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Zoe Whittall: On Personal Change in Literary Fiction

Bestselling and Giller Prize-shortlisted author Zoe Whittal discusses the complexity of big life decisions in her new novel, The Spectacular.

Zoe Whittall is the author of three previous novels, including the Giller Prize-shortlisted The Best Kind of People, the Lambda-winning Holding Still for As Long As Possible, and her debut, Bottle Rocket Hearts. She has published three collections of poetry: The Best Ten Minutes of Your Life, Precordial Thump, and The Emily Valentine Poems. She is also a Canadian Screen Award–winning TV and film writer, with credits on the "Baroness von Sketch Show", "Schitt’s Creek", "Degrassi", and others.

Zoe Whittall: On Personal Change in Literary Fiction

In this post, Zoe discusses the complexity of big life decisions in her new novel, The Spectacular, how the literary landscape has changed since she began the writing process, and more!

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Name: Zoe Whittall
Literary agent: Samantha Haywood, Transatlantic Agency
Book title: The Spectacular
Publisher: Penguin Random House / Ballantine
Expected release date: September 14, 2021
Genre/category: Literary Fiction / LGBTQ fiction
Previous titles: Novels: The Best Kind of People; Holding Still for As Long as Possible; and Bottle Rocket Hearts. Poetry: Precordial Thump; The Emily Valentine Poems; and The Best Ten Minutes of Your Life.
Elevator pitch for the book: The Spectacular is a novel about sex, drugs, abortion, maternal ambivalence, and late in life queerness through the eyes of three women in three different time periods as they try not to let attachment trauma ruin their lives.

Zoe Whittall: On Personal Change in Literary Fiction

The Spectacular by Zoe Whittal

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What prompted you to write this book?

Two things: I spent every day of my 30s contemplating whether or not I should have a baby. It was all-consuming, both emotionally and intellectually, and as a queer person there is just so much more planning that has to go into that choice, and I just never made it. I wanted it very badly, but the circumstances of my life did not support it. I was in back-to-back relationships and my ex-girlfriend did not want kids, and then the boyfriend I was with next did not want more kids.

In my early 40s, during the bulk of writing this book, I was a half-time and somewhat un-defined step-parent to his two boys. Then we broke up, and during the final editorial stages I became pregnant on my own, but lost the baby. I wanted to write about the question of "should I or shouldn’t I?" from all sides. What is it like to not want it so badly that you doctor shop for someone who will tie your tubes at 21? That’s what young Missy does.

Then in book two, 38-year-old Missy changes her mind. In 1997 all the doctors say this to her, that she’ll change her mind. And I didn’t write it that way to agree with them, but just to explore a story arc where several things can be true. You can really not want a child and choose abortion at one time in your life, and you can surprise yourself by wanting a child at a different time. In the 1970s, her mother Carola regrets motherhood and leaves the family. Missy’s grandmother makes both choices.

I was curious about how different people make these choices, depending on their life circumstance. I didn’t have any money to support a kid on my own until it was almost biologically impossible to have one. There are so many reasons people decide one way or the other.

The second inspiration for the book was a passage in a self-published chapbook my granny wrote before she died that detailed a childhood memory of escaping Smyrna in a rowboat. Originally, I thought this was a memory from the Turkish war of 1922, but it was actually from the first world war when Turkey declared Britain its enemy, and my family who lived there were all British.

I also incorporated my Grandfather’s memory of barely escaping—he remembers a Turkish solider poking a bayonet under the rug where he was hiding in a church, and it didn’t quite reach him and he remained undetected. I wanted to incorporate these images into a longer narrative, and I ended up giving Ruth that backstory and setting the sensory details of that escape in the Greco-Turkish war of 1922. (She also fled then, but in a different way.) I only met my grandfather a few times in childhood before he died, and my granny and I weren’t very close at all. She wasn’t a very maternal person, but in the book the grandmother character is the most consistently maternal person in Missy’s life.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?

I started writing the book in 2009 or so, and originally it was going to involve a historical narrative set in Turkey, but I found that extremely difficult. So I started my last novel as a procrastination project and put The Spectacular down. And then when I picked it up again I knew I wanted it to be something different, but still at its heart about maternal ambivalence, reproductive freedoms, and sexual autonomy. But the focus and the form changed. I loved writing about the 1990s, about that particular moment in third wave feminist and indie rock history, the time when I was a teenager and in my early 20s that I remember so well.

Because my last novel was a bestseller and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, I was able to sell the book to Andra Miller at Ballantine based on a few sample chapters and a sketch of an arc. It shifted considerably between that meeting and publication.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

Between the time I started the first draft and the time the book came out, the publishing landscape for queer writers publishing queer and trans content completely changed. My big dream is that my books can now become a part of the conversation now that queer writers are invited to the literary table.

Zoe Whittall: On Personal Change in Literary Fiction

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

I found it nearly impossible to write the character of Ruth without it reading like a wooden parody of what my middle-aged brain imagined an 83-year-old would sound like. I also wrote some of those sections more than 10 years ago, when I was 35 and not 45. The book would rocket along in the other chapters, but we’d get to Ruth and the pace would just stop. The language would become clunky and announce itself as language. It was the syntactical equivalent to dancing on the wrong beat.

I was listening to Ben Lerner in a podcast talking about how he felt it impossible to inhabit the inner world of his teenaged self in order to write the adolescent narrator, and he solved this by addressing the form. And similarly, Ruth only came together when I realized it was less of a character problem and more of an issue of form. I shifted the formal approach and decided on how her story might best be told via literary fragment. Writing her in sparse, well-curated sentences allowed for the emotional distance I felt between my authorial voice and the character to just exist.

It was sort of a stylistic mea culpa—the author cannot have all of her, and neither can the reader, and perhaps the mystery or tension in that distance would be intriguing on the page. The section of the book she narrates reads like a curated selection of prose poetry that highlight the major moments in her life that pertain to motherhood, sexuality, autonomy, and love. So we see fragments of her getting an abortion in the 1950s, when she had to bribe a nurse in the middle of the night in an entirely new country she’d only just moved to.

That formal shift came late in the writing process when I was ready to just give up, but it saved me. In the end it was a poet’s instinct, and that’s how I started my career—I published two books of poems before my first novel came out.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

Writers can never control how a book is read, so my hopes are simply that readers will find something in the book that surprises them. I suppose I like the idea that it might be provocative, especially the sections on regretting motherhood. I also like the idea of unsuspecting straight cis readers becoming invested in a love story between a femme and a trans man.

But like all writers, I hope there is something stylistically interesting or new about the construction of the story—a memorable sentence, funny dialogue, an arresting image, something that makes them want to underline a phrase and write it in the margins.

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Back up your work, get used to rejection, don’t think about marketing at all while you are writing, don’t skip the sex scenes even if writing them makes you want to die a little, never show your work to anyone until you’ve written at least five drafts, and if you can do anything else, do it.

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