“Why is it important?”: An Interview with Zoe Whittall

by Kailey Havelock

Kailey Havelock is a Toronto-based writer and editor. She currently works as a columnist at The Town Crier, a publicist at the Slackline Creative Arts Series, a manuscript editor at the Modern Literature and Culture Research Centre, and an intern atThe Cooke Agency, and enjoys spending her evenings and weekends working on the final chapter of her MA in Literatures of Modernity.Her creative and academic publications can be found atwww.kaileyhavelock.com.

Zoe Whittall is the author of 3 novels, one novella, and three collections of poetry. Her recent Giller-shortlisted novel The Best Kind of People, a national bestseller, is soon to be made into a feature film by Sarah Polley

Set in a small, wealthy community in rural Connecticut, Whittall’s The Best Kind of People follows a prominent family as they grapple with the arrest of patriarch George Woodbury on allegations of sexual assault. Through the perspectives of his wife Joan, teenage daughter Sadie, and adult son Andrew, Whittall explores the difficulty of finding home in a family that is irreparably altered.

I was fortunate to discuss the novel with her over email earlier this year. Our conversation reveals significant developments in the narrative, and has been edited for length and clarity.


 

Kailey Havelock: Your pertinent and provocative novel directly addresses rape culture and community complicity on a very public platform, and has been the subject of considerable and much-deserved critical discussion. Sadie acknowledges that “white, powerful men, they get given every benefit of the doubt.” Considering the pervasion of these power structures within the Canadian literary community—recently brought to the forefront of public discussion by the Jian Ghomeshi case, Emma Healey’s essay on The Hairpin, and the UBC Accountable open letter—were you concerned about the novel’s reception within this community, because of that resonance?

Zoe Whittall: Thank you for calling it pertinent and provocative. I wasn’t concerned about the reception within the literary community based on the subject matter. I was far more concerned about how it would be received based on literary merit. I tried to write characters that are complicated and genuine, with interesting and believable narrative arcs, so that despite the plot, the book would never be mistaken for a polemic. A book about my own politics and opinions wouldn’t be very good. You can tell when a book is trying to convince you to believe something, as opposed to telling you a story about people who are trying to figure out their beliefs. I’m used to publishing work that those invested in the power structure, as you describe, might not be interested in, and so the thought that the book would upset or provoke anyone hadn’t really occurred to me. I just hoped it would be read.

Beyond worrying about what feminists or young women might think—and it was a passing concern—I didn’t have fears about the imagined patriarchal gatekeepers, so to speak. And since publication, I have been really overwhelmed by the positive response from other writers. The #UBCaccountable situation didn’t blow up until a few weeks after the book launched, but it was interesting timing, to be touring a book about how a small community reacts to accusations while that small literary community was dealing with a somewhat similar situation. My novel coming out at this time was an accident, but if the story gives people a forum to talk about sexual violence in book clubs or online, that is really exciting and meaningful to me.

KH: In response to a question from Emily Keeler at your Toronto launch, you said there are tons of novels in the world written from George’s perspective—the perspective of the accused—and there doesn’t need to be another written by you. Your novel is concerned with the moral uncertainty of “the average, non-criminal person” described in your epigraph from Kate Haring’s Asking for It. I’m curious about your decision to write from four third-person perspectives. What led you away from narrating these perspectives in first person, as you do in each chapter of your novel Holding Still for as Long as Possible?

ZW: I used to feel more comfortable in first person, and sometimes I still do. I set myself a challenge with this book to try to stick with third all the way through the second draft of the manuscript, though I did initially write a version in alternating first. The book took a long time to finish, in part because I could not decide on some very essential POV questions. In the alternating first-person present-tense version (from the perspectives of Joan and Sadie), Joan was wooden and Sadie’s portions took over the book, and then Andrew felt left out. I re-wrote it in third person omniscient, in which the camera moved around from paragraph to paragraph. But that made the prose feel old-fashioned and slowed the story down, and provoked some confusion about who was really telling the story. So I changed to close third person in alternating chapters from Sadie, Andrew, and Joan, and occasionally Kevin and Clara. Then I cut Clara towards the end. Eventually something started to gel, and I stuck with that decision for the last two years. I wanted the story to feel breathless and immediate, but slow enough that I could really embody the characters and understand them fully and how they would behave and feel. It was difficult! 

KH: Your book definitely delivers that sense of immediacy, and the character’s experiences feel so urgent. Sadie, Andrew, and Joan all struggle to reconcile their politics and relationships with their feelings toward George prior to the accusations, and that challenges them each in different ways. Sadie attends the local high school with the victims—the same school where, years earlier, Andrew was in a consensual but illicit relationship with his teacher as a minor. Can you tell me a bit about how you determined which voices should be present in the story? How did you resolve the question of what perspectives needed to be there?

