canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Zoe Whittall

Zoe Whittall's second collection of poetry The Emily Valentine Poems (2006) was published by the newborn micropress, Snare Books. Bottle Rocket Hearts, a novella and stories, will be out in spring 2007 with Cormorant Books. She is currently freelancing as an arts reviewer in Toronto for such publications as Now, The Globe & Mail and Herizons. Her story Muffin Loves Pink Pistol appeared in TDR #16.

Her blog is

TDR conducted this interview by electronic means in the Fall of 2006.


Who is Emily Valentine?

She was the name of a one season character on Bev Hills 90210, the impenitent girl, into sex and drugs and all the pleasurable stuff of life that Aaron Spelling was really into railing against. She ended up going mad and setting Brandon's car on fire and had to be locked up. There is a section of the book comprised of fan letters to 80s icons I developed with a poetry road show called Trash and Ready. We wrote a lot about femme identity in relation to pop culture. I also chose to name it after EV, rather than say, the Molly Ringwald Poems or something like that, because my legal name is Emily.

You write reviews, fiction, commentary, poetry, what different approaches do you take for your varied styles?

I write poetry pretty much constantly, with no intention of publishing most of it. It's like a sidekick, I started writing songs as a teenager and moved into poetry, I have a tonne of it kicking around I can't throw away. It's like my version of one of those growth charts on a wall. I approach journalism in a more pragmatic and careful way. I sit at my desk at a designated time and try to be professional. I write poems anywhere, really.

I've recently discovered two things: I love writing novels; for a while it just seemed entirely too intimidating. I couldn't picture myself at parties introducing myself as a novelist. But when I look back on it, it's all I really wanted to learn how to do. It took me nine years to write Bottle Rocket Hearts. I found a first draft of it in an old journal last week dated 1997, and it was a scene with one of the main characters trying to kill herself by swimming across the St. Lawrence river, only she manages to survive by doggy-paddling. It was a story someone told me about someone else and it always stuck with me, even though that scene was too difficult to insert plausibly into the novel by its 19th draft. 

So these characters have been around for most of my twenties. I recently discovered that I thought I loved writing short stories but I really just enjoy reading them. I'm not very good at writing them. I try to write them like novels, and they end up truncated and rushed. I try to write them like poems, and the feedback is usually that they don't make sense.

And other forms of writing?

I've learned to write reviews with an eye on the clock because I realized I was earning about $3 an hour being too contemplative, which is a shame. I really don't feel it's a job most of us are qualified for, but I love to do it and feel lucky that I can. Being paid to read is kind of like being paid to eat cookies or make mixed tapes or flirt with someone cute. That said, it's tricky as a writer to also be a reviewer, there are less and less people I'm not connected to in some way.

Can you tell us a bit about your background, education, growing up, when you started writing, publishing, etc.

I grew up on a sheep farm in rural Quebec, the eastern townships, until I was 13, when my family moved to the suburbs of Montreal. My mom bought me an electronic typewriter in 1987, when I was 11 and I wrote teen romance novels, made little covers for them with samples from wallpaper books. My dad is a musician, and before he retired taught elementary school music and grade five. My mother worked for the United Church as a youth worker. My family on both sides is very musical. My Dad is a natural story-teller who's written plays and a enormous volume of songs and my mom is very creative all around. I was basically raised on CBC radio in a farmhouse in the woods with no TV. SO of course, I am obsessed with pop culture and frivolity as a result.

In high school I was very much discouraged from reading or writing by very apathetic teachers and my own self-involvement. Then I moved to Montreal to be in horrible bands and go to Concordia for Creative Writing, a decision influenced by this alternative college I went to for CEGEP, the new school at Dawson College, where I took poetry workshops and fell in love with writers like Gail Scott, Anne Sexton, Susan Musgrave, and spoken word poets like Justin Chin, Maggie Estep and Alexis O'Hara.

When I moved to Toronto in 1997, I decided to take a writing course at George Brown with my roommate Mariko, who has also become a (kick-ass) writer. I think it was a huge turning point for me. Ann Decter, who eventually published my first book, was the teacher. It was a really encouraging class and encouraged me to take writing seriously as a potential pursuit. There were a lot of great writers in that class, Elizabeth Ruth, Lesley Cowan.

