Zoe Whittall: On Writing for TV, Loving Fiction, and Literary Life in Canada
Author: Cooper Lee Bombardier
June 28, 2018
The award-winning Canadian author Zoe Whittall’s third novel, The Best Kind of People, was shortlisted for The 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. The book will be published in paperback in the US this summer, and is currently being adapted for a feature film by director Sarah Polley. Her second novel, Holding Still for as Long as Possible, won the 2009 Lambda Literary award for trans fiction. In the fervent wake of the #MeToo movement and the ongoing UBC Accountable controversy in CanLit, the topic of The Best Kind of People couldn’t be more timely. Zoe Whittall took time out of her busy writing life (she’s a TV writer on The Baroness Von Sketch Show and several other television shows and is at work on her fourth novel and she is the author of several volumes of poetry) to discuss the new book with writer Cooper Lee Bombardier.
In this interview, Zoe and Cooper take a deep dive into the culture around sexual assault that her new book tackles, her writing practice, and cross-border literary life in contemporary North America.
Hello, Zoe! I’m excited to chat with you. I feel like we should have already met because we have so many excellent people in common.
We do have lots of folks in common but I don’t think we have ever met. I do remember seeing you with Sister Spit a long time ago and I bought one of your zines.
It’s humbling to think how long ago that was now.
It would have been 96 or so—over 20 years?! But I kept the zines I got from that tour for a long time.
So, your most recent novel, The Best Kind of People, is being released in paperback in the US, and being developed for a feature film. What has the reception been like so far in the US?
So, it was published in hardback in September, and it’s my first book published by Random House, and the first one to be published in the U.S. and not just distributed there from a Canadian publisher. It will be out in paperback this August. The reception was so big [in Canada], I was on the bestseller list for months and it sold very well, but in America it’s been quite hard to get attention. The market is so much bigger [in the US]. I was surprised if only because the topic is so timely with the #metoo conversations, but you can’t control how a book is received, so I try to remember that.
You garnered some major Canadian awards and nominations!
Yes, the Giller shortlist, and Indigo Books chose it as their best book of the year, and the Sarah Polley option, it was amazing. Dream come true kind of stuff.
So awesome! Congratulations. You already spoke to this in terms of market size but how would you compare the US literary world with that of Canada?
Well, in Canada everything is just a lot smaller in scale. Though in America, I’ve noticed that the queer literary scene is of comparable size to Canada, in the same way that it feels like people know each other. It’s been incredible to watch younger queer and trans writers really break out of that niche and get mainstream awards and recognition, so lovely to see. But I haven’t really been a part of the American scene yet, I still feel like a bit of the new kid even though this is my third novel, and 7th book.
I hope you find a broad audience in the States. I read Holding Still For As Long As Possible a few years back and really loved it. I’m new to living in Canada and have only begun to grasp the proverbial tip of the iceberg of the whole CanLit controversy. What has the impact of been like for you and other women and feminist authors? Have many male authors have been supportive and active in working for change? Do you think there has been or will be change? Do you see similar conversations happening in the American literary landscape?
The CanLit scene has really splintered this year in the wake of the UBC Accountable situation. It’s been hard. Being vocal against the UBC letter, and writing about it, has caused some awkwardness, but it has also solidified some new literary friendships, and that’s been a positive thing. In some ways, I already felt like an outsider in elite Can Lit circles, being queer, coming from the small press world, it’s a very closed and competitive circle, and even as my career has grown and I’ve reached a wider readership, that hasn’t shifted. And it’s not a community, really, it’s an industry, and roles can be confusing. Lots of men have been quietly supportive. I’ve noticed a generational shift, certainly. Younger straight, cis, male authors are largely not pro-UBC Accountable, for example. That’s been an interesting surprise. I’m not really sure what the impact will be, long term. I think there are some connections that will require repair, some changes that need to be made.
Thanks for speaking to this. It’s wise to remember the ways “industry” factors into these issues. The ills of late-stage capitalism…
I think that in America we’re seeing similar conversations happening. I think it’s different because there hasn’t been a whole group of influential writers coming to the defense of a writer accused of harassment, that’s unique to this country I think.
Yeah it must really hurt. And even when one of those prominent authors thinks they’re calling for fairness across the board, it can still feel like they’re signing off on disbelieving the less powerful people in the situation(s).
