Poet and author Zoe Whittall joins Zibby to discuss her latest novel, The Spectacular. Zoe shares how her recent relationships inspired the multigenerational story, as well as how her experience of losing a pregnancy at the start of the pandemic deepened its significance. Zoe and Zibby also talk about the importance of writing commercially for and about the queer community, why grappling with anxiety is a core theme throughout all of her work, and what projects she’s working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Zoe. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Spectacular.

Zoe Whittall: Thank you for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

Zibby: It’s such a pleasure. Would you mind telling listeners what your book is about?

Zoe: The Spectacular is a book about three generations of women. It spans a lot of time. There’s a scene in 1910 and ’22. Then it goes right up to 2015. It’s a hard book to pitch in a logline. It’s basically a book that looks at the idea of, each of the three characters, whether or not they want to have kids at three different points in their life — they all, at one point, choose to have a kid and choose not to have a kid at various points — and why. It’s also a story just generally about sexual autonomy, attachment, and motherhood.

Zibby: I think that was a good job with the logline.

Zoe: I’m trying.

Zibby: I read your beautiful essay about your own experience with your pregnancy and pregnancy loss. It was so moving and beautiful and amazing. I felt like it put the book into more of a context for me just as background. Can you speak to that a little bit? If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s also fine.

Zoe: No, that’s fine. It was really weird. When people ask me what inspired the book, I basically spent every single day of my thirties waking up and asking myself, should I have a baby today? I have always wanted a kid, but my life never really supported it. I had two back-to-back monogamous partners in my thirties and forties. The first one didn’t want children. The second one already had two kids and didn’t want more. I left that original relationship because she didn’t want to have a kid. Then when I fell in love with my ex-partner, I felt like, oh, I can be a stepmom. I was trying to look at my life — you always have dreams of what your life is going to look like. It never looks the way you anticipate even if you do get certain things that you’ve dreamed of. I really took this emotional reckoning I’ve been having for a long time and this procrastination about whether or not to have kids or not and put it into these characters and took this emotional problem and made it a little bit of an intellectual project. The funny thing is, I wrote most of the book when I was with my ex-partner. Right before the pandemic, he left me. It was really devastating.

I was forty-three and did not think it was possible for me to get pregnant. I don’t know why. I had read a statistic about it being like zero percent chance of doing it on my own. A lot of my friends had been trying for years. So many of my friends have gone through IVF. I just was careless with a new lover, and it happened. I’m not a religious person, but I did feel like fate or God or someone had intervened to be like, here is your last chance. It was a beautiful feeling because I had so much anxiety about whether or not I would be a good mother, whether or not I should do it. I never really had money before the previous five years. That was also a factor, all the practical details. It felt like this moment of everything coming together to be like, here is your moment. You could do it now. It was just amazing. I felt incredible pregnant. It was devastating when I lost the baby. That happened right at the beginning of the pandemic as I was going through the final draft of The Spectacular. I felt like, how weird. How strange to be writing — I knew that I wanted the book to end the way it did. I won’t give it away. I wrote that ending before I actually broke up with my ex-partner, and so it was already there. I did feel like it was a little twist of irony when I was pregnant that I was going to potentially be touring the book with a four-month-old. Originally, the pub date was earlier. Life just works out that way sometimes. We have to roll with it. I think that’s a lot of what this book is about.

Zibby: Wow. You wrote also about the devastation not only — I’m so sorry for that happening and your loss and your being left. You seem like such an amazing person and don’t deserve — not that anyone deserves it, but I’m just so sorry that it happened to you and how you had to go through it alone. As so many people who have lost people during the pandemic, you were mourning. You wanted to be with your friends. Yet what could you do except for Zoom therapy or hanging with your TV screen or whatever? That’s one of the most horrible parts, is this lack of connection especially when you need it emotionally because there’s really nothing the same as a hug on a day when you feel like life is just not going to get better.

Zoe: It was that time of the pandemic where we didn’t really know anything. I think it was even before people were really wearing masks. It was terrible. I’m glad that part’s over.

Zibby: I’m so sorry. Do you feel like you worked through some issues, so to speak, writing the book, analyzing it? I always feel like if I can quantify something that’s emotionally an issue, if I could somehow change it into an equation or something, that maybe it can help. Do you feel like it had any sort of therapeutic — do you feel like you’ve come to some resolution with it now or anything like that?

Zoe: It’s an ongoing thing for me. I’m an Aquarius. I don’t know if you believe in astrology.

Zibby: I do. I’m a Leo.

