Our next interview in this year’s Giller Prize special, generously sponsored by Publishing@SFU, is with Zoe Whittall, author of the shortlisted title The Best Kind of People. Her spellbinding novel bravely and lucidly explores the lives of the family members of a popular small-town teacher accused of sexual assault.
Zoe Whittall's debut novel, Bottle Rocket Hearts, made the Globe and Mail Top 100 Books of the Year and CBC Canada Reads’ Top Ten Essential Novels of the Decade. Her second novel Holding Still for as Long as Possible won a Lambda Literary Award and was an American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book. She was awarded the K.M. Hunter Artist Award for Literature in 2016.
Author photo credit: Vivek Shraya
THE CHAT WITH ZOE WHITTALL
How was The Best Kind of People born?
I was trying to write another book and was having a hard time of it, and I was listening to The Current. It was around the time of the Russell Williams case. There was a lot of talk about his wife and how could she not have known. They were interviewing a therapist who ran a support group for women who stay in relationships with men who commit sex crimes. I was really curious about who those women were, and a bit judgmental. And I was thinking a lot about empathy and how important it is to empathize with even your most despicable characters, and that’s how I imagined the character of Joan, and it emerged from there.
I was thinking a lot about empathy and how important it is to empathize with even your most despicable characters ...
The novel describes the fallout of an alleged series of sexual assaults perpetrated by a popular teacher in a small Connecticut town. What research was involved in writing the book?
I talked to some people with family members in jail, and I also interviewed the subject of this film by my friend Chase Joynt. I also went deep into Men’s Rights blogs, and legal transcripts and articles about sexual assault cases in the U.S.
You’ve written a couple of previous novels, one of of which won a prestigious Lambda Award. What’s it like to find yourself on this year’s Giller shortlist?
It’s a real shock and a serious dream come true, which sounds like a cliché but I can’t describe it any other way. I’m honoured to be alongside all the shortlisted authors, and I still can’t believe it’s actually happening. I feel very lucky.
What’s a question no one has asked you about the book, that you wish they would ask? How would you respond?
I like talking about point of view, and the switch from writing first person to close third. Maybe this is a boring question! But it was such a challenge while writing this book to make that shift, and I find it interesting.
I like talking about point of view, and the switch from writing first person to close third.
49thShelf is built around a large community of readers and fans who love great CanLit. What Canadian authors are you reading these days?
"This gripping story challenges how we hear women and girls, and dissects the self-hypnosis and fear that prevent us from speaking disruptive truth. With subversive precision and solid veracity, Whittall calls into question pervasive forms of silence and acquiescence."
Almost a decade earlier, a man with a .45-70 Marlin hunting rifle walked through the front doors of Avalon Hills prep school. He didn’t know that he was about to become a living symbol of the age of white men shooting into crowds. He hadn’t slept in four days. He was the kind of angry that only made sense outside of language. He had walked three miles from his new studio apartment above Harry’s Cottage Times Bait Shop, oblivious to the downpour, the thin rip along the seam of his right leather boot. Soaked. Unaware. He walked, a head without a body. A head with one single thought, looped and distorted.
Students attending all twelve grades were amassed in classrooms, a blur of uniform plaid, settling in after the first bell. Except for Sadie Woodbury. She was standing in front of an open locker, retrieving her lucky koala bear eraser and straightening her thick brown bangs in a heart-shaped magnetized mirror. The sparkling unicorn sticker at the apex of the heart was beginning to peel away from the plastic glass. It was class speech day in the fifth grade. She had five yellow index cards in her kilt pocket with point-form notes In Praise of Democracy in America. She tongued a mass of orange peach gum to the top of her mouth, flavourless, unwilling to discard it just yet. Her parents didn’t allow chewing gum. Amanda had pressed the white paper strip into her palm on the playground before the first morning bell.
She saw him behind her in the mirror’s reflection. He was a smudge of indecipherable movement.
Zoe Whittall's writing has appeared in The Walrus, The Believer, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Fashion, and more. She has also worked as a writer and story editor on the TV shows Degrassi, Schitt’s Creek, and the Baroness Von Sketch Show. Born in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, she has an MFA from the University of Guelph and lives in Toronto.