Thursday, February 14, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Zoe Whittall

Zoe Whittall is the author of novel called Bottle Rocket Hearts (Cormorant) named one of the Best Books of 2007 by the Globe and Mail and Quill & Quire magazine. Now Magazine awarded her the title of Best Emerging Author of 2007. She published a book of poems in 2001 called The Best Ten Minutes of Your Life (McGilligan Books) and a second volume The Emily Valentine Poems (Snare Books) in 2006. Her poetry was recently made into short illustrated films showcased in Toronto Subway stations for Nuit Blanche. In 2003, she edited the book Geeks, Misfits and Outlaws. She writes book and music reviews for a variety of Canadian mags, teaches writing workshops, and has worked several small press publishing related day jobs. Recently the Globe and Mail called her " THE COCKIEST, BRASHEST, FUNNIEST, TOUGHEST, MOST LIFE-AFFIRMING, ELEGANT, SCRUFFY, NO-HOLDS-BARRED WRITER TO EMERGE FROM MONTREAL SINCE MORDECAI RICHLER." S he was born in South Durham, Quebec and has lived in Toronto since 1997.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

It initially gave me tremendous confidence, though it's not my favourite book to re-read now. I met a lot of interesting people, and learned a lot about what to do differently the next time around in terms of both writing and publishing. At the time I thought I was so old and wordly at twenty-five. Now I look back and think, wow, I was a kid. It's a kid's poetry book. But it provided me with a lot of future opportunities.

2 - How long have you lived in Toronto, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I've lived here since 1997. Geography does impact my writing, particularly because I'm a home-body and don't tend to travel all that much. I'm interested in neighbourhoods, various forms of community and how we inhabit the spaces within those communities. I lived on a farm as a kid, the suburbs as a teenager and the city for my adulthood, and I'm really interested in rural / urban differences. Race and gender – well, I think it's impossible to not be impacted by race, gender, class, sexual orientation – all those things - unless you live in a treehouse in the middle of nowhere, but it would likely come up whenever you ventured into town for Cheerios.

3 - Where does a poem or piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

Poems usually originate from single moments and then I try to group them together when I realize I have enough to create a manuscript. Or, I get hooked on experimenting with a certain kind of style, game or form and write a whole bunch of similar pieces. Right now I'm trying to write long poems on a similar theme, and I'm thinking about a book while I'm writing them, but this is unusual for me.

The new novel I'm trying to write started from one imagined event, and then I came up with a timeline and characters around that event, and it's pretty much been a book in my head since those initial drafts. The first novel was all about character for years until I finally had to make things happen to these people I'd grown to love.
4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

Both. I love performing. A lot of my poetry comes across much better on stage, or at least, the humour does. It's great to get feedback on works in progress and definitely fun to meet people who respond well. Then there are those moments where you bomb, or the audience really wanted to hear goth poetry or political rants and you left your gothic political rants at home and want to read your nature poems and your friends don't come out to your readings anymore because you read too much and you sit there with a bunch of strangers until you get paid eight bucks. Those readings suck. But generally, I like being on stage and it often rejuvenates the solo writing process.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Both. But mostly, it's essential. There are things I just can't possibly see and understand when I'm so close to the work, and quite honestly, there are things I'm still learning as a writer, and I need a focused and experienced guide to tell me when things are working well and when they aren't. Mostly I leave editorial meetings feeling grateful and enthused.

7 - After having published a couple of titles over the past few years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

It's easier because I'm learning what my boundaries are and understanding how to be practical about my expectations, each time around. What makes it difficult is working in publishing. It's so easy to become cynical and burnt out on the business when you are inside it, as opposed to being just an author. I'd love to be blissfully unaware of the shop-talk, gossip, insider crap that can really make book-making seem like a bizarre little network of the overworked and constantly panicked. It's hard to be around an industry where everyone is always yelling The Ship Is Going Down! I blame the boomers for this.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

At the Beaver Café where I tend to write a lot. They have a great fruit and cheese plate that comes with fig jam. Fig jam!

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

It's a toss-up between Wayson Choy addressing a group of us with "Editors are not your janitors! Learn to use a comma!". This speaks to me because I'm just terrible with the typos. I take on too many things at once and forget the details. I'm trying to remedy this.

