Giller Prize nominee Zoe Whittall on her ’singular goal’

Zoe Whittall on the dream of spending days alone in a room, writing
2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize nominee Zoe Whittall in her Toronto home. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)
2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize nominee Zoe Whittall in her Toronto home. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)
2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize nominee Zoe Whittall in her Toronto home. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

The 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize: Canada’s most distinguished literary prize awards $100,000 annually to the best Canadian novel or short-story collection published in English. In this series, Maclean’s highlights the artistic process of the six nominees. Here, Zoe Whittall, author of The Best Kind of People, discusses her absolute need to stare out the window. Read more from other Giller Prize nominees here.

Timeliness, says Zoe Whittall, is the most frequent question she gets about her new novel, followed by the query about its setting. The second brings the more intriguing answer: The Best Kind of People, shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, unfolds in an affluent New England enclave because “I wanted it in a very wealthy place that was already polarized, and that’s America more than Canada,” Whittall says.

The short answer to the first question—how a novel about rape culture six years in the making managed to be released in the immediate wake of high-profile news items, from Jian Ghomeshi to filmmaker Nate Parker—is “coincidence,” says the 40-year-old Toronto writer. Not really, though. “My first published poem—I was 17 at the time—was about rape culture, although the term didn’t really exist yet. But you can’t be a young woman without it coming into your mind.”

BY ZOE WHITTALL · “I could never write a novel—it would require far too much time sitting in a room by myself,” said my new co-worker Matt, as we boarded a bus to the TV studio where we were working on a show together. It was 2014. I’d just signed a publishing contract for The Best Kind of People, was relieved it had found a home, as I’d almost buried it in the yard on more than one occasion.

I’d suggested Matt write a novel because he’d just casually pitched me several sophisticated story ideas in the time it took to ascend the escalator at Woodbine station. I think of writing a novel as something anyone with enough talent, ideas, and self-motivation can do. You just have to want it more than you want anything else. In every audience Q&A session I’m asked how to unveil the mysterious path to publication, and the honest answer is really boring: read very challenging books, as many and as varied as possible, ideally since you were a teenager, and then have an idea. Sit and write it down. Then rewrite it 20 times, at least. This plan is usually 100 per cent successful. Thinking about publication before you have finished writing anything is like inviting someone to dinner before you even have a kitchen, let alone ingredients or time to think about what you’d like to cook.

“But isn’t that the ultimate goal of any writer, to be able to sit in a room by themselves writing?”

“That sounds really lonely,” Matt said.

This had never occurred to me. A TV writing room, despite having the word “writing” in the title, actually means “TV talking room,” because writers collaborate to break the story verbally. The writing of scripts takes place later. It’s very social. Matt thrived in that environment, whereas I felt like I was jogging on the spot, having to yell out plot twists before my brain had time to think through the ramifications of each idea.

Writing prose requires the exact opposite set of skills. You need to be able to stare out a window; to scribble notes about the girl on the subway who is peeling a raw beet and talking about meeting Tracy Chapman in a Safeway. For a novelist, it’s good to have the kind of qualities that make you a weird person to hang around with: a daydreamer, an observer, a spy, a sponge for the interesting, devastating, ironic moments in life.

Being able to spend days in a room by myself reading and writing has been the singular goal of my entire adult life. I daydreamed about it while I was waiting tables, shelving books, teaching college English courses; I woke up at dawn so I could write alone before my office job; I quit jobs—good ones with benefits—impulsively whenever I’d receive an arts grant and could have a whole lot of writing days strung together. I took risks and made impractical life decisions in order to make good creative ones.

When writing alone in my house renders me a tad eccentric, I have a group of friends, mostly Ph.D. students, freelance journalists, or screenwriters, with whom I meet up with at local cafés to work. We chat, approximating the social life of people with real jobs, and then we put on our headphones, turn on our social media blockers, and dive into the work.

The other day I arrived at a café near my house to work on a TV script. I looked around at the other freelancers and started daydreaming about their backstories, gave them imaginary names, watched the way they twisted their hair up in top knots, or fiddled nervously with coffee spoons. It’s a sure sign that it’s time to get back to the newest novel, the one that burns with possibility on my desktop.