With all of these cultural conversations happening we are in a moment where we as North Americans have to change for the better or else be doomed to be stuck forever in a retrograde purgatory of crumbling white supremacist patriarchal capitalism…
In The Best Kind of People, the subject of the book is the concentric fallout on a family after the father is charged with attempted rape and sexual impropriety with some of his young students. It was really powerful how the novel kept the focus on the aftermath for the family and the ripple effect of George’s charges on the larger community rather than dwelling so much on George and his experience. The omniscient narration never really lingers in the consciousness of George and I thought this made an important move away from what seems like a cultural norm for the focus of sexual assault narratives which tend to shift priority away from the experience of the survivor to the plight of the perpetrator. Will you speak to how you decided to frame the story this way?
Yes, I purposely didn’t want to give the reader access to George’s consciousness. I wanted them to be shut out, and have to reckon with their assumptions without that access. That’s what happens when we hear about an accusation, we fill in the blanks with our own politics, histories, beliefs, the information we have about that person before these things come to light. I wanted that confusion to be present. And I also didn’t want to write a novel with him at the center— there are already many stories and films and art about the point of view of the George’s of the world. There are also many excellent stories told from a survivor’s POV. I was interested in centering those who are caught up in the storm of what happened, who wrestle with the love they have for the person accused and what to do. The stigma they face, the shifts that happen to their own sense of self and their philosophies about the world, what’s right and wrong, it all gets thrown up in the air. I’m interested in that, who they are and who they become.
Another powerful move you made in the work was to never dignify the charges against George and the later revelation of a past assault with any kind of specific detail. It kept the details from becoming points of prurient curiosity and also prevents the reader from making judgments and comparisons about specific actions while keeping the focus, again, of the repercussions of sexual assault on the people who’ve survived it. Will you talk about this?
Yes, I purposely didn’t want to show ‟the crime” because I wanted to avoid the way depictions of sexual assault could be almost sexy or enticing, the way it is on shows like Law & Order SUV, for example, there’s an enticing way the scenes are filmed, the way we anticipate the reveal of what ‟really happened.” And I wanted the reader to have the same amount of access to the truth as Joan, Sadie and Andrew, and like you said, I wanted the reader to not be able to make those judgments and comparisons. I wrote versions of the book where there were more specific details unveiled; I cut about 100 pages of the book that were from the POV of Andrew’s babysitter and how what happened with George impacted her life as an adult. But in the end it didn’t work with the longer narrative. I still think about whether that was the right decision.
It’s important for us as artists to make very conscious choices about when and how we represent violence in our work, and the absence of details in terms of the crimes in this book was so impactful. I think it worked well to have the babysitter sort of enter suddenly stage left: we as readers receive the blow of this news in real time with the characters. The blanks about what George did are more ominous for not being filled in.
The narration most closely hews to the character Sadie, George’s daughter. How did you decide to work with an omniscient POV? There were moments in the book where the POV felt so omniscient that it seemed ungrounded from the embodied consciousness of any one central character, and this to me felt real, and felt analogous to the effects of trauma and how dissociative it can be.
The reason the book took so long for me to write was that I kept switching POVs. The novel began with alternating chapters in Joan and Sadie’s first person voices. But that didn’t work so well. Then a version with Joan in third and Sadie in first, but that also didn’t work. Joan was robotic and Sadie was too much of a rambling monologue. I almost gave up on the book entirely, and decided to just switch it all into a close third with alternating POVs. It felt like a creative challenge—I’d never written a book that way before. It felt like a masculine choice, to write a hefty social novel from a roving POV, there’s an artificial distance that was very hard to temper with this very emotional story. But in the end I felt like it was the right way to go and it ended up being much smoother than any other POV choice. And you’re right that the disconnection created a bit of an ungrounded feeling, which is how it feels when something like this happens. There’s an urge to touch the ground and do mundane things, because everything feels so airy and uncertain.
I love the notion of the roving POV as a masculine choice. I’d never specifically thought of it that way before but it makes sense. Do you think those of us writers who are not cisgendered, heterosexual, able, financially-secure, white males feel less confident in narrating from that POV in general?
There’s a history of the hefty family or domestic novel being taken seriously if it’s written by a man, especially if it’s in third person. There’s historically been a distrust of the first person I and its uncomfortable relationship to the authorial “I”, and I do think that I was intimidated to try it out—to try out a social novel, a third person omniscience. But I ended up finding a freedom in it, oddly. There were things I could do that I wouldn’t be able to do with first person, with that intimacy. And there were things with language that I couldn’t do in the third person, there were metaphorical limitations, ways that I can experiment in the first person that I couldn’t do in third. It was a very informative experiment.
