The Next Chapter·Q&A

How sex, love and riot grrrl music inspired Zoe Whittall's latest novel The Spectacular

The Canadian screenwriter and author of The Best Kind of People talks to Shelagh Rogers about her latest book.

'I was interested in telling a story about maternal ambivalence'

Zoe Whittall is an author based in Toronto. (Arden Wray)

Canadian author and screenwriter Zoe Whittall's three novels have won her a Lambda Literary Award, the Dayne Ogilvie Prize and was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. The Best Kind of People is currently being adapted for a limited series by Sarah Polley. Her other novels are Holding Still for as Long as Possible and Bottle Rocket Hearts. She has also written for Schitt's Creek and the Baroness Von Sketch Show

In the first few chapters of Whittall's new novel, The Spectacular, we're introduced to Missy, a young musician living the sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle. We also meet her estranged mother, Carola, struggling through a #MeToo moment perpetrated by her creepy yoga guru and her grandmother, Ruth, who emigrated from Turkey with her husband and — unbeknownst to her — her husband's mistress. 

The Spectacular follows these three generations of women as they try to come to terms with motherhood, with love and what it means to live an unconventional life. 

Whittall spoke with Shelagh Rogers to discuss how the novel came to be.

The novel opens with Missy. She's 22, and she's got that incredible rockstar energy — she wants to party and have fun. Why did you decide to give Missy her shot at that life now? 

Missy in The Spectacular is living out this funny fantasy I had when I was young in the 1990s. I wanted to be a musician, before I decided to try writing. I loved to perform and I loved to write lyrics — but I was never that good at practicing or concentrating to become a very good musician. 

It was the era of riot grrrl: it was OK to be bad at your music. When I look back or I listen to old tapes, we actually weren't that great! But it was fun to try to have this character at that time — a time I'm familiar with — and follow her through this kind of rollicking, raucous time that she has. 

It was the era of riot grrrl: it was OK to be bad at your music. When I look back or I listen to old tapes, we actually weren't that great!

She's the only girl in a band, she's in a very male-dominated world, and she's determined from the outset to have as much freedom, sex, fun and debauchery. 

She has previously had a very "buttoned up" teen life. Then, all of a sudden, a few years after graduating, she is part of this world that she is unfamiliar with, but is finding a lot of meaning in it. We actually meet her when she's trying to get her tubes tied before she goes on tour. But no doctor will allow it, because they don't think that she has the capacity to make that decision. 

They say to her she's too young to know what she may want later. What do you make of that?

My ex-sister-in-law had this experience at the age of 38 in Quebec, where she was trying to get this particular operation. She knew she didn't want kids. But no doctor would do it. She saw multiple doctors, and she got incredibly paternalistic responses from the medical establishment, even though men can get vasectomies at any time on request. 

My ex-sister-in-law had this experience at the age of 38 in Quebec, where she was trying to get this particular operation. She knew she didn't want kids. But no doctor would do it.

What I was trying to do with this book was to look at three different women in three different time periods as they negotiate their feelings around potentially becoming a parent — and what do you do when you definitely do not.

In Missy's case, we've got Carola, who's her mother, and she gives birth to Missy at a commune called the Sunflower. But she later leaves her and goes to live in an ashram. When mothers leave, that seems to be such a transgressive thing, as opposed to when fathers leave. What did you want to look at there? 

I was interested in telling a story about maternal ambivalence through Carola's experience. In particular, it is looking at a woman who's in the heyday of second-wave feminism in the '70s. She's also involved in "back to the land" communal politics and trying to negotiate the experience of being the first generation who's told that they can expect more from their lives than parenting and motherhood and domesticity.

At different points in the book, all of the characters really want to become mothers, or they don't want to, and it really depends on the circumstance.

But it's also a world that hasn't really caught up to those realities yet. She's living on this commune and they have all these ideals about gender and about equity. But in reality, she ends up becoming a mother figure of all these unkempt, unwashed 20-something men. She starts to resent it, and she also gets pregnant somewhat impulsively. She's a bit too young and too immature, and can't quite figure out how to negotiate these feelings of regret that she feels and has to keep secret. 

At different points in the book, all of the characters want to become mothers, or they don't want to, and it depends on the circumstance. I wanted to look at those particular circumstances in those particular emotional moments. 

What interested you so much about that? 

The book came to be in a roundabout way. I started writing it based on a memoir that my maternal grandmother left behind about how she left Turkey. She was a Levantine: people who were of Italian, French or British origin who moved to Turkey in the 1700s. She spent most of her life in Turkey and then immigrated in the 1950s, much like Ruth did. 

I originally thought that I would create a fictional narrative based on some of the facts of my grandmother's life, even though I didn't know her very well. I started doing that and then I couldn't quite nail it. I started writing The Best Kind of People as a procrastination project. I returned to this book after that novel was finished. I decided instead to focus the narrative on this intellectual and emotional project that's been plaguing me for all of my 30s, which is whether or not I should have kids. 

The book came to be in a roundabout way: I started writing it based on a memoir that my maternal grandmother left behind about how she left Turkey.

I really, really wanted children at some moments in my life — and wasn't sure in other moments. It was something that I really wanted, but the circumstances of my life never supported it. So I decided to take that preoccupation and channel it into the book.

Zoe Whittall's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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