Zoe: Nice. Supposed to be good friends. I do feel like somehow, even if I approach the art of storytelling from a very intellectual place and I think about it in aesthetics and style and language, I’m also sort of always, underneath, wrestling with ideas. There’s always a question at the heart of everybody’s body of work. All of my novels, all of my poetry books have always dealt at their heart with anxiety because anxiety is something that I’ve struggled with. I think it was, the poet Tony Hoagland had a great line in one of his books of poetic essays about how every writer has an irresolvable obsession and that it infiltrates all of their work. I feel like my irresolvable obsession is existential. It’s about anxiety. I’ve struggled with anxiety disorder. In some ways in every book, anxiety comes up at the core. I feel like the book was a way for me to put ideas in my head about motherhood and being pregnant and having a family and all of these things, put them into three different perspectives and was able to kind of play it out in these various scenes. I’ve also been one of these people that, I’ve always wanted kids, but I’ve also always had a really full life without them. In some ways, it was interesting to play out the characters in the fullness of their lives outside of their identity as parents.

Zibby: I loved your opening scene where all the doctors are trying to dissuade Missy from having her tubes tied and saying they know more than her because she’s so young. She’s the granddaughter, obviously, in the story. You go through setting the stage for how she even came to be and seeing all the different vantage points of everything. This whole notion of, are you really in control of your own reproduction? I feel like is at the center. The doctors, and particularly male doctors, are telling her, you can’t do this. You shouldn’t do this. When is it okay for you to make up your mind? You have to wait to a certain age. Is it fair that men can have it reversed it and women cannot? All these issues.

Zoe: It’s crazy. I took that scene from the real-life experience of one of my friends who was thirty-eight years old at the time and knew her entire life that she didn’t want children and was just so tired of the way different birth controls made her feel and affected her life. She went to that many doctors in Montreal to try to get the procedure done. Even though she was thirty-eight and single and knew what she wanted in her life, they wouldn’t allow her. I just couldn’t believe that. I couldn’t believe that you can get vasectomies anytime you want, and women don’t have that option. I just think it’s so weird. It’s weird especially because abortion is legal here. It’s so bananas to me. I felt like, how would that scene play out if somebody was younger? That’s where the inspiration came.

Zibby: You’ve had a lot of experiences with both men and women. You have a whole essay in Elle or somewhere else about this notion of femme and how the mainstream depiction of a certain type of person has shifted over time and all of that. How do you feel like that has influenced your writing?

Zoe: I came out in 1995 when I was eighteen. I came out as bi, but I was very lesbian-identified for a long time. I had many girlfriends over and over, so it just culturally felt like a good fit for me to identify as queer, but I always sort of knew I was bi, and then in my thirties began dating some men. It’s not easy. I don’t think I’ve ever felt an ease with the word bisexual. I feel like it’s an awkward word. There are so many misconceptions and stereotypes from both sides, from the queer community and from the straight world. That’s another thing that, in my forties, I’m getting more at peace with. In terms of my writing, it’s always been very important to me to write about queer community. When we were preparing the promo materials for this book, I was trying to think of other examples of literary work about queer femmes who date butches or masculine people or trans men or people along the masculine spectrum. If you need definitions, just feel free to interrupt. It was really hard. It was hard to find contemporary work. I feel like there’s been this explosion of trans writers or more acceptance of gay male writers in the literary establishment. It hasn’t been the same with queer women in some ways. Even though I don’t write nonfiction, necessarily, I’ve always been really thrilled at the idea of representing the world that I live in in literature. Not that it’s always been easy because up until five years ago it was very, very difficult to sell. In fact, my first major commercial success, The Best Kind of People, wasn’t queer-themed at all. It’s a bit of a struggle in terms of trying to make a living telling queer stories. I think it’s getting easier now, which is lovely.

Zibby: It’s so important. This goes back to, from the dawn of time, sort of, how people of color couldn’t find themself in literature. I just had Jewell Parker Rhodes on my show again. I love her. I’ve done four things with her. She literally didn’t know that black people could write until she was in college. She didn’t even know that was a thing. If you don’t have the model, if you don’t read it and hear it, it’s such a loss because there’s so many people who identify the same way. Your writing about it is a mitzvah to all these people who are coming after you, so that’s really awesome. How did you even get your start writing? Did you always know you wanted to write? How did it begin?

Zoe: I started as a poet. I was a super book nerd as a kid. When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do in university, my mother asked me, she said, “I heard this thing that if you don’t know what you’d like to study, you should think about what you really loved to do when you were three.” I was like, “Well, I don’t remember.” She said that I used to dictate stories to her. She would write them down before I knew how to write. When I got to kindergarten, I was the only one who already knew how to read. It was just always such a passion from a very young age. I applied to study creative writing in university and started as a poet. It was sort of more of a hobby. The idea of writing a novel felt very lofty. It kind of feels like an elitist occupation. I wasn’t confident enough to try for a number of years. Then finally, I wrote a collection of short stories. One of the stories just kept getting longer and longer. The editor I was working with at the time said, “Why don’t you just make this into a novel?” That was a real gift of an observation because I ended up really loving the form of the novel. I love having that much space to work in. Then it went from there. That was a real revelation. That was in the early two-thousands. My first poetry book came out when I was twenty-five, so it’s over twenty years now that I’ve been hustling.