Do you identify yourself as a queer writer? is your poetry queer poetry?

Yes and yes. Well, I don't know how to answer this without sounding like it's 1991.

Which is hard to do these days.

Queer means something different to everyone who claims it, and I'm not sure exactly what makes a poem queer or not, except for themes, I suppose. There's no specific queer style chart to adhere to. Sometimes I change stories to make the characters heterosexual and then submit them to magazines and see what happens. 9 times out of ten the straight ones get chosen over the gays ones, of the very same story, which sort of surprised me. So I guess I still think it matters to say I'm a queer writer, even though what that means is always shifting. I feel very much a part of a little queer writing subculture that connects through all the major cities in North America.

I can go to almost any city and know at least one queer writer who'll put me up on their couch and come to my reading, which I think is uniquely queer, the way community is structured and present in a way that the straight lit scene isn't or maybe it is. I always leave those parties early. I wish those divisions didn't matter as much. I think publishing with Snare and trying to reach out to a larger community was purposeful on my part, trying to not feel so ghettoized, feel like people wanted to read my writing for the writing, not just because they wanted it to resonate with them politically or emotionally because they're also queer. I think it can feel limiting.

What is the significance of publishing with a small press?

I come from a DIY background. I never expected my poetry to be discovered in the slush pile at M&S and suddenly make it big. I have a lot of respect and emotional investment in small presses, small record labels, activist theatres, anything artist-based and non-hierarchal, but as I'm getting older I'm willing to do almost anything for some regular income and a drug plan.

I didn't try to publish this book with a bigger press, though I thought about it after Breathing Fire 2 came out because I felt like I was suddenly in this book with all these big shots and I kept expecting someone to tell me it was a joke. It got me thinking that I could try for bigger presses, but I wasn't sure I wanted to. My agent, who I love, decided to focus on selling my fiction which made sense economically.

You next book is with a larger press, Cormorant. Is this part of the evolution of a small press writer? Did you feel conflicted in any way?

I have no qualms with wanting to publish a novel with a big press. I want to make a living as a writer, it's the only thing I've ever not been lazy or flaky about. I quit jobs all the time. I move every year. But I never stop writing. I figured that publishing poetry in Canada with a big or small press doesn't really matter in terms of promo or money. It's all small. I figured I'd rather go with an editor I admired and focus on challenging myself to write well and re-write and not rush publication or focus too much on the publishing aspect.

When did you first hear about snare books?

I had sent Jon Paul Fiorentino my manuscript to look over as a favour, because I liked his work so much. He graciously accepted even though I was a complete stranger, and encouraged me to submit when it was done. I hadn't heard of Snare but I liked their mandate.

Which poets are you reading right now?

Eileen Myles, I'm reading all of her books I can get a hold of. I just finished Karen Solie's Modern and Normal. LIAR by Lynn Crosbie was my favorite poetry book of 2006, definitely. I was also overwhelming obsessed with the poetic novel When I was Young and in my Prime by Alayna Munce.

[shifting papers] Now its time to tell us about your forthcoming debut novel Bottle Rocket Hearts.

It's set in Montreal during the months leading up to the1995 referendum and the year that follows. It's basically a love and hate story between two very disparate women, a coming out story for people who hate coming out stories. Riot Grrl is getting bought out and mass marketed as the Spice Girls; gays are gaining some legitimacy but the queers are rioting against assimilation; cocktail aids drugs are starting to work, and the city walls on either side of the Main are the spray-painted with the words YES or NO. 

It's been five years since the OKA crisis and the sex garage riots; revolution seems possible - when you're 18, like the main character, Eve, an art student pining to get out of her parent's house in Dorval and find a girl who wants to kiss her back. She meets a Quebec separatist heartbreaker named Della who's mysterious, defiantly non-monogamous and ten years older. Initially taken in by a mutual other-worldly sense of rapture, they hole up in Della's east end apartment trying to navigate spaces of want and jealousy when a biker bomb goes off down the street. Their explosive beginning makes way for an even more volatile relationship that spans the following two years. 

Basically Eve goes from from nave teenager to hot shot tough girl, and decides the fate of herself. But I swear (and I hope) it's not as earnest as it sounds.

Nathaniel G. Moore is TDRs features editor.







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