Zoe Whittall has been a publicist, a bookseller, a waitress and even a self-confessed terrible folksinger. But the girl can write. “It’s the only thing I can do without accidentally injuring myself or others in the process,” says the Toronto-based queer author with a grin. “Believe me when I say I have no other skills.” Good thing too because her first novel, Bottle Rocket Hearts, was worthy of giving up doing anything else at all. Both Quill and Quire and The Globe and Mail included it in their best books of 2007 and Now magazine named Whittall the best emerging author of the year. High praise indeed. Was it a hard act to follow? “I do have that fear that it was a fluke,” she says, “like, ‘Oh, no, what if I could only do it once?’”
She needn’t have worried. Her second novel, entitled Holding Still for as Long as Possible and published this month, is just as sharp, witty and impossible to put down. “When I was in my early 20s we were all about revolution. That’s what Bottle Rocket Hearts was about,” she says. “It was fascinating to me that this generation of indie artists 10 years later is all about irony. I wanted to explore that.” Set in Toronto, the book revolves around three interrelated characters: Josh, a shy paramedic, Billy, a former teen idol suffering from anxiety and filmmaker Amy.
They represent the new generation of twentysomething queers about town, but the language never feels self-consciously young. In fact their voices are so real and raw it’s sometimes uncomfortable to read. When Billy talks about her anxiety, for instance, there’s no sugar-coating it: “Having a panic disorder means you’re way too alive, as if someone has turned up your volume button to deafening. Somewhere inside, the real you lies dormant, asleep for fear of having to live like an electric current, a lightning bolt, a bottle breaking into shards.” She’s very articulate about what’s inside her head, and that’s the point. “My characters are part of the first generation of people for whom it’s normal to talk about anxiety as a medical disorder,” says Whittall.
The book also explores the impact of new technology on the way we communicate. Born in the mid-’80s, the central characters have grown up with the Internet and cellphones as an unquestionable part of their everyday lives. They’re perpetually texting each other and are never more than a few feet from their phones. “I’m interested in the way public and private is so blurry by virtue of these new technologies,” says Whittall. “These three characters came at these core ideas I wanted to play with — emergency, fear, evolving ways we communicate and show love through technology — from three different angles and experiences.”
One of the three narrators, Josh, is trans. He transitioned from female to male in his teens and any angst he experienced is not part of the story. Whittall was careful to avoid the voyeuristic approach of some non-trans authors, who give readers an exposé of this “odd” person’s life. “If that’s what you want, turn on the talk shows,” she says. “Trans people are part of my life, and the lives of these particular characters. It’s not a plot point or a weird aspect of their lives. It’s just their lives.” Whittall dated a trans person and has campaigned for their rights, but she didn’t set out to write a trans character. It just became part of Josh’s narrative — something in his history that doesn’t loom large in the present.
The idea for his job, though, came directly from Whittall’s own girlfriend, who’s a paramedic. Whittall became fascinated with the strange and hectic life she was leading, dealing with death on a daily basis. It was a good fit for level-headed Josh, and everything else fell into place. His relaxed attitude to his own gender is mirrored by the other characters, both of whom have no issue being attracted to girls or boys. It’s a kind of fluidity that Whittall — who calls herself a “proud low-femme” — is starting to see in parts of the gay community. “I think that twentysomething queers now have this tremendous gift of being able to do what they want and not have to go to a collective meeting about it,” she says. “In 2009 I love that if we are lucky we can talk about our personal complicated sexualities rather than trying to enmesh exactly with an entire group’s identity.”
At age 33 Whittall herself is not that much older than the characters she’s writing about. But she sees a world of difference between their experiences and her own. “When I came out as bisexual in 1990s lesbian feminist circles, it was actually an issue,” she says. “When people wanted to transition, it was a big deal. Occasionally it was hostile and uncomfortable. I learned a lot and made a lot of mistakes. I’m so glad those policing days are over. It’s fun to watch younger queers just enjoy themselves.”
Observing this generation — in their natural habitat — was an important part of the writing process. Whittall was working as a waitress at The Beaver on Queen St W while she was writing the book, serving drinks to, she says, “25-year-olds with their art dreams and tiny pants and posturing and passionate nonpassion.” It turned out to be a great source of material. “I felt like a part of it but also a spy,” she says. “The three main characters and how they fall in and out of love really came together at that point.”
The book is set in Parkdale and anyone who lives or plays in the ’hood will recognize their regular haunts. The characters drink at The Gladstone, eat at Juice for Life, flirt at The Beaver and make snow angels in Trinity Bellwoods Park. Whittall lived at Ossington and Dundas while she was writing the book and her affection for the area is obvious. But does she think the emergence of Queer West negates our need for the original village? “I think the more neighbourhoods where queers can hang out with less fear and more places to party, the better,” she says. “I mean, I’m not hoping Priape, an overpriced juice bar and a west-end Zelda’s opens up on Ossington, but I like the little queer haunts where I can sit with my girlfriend and not get harassed.”
Holding Still makes Parkdale feel both trashy and glamorous. There’s no shying away from its grittier side, but it’s also pretty damn cool — a description that could apply to the book too. It’s a warts-and-all depiction of Toronto’s alternative queer stomping ground and its inhabitants. In other words, our local queer history in the making. And if that’s not a good enough reason to read it, I don’t know what is.