Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Interview with Zoe Whittall: A Conversation About Writing, Characterization and Empathy With One of my Literary Heroes

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Interview with Zoe Whittall: A Conversation About Writing, Characterization and Empathy With One of my Literary Heroes

Zoe Whittall is one of my literary heroes. I remember the day that I discovered her first book, the feeling of relief and excitement as I read each page. I was studying Creative Writing, and feeling depressed about how different my writing was to everything we were reading in class. I discovered her first collection of poetry, The Best Ten Minutes of Your Life (MCG Books, 2001) at Pages Bookstore on Queen St, and I was so inspired. Zoe’s writing was so singular and confident, so refreshingly honest, energetic and full of insight.
I would be a different writer today if I hadn’t read her work. As soon as I could, I went on to read more, including the anthology she edited, Geeks, Misfits and Outlaws, (McG, 2003) and all of her books, including her other poetry collections, The Emily Valentine Poems (Snare, 2006) and Precordial Thump (Exile Editions, 2008) and all three of her novels, including Bottle Rocket Hearts, Holding Still For As Long as Possible, and of course, her incredible new one, The Best Kind of People (House of Anansi, Aug 2016)
The Best Kind of People is brave, thoughtful, genuinely subversive and beautifully written. I stayed awake until 2:30 am the night it arrived in my mailbox because I absolutely had to know how it ended. In addition to all kinds of amazing reviews, it has also made the long list for this year’s Gillers. I had the chance to interview Zoe about her writing process, her characters and the challenges of writing this novel.

DB: First of all, congratulations on the amazing reviews and on the Giller List. So exciting and so incredibly deserved!

ZW: What an amazing introduction. I can’t thank you enough for being so supportive of my work!! You’re the best.

DB: Aw! You’re the best. Thank you for your support!
I’m incredibly excited to get to talk to you about all of this.

I was reading about your writing process for this book- it sounded really challenging. There’s a lot that I imagine could have been difficult, from perfectly capturing the all American family (amazing, by the way) to George’s crime itself and the effect on the family. What was the hardest part for you, and how did you manage to overcome it? The end result reads so smoothly, and the pacing is so perfect, you would never guess as the reader.

ZW: The most difficult thing was learning how to write straight-up realism, using third person, moving the camera around to sit on different character’s shoulders. I played around with how close I wanted to be with each character and it felt difficult to fine-tune it. My first drafts were quite wooden. Having a sense of vital immediacy while negotiating that authorial and narrative distance was new for me – something I’d only done in some segments of my last novel, or in short stories. It was also interesting to create a world so different from my own, I had to find new ways to empathize and understand my characters, other than the tools I’d used in previous novels.

DB: You did such a beautiful job of all those things. The characters were all incredibly (and disturbingly) real. And I say disturbingly because their reactions (the vacillating between denial and epiphanies) is so precise, it’s exactly what you imagine people would think and feel.
I want to start with Joan- was she difficult to write? Was it hard to sympathize with her, and if it was, how did you overcome the challenge of that? Also: the ending is amazing. It’s devastating. Did you always know where you wanted the story to end, or did it develop through the writing process?

ZW: Joan was very difficult to write. In the first draft she was like a parody of who I thought she would be. It was a struggle to give her the depth and complexity that I felt Sadie arrived with in my imagination. I couldn’t hear Joan’s voice. But I had the skeleton in that first draft, and the second draft was like colouring her in, giving her texture, really reckoning with her interiority, her feelings, the rawness, her worst thoughts and her better instincts. It was hard to sympathize her with her in some ways, but in other ways, it wasn’t. I know what it’s like to love someone who isn’t honest with you in a core way, so I had that experience of betrayal to draw on, even if it wasn’t as intense an experience as Joan’s. But I had to do a lot thinking about what it would feel like to be married that long – I’ve never been married, I don’t have my own kids – and go through what she does in the book. It was a challenge but when the moment came where she was alive in my mind, it was good from that point on. It’s like that point when you’re learning to play an instrument, and finally you’re able to play intuitively without looking at the sheet music or where your fingers are on the fretboard.

DB: The moment where she came alive in your mind, that’s great. The analogy about learning to play music is perfect. I know what you mean.
I want to ask you about Andrew. It’s funny because even though his loyalty to his dad was infuriating, it was also (mostly) understandable. The part about his relationship with his teacher as a teenager was such an interesting contrast to what his father was accused of. In itself, it raises questions about exploitation and consent (and brings in the issue of whether assault is treated differently according to gender, and how homophobia plays into all of that) Was part of his anger because he hadn’t compartmentalized his past as much as he thought he had?

ZW: Andrew’s perspective is one that is quite common, I think. To not question and to only believe your loved one. I’ve had the experience of hearing about a friend accused of assault, and even after identifying as a feminist for 25 years, it felt almost instinctive not to believe, we’ve been conditioned to react that way. It’s maddening.

DB: Of course. I can imagine. For sure.

ZW: Imagine it’s your parents – to believe it would be too much, it’s too hard for a lot of people, especially at first, to really look and accept and deal with it. Andrew’s relationship with his coach in high school was consensual and he initiated it and didn’t feel traumatized by it, but when he has to spend time in his hometown to help out his mother and sister, he does start to see the experience with more emotional complexity, the reality of the isolation he felt because of the town’s homophobia, and how that isolation and pain affected his choices, that’s something he had to look at. He sees the town as puritanical and hypocritical, and so he’s able to really believe it’s all a mistake. His disdain for the memory of his high school years allows him to feel angry or dismissive of the accusers.

DB: Right. The town totally does seem that way. That completely makes sense.