ZW: I knew from the start that the story needed to be told by Joan and Sadie, and then Andrew’s voice became more urgent, especially after I developed his backstory with Stuart, the coach, and their affair. I knew I didn’t want the story to be told from the perspective of the accusers or the accused—I wanted it to be about the people around them, how they are impacted by his arrest, how it changes them, and the town. For a while, I had about 100 pages that included a present-day perspective from Sarah, the babysitter, but I took that out as it was becoming an entirely different book than what it was meant to be.

KH: George’s narrative perspective is notably absent throughout the novel, as is he—incarcerated between the first and last pages of the novel—and the narrative does not lend him the sympathy it lends to other characters or that they lend to him. Given this authorial decision, how do you feel about the dominant focus on his character in critical responses to the novel?

ZW: I knew that no matter how I wrote the book, it would be characterized as a “Did he or didn’t he?” narrative, asking “Is he being framed?” and “What is the truth?” That makes sense, because that is the struggle the main characters are facing: who is this person I love and have trusted my whole life, and what do these accusations mean? We don’t want to believe that someone we love can behave deplorably. It’s partially why I chose that Kate Harding quote for the prologue. The choice to have him absent, to be unknowable, was very deliberate, because I wanted the reader to experience confusion and frustration at not knowing who he was. That’s what was happening for the narrators. I wanted the focus to be on his loved ones and their specific emotional stories. But he is the centre of those stories, and I’ve crafted the book so that he is the big question mark at the heart of the book, so it makes sense that there is some focus on that.

I think that all authors feel that books can sometimes suffer from marketing copy that has to summarize and entice, and I try not to think about that and let the readers have their own experiences. I do get frustrated sometimes, like when Now Magazine kept referring to the book as “inspired by Ghomeshi” when the book was actually finished before that trial even began. It’s described as being “about rape culture,” which I understand makes sense in marketing way, but it’s a bit misleading.

KH: It seems you say so much about George in what you chose not to write, which I find intriguing. When you were writing the book, were you concerned about the possibility of centring him by omission? Do you fear that the absence of his voice might magnify his presence—or, perhaps, emphasize how sinister it is?

ZW: I didn’t consider that, that his absence could magnify his presence, but that’s very interesting! I was concerned about frustrating the reader, and so I did write a lot about George that didn’t make it into the final book. I had to know as the author who he was—what his motivations were, what his relationships were like and how he felt—in order to make everything seem plausible and real. Deciding what to leave in the book and what to take out was an arduous process, and one I still have questions about. I think every author feels they could re-write the book forever, but at one point it has to be done.

I suppose the decisions I made were informed by the fact that he has to be central to the whole narrative, but that the feelings of those around him were what I wanted to explore in depth. So it’s their story, not his. But what he did or didn’t do, and his life, his role—those are central things.

KH: The time between George’s release and his reconciliation with Joan spans several months in these characters’ lives, but is narrated within just a few pages at the end of the novel. While their community “seemed to have collective amnesia” about the charges against George, the reader is rendered immune to George’s redemptive charm by the absence of an opportunity to detach from the consequences of his unpunished actions. I’m interested in your insistence on realism, rather than resolving the novel with satisfying legal or social prosecution. Why was important to end with a return to relative normalcy for George, absolved by both his wife and his community?

ZW: The ending was informed in large part by reading about sexual assault cases and how difficult they are to prosecute and how rarely they result in convictions. And the case against George had many holes in it, although it seemed strong initially. So I wanted the result to be realistic, though of course this wasn’t the type of novel that was going to go into the specific legal details. I thought about writing a more explicit and lengthy court scene, but it began to seem like a stylistic departure from the rest of the book that took the reader out of the text in a jarring way.

The question of his guilt, his nature, his past mistakes—I think that’s all pretty clear. The central question at the heart of the story was never “Did he do it and will he take responsibility if he did?” It was always “What do you do when someone you love is accused of this and the love doesn’t go away” and “How can we be accountable to each other” and “How do we keep living honestly?” Those were more interesting questions to me than the did-he/didn’t-he question. We live in a society where the answer to that question is yes about 94% if the time. To write about the other 6% of the time is a whole other story that I wasn’t interested in writing. I was interested in how we assume—and I include myself in this “we”—especially when the accused is white, wealthy, a good guy, that he is part of that small exception.

KH: At the end of the novel, Joan seems to find it easier to forgive or repress George’s actions, rather than deal with her anger and loneliness. Could you tell me about your decision to have her leave George, briefly, and then return to him, rather than staying with him entirely?

