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"A Dizzying Lack of Knowing": Interview With Zoe Whittall

"A Dizzying Lack of Knowing": Interview With Zoe Whittall

The author of the short story "Oh, El," from our Fall issue, on how to trick your imagination into working again.

Zoe Whittall, pictured. Photograph by Kourosh Keshiri.

The young characters in Zoe Whittall's stories aren't sure where they fit into the world. They're tugged between seemingly simple descriptions: francophone or anglophone, public or private, monogamous or non-, straight or queer. 

Whittall herself is similarly difficult to confine to one category. She has written fiction, poetry and book reviews, made zines and edited an anthology. She wrote the award-winning novel Holding Still for as Long as Possible and Bottle Rocket Hearts—which made it into the CBC's Canada Reads Top 10—as well as several books of poetry and a short novel for adults with low literacy skills, called The Middle Ground. She also founded the performance series Girlspit. "I'm a natural performer," says Whittall, who grew up in Quebec's Eastern Townships but now lives in Toronto. "I was a musician in my youth. I've done theatre and, recently, stand-up comedy, so I like to be onstage, even if I get nervous beforehand."

Her short story "Oh, El," is featured in the fall issue of Maisonneuve, and explores expectations, insecurities, sex and miscommunication between a young couple. I reached her via email to discuss her inspiration for the story, her literary heroes and what to do when you can't write.

Sara McCulloch: What was the first book you ever read that affected you or your writing in some way?

Zoe Whittall: I was inspired to start writing fiction after reading Gail Scott's Heroine for a women's literature course at Concordia University. I felt like it cracked open all my assumptions about narrative and made me see a story in a way I had never considered or been exposed to before.

SM: In what way did it change your views on narrative and fiction?

ZW: It was sixteen years ago and my memory is terrible, but I do remember reading it in my apartment in the dead of depressing Montreal winter and feeling energized about writing stories. Before, I was much more interested in poetry and I couldn't really picture myself writing a longer narrative. It inspired me to try out new approaches to understanding a character.

I felt like it also lead me into a group of writers and poets in Montreal I had never heard of—feminists. Before that, all the feminist writers I knew were from the States. Before I discovered Heroine, I probably thought novels had to be very plot-driven, traditional in structure.

SM: You studied creative writing at Concordia, and finished your MFA at the University of Guelph in 2009. How was the writing workshop experience for you?

ZW: Workshops at Concordia in 1995 were just awful. I remember wanting to claw my eyes out sitting in those windowless rooms in the Hall building. Looking back, I realize how bad my writing was, and the workshops were good practice. Actually, I had one poetry workshop that was great, with Richard Sommer. I have fond memories of that class.

But I think, in general, I was too young to be there. I dropped out and moved to Toronto and had an informal writing group for many years. Most of the women in it were academics with impressive vocabularies, and I liked to be around them, hear them talk, find out what they were reading and work out their stories. It was nice to have a community that way.

Then I did an MFA at the University of Guelph. I had some great teachers in that program, and some brilliant colleagues to learn from. My second novel [Holding Still for as Long as Possible] was technically my thesis. Occasionally, I wonder if the MFA ruined my creativity in some ways. Other times I think that is total nonsense.

SM: In what way did the MFA program stifle your creativity?

ZW: There's a way that one can be creative that is kind of intuitive and careless, and that space sometimes produces amazing things. Often awful work can come out of that innocence as well, but sometimes a dizzying lack of knowing any better can produce good work. I look at Bottle Rocket Hearts and remember not really knowing what I was doing while I was writing it—some of those lines were so instinctual. It's some of my favourite work, now that I've had a few years to get over feeling embarrassed about it.  After completing an MFA, and spending several years working as a book reviewer, you lose that feeling. It's also a good thing.

SM: What was some of the best advice you have been given with regards to writing?

ZW: Don't think about publishing while you're writing. I'm pretty sure the novelist Marnie Woodrow told me that a million years ago, when I used to pester her for advice about how to be a writer. It's stayed with me for years and I think it's great advice, so I repeat it to aspiring writers I meet now.