ZW: He doesn’t think of himself as a victim, but he’s able to see that his first relationship wasn’t really accurate the way he remembered it. What would it mean to identify with his father’s accusers? That would make him very uncomfortable and he doesn’t see his past that way. So to deal with it all, he chooses a side, the one that makes the most sense. He’s a very logical and sometimes cold person, and he admires his father, and so his choice absolutely made sense to me.

DB: Wow, that’s amazing. So insightful and compassionate. I love that.
I want to ask you about Sadie. I loved her. I also loved the growth and the introspection that seemed to come out of something so terrible. She seemed to reconsider her relationship, her friendships, and her identity- and she was the first to really consider the possibility that her father wasn’t innocent. Joan’s voice is very strong, and at the end of the book, when she describes Sadie as changing her major to gender studies, she also describes it cynically as “annoying” and says she “remembered that age, feeling like she knew everything” As the writer, who created both characters, I have to ask: do you believe that Sadie has the potential to continue deeply considering (and finding out what others didn’t want her to know) and distancing herself, or did you see it as a phase too (which in a way is also understandable considering the gravity of everything)

ZW: I think Sadie was profoundly changed by the arrest, and her relationship with her father will never be fully repaired without a lot of work, and most of that work would have to be done by George. I don’t want to give too much away, but his willingness to look at the ways in which he is responsible would be key to that repair. I see Sadie’s arc in the story as a breaking down of her core certainties, and rebuilding herself as someone with a more complex understanding of the world. Her realization that people make horrible choices, and that those people are sometimes your loved ones and that’s just a reality – as opposed to the image of the abuser as a monstrous bogeyman, is one that will inform her future life choices. I couldn’t imagine her not becoming interested in studying gender after such an ordeal.

DB: That’s such an important point, challenging the perception of the abuser as a monstrous bogeyman. The book does such an excellent job of that, and in dealing with the aftermath of the people processing it.
Something I found really fascinating was that the story was told from every perspective except George’s. Was it too difficult in terms of compassion or the requisite sympathy needed to go there? Were there versions of the story that you tried telling from his point of view, or were you always clear that was something you didn’t want to do? There’s also tremendous restraint in terms of the story telling: was it difficult to reserve judgement on George and not be explicit with your own opinions? And if so, how did you manage to do it so successfully?

ZW: I did write some chapters from his perspective just to see what would emerge and as a way to get to know him, but I always knew I wanted him to be unknowable. I wanted to mirror the feelings of the family, that they couldn’t really know him entirely. And I feel like there are a lot of books out there from the Georges of the world – you know? I also didn’t want to write a crime novel, or a survival novel, I wanted to look at the situation from a new angle, from those around the incidents and around the people in his life who didn’t suspect anything.

DB: It’s true. There are a lot of books like that. For sure. It’s a fantastic angle.
The way the trial plays out, in just four nuanced pages at the end, with all the anticlimactic dread as in real life was so sadly realistic. Have people asked you to comment on real life events after reading that part? Was it challenging not to write a more Mandy Gray kind of ending?

ZW: I wanted the story to seem real, and in my research about sexual assault cases in the states, very few ever end up in convictions, especially one like this, with a powerful man at the centre and conflicting witness accounts. I wanted it to seem plausible, as much as there is something great about the Law & Order SVU model of writing an aspirational story where people actually face consequences for their behaviour – not that I’m a super big fan of the prison industry or anything - but it’s not usually the powerful white men who are forced to be accountable in any way. I wanted it to be accurate.

DB: It is. The ending is so incredibly powerful.
In addition to incredible novels, you write for tv, you write poetry, short fiction and more. What are you working on these days? I can’t wait to read whatever you write next.

ZW: Thanks. The most exciting thing I’ve done lately was work as a contributing writer on The Baroness Von Sketch show’s second season for CBC Television. It was the most fun I’ve ever had at work, and the show is a true original.

DB: That is very exciting. I love that show!

ZW:My next two fiction projects are a poetic novella about agoraphobia and the wilderness called Wild Failure, and a novel I’ve been working on for a long time that is a multi-generational saga about failed femininity - a young touring musician in the 90s who burns out after tour and goes to Turkey with grandmother who wants to visit her birthplace before she dies. Also I’m writing a million TV pilots.
I hope to focus on poetry again some day soon – I decided to do this very slowly and not rush another book out. There’s an anniversary edition of The Emily Valentine Poems coming out this October with a new introduction, though.

DB: Wow, that all sounds amazing. Wild Failure and the novel both sound amazing. I love the Emily Valentine Poems so much. I’m so excited to get the anniversary addition.
And the pilots. I can’t wait to read and watch everything.
Thanks so much, Zoe!

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Danila Botha

Danila Botha is a fiction writer based in Toronto. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, she has lived in Ra’anana, Israel, and in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her first collection of short stories, Got No Secrets (Tightrope Books, 2010) was praised by the Globe and Mail, the Chronicle Herald, and the Cape Town Times. It was also named one of Britannica’s Books of the Year (Canadian short stories) in 2011, and was published in South Africa (Modjaji Books, 2011). Danila has guest-edited the National Post’s “The Afterword,” and her short stories have appeared in Broken Pencil Magazine, Douglas Glover’s Numero Cinq Magazine, Joyland and more. Her first novel, the critically acclaimed Too Much on the Inside was published by Quattro Books in June 2015. She will be teaching at the Humber School for Writers in the correspondence program in 2017. She is currently working on her second novel and a new collection of short stories.

You can write to Danila throughout the month of September at

Go to Danila Botha’s Author Page