ZW: How Joan’s story ends was influenced by an interview I did with the daughter of someone whose father went to jail for molestation. She’s the subject of my friend Chase Joynt’s documentary Between You and Me on CBC Docs. Her story is very different from Joan and Sadie’s story in terms of details, but talking to her allowed me to explore the attachment Joan may have to both to George and to her home, to consistency, to the memories of their life as a family. This made me think about how she could be open to forgiveness, or to starting that process. I knew what I would do in her situation, but it wasn’t what Joan would do. I wanted it to feel authentic.

KH: Over the course of the novel, Kevin—the immature stepfather-figure of Sadie’s boyfriend—exploits his proximity to the Woodburys, to novelize their story in hopes of reviving his writing career. You’ve spoken about Kevin’s character as a source of comic relief, and I think the satire is apparent when Kevin’s agent says his novel is “not exploitative, its passionate, it’s real life, it’s raw, and it’s what will ultimately be redemptive. It’s fucking Oprah-worthy.” Beyond Kevin’s humorous lack of humility and sensitivity as a writer, to what extent is he also an outlet for your authorial self-awareness? Your novel is neither sensationalizing nor moralizing, and seems incredibly conscious of the less nuanced and more problematic book you could have—but didn’t—write.

ZW: I wrote Kevin because I spent years as a freelance book reviewer, was a staff reporter for Quill & Quire, and also did an MFA. During this time, I became obsessed with a certain type of young male writer or aging male writer. I’m also interested in the narcissism or solipsism of all writers, myself included, and how precious and tiresome we can be. As I wrote the book, I was thinking—as we all do—about why I was writing this, for whom, and asking “Why is it important?” For a long time, I didn’t think the book would succeed and I was often unsure if it was important or interesting. Writing Kevin’s plot line was a way to talk about the insecurities and banalities of being a novelist, while I was in the midst of all that insecurity myself. And then I amplified that storyline, making it more satirical. I had some fun with him, which was what I needed sometimes given the subject of the book and heavy emotional content. I was learning how to write stand-up comedy and also writing sitcom scripts while I wrote this novel, so Kevin was a way to insert some of that comedic character work into the book.

KH: I was thrilled to hear that Sarah Polley has optioned the rights for a film adaptation of your novel. The book is very conscious about which characters’ perspectives are shown and to what extent. How do you imagine this disclosing and withholding of voices might translate across mediums? And what aspects of the novel are you most intrigued to see adapted for the screen?

ZW: I’m very happy about Sarah and trust her vision for the film. We’ve discussed what I feel is important to be left in the film version, including that it not be turned into a did-he/didn’t suspense film, that it keeps its feminist heart, and of course, all the Andrew/Jared threads—I’m haunted by The Hours (and other adaptations) taking away the lesbian (or gay) content. We were totally on the same page about those issues. She’s such an amazing artist, and her work is so beautiful that I can’t wait to see what she does. So much of the book is actually kind of slow, the ways the characters come to terms, clumsily and awkwardly, with what is happening, how the stigma of their husband/father’s case impacts their lives. She’s such a graceful director, I think she will really bring those moments to life. 

KH: Your novel is concerned with how the court case is editorialized in the news, fictionalized in Kevin’s book, and framed in the book George writes while incarcerated. You draw attention to the power of language in framing a story for public consumption, creating heroes and villains and victims, and how that power plays a hand in the outcome of the trial. When publishing this novel, did you have any concerns about its reception in the media, considering the critique you present of powerful social figures like George and those who support him?

ZW: I honestly wasn’t sure how the book would be received. Would feminists hate it? I had nightmares about Goodreads and Twitter. Would mainstream readers find it too feminist? I was worried it would be mocked or ignored. I had no idea. I had some concerns, as I approach middle-age, that the ideas in the book would seem outdated, that Sadie wouldn’t seem like a credible teenager, that I was out of touch somehow. I’ve learned you can never know ahead of time how a book will be received. I thought my last novel would have more traction than it did, and I was disappointed about that. So with this one, I tried to just shrug my shoulders and hope for the best: that it would find readers.

 

Havelock


Kailey Havelock is a Toronto-based writer and editor. She currently works as a columnist at The Town Crier, a publicist at the Slackline Creative Arts Series, a manuscript editor at the Modern Literature and Culture Research Centre, and an intern atThe Cooke Agency, and enjoys spending her evenings and weekends working on the final chapter of her MA in Literatures of Modernity.Her creative and academic publications can be found atwww.kaileyhavelock.com.

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