Zoe Whittall is a poet and fiction and television writer whose latest novel, The Best Kind of People, published in 2016 by House of Anansi, was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Bottle Rocket Hearts, her first novel, was published in 2007 by Cormorant Books. Holding Still for as Long as Possible, her 2009 novel published by House of Anansi, went on to win the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction in 2011, as well as Earla Dunbar Memorial Award in 2010. She is the author of three books of poetry: The Best Ten Minutes of Your Life (McGilligan Books, 2001), The Emily Valentine Poems (Snare Books, 2006; Invisible Publishing, 2016), and Precordial Thump (Exile Editions, 2008); a novella titled The Middle Ground (Orca Books, 2010); and edited a collection of short fiction, Geeks, Misfits & Outlaws (McGilligan Books, 2003). In an email correspondence taking place in February 2017, Whittall answered my questions about rape culture, the role of the writer, and writing for television.
Jason Purcell: I’d like to begin by talking about your most recent novel, The Best Kind of People. The novel opens with an epigraph from Kate Harding’s Asking For It, which reads: “[Rape culture’s] most devilish trick is to make the average, non-criminal person identify with the person accused, instead of the person reporting the crime….” Many critics have commented on the timeliness of this novel, especially in the wake of the Ghomeshi trial, the current discussion surrounding the Galloway affair, and the subsequent #UBCaccountable letter. How do you notice the discourse surrounding issues of consent and rape culture changing?
Zoe Whittall: I’ve noticed it isn’t just something that feminists are discussing among ourselves anymore, and I really like seeing that. I’ve noticed that young women are doing incredible work, just not taking any shit anymore, the way my generation did and continues to do. I’ve noticed younger men in the literary world—in their twenties and thirties, I mean—are stepping up in ways that wouldn’t have been imaginable ten or twenty years ago. I’m thinking of Sean Michaels saying “believe women” in his Giller acceptance speech, or writers like Andrew Sullivan, Kevin Hardcastle speaking out against the #UBCaccountable letter on social media. I’m also seeing the ways that women of colour and queer/trans writers of all ages are the ones who haven’t been afraid to rock the boat re: UBC discussions, which isn’t surprising. And in general, I’ve learned a lot reading what younger writers have to say about rape culture these last few years, and it feels awesome to witness.
JP: In the days following the #UBCaccountable letter, we saw some of Canada’s best known writers publicly align themselves with a position that doesn’t attend to victims, and we’ve also seen many prominent writers voicing support for complainants. This conversation is happening largely on social media. Do you think social media is changing the role of the writer and asking them to take on the mantle of the public cultural critic, or do you feel this has always been the writer’s responsibility?
ZW: I think social media is great for writers who like to have conversations online, be it cultural commentary of live-tweeting The Bachelor. I love Twitter because I write alone most days and it functions like a co-worker. Every weird thing I’d normally turn and say to my cubicle mate, I now say to all these little people in my computer. And I’m an introvert, but chit-chat online doesn’t make me feel drained the way it does in real life. I think that it can help poster friendships and provoke interesting debate sometimes.
I think the writer as social critic has always been a role some writers are offered or enjoy taking on, and some writers prefer to just work quietly and then offer their stories and poetry without speaking on any other issues. The question of a writer’s responsibility is a tricky one. I think our first responsibility is to write and that’s always going to be more important than social media or being a public intellectual, but it’s possible to be the kind of novelist or poet who enjoys both roles. I’m never sure how comfortable I am in this capacity. I quit writing book reviews because I know too many people; it’s impossible to be a responsible critic of novels and also be a working novelist in such a small country. I remember touring in France with Neil Bissoondath who invited me on a tour for established and emerging writers. I’d never been anywhere before and had one novel out at the time. I was totally unprepared to meet the expectations of the French audiences who consider all novelists to be public intellectuals. I was far too shy to answer weighty political questions on stage without any preparation. I remember wishing so hard to be asked about where I wrote, how many hours a day, even publishing questions—the ones I hate being asked about here. It felt like a lot of pressure. That said, I’ve always been a feminist and a queer rights activist, since I was seventeen, and that background is partially what drew me to writing fiction.
JP: Something that really interests me about The Best Kind of People is the language of surveillance in the novel. Early in the novel, we are told that “nothing, not even a revolving camera of omniscience, a floating momentary opportunity to narrate, would allow anyone to truly understand the truth about George.” Not only is George placed in prison, itself a site of surveillance, but this quotation highlights a narrative distance; we, as readers, are not given access to George’s thoughts or experience, yet there is some acknowledgement that the reader, as a force positioned on the outside looking in, may be both witness and judge to these events. Can you speak to this at all?
