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In conversation with the spectacularly talented Zoe Whittall

By Kobo • October 17, 2021Author Interviews

Zoe Whittall is a poet and TV writer and author of the Giller Prize nominated novel, The Best Kind of People. Her new book is The Spectacular.

What are you reading lately? Is it typical for your reading tastes?

This is a bit of a boring answer but I'm halfway through the new Sally Rooney. I think it's her best one yet. It's fairly typical for my reading tastes, though my favourite genre is a poet's novel, loosely defined.

At this point you’ve got (at least!) two distinct and well-established writing careers: literary novelist, and TV comedy writer. Is there anything about the collaborative nature of working in TV that you think has helped you as a novelist? Vice versa?

Writing for television is very different than writing your own prose. I love doing both. I'm well-suited to writing fiction because I love to read and be by myself for long periods of time working on sentences and trying to get it right. The main difference is that in TV writing everything you write down is eventually going to be something you take to people wearing suits who are either going to give you millions of dollars or not. What they say goes, until you're very senior and running your own show, and even then it's always a collaboration. Whereas your own books are yours. Your editors are angels who help you make it the best it can be, but you still have the final say on every word.  TV writing has helped me to be more of an idea machine and be able to let go of stories that aren't working. The pace of TV is startling at first to a book writer. But I love the collaboration, the magic that happens when you find other TV writers who you work well with. I got into TV for purely financial reasons at first, but I ended up loving it just as much as writing fiction.

In The Spectacular, Missy travels an arc from hard-partying rockstar to maybe what she thought adulthood should be, then something beyond that that’s more authentic to herself and her sexuality. It feels like an optimistic portrayal of mid-life – as much of an opportunity for self-discovery as adolescence and early adulthood. So I wonder, do you look forward to getting older?

I'm 45 now. When I was 21 like Missy 45 seemed impossibly old. I wouldn't say that I look forward to getting older, but I am grateful if I get to. I'd love to be 32 forever. That's such a good age, you still have dewy skin and optimism but you're not a dumb kid anymore. That said, some of the best novels come from being a dumb kid and having that instinctive, clueless thing that allows you to produce something truly original without knowing the rules yet. I think my debut novel will always be my favourite because I didn't know how to write a novel and so it was really formally innovative in ways I don't think I could pull off now that I've studied novel writing for 15 years since.

Motherhood as a theme plays out in a number of directions and across generations in The Spectacular. You've even got a nice blurb from Torrey Peters, whose own recent novel looks at motherhood in ways I don't think we've seen in mainstream fiction. Though it seems we’re hearing more frank discussions about mothering and motherhood now, a novel is such a slow thing to come to fruition; how did The Spectacular germinate in your mind?

I wrote the first loose draft of The Spectacular in 2009 and then I put it down to write The Best Kind of People as a procrastination project. For most of my 30s, from 2006-2016, I wondered if I should have a baby almost every day. The circumstances of my life never supported it, and I was never 100% sure I should do it without having certain things in place. So in The Spectacular I looked at the question of "should I or shouldn't i?" through all three characters, all of whom are firmly No, firmly Yes and Firmly uncertain at various points in their lives.

To close, I wanted to ask, if it’s permissible to call upon your credentials as a professionally funny person, what's something that made you laugh recently?

I re-watched The Saturday Night Live sketch from last season that was so funny, a bunch of macho dudes in a pool hall who all eventually admit to loving and being affected by the song “Drivers' License” by Olivia Rodrigo and it evolves into a singalong. Also TikTok cat videos have kept me alive during Covid, tbh. ◼

The Spectacular by Zoe Whittall

It’s taboo to regret motherhood. But what would happen if you did? Shifting perspectives and time periods, The Spectacular is a multi-generational story exploring sexuality, gender and the weight of reproductive freedoms, from the author of The Best Kind of People.

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