SM: I read in an interview that when you wrote The Middle Ground, you were given specific guidelines from your publisher and had to submit many draft outlines. In light of the advice Woodrow gave you, how was it working with all this direction? Were these expectations overwhelming?

ZW: I'd never work like that again, with an outline that a publisher has to agree on before I start writing—not for a literary novel, anyway. It was a good idea for The Middle Ground because that book was sort of paint-by-numbers, written for a specific demographic and purpose. I do write outlines for myself, and sometimes I'll run them by my agent, but often the outline changes so drastically from start to finish. But an outline is a good motivator: a dangling carrot, a focal point.

SM: When you don't have a focal point, how does a piece a start out?

ZW: It depends. Sometimes a line or an image will come to me and I'll write it down. It might be homeless for a while, and could start out in a prose poem and move into a short story or a longer narrative. With Holding Still for as Long as Possible, I was doing a timed free-writing exercise and the image of two girls riding their bikes drunk through Kensington Market came to me. Then the idea of them getting into an accident evolved, and once I had about ten pages of this scene, and a few ideas of who the characters were, I worked out an initial outline for an action-based plot, just to try it out.

SM: How did your short story "Oh, El" start out?

ZW: It started with an image of a couple standing in the middle of a frozen lake at night. I think that image came to me after spending my thirty-third birthday at a cottage several years ago. And what it felt to walk on the lake: my partner and friend had walked fearlessly out into the middle, and my friend and I skirted the edges, worried about falling through the cracks. The feeling of walking on ice sparked a few images for me, so when I sat down to write a few years later, I imagined a couple in a stand-off, standing on the ice somewhere up north. I'd also been thinking about the different reasons why people choose to live in rural versus urban areas, and that made it into the story as well. For a few months, it was just that first scene sitting in my "rough sketches" file on my desktop.

SM: What do you do when you can't write, or when you're stuck with an image?

ZW: When I can't write, I read a lot. I read all the time anyway, but when I'm stuck I really focus on reading a variety of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and try to relax and enjoy it and not freak out about not getting enough done. Then I go see a play or a lecture. I watch a film or go for a walk and try to listen to people talk, look at the outside world, get away from the walls inside my office, speak to people besides my cats. Usually when I can't write, it is a sign that I desperately need to turn the soil, so to speak—to get the brain moving, go out into the world and experience things outside my imagination, in order to fuel or trick it into working again.

SM: Eleanor in "Oh, El" is very commanding when it comes to sex. She's assertive and comfortable with sexuality, but it seems to stem from some kind of insecurity.

ZW: I don't see it that way. I think she's confused by what turns her on, and she's naturally very dominant and doesn't have the language or context for why that is, and feels ashamed about it, but her insecurities aren't sexual. I think she's insecure about being a woman, or being a woman that doesn't have the same kind of romantic goals as her peers—not quite feeling like she fits in that category.

SM: At the end of the story, both Eleanor and Jim fight their instincts. When they end up in bed together again, you write, "She knew exactly what she would have done in the past, but decided not to try anything." In terms of building relationships or even trust between these two characters, is freeing oneself from expectations a good thing? Or is there some sort of compromise?

ZW: I wrote a million different endings for that scene. I settled on this one because it seemed the most natural, and I knew both Jim and El were in a different place in that hotel, all that time later, so I didn't want it to be the same old rituals happening again—although maybe that would be more like life. But I wanted them both to be yearning for something, and to know it wasn't going to work, and for the story to just melt away at that point. Freeing oneself from expectations is probably a good thing. I'm not sure. I'm often overwhelmed by my own.

To read Zoe Whittall's story "Oh, El," pick up a copy of Maisonneuve Issue 41 (Fall 2011) or contact us to order it.

Subscribe to Maisonneuve today.

Related on maisonneuve.org:

—The Conversationalist: Interview with Gail Scott
—Getting Back to the Point: Interview with Kathy Dobson
—Interview with Sheila Heti: 'All the Stories We Tell Ourselves Are Fictions'

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