It’s been quite a year for Zoe Whittall. In the spring, her critically acclaimed second novel — a vivid depiction of Toronto’s Queen West community entitled Holding Still for as Long as Possible — was published in paperback. Then it was nominated for a ReLit Award, an honour that recognizes the best new work from independent publishers. And in the fall, Canada Reads came calling. After three weeks of public voting, Whittall’s Bottle Rocket Hearts made it into the top 10 of the popular CBC contest. She was “thrilled and shocked” when she found out, screaming “so loud the cats ran under the couch.”
Not everyone was so surprised. Bottle Rocket Hearts is the kind of novel that has “queer CanLit classic” written all over it. It’s the story of Eve, a university student who discovers passion and politics in 1990s Montreal. It’s fast-paced, funny and serious, often at the same time. When it was published in 2007, NOW magazine named Whittall Best Emerging Writer and The Globe and Mail declared her “the cockiest, brashest, funniest, toughest, most life-affirming, elegant, scruffy, no-holds-barred writer to emerge from Canada since Mordecai Richler.”
High praise for a first-time novelist. Whittall, who grew up in Quebec and moved to Toronto in the 1990s, spent almost 10 years working on that novel.
“I was afraid of calling myself a writer for most of the time I spent writing it,” she says.
But giving up was never an option.
“It’s an incredibly challenging country in which to be a writer, and it is even more challenging for queer writers who actually write about queer people, given how frightened most publishers are of the changing and declining market,” she says. “Many refuse to take risks on what they consider to be a marginal viewpoint that readers won’t relate to.”
Happily, progressive publisher Cormorant Books was willing to take that risk. Three years later, Whittall is now at work on a script version of Bottle Rocket Hearts. And the Canada Reads nod is testament to its enduring popularity.
“I think there is a certain amount of ’90s nostalgia happening now and not a lot of queer books sets in contemporary Canada,” says Whittall. “I also think that coming-of-age novels frequently have a timeless appeal.”
The Canada Reads final five was announced on Nov 24, and although there’s a good representation of women on the list — Carol Shields, Ami McKay and Angie Abdou — and celesbian Sara Quin on the panel, Whittall was knocked out. She would have been a worthy winner, though. Whittall has always been a passionate advocate of CanLit — queer or otherwise.
“Instead of buying the big bestseller, like Twilight or Harry Potter, because Indigo will give you 40 percent off or whatever, get that from the library and buy a book by a Canadian author instead,” she says. “Buy small-press queer authors! It’s frustrating to go to readings and see people drop 50 bucks on drinks but they’re too cheap to spend 20 on a book. Nerd up, people. We’re dying here.”