ZW: I wanted George to be unknowable, and I wanted the reader to feel the same frustration that characters were feeling—who is this guy? I didn’t want to go inside his head, I didn’t want to see the world from his perspective, mostly because that story has been told before.
JP: This also has me thinking about the ways that those of us who are spectators talk about cases like this one, and perhaps we can return to the Kate Harding epigraph. These types of events take on a public life of their own, to which many people feel entitled to comment. Is this why this novel also seems interested in the experiences of Joan and Sadie, and also to the different types of reactions the public has to George’s arrest? I’m thinking here of the violence Joan and Sadie are subjected to as well as pockets of support, such as Joan’s support group?
ZW: Yes, the first question or obsession at the heart of the book, that propelled me to keep writing and exploring, was what do you do with the love once you uncover something like this about your loved one? Or even just the possibility of it? And I was very interested in the associated stigma. The entire book was somewhat inspired by the feelings people voiced about Russell Williams’ wife—how could she not have known, etc.? I was interested in the hell she must have gone through, the violence people face when their loved ones are publicly accused, shamed, and shunned.
JP: I noticed a few Gilmore Girls references while reading The Best Kind of People. I know you also write for television, and I’m wondering about the relationship you have to TV. In a conversation I had with Lynn Coady, who is also a prose writer turned television writer, she mentioned that TV has always been incredibly important to her as a storyteller. Is it the same for you?
ZW: Yes, I did that on purpose. I’m a crazy cultish fan of that show. TV was always somewhat magical to me as a kid, mostly because I didn’t have a ton of access to it and that made it amazing, of course. And it’s always been a great way for me to relax, and the past decade or so of television has really been fantastic. It’s a cliché to say that TV has surpassed film for its artistry these days—it’s just an accepted fact at this point. Even when I was an obnoxious activist who didn’t have a TV, I was still secretly really into watching it whenever I could. And though I started trying to write for TV in order to make money—it’s probably one of the only ways to make money as a writer in a city as expensive as Toronto and not be struggling all the time—I’ve ended up really loving the form and the people I’ve met in the industry. It’s a really exciting milieu.
JP: How and when did you enter the world of television writing? What is that process like for you? Was it an adjustment to write so collaboratively?
ZW: I optioned an originally sitcom script to CTV in 2013, and it was in development for a few years. I wrote the pilot in a comedy writing class at the Comedy Bar, on how to turn your stand-up material into a sitcom. It was a terrific class and I ended up loving my series idea. From there I got hired at Degrassi as a story editor, and then Schitt’s Creek, Baroness Von Sketch, and I’ve worked on some CBC shows in development. Writing collaboratively was really hard—I was amazed that a writing room really means a talking room. It’s like a never-ending meeting where all the stories get broken out loud—that was super hard! The other story editors’ brains worked so fast. I ended up loving it, though, even when it was difficult.
JP: Are you watching anything interesting right now?
ZW: I’m obsessed with Atlanta, Insecure, The People v. O.J., the new season of Girls looks like it’s going to be aces, and the only thing getting me through the Trump era is political satire—Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, The Daily Show, even SNL.
JP: I noticed that, in The Best Kind of People, there are these moments of humour among an otherwise dark and intense sequence of events. What does comedy make space for, particularly in the context of difficult and serious subject matter?
ZW: I think it’s a great way to actually get into the dirt and horror of life without falling into a hole and dying.
JP: I’ve read that writing The Best Kind of People was a long process of drafting and redrafting. How did you find your way through that?
ZW: I almost gave it up several times. The second to last draft I gave to my agent, she read and said it wasn’t ready, and we agreed I’d try one more change before I just threw it out. We had a conversation about how some projects just don’t work and there’s nothing we can do to change that. I really thought it would fail. I’m shocked it didn’t.
JP: Who are the writers who you find are doing exciting and important work right now?
ZW: Oh, I love this question! I’ve had the pleasure of blurbing some great writers later: Eva Crocker, Daniel Zomparelli, Zoey Leigh Peterson. I’m obsessed with Sarah Manguso and Maggie Nelson. I’ve been writing a short novella-length essay-poem hybrid in fragments so I basically just buy everything Graywolf Press publishes.