The other best piece of advice was to remember that grant and awards juries are lotteries and a total crap-shoot. My friend Mariko Tamaki told me that after she was on a jury, and I've successfully stopped crying when I receive rejection letters. Now that I've also been on juries, I realize just how much luck is involved in publishing. My first pick could be someone else's last pick. It's like shaking the eight-ball every time and there is no grand arbiter of Perfect Writing, or when you are a kid and you see a teacher at the laundrymat and you realize they are just ordinary shmucks with dirty socks. Those are the people in charge, and some days you get lucky and one of them likes your work.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

I think one fuels the other for me. I like to write poetic prose. Too bad only 18 people want to read it, generally.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

It depends on whether I'm working that day. On a non day-job or school day, I like to wake up around 8:30, drink coffee and chat with the cat, go to the gym and then start writing around 10 or 11. I usually write in a café without wifi so I'm not distracted by email, facebook, domestic things or the phone. Unless I'm broke. Then I tend to watch soap operas, surf facebook, write to-do lists, send panicked pitches to people who might pay me to write something and feel bad about myself until it's permissible to go have a beer with another writer in a similar situation.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Mostly when I can't write, I read. There are a few books I re-read that usually do the trick, or I read non-fiction books about science and political or historical non-fiction. For some reason this tends to inspire poetry. I also go to plays when I can, and interview people I find interesting about their lives. I'm currently obsessed with paramedics because I'm dating one, and I'm constantly bugging her and her coworkers for stories. They are just such a fascinating group of weirdos. Like, today I baked muffins and wrote some press releases. Oh yeah? Today I held a severed arm on the side of the 401. Endlessly interesting to me, what they go through, always faced with the things most people spend their lives trying to avoid.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

It's a novel. I've never written one before. It's about young queer people, and my other poetry books cover some similar thematic terrain, pop culturally speaking. My poetry is more autobio, or fictionalized confessional. Bottle Rockets Hearts is completely imagined.

People – friends, family, readers, critics, the media - treat you differently when you've written a novel compared to poetry books. It's like instant recognition for being a real writer, like poets are just these strange little hobbyists who write for other poets or for academic audiences. People who don't tend to read poetry often look at you like "Oh, you play Dungeons and Dragons?" when you say you write poetry. It seemed to legitimize something for people when I published Bottle Rocket Hearts.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

I love photography and lay science books. I love science mags like Seed and illustrated novels.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Lisa Foad. Eileen Myles. Gail Scott. Lynn Crosbie. Heather O'Neill. Jonathan Safran Foer. Jeanette Winterson. Marnie Woodrow. Kathy Acker. Douglas Coupland. Mariko Tamaki. Sarah Schulman. Trish Salah. Chandra Mayor.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Have a baby, make a full-time living as a writer, become a stand-up comic, write a play, start an alternative school and have a house in the country and be a housewife/at-home-writer. I'm almost 32. I'm hoping I can cross some of the above off my list soon.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I would attempt being a stand-up comic. I would probably have ended up being a social worker, you know, just live the stereotype.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

It's the only thing I've ever done with any kind of sustained passion or commitment. I've been wonderfully mediocre at everything else, or simply got bored too quickly. I'm an Aquarius, so I tend to have many, many ideas and zero follow-through. Every year I think, well, it's time to learn a trade and get some RRSPs. I never do it. I'm starting to panic a bit.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Well, like everyone, I saw JUNO and loved it. Brilliantly funny. I also quite enjoyed Once and The Motel. I've read a lot of really good books this year – I just finished Late Nights on Air [see Elizabeth Hay's 12 or 20 questions here] and loved it, I enjoyed Karen Solie's Modern and Normal, Brian Joseph Davis' I, Tania, Joey Comeau's It's Too Late to Say I'm Sorry and Eileen Myles Sorry, Tree. I have to say the last book that really blew my mind was Heather O'Neill's Lullabies for Little Criminals. I'm a die-hard fan of anything she writes and am really happy about all the praise it has been getting.

20 - What are you currently working on?

A new novel called Doing Nothing For As Long As Possible. It's about three characters in their mid-twenties living in Parkdale, dealing with various anxieties around death and purpose. One of them is unconscious for most of the book, one is going crazy and the other works in emergency medicine, see above re: medic fascination. It's basically a book about emergencies verses the sometimes banality of everyday life and these disparate characters' relationships to various monumental near-death experiences and how it impacts their ability to grow up or not grow up. Plus, they are all kids (25) who grew up with cell phones and email address and don't know what it's like to be unreachable. They were 20 on Sept. 11th. I want to explore their relationship to technology, security, emergency and purpose. And there's a storyline about Canadian music and the CBC. I'm also obsessed with the CBC and minor Canadian celebrities, like Don McKellar and Tracey Wright. They have a bit part in the book, as does George Strombolopoulous and a fictionalized version of Randy Bachman.

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