It’s an epic undertaking! I’m finishing up a memoir which is taking me forever about some major family trauma, and after about the first 150 pages, I finally consulted the very detailed journals I kept from those years, only to discover I barely wrote anything down about the details of the crises in action. I mean, I would write pages upon pages about someone I made out with or a book that I read but then my brother’s funeral is a blip on the page. And I had to laugh when I realized this, because, yeah, that’s how trauma works. We’re kind of moving through the motions, unable to really be in our own skins: it is airy, as you say.
That’s so interesting—I find the same thing with my diaries! My mom recently gave me a copy of some journals she kept on the farm when my brother and I were children, and it’s very clear that it’s a difficult time, the heat doesn’t work well, they’re snowed in all the time, they have 200 sheep in the barn and they are inexperienced farmers. But there are tons of details, and then only a half page about her father dying. It’s so interesting the way we recount things in the moment that loom large in our memories, that impact us in so many ways.
Can fiction bring something different to the conversation of sexual assault than personal narratives? Does the art form allow us to see it or hear it differently?
I don’t know. That’s an interesting question to contemplate. I always feel more freedom in fiction. I can’t write memoir, personally. I usually joke that my own life is too boring, but there’s also a vulnerability that stops me from writing it well. And getting to a truth in fiction, even if none of the details are from real life, is easier for me.
But I love reading memoir. So much. I’m obsessed with it. In terms of the conversations of sexual assault, I think as readers we feel closer to autobiographical narratives, they seem more trustworthy. And there’s also a false intimacy.
When I finished reading The Best Kind of People, I appreciated that the book didn’t try to provide me with a clear answer to the issues around consent and power and sexual assault, as much as I think we’d all like someone to tell us what to do. I can imagine some readers are pissed that the book doesn’t tie up everything neatly with a bow by the end. What has the response been like from readers around this?
Readers have so many emotions about the ending. And because there aren’t that many answers, I hear feedback all the time about what readers think the answers are. Though, I didn’t leave the narrative open-ended. In my mind, George is quite obviously guilty, even if we can never know the truth of what happened on the ski trip, or we’re not given access to it. But I get responses all the time from readers about how they think he’s innocent. That feels like a bit of a creative failure sometimes, because to me it is very obvious. I could only have made it more clear if I’d highlighted the text. But it’s also kind of funny, that a book is participatory, and you can’t control how something is read.
I don’t want to be too specific about the ending and spoil it, but there’s a pretty major reversal there in how the father is in some ways unchanged outwardly and yet he has become something like a child, while his entire family is literally aged from the fallout of his actions.
Yes, I didn’t want to spell it out, but there’s a certain kind of narcissistic personality who can wreak havoc on others, but remain basically unchanged, are unable to be self-reflective. And that’s as close as I came to defining George’s pathology in the book. He’s skilled at getting what he wants and avoiding responsibility, while everyone else around him is completely undone.
I hope that in increasing our societal abilities to have honest and complex conversations about these issues will then allow us to figure out how to better deal with and hold accountable and heal and to prevent. Another powerful aspect of the book was how it lingered in gray areas, most especially in the lives of the Woodbury children. Andrew embraces his past affair as a teenager with a teacher, and Sadie finds herself sexually drawn to an older man. There are even times when Sadie’s initiation of sex toward Jimmy feel a little muddy in terms of consent. What do you hope a reader will take away from these fictional relationships?
It was important to me to show moments of teenage sexuality that are complicated and weird, that consent is not actually as cut and dry as we hope it will be. I appreciate so much all the incredible education that’s happening these days around making consent clear for everyone involved, but in real life it can be quite tricky. I wanted to show some of those moments that complicated consent narratives, how they can produce unexpected feelings. For example, Andrew doesn’t feel resentment towards or abused by Stuart, but the law says he was abused. In coming back as an adult, he does start to question their dynamics and have more complicated feelings about it. He looks at high school kids and feels a disgust at the idea of being attracted to them, which makes him feel odd about their relationships, but he knows homophobia complicates this. Sadie’s attraction to Jimmy’s step-dad is something I remember so clearly as a teen girl, the attraction to older adults, and how both weird and normal it is, how teens rely on adults to have their shit together. I wanted to show some relationships that were hard to define and think about. And I wanted to have a character like Jimmy, a romantic, respectful dude, with a strong mom who really guided him well around sexuality. I didn’t want things to be black and white.
