Toronto-based, award-winning writer Zoe Whittall wins Indigo's #1 book of 2016 and is a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize for her book, The Best Kind Of People.
Set in an upper-class small town in Connecticut, the story centers on George Woodbury, an affable prep-school teacher who is admired by his family, school and community. Following a school ski trip, Woodbury is charged with sexual misconduct with four minors and attempted rape of a minor. This event sends shockwaves through the town of Avalon Hill and leaves his adoring wife, and two children struggling with feelings of truth, doubt, and loyalty.
Canadian Living: Why did you set this story in the United States?
Zoe Whittall: I was trying to take this book to a bigger place so I thought it would help. It was a two-fold decision: a creative decision about how the story could best be told, and also a business decision, thinking of the book in the marketplace and my career.
CL: What kind of research did you do for this book?
ZW: I did a lot of research. One of the main people I interviewed was a woman whose father is in jail for molestation and he had been a big figure in their community. A lot of the emotional research that I did through her, talking to her about her family was in the American context.
CL: Did you find it helpful talking to her?
ZW: We didn't have extensive conversation, but we did have some very key conversations that helped influence the character of Joan in particular. I wasn't sure how to end the book for a long time. That decision came out of a conversation with her about where each of her siblings and her mom were at years later. Everyone dealt with it differently especially depending on the age they were when he was arrested. Also, a lot of conversations around when someone in your life that you love is accused of something like that, the love just doesn't go away. So there were lots of conversations around how to repair a relationship. There were some limits to my imagination and how I could access the empathy for all those different characters, so talking to her was very helpful.
CL: This is your third novel (along with three books of poetry, two literary novels and one novella). What inspired this story?
ZW: I was actually trying to write another book, and was having a period of writer's block. This was around the time of the David Russell Williams case (the former colonel in the Canadian Armed Forces who was convicted of murder and rape), and there was lots of media speculation about his wife and how could she not have known. And there was lots of discussion around the stigma of being somebody's wife when something like this comes out. That's how Joan came to me. The story really came to me through Joan.
There was an interview on The Current where they were interviewing a therapist who ran a support group for women who wanted to stay in relationships with people who were in jail for these types of crimes. So that was very curious to me and made me want to explore it further and made me want to discover who could be in that group because I had a lot of judgement, as you can imagine.
CL: The sexual parallel with Sadie's recent sexual exploration against her dad's saga, was that deliberate?
ZW: It was deliberate. I also wanted to write an authentic 17-year-old and have her experiencing all the things she'd likely be experiencing anyway in light of what was happening, giving it more complexity in terms of how all these new things that would have been new anyway, would be coming out at this time.
CL: You've spent time writing screenplays, and I felt that this could easily be a movie. Would you go there?
ZW: Over the last few years, I have worked on television shows. I have thought about it and have been approached by a number of film companies who are interested, but I haven't made any decisions. I think it would make an excellent limited series or TV show which is where my heart is. When I write for screen that's the medium I'm working on. Artistry-wise, I feel that TV is surpassing film these days in terms of storytelling.
CL: You withheld a lot of information on the accused, George. Why did you structure his character this way?
ZW: It was deliberate. While writing the manuscript, I rewrote it so many times and there were drafts that did include more of his perspective. But in the end, I needed to do that writing to understand who he was, but I didn't necessarily need to share that with the reader. I really wanted the reader to experience the feeling of him being unknowable and the feeling that people have when somebody is accused of these types of crimes, the feeling that they are knowable or that you don't quite know who they are…that kind of confusion. And also the feeling of everybody around him guessing or projecting their politics or their point of view on this one case, when you can't necessarily know the truth. I wanted that to come through to the reader.
I didn't want to write a crime novel. There have been novels from somebody accused, tons of survival novels and memoirs. I wanted to write from the point of view of his family and the people around him and what happens to them because often their voices are left out and the stigma they face really fascinating.
I made George this likeable, lefty liberal guy because that is often when we don't believe it. We're taught to think it's the boogieman behind the tree in the park when most abusers are part of our community. And at the same time, in these conversations, it's important to remember that most men aren't rapists. This conversation is allowing us to think more complexly about the issue in a way we haven't been able to do before, which I think is really good.
CL: Was the issue of rape culture something you wanted to talk about when you started the book or did it change once the story was laid out?
ZW: I'm not the kind of writer who thinks of an issue first and then writes a story. It came from character and certain points of views. It's kind of become a book that's marketed about rape culture when I don't think that's entirely accurate.
CL: How would describe this book?
ZW: At its heart, it's about trust and when that breaks down in a relationship and about the idea that you can't always know somebody as well as you think you do. The emotional aftermath and their journey. So, it's less about the topic of rape culture and more about the personal story of this one family and what they do in the face of these accusations and how it changes them.
CL: Why did you choose to have George's kids react differently with divided loyalty?
ZW: I think there are several ways that people respond when hearing about accusations against somebody they love. And one of them is to be blindly loyal from the beginning. Watching the People v. OJ, and watching the way that the Kardashian kids responded, that's a common way to respond, to go into denial or believe everything they say. I wanted that to happen for Andrew because I thought it made sense to who he was.
CL: You started this book six years ago. In terms of rape culture, what was the climate like then?
ZW: I've always been interested. One of the first poems I ever had published was about rape culture although the term didn't exist then. I wrote it when I was eighteen, pre-internet. The timeliness of it surprised me as I was writing. But I think it's a wonderful thing that it's become part of the cultural conversation in a way it hasn't been before.
CL: The character Kevin writes a book about the rape case within this book. Why did you choose this format?
ZW: Kevin was my way of having some levity in the book because it was so intense. He was a way of having a satirical look as the white, male writer. There was also a meta aspect, and also a way to write through the idea of why people want to write this kind of story and how they write it.
CL: How did you come up with the title?
ZW: For the longest time it was called, The Worst Kind of People. We had a bunch of really terrible titles. A year before the book came out and somebody suggested we make it positive.
CL: Who are some of your fave Can authors?
ZW: I really love David Bergen. I reread The Matter With Morrris a number of times while writing this book because he had close third-person narration. I also really like Zadie Smith, and I'm really excited about her new book. And, Ali Smith as well. And Maggie Nelson is my absolute favourite right now.
CL: What are you working on next?
ZW: I have two book projects on the go – one is a novel and one is a hybrid text. And, I'm working on a CBC TV comedy so I'm working on scripts for that show.