Every week leading up to the Giller prize in November, Maclean’s will excerpt a nominee’s work. Here, Zoe Whittall:


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.

THE GIRL WAS not part of the plan. He’d drawn a map using a feathered red marker on the back of a pizza box. There was no girl in the diagram. It used to be a ceremonial drug. It was called crystal. A jewel. Like all party drugs, it had purpose. It wasn’t like they make it seem now, on the commercials, like your life is over. They all had jobs and near-completed graduate degrees and they went to Burning Man and electronic music festivals and then back to work on Monday. He did it once or twice a year with friends and the point was to dance, dance, dance. Large groups of regular people. But friends who had jobs and babies now averted their eyes on the street. It didn’t used to be a big deal.

Except no one else did it anymore, and he had skin like punctured and torn fabric.

He stood still, staring at her, the gun hanging from a leather strap around his right shoulder. His grandfather used to hunt with that gun. Hounds at their heels. He had a daughter at this school. He’d forgotten about her too. He didn’t think it was possible, that a son could be disinherited, disowned, as an adult. That he would go “too far.” He never left this town. He didn’t go anywhere. He came to Sunday dinners when he remembered it was Sunday. He was struggling. But every addict is a liar. When he said that, he wanted to be excused from anything he did or said. He just needed to stop being punished by everyone.

SADIE CLOSED HER locker. The sound startled him. He blinked in a way that meant to wish her away from sight. He was not a killer of children, he knew, despite all evidence to the contrary. Even he had his standards, for f–k’s sake.

Who have I become? Am I a killer of anyone? These questions broke through the concentrated wall of destructive will, and then dissolved. He hadn’t thought this through. Hailstones pelted the arched front windows as it dawned on him. The black and white floor tile was messy with slush and the imprint of over six hundred children’s boots. He noted the weather and its impact on his body. He thought about turning back; but his focus returned. Nothing had been fair since his first black eye. He took the rifle off his shoulder. He cradled it in his arms as though it were a parcel to be delivered.

Even this he couldn’t do right. What kind of man can’t hold a gun?

If his dealer hadn’t gone to sleep finally, he wouldn’t have to be here.

Everyone is against him.

Especially her.

It’s always someone else’s fault, have you ever noticed that? Every story you tell, it’s always about someone who has done you wrong. But you’re the common denominator. She’d said this as she was pulling on a pair of beige cotton tights at the edge of her bed, getting ready for work, her hands shaking with rage. Her big toe poked through a hole in the right foot. He had been apologizing, begging her forgiveness for banging on her door in the middle of the night. When she’d let him in, he’d crawled on top of her and she’d had to push him off. But she wasn’t as strong as he was, and eventually she just lay still, clenching her jaw and willing him to die.

When will you ever take responsibility for your own life? When will you grow up? He didn’t have any money to give her for a morning-after pill. She’d grabbed a roll of twenties from the emergency cookie tin on top of the fridge. It was a bright red tin his mother had filled with Valentine cupcakes, before she had stopped talking to him and after she’d all but adopted his ex, whom she described as having “the patience of a saint.” You’re pathetic, she’d said. He’d crumpled in the corner, agreeing with her. That only made it worse. Your self-pity is disgusting.

The rage spiked.

His grip around the rifle tightened. The pad of his index finger, slippery with sweat, touched the trigger. He remembered what the gun was for. But the girl looked to him so much like his own daughter, the one he’d last seen by accident, through a window at the community centre where she was practising gymnastics dance, twirling a long pink and green ribbon through the air.

SADIE STARED AT him for a beat, blowing a half-assed bubble that popped before fully forming. She wasn’t certain, from this distance, what she was seeing, but her heart had accelerated involuntarily. It took only a few seconds more to understand danger. The man lowered the rifle, pointing it at her, then put it back on his shoulder. She brought into focus some motion behind him.

THE MAN THOUGHT, F–k it. I can turn it around. I can turn it around. This doesn’t have to be the way it ends for me. I can change. I CAN CHANGE! All at once he was euphoric, coming back into his own body.

Excerpted from The Best Kind of People. Copyright © 2016 Zoe Whittall.  Excerpted by permission of House of Anansi Press Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.