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Zoe Whittall

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Profile: Zoe Whittall’s timely new novel shows her to be a writer who defies easy categorization


(Photo: Arden Wray)

Sitting in her living room on a sun-lightened red couch, looking impeccably western cool in a faded jean jacket, flared dress, and scuffed cowboy boots, Zoe Whittall explains how her latest novel is different in nearly every way possible from her previous works. She wields a copy of the book like an exclamation mark, picking it up and putting it down, flipping its pages, all small acts of emphasis. It’s just that sort of story.

The Best Kind of People hinges on a singular, haunting question: What would happen if you found out the person you were deeply in love with was capable of doing terrible things? It makes for a fascinating jumping-off point and – despite Whittall’s worries – marks an exciting shift for the 40-year-old award-winning author. “For this book, I may as well have been writing about kings and queens in the 14th century,” she quips. “This is pretty far from my reality.”

It took Whittall six tough years to write The Best Kind of People, which almost became the book that got stuffed in the proverbial desk drawer. “I have more fear about this book than any other book, in terms of how it will be read and received,” she says. Centred on one all-American family’s unspooling, the story confronts life at its deepest valleys. Whittall opens by establishing the family’s patriarch, George Woodbury, as an affable town hero, then, within a few pages, deflating him.

George is charged with sexual misconduct against several teenage girls at the high school where he teaches, and where his daughter is an ace student. He’s arrested and dutifully proclaims his innocence, but Whittall doesn’t linger there. This is a book about those caught in the ripples after the stone is thrown. What Whittall gives is a deftly realized exploration of the human heart: the ways in which it breaks and opens and seals shut after our central truths are shattered.

In this way, The Best Kind of People is hardly a departure from Whittall’s previous novels, Bottle Rocket Hearts and Holding Still for as Long as Possible, both of which are firmly rooted in queer milieus. Each demonstrates Whittall’s mastery of creating small, tender, agonizing – and very real – moments of human interaction that, piled together, reveal multitudes of meaning. While few can relate to having a husband or a father accused of pedophilia, many will likely see themselves in the way each of George’s family members – Joan (his wife), Sadie (his teenage daughter), and Andrew (his adult son) – tumble and then drift after his arrest, behaving in previously unthinkable ways, crashing through their own formerly stable lives.

“What I really like is that it is not a black-and-white book,” says House of Anansi Press publisher Sarah MacLachlan. “For me it opens those doors on how we judge others and how we judge ourselves.” MacLachlan calls The Best Kind of People an “undeniable read” and praises Whittall as “the full meal deal.” As publisher, she has high hopes for Whittall’s newest work and believes it will spark conversations about power, sex, and the potential for abuse. (In fact, Anansi is considering re-publishing the book for young adults under its Groundwood Books imprint, with the intention of initiating dialogue around consent.)

“It’s the feeling of knowing someone, loving someone, yet seeing that there’s something very wrong,” Whittall says, “and wanting to have compassion, but also not knowing where your boundaries are and what’s your bottom line – what’s acceptable. Those experiences, or moments, catapulted me into the material.”

Whittall first became fixated on these questions after hearing a segment on CBC Radio’s The Current that featured a psychologist in Ottawa who ran a support group for wives of sex offenders who wanted to stay in their relationships. Whittall was both horrified and rapt. She couldn’t stop listening. It was right around the time Col. Russell Williams’ case dominated media headlines. (The former Canadian Armed Forces officer is currently serving two life sentences for rape and murder.) Whittall decided she wanted to explore characters who made her uncomfortable: not just George, but his wife, Joan, who grapples with supporting her husband and staying in their marriage.

For MacLachlan, it’s also a happy circumstance that, though she started the book years ago, Whittall is very much “writing the age” – fraught as it is with stories of powerful, privileged men, like Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby, accused of sexual assault and rape. MacLachlan, who also published Holding Still, echoes Whittall in calling the upcoming novel “a real departure.” She believes it’s one of the qualities that makes Whittall such a thrilling author. “In our business we like to categorize things a lot,” says MacLachlan. “She’s like, ‘You think you have me pegged? No, I’m going to talk about this now.”

That’s not to say Whittall’s done a complete reversal and written a book of interchangeable, cis-gender straight dudes. With Holding Still, Whittall won a Lambda Literary Award in the transgender fiction category for her empathetic portrayal of the character Josh. In their citation, the Lambda judges wrote: “While we know he is trans, we’re following him in his life as it is, not while he struggles with identity, or patiently explains hormones to new friends. Josh is just a guy, and with these parameters we get one of the best trans man portraits fiction has yet to see.” Whittall does the same thing with the character Andrew in The Best Kind of People. Readers are aware that he’s gay, and though it certainly informs his experiences, choices, and personality, it’s not the only thing that propels him through the world.

Whittall stresses that while she’s a queer woman and that characters on the LGBTQ spectrum will always be interesting and important to her, none of her books is autobiographical. It’s more like she plucked them from the landscape of her own life, the environments she inhabits. Whittall grew up on a sheep farm in small-town Quebec. She describes herself as a consummate reader who, before she could write, dictated stories to her mom. At 13, her family moved to the suburbs of Montreal. As a young adult, she went to Concordia University, but moved to Toronto in 1997, chasing love. At first, she focused on poetry and had, as she self-deprecatingly jokes, “a terrible music career.” Eventually, she shifted to fiction.

Her first novel, Bottle Rocket Hearts, started as a short story about a bisexual woman, set in the 1990s. Soon, Whittall felt more comfortable in long-form prose. In her late twenties, she took that interest and embarked on her master of fine art in creative writing at the University of Guelph. Around the same time, Whittall worked as a publicist and marketing co-ordinator at a small press, a job she eventually left because she says it forced her to see behind the curtain. While there, everything she wrote, even her first drafts, began with the question “Who’s going to read this?” It was “absolutely bananas,” she says, and hindered her writing process. Now, when she writes, she tries not to think about who’s going to read her work. This attitude has led her to embrace writing from a space of total creativity.

It’s Whittall’s willingness to try new things that prompted her to take a stand-up comedy class. She thought her writing would benefit from learning how to tell a joke, but soon learned she loved the stage. She now calls herself an introvert who loves to perform. It’s also led to new opportunities. After catching the stand-up bug, Whittall took another class to learn how to turn her comedy material into a TV script. She’s since sold that script as a pilot to CTV, which is now in production. She’s also written for shows like Degrassi: The Next Generation, and adds that TV writing, in turn, has helped her develop more action-oriented plotlines for her novels. (Also, she says, “I love TV unapologetically.”) As for her initial decision to learn stand-up, she says, “It’s opened up a lot of doors for me. I did it as a lark, but it’s ended up really enhancing my fiction and my life in general.”

Whittall’s refusal to be neatly slotted is what makes her so refreshing. From television writing to stand-up comedy, Whittall can’t be pinned down, nor can her books. Her next novel is a multi-generational tale that starts in 1920s Turkey. It ends with a female cello player who’s a modern-day Casanova. How perfectly different