Books·How I Wrote It

Zoe Whittall on finding the right voice(s) in her new novel, The Best Kind of People

In her new novel, Whittall explores what happens to the family of a prominent man after he is accused of sexual assault.
Zoe Whittall's novel The Best Kind of People was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2016. (Arden Wray/House of Anansi)

Zoe Whittall weaves a timely tale in The Best Kind of People, exploring the emotional and cultural consequences of rape culture. The novel's narrative voice shifts between the wife, teenage daughter and adult son of a popular teacher who is accused of sexual assault at a prestigious prep school. 

The Best Kind of People was a finalist for the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize. In her own words, Whittall describes the challenging prospect of bringing the Woodbury family to life — 25 drafts and all.

Spark of empathy

"I was listening to CBC Radio's The Current and it was around the time of the Russell Williams case. There was a lot of talk about his wife and whether she knew [about his actions] or not. They were interviewing a therapist who ran a support group for women whose husbands or partners were in jail or had committed sex crimes, and who wanted to stay. I was working on another novel and wasn't getting anywhere, and I found myself completely fascinated by the idea that you could be with somebody, find out something so horrifying and still want to stay. It made no sense to me and I felt very judgmental. I think to write about anyone you need to have empathy, so I gave myself a writing exercise to get myself out of writer's block and I wrote a vignette of the character who became Joan.

"After that, I became obsessed with writing about a character like Joan and what would happen to the family if this happened. That was the creative challenge I set for myself and it grew from there."

On the outside, looking in

"I interviewed someone who is the subject of a documentary, Between You and Me. Her father was arrested for molesting a child, so I interviewed her about what it was like to visit him in prison and the emotional effect it had on her and her mom.

"I have a wonderful family and a great dad and it's so unimaginable for me. I've done a lot of research for my previous books, but they've also been in milieus that I'm familiar with.This was the first time I really took on a subject very different from my experience of life. I think it's very easy to look from the outside, which is what was happening when I listened to that interview on The Current. I didn't really understand the complexities of a lifetime of loving somebody and thinking they were one way and finding out something very different about their behaviour or identity — and then having to deal with that in a way that was more complicated than I had anticipated. I often think of things as more black and white than they are, and the process of writing fiction involves teasing that out and finding complications and depth."

Shifting voices

"I had a very hard time figuring out who should tell the story. I felt a lot of internal pressure to include George [the accused], but eventually I felt, I'm not writing a crime novel. I'm not writing a survivor novel. I really wanted to write about the emotional aftermath of the people around George. I worked on this book for six years and there was a number of drafts. I wrote and rewrote time and again, and I almost threw it in the garbage around 2012, I got so frustrated. Finally, my agent suggested switching the point of view to see if it could be saved. That really set it in stone.

"It was really hard to get Joan, even though she's closest in age to me. I think my life is very youthful and urban and not at all like Joan's life. All the decisions she's made in her life are very different from the decisions I would make in my life. In the first draft she was kind of wooden. Eventually, in the 25th draft, I got more comfortable with her and the people reading the drafts started to remark that Joan had come alive."

The story, not the statement

"Like any kind of art, I hope the story sticks with people. I don't write with a message in mind or with the idea that I want to change anyone's minds about anything. I certainly have a point of view, but my own authorial point of view differs from my characters' perspectives and that's a bit of the fun and challenge of being a novelist. I think that if I set out to write with a political intention, the storytelling would flounder, and the nuance would fall away. I do hope the book will potentially get folks talking about the stigma family members and partners face when their loved ones commit — or are accused of — crimes, but my main objective was to tell an interesting story, and I hope I've done that."

Zoe Whittall's comments have been edited and condensed.

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