Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Zoe Whittall

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Zoe Whittall

Recent winner of a LAMBDA Literary Award for her book Holding Still for as Long as Possible (House of Anansi), Zoe Whittall is a Toronto-based fiction writer, journalist, poet and literary Renaissance woman.

Zoe Whittall talks to Open Book about her experience writing in multiple genres, experiments in stand-up comedy and a secret project which is not a Mormon cookbook.

Open Book:

Tell us about your recent book, Holding Still For As Long As Possible.

Zoe Whittall:

Essentially it’s a novel about how different people react to sudden emergency situations, and the lives of three interconnected characters over the span of one year, two of whom are involved in a serious bike accident. The three narrators all come at this experience from wildly different places — one is a Toronto paramedic gradually succumbing to compassion fatigue, who has seen so many deaths or random tragedies that they’re all starting to blend together; another character suffers from panic disorder and is convinced she might die if she leaves the house; one is a young woman breaking up with the paramedic, dealing with the loss of her first love, and all the certainty and comfort that comes from knowing you are loved. Their journeys in the book are mostly about recognizing how much we can’t control — jealousy, falling in and out of love, our parents, our mortality — and how to be find peace despite this.

OB:

What recurring themes or obsessions do you notice turning up in your writing?

ZW:

I like neurotic people, humour, irony, flaws. I’ve written a considerable amount about anxiety, specifically people who have irrational phobias or off the chart obsessions — though in my new work I’m less focused on it. I like to write about loneliness and uncertainty, all those themes that sound really boring when you write them out. And sex, of course.

OB:

Who are some people who have deeply influenced your writing life?

ZW:

I never quite know how to answer this question because my influences are always changing. I could go back and list the writers who made me want to start learning how to write — Gail Scott, Anne Carson, Eileen Myles, Jeanette Winterson, Sarah Schulman, Heather O’Neill’s first poetry book — to name a few, but it doesn’t feel current. I’m always reading and feeling changed by what I read. Recently some novelists have reminded me why novels are my preferred form, and that I should keep trying to write a really excellent one include: Lionel Shriver, Lynn Coady, Caroline Adderson, Lorrie Moore, Jennifer Egan, Russell Smith, Barbara Gowdy.

OB:

What was your experience like in writing and publishing The Middle Ground (Orca Book Publishers), a book for low-literacy or reluctant readers?

ZW:

Writing it was odd. I worked from a careful plot outline that I had to run by the publisher first, and then it felt like a sort of fill-in-the-blanks activity. It was creative, but in a sort of controlled way, and that made it was easy to write fast, but it didn’t feel anything like any book I’d written before. I was always thinking about the reader and whether or not they would understand the vocabulary or the shift in plot. I wasn’t allowed to write flashbacks or play with time or memory. It did help me stay on track in terms of action, something I’m not always concerned with when I write first drafts of my literary fiction. The experience did help me strengthen the skeleton of my next book. Once it was published it sort of went directly into this market I had no real understanding of — the communities of adults learning to read via various social programs in libraries. I had the pleasure of meeting with readers at a promotional event for the Golden Oak award that it was nominated for, and I was a little unsure of what to expect. But it really rocked — the readers were so engaged and had so many questions about the writing process and what it means to publish a book. It was very invigorating for me to step out of the usual literary circles and connect that way.

OB:

How did your move from Montreal to Toronto affect your writing process?

ZW:

It didn’t really, because I was only 21 when I moved to Toronto from Montreal. I think I had 35 dollars in my wallet and was carrying belongings in my guitar case. (It was the 1990s.) I was just a kid and being a writer at the time meant I published little photocopied zines and had a poem published in an issue of Fireweed, a now defunct literary feminist journal, in its issue dedicated to the voices of young women. I really didn’t have a writing process. But those were important years in terms of exploration, reading and experimenting with style, making mistakes. I discovered a lot of influential writers at that time. Moving to Toronto meant that my roommate and I (Mariko Tamaki — who has also become a writer) took a class at George Brown together, and that’s how we met our first publisher, who was teaching. (Ann Decter of McGilligan Books). It was then that I started working on my poetry more seriously, and I published my first book in 2001 when I was 25, with McGilligan.

I will say that Toronto does have a pretty serious work ethic. Writers get shit done here and aren’t afraid to be creatively ambitious. I like that. The pace works for me.

OB:

You won a LAMBDA award in the spring (Congratulations!). What was that experience like?

ZW:

It was fantastic. I had the opportunity to meet Sarah Schulman, whose writing really influenced me when I started out, and hang out with the other nominees, many of whom were also Canadians. We have a very vibrant group of queer writers here — a small fraction of whom actually sometimes write about contemporary queer lives — but we don’t often get to meet and do events together. So that was nice.

OB:

You’ve been working on stand-up recently. How is the writing process different for comedy than fiction or poetry?

ZW:

It’s a new hobby. I always wanted to try it. The writing process is so different. With stand-up you start off telling a funny story and then you strip all the story elements out of it until you have a shiny, quick-as-possible set up and punch line.

OB:

What are you working on now?

ZW:

I’m working on a book that I don’t want to describe or name publicly because I’m a little superstitious that it won’t work out, and there’s also the danger in identifying it for grant applications. Let’s just say it’s a departure in almost every way from anything I’ve written before and that in itself is a bit terrifying. I mean, it’s not a Mormon cookbook or vampire YA or anything, but different enough that it’s exciting and challenging to write.


Zoe Whittall is a critically acclaimed fiction writer and poet. Her debut novel Bottle Rocket Hearts was a Globe and Mail "Top 100" book and made the top ten for Canada Reads 2011. In 2010, she was named Best Local Author of the Year by NOW Magazine. Zoe Whittall lives in Toronto.

For more information about Holding Still for as Long as Possible please visit the Anansi website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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