Zoe Whittall Delivers a Stylish New Novel
Originally published in CURVE MAGAZINE, March 2010.
Zoe Whittall is a dual-genre writer, publishing in both fiction and poetry and is the winner of the Writers’ Trust Dayne Ogilvie Award for Best Emerging Gay Writer in Canada Her novels Bottle Rocket Hearts (Cormorant, 2007), and Holding Still For as Long as Possible (Anansi, 2009), as well as her poetry collections, The Best Ten Minutes of Your Life (McGilligan, 2001), The Emily Valentine Poems (Snare, 2006), and Precordial Thump (Exile, 2008) have made her a household name to Canadian queers. Raised on a sheep farm, she currently lives in Toronto.
Nairne Holtz: In Holding Still For as Long as Possible the story of a domestic relationship quietly unraveling is juxtaposed against shorter tales of paramedics coping with emergencies. What was your purpose in including both narratives?
Zoe Whittall: I think the heavier paramedic sections tighten up the story. I wanted to juxtapose the real crisis moments with the ones that feel real, but aren’t really, like Billy’s hypochondria or Amy’s heartbreak. These three narrators have had such different lives and experience crisis in very different ways. Billy thinks a rash on her arm is an emergency. Josh deals with other people’s real life-or-death emergencies every day, and becomes blasé. His story is really about compassion fatigue, and how crisis workers learn to see the world in a bleak and often hilarious way in order to keep working without going crazy or fully succumb to PTSD. The book is ultimately about how most fear is based on a lack of control, but that you ultimately can’t control anything.
NH: Holding Still For as Long as Possible deals with a love triangle between a transman and two bisexual femmes, yet nothing on the book’s packaging suggests there is queer content. Was this a strategy on the part of your publisher?
ZW: Interesting! I don’t think of Billy as bisexual, she’d identify more as queer. Maybe Amy would call herself bi. Much has been made about the “fluidity” of the female characters, but they’re both pretty queer, politicized that way, identify that way. Josh is most comfortable around queers, has a home in his queer world, but has a straight sexual orientation. But, to get to your question about the back cover copy, I didn’t even notice there wasn’t a mention. You only have to read a few pages of the book to know there’s queer content. It wasn’t a strategy on the part of my publisher at all. The story isn’t about the fact that they’re queer or genderqueer, it’s about the larger issues in their lives. I’m pretty much known, if at all, for being queer and writing about queer lives, but the novel isn’t about identity at all. I didn’t want Josh’s transsexuality to be a topic in the book, or an issue, the way it is in most books with trans characters. It wouldn’t be organic to the plot for the characters to sit around discussing it, because he transitioned years before the book starts. It was important to me that he come across as an authentic, whole character, and not just an exploitive plot point.
NH: Sad things happen in your novels, but I loved the dry way the narrator in Bottle Rocket Hearts dissects everything from sexual politics to the flaky customers she deals with at a health food store. How important is humor to you? Would you ever write a more gothic, Canadian-style novel about landscape and alcoholic fathers?
ZW: Oh man, no way! Humor is very important to me. My favourite writers tend to be witty—Douglas Coupland, Miriam Teows, Marissa Pessl, Lorrie Moore—and I aspire to that. I also love watching stand-up and get a lot of inspiration from comics. The characters in the new book are all kind of cynical, and it was really important to me to try and capture a specific kind of humour that paramedics have—almost beyond a gallows humor. I spent over a year hanging out with groups of medics—and trying to drink like them, which is impossible—and I really feel like I almost have the ability to laugh at anything.
NH: Your poetry feels more intimate, more confessional to me than your novels. What do you prefer about writing poetry? What do you prefer about writing fiction?
ZW: I love the freedom you can have with poetry to play with form and language, with collage and paste, and to be playful, without necessarily having to pay attention to story. But I do feel like writing long fiction is where I’m most comfortable now. I love creating people and being around them for years, watching their stories unfold.