the final draft.) But promiscuous is code in this context because you can no longer just say “transsexuals or lesbians make me uncomfortable” in a literary review without getting some criticism.

Nine years ago I went on tour for my second novel, Holding Still for as Long as Possible, with my girlfriend at the time. We had the usual problems with hotels assuming we wanted separate beds, awkward green room conversations with straight writers, straight women away from their husbands on tour getting drunk and hitting on her, etc. But in general I thought it all went well until I did this most recent tour with my boyfriend—he’s trans but we pass as a straight couple and brought his two kids with us for part of it. The difference in the way I was spoken to by other writers and organizers, the friendliness and openness, it was startling. It was funny that people wanted to hang out with us, because ten years ago with my girlfriend I was far more likely to want to stay out and socialize. Now I just want to go back to the hotel and read. It was like getting to see a peek behind the curtain, so to speak. Having the ability to talk about my step-kids in a small-talk situation was truly interesting. I felt like a spy in heteronormative-land, where after seventeen years in the publishing industry I got to see how it felt to be in the game instead of on the sidelines. Backstage at a Giller reading Emma Donoghue, who I’d met at a gay-themed reading many years earlier, asked me if The Best Kind of People was queer. I said ‘sort of—there’s a gay brother character. She laughed and said, “yeah, our gay books aren’t going to get us here.” By here she literally meant the Giller shortlist, but also here means the land of big advances, credibility, the established literary world. But now I see, probably thanks to painful things like the UBC Accountable and Concordia discussions, things changing. There’s a shift too in what editors and agents are looking for, and that’s so promising.

ROOM: What are you writing right now?

ZW: I’m working on a novel called The Spectacular, it’s about three generations of women and touches on women’s sexual freedom and their longing for, and ambivalence about, motherhood. It’s set in Turkey in 20s, rural Quebec in the 1970s, on a band’s tour in the 1990s across America, and contemporary San Francisco. It’s very slutty. I’m having fun writing it.

ROOM: When you read stories, you’re not drawn to speculative fiction or fantasy. What else should writers who want to submit to our contest know about your tastes?

ZW: Yes, I just wanted to put my flaw out there. The last time I judged a contest there were so many sci-fi submissions, probably two sci-fi stories for every other type of story, and I felt like I couldn’t be fair. If you’re a musician judging a music contest and you hate jazz, you’re not going to be able to judge even the most elegant composition fairly. Of course, a good story can be set anywhere, at any time, but there are conventions and structures, think about world-building and language, that is specific to that genre, and I just don’t know it well enough. When I submit to contests myself I look at who the judges are and then make the decision to submit based on their sensibility. Especially when paying the fee to submit felt like a lot of money, I didn’t want to waste it on something that was very unlikely and I don’t want others to waste money on submitting something I might not understand properly.

ROOM: What ways do you want to be surprised by the stories you receive in this year’s fiction contest for Room?

ZW: I want to be surprised that no story starts with waking up to an alarm clock, or describes a dream in detail, or the colour of anyone’s eyes, or uses the word “soul”, or describes a woman as effortlessly beautiful and that’s it. I’d love some lonely, flawed weirdo narrators, some depravity that isn’t just cliched violence against women, unless you’re saying something new about it. I love experimental prose, texts that blur poetry and prose, and anything humorous. Always happy to come across something truly funny.

Enter Room's fiction contest before July 15, 2018!

Rachel Thompson has been a member of Room’s editorial collective since 2010. She edited Room issues Mythologies of LossMurder, Lust, and LarcenyIn Translation, and most recently Family Secrets. She helps writers polish, publish, and promote their writing with online courses at We Write, We Light.

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