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10 for the Top 10: Zoe Whittall answers the Canada Reads Questionnaire

"The cockiest, brashest, funniest, toughest, most life-affirming, elegant, scruffy, no-holds-barred writer to emerge from Montreal since Mordecai Richler" (as described by the Globe and Mail) is none other than Toronto's Zoe Whittall. This Quebec born-and-raised poet caught critics' eyes when Bottle Rocket Hearts, a coming-of-age tale that takes place in Montreal around the time of the Quebec referendum, was published in 2007. Zoe has also published three books of poetry, and currently spend her days as the staff writer at the Quill and Quire.

Zoe Whittall Bottle Rocket Hearts

Pitch Canada your novel in three lines or less.

Bottle Rocket Hearts is a coming-of-age novel for people who hate coming-of-age novels, set against the backdrop of the '95 Quebec referendum. Eve is a young Anglophone artist navigating her first major love affair with a slightly older separatist during a significant period in gay and lesbian history — in the height of Queer Nation and Act Up, before Ellen came out, when Riot Grrl had been bought and sold back to us as The Spice Girls. Although set in a specific time, focused on a group of young idealists, the novel's themes are timeless: self-discovery, identity both political and personal, and the insanity of first love.

Which Top 10 book would you want to defend on Canada Reads?

I've only read three of the 10 titles so far, sadly. I hope to read them all. But I really loved Unless by Carol Shields. I think it was very under-rated when it came out. In my humble opinion, it's much better than her previous books that got much more attention.

What's your favourite bookish place in Canada?

That would be a tie between The Bookshelf in Guelph and Books & Company in Picton, my two favourite bookstores in Canada.

Which Canadian author (alive or dead) would you most like to meet?

I would like to have cup of coffee with Anne Carson and ask her questions like "But how did you think of that?" while pointing to highlighted sentences in her books.

Who is your favourite fictional character and why?

It's difficult to pick just one — I think Baby from Lullabies for Little Criminals, Tracey from The Tracey Fragments and Little from Sub Rosa are all examples of tough and textured marginalized girl characters from recent novels that I found completely engaging.

What did you want to be growing up?

Equal parts writer, musician and Michael Stipe's life partner.

What would you be if you weren't a writer?

An aspiring writer with a job I wasn't entirely committed to.

What's your favourite encounter with a reader or most memorable fan?

I was on the ferry heading to the Sunshine Coast Writers' Festival in 2008. A man approached me and asked if I was me. I said yes, and he said he was a fan. I was really flattered. This was one of those rare moments that delights me to no end; like when I saw a girl reading Bottle Rocket Hearts on the subway. After my reading in Sechelt, the same man came up to my signing table and he had all of my books — three poetry collections, my novel and several anthologies I hadn't seen in years. The whole encounter was thrilling because I was there amongst very well-known authors like Michael Ondaatje and Paul Quarrington who all had long line-ups for signatures, and my line was much slower, and this nice guy, probably from my parent's generation, appreciated my work so much that he carried an armload of my books with him up the hill into the forest where the stage was. I think when you are perceived to be in some sort of specialized ghetto, writing only for urban or queer and "marginalized" folks, it really is great to know your work can be read and appreciated by anyone and everyone if they give it a chance. And some of my biggest fans continue to be people outside of my community, which I love.

What book has moved or affected you most in the past year?

Caroline Adderson's The Sky Is Falling is such a stunning novel. Why it didn't sweep every award, I really couldn't tell you. I couldn't put it down, and I felt so much for the narrator. I also fell in love with Fauna by Alissa York, and pretty much bawled my way through Missed Her, the latest story collection by Ivan Coyote. There's no one in CanLit quite like Ivan.

Which Canadian personality do you want to have defend your book?

John K. Samson, from the Weakerthans, because I think he's one of the best Canadian lyricists of our generation, and he did so well defending Heather O'Neill. Either him or Elvira Kurt, because she's so funny, and she did stand-up at the launch of Bottle Rocket Hearts three years ago. It would nice to have a queer celebrity talk it up.

Bottle Rocket Hearts was published by Cormorant Books in 2007. It is available at fine independent bookstores across the country.

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