The Next Chapter

Zoe Whittall on the unravelling of a perfect family

The author talks about her Giller-longlisted novel, The Best Kind of People.
Zoe Whittall's new novel, which is longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, examines a seemingly perfect family thrown into turmoil when the father is accused of a terrible crime. (Shannon Webb Campbell)

Zoe Whittall's new novel The Best Kind of People is a multi-layered probing of loyalty, guilt and what happens when all your foundational beliefs unravel. The story begins with the downfall of a beloved family patriarch — he's charged with sexual misconduct with teenage girls, and his well-to-do, formerly happy family is left scrambling to pick up the pieces while he is in jail awaiting trial.

Shelagh Rogers spoke with Zoe Whittall in Toronto.

On women who stay with partners who commit terrible crimes

I was listening to The Current, and there was an interview on with a doctor who ran a therapy group for women who decided to stay with partners who had committed sexual crimes. I was fascinated, but I found I was really judgmental of the women in the group. I was uncomfortable. And I thought that was an interesting emotion to have and to try to work with in terms of developing a character.

It was hard — in the first draft of the book [the character of the wife, Joan] was quite flat. A lot of the characters in the book are very different from my life and my world, so trying to inhabit them took an extra step. The way I got into her psyche was to think about how it feels to be in love, and how it feels to have a partner and a family, and having that be the foundation of your world and what happens when that leaves. That's something that almost everyone can relate to.

On families who don't see what's right under their noses

Joan is a woman who's found out something terrible, and isn't sure — I wanted to make it so that [Joan's husband, George] is really charismatic and compelling, and tries to convince her that he's being framed. I wanted to look at what it would be like to be a woman in that situation.

There's a real stereotype — you hear stories all the time about men who have second families or people who are not who they seem, and you see that it's possible to really think you know somebody and for them to be deceptive. I wanted Joan to be a smart woman, and capable of nurturing her family and being great at her job, and to really not know. I wanted the shock to be real, and I think that's entirely possible. I wanted to look at somebody who was a strong, capable and independent woman who nonetheless was having to deal with the fact that the person she was closest to for 20 years has this part of his personality she had no idea about.

On guilt, judgment and denial

Joan feels very judgmental of herself for not having sensed that something was awry. Whenever other people judge her for that, the judgment she feels within herself is 10 times more. I think that's what keeps her in denial for a long time. Because what would it mean if she didn't know? He must be innocent — it's crazy to have any other reality.

Zoe Whittall's comments have been edited and condensed.