So, The Best Kind of People is being released in paperback in the US, and being developed for a feature film, which is super exciting! Do you get to have much of a hand in the screenplay and production of the film? Are you so excited? Are you nervous at all? As a writer and reader, I get really nervous when books I love are to be made into films because I want the depth of the book to be captured on screen. I want it to be perfect.
I’m so nervous! And I would have wanted to be involved in the writing and producing if the option had gone to anyone else besides Sarah Polley. I really trust her as a filmmaker. And I had two main concerns about the film version and we talked it over and she assured me both issues weren’t a problem. My main thing is that I hate it when books with queer characters get adapted and the queer stories are taken out, mostly “for time” which we all know is bullshit. I’m still mad about the lesbian daughter being taken out of “The Hours;” that was so long ago! So I wanted to make sure that Andrew and Jared, and Andrew’s backstory with Stuart, made it into the film. Even though this book is my least queer in some ways, it was written through a very specific queer lens. I also wanted to make sure it wasn’t a ‟did he or didn’t he?” kind of film that would make it seem like one of the possible answers was that teen girls lie about rape. There’s so much hysteria right now about women who lie about sexual assault, and the real hysteria should be about the fact that so many men assault, and that they are finally being held accountable is a positive thing. I don’t want to contribute, however accidentally, to the false narrative around a sudden ubiquity of false accusations.
Yeah there is so much nuance in the book and it will be powerful to allow that to come to the big screen. So you’ve been doing a lot of television writing. Prior to this interview I watched a whole bunch of The Baroness Von Sketch Show episodes, and it is fucking hilarious! What has that experience been like for you? How do you balance your writing time across so many different projects?
I love that show! It’s the best job I’ve ever had, even though I’m just a contributing writer who does a few weeks in the writers’ room per season. I love working in TV. I started out trying to get into TV because of the money–I did an MFA in my 30’s because I thought my only way to make money was through teaching, the way most writers do. But I wasn’t a good teacher. And TV seemed fascinating. But I ended up just loving writing for TV. Now I feel like fiction is still my number one love, but TV is an excellent side hustle, and I’m learning so much and becoming really invested in it. It’s a fun, collaborative industry, while writing fiction and poetry is so solitary. I love doing both.
Creative writing is so lonely. How does one even get into TV writing? I absolutely love teaching, and I think I have a knack for it, but I worked so much last school year, like in the winter I was teaching five writing courses at three different universities, and it broke me down some. And I just did my 2017 taxes and was verklempt to see how little money I made by working so hard at something I love and believe in so much.
I made more waitressing than I did teaching creative writing, and it really made my own writing more difficult. I wanted to like it and there were some things I liked, but I’m just not gifted as a mentor. I got into TV because I started doing stand-up at the comedy bar, and I took a class in how to turn your stand-up material into a sitcom, and then I sold the sitcom I wrote in the class to CTV. That started me on the road. If you write a script and send it around, and make some connections, it can happen that way. Though you have to live in Vancouver or Toronto to have a regular career in TV, sadly.
That’s so cool. You are super brave. Stand-up comedy is the most terrifying kind of performance art, I think.
I’m literally afraid of everything in the world but for some reason doing stand up doesn’t scare me!
You have a new novel coming out next year; what else do you have coming down the pike? Will you be giving readings in the US for The Best Kind of People?
I’m going to try to get the States to do some promo for the paperback this fall, and I’m trying to finish a draft of the new novel before the end of the year. I hope that happens! Who knows? I’m also doing some TV development, so hopefully something of that will pan out.
Last question: What question do you wish someone would ask you in an interview?
Oh…that’s a good question! I was obsessed with small town gay bars when I was writing the book, and really had fun writing the scenes where Andrew goes back to the bar of his youth. I remember coming out in 1995 and my first girlfriend always talking about “the bar” and I was always asking her “which bar?” but when you’re young and queer in a small place there’s always just one. My second girlfriend bused tables at a lesbian bar, the oldest one in Canada, that you could only get to by going into a parking garage and knowing which grey door was the right one, and then you descended into a weird basement and that was the bar. So funny. I’m a bit nostalgic for that time, even though I’m glad queer kids don’t just have one bar or even have to be oriented around a bar for a community anymore. But I guess I’ve always wanted to be asked about that. I based the bar in Woodbridge around one that was in St. Pete, Florida. Just a box in a parking lot. A lesbian bar, and a few feet away, a cement block for the guys.
This interview has been edited and condensed.