Zibby: What do you do when you’re not writing?

Zoe: When I’m not writing? I’m really fortunate that I have been able to write full time for the last six or seven years. I also write for television. Mostly, what I do is write. Before that, I had lots of different odd jobs. I used to teach. I was a freelance journalist for a while. I worked in publicity and did a lot of things. Waking up and being able to write in my own house is just a dream come true for me.

Zibby: I mean, also, what do you do outside of work?

Zoe: Oh, right. In the pandemic, not a whole lot. I feel like I’m going to learn to cross-country ski this year because I just moved to the country. I feel like, okay, that’s a thing I can do. I have a yard that I’m going to start gardening in the spring. That’s my new goal as well. I really love pop culture and theater and comedy. I do stand-up comedy as a bit of a hobby sometimes. That’s how I got into TV.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I love it. What are you reading now? What types of books do you like to read?

Zoe: Right now, what am I reading? I’m reading Intimacy. It’s not in front of me, so I can’t remember the author’s name. I apologize. I also just finished the new Sally Rooney, which was incredible, of course. I feel like this is such a boring answer because everybody has read these books in the last few months. I finished Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen. I love his work. I’m a bit of an apologist. I feel like for a long time it wasn’t very cool to love Franzen. I just feel like he’s the kind of writer where you’re immediately immersed. I think this book is pretty funny as well. I appreciate that.

Zibby: Awesome. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Zoe: Oh, interesting. Advice for aspiring authors, this is advice taken from my own mistakes, to not submit work until you’ve rewritten something, often I say ten times. I think the draft you submit should look almost nothing like the first draft. If you can, be patient enough to put the work in a drawer for a few months and then go back to it before you submit it. Also, just to make sure that if you want to write a contemporary novel, that you read a lot of contemporary novels, that you know what’s out there and what kind of books your own book will be in conversation with. There’s a lot of mystique around how you get a book published, the specialness of having a book out. Really, the difference between someone who has a book and someone who doesn’t is that you just sat your butt in a chair and wrote every day. It’s a lot about staying the course more than any kind of magical talent intervention.

Zibby: Are you working on anything new that you can talk about?

Zoe: Yes. I have a book of short stories called Wild Failure coming out in 2023. Also, I have another novel called The Fake. It’s a book about two people who get taken in by a really charismatic con artist. It’s sort of inspired by the experience I had dating a woman when I was in my late twenties who lied to me about having cancer, and so inspired by that experience, which was wild. It had taken fifteen years to be able to write about it. It’s a little bit of a thriller and emotional suspense book that I’m excited about.

Zibby: Wow. I’m going to sound stupid now. Isn’t that what Munchausen’s disease is, when you pretend that somebody has cancer or something? It’s the same, right?

Zoe: Yes. I don’t really know what her pathology was in particular. I think there was some element of Munchausen’s in there. Trying to create a character with a similar story, it was really interesting to do the research and to figure out what makes somebody that immersed in a fallacy. Fascinating.

Zibby: Do you know an author named Andrea Dunlop? She’s done a lot of public work on that same theme. I can introduce you if you’re interested.

Zoe: I don’t, but I would love to write that name down. Does she have a book?

Zibby: She has a book. I’ll send you more information.

Zoe: Great. Thank you.

Zibby: She’s awesome. Great. Thank you so much. Did I forget anything? How can people find you? How can people follow you and find you and all that good stuff?

Zoe: I’m on Twitter, Zoe Whittall, all one word. I’m also on Instagram. I have a Linktree that you can link to. That’s about it.

Zibby: I thought it was so cool that you don’t have a website. Right? It’s only on your Linktree.

Zoe: It’s just my Linktree. I felt like keeping my website updated was really arduous. I felt like a Linktree is a way to have it more contemporary, easier to update, and relevant.

Zibby: I wonder if we’re all moving in that direction.

Zoe: Maybe.

Zibby: Thank you so much. This has been really nice. I’m delighted to get to know you. Thank you for sharing all of your personal stuff so early in the morning as I dive into all the nitty-gritty. I wish you all the best in wherever you end up on this childhood spectrum. I’ll be thinking of you.

Zoe: Thank you. Thanks so much for this. Thanks so much for the Good Morning America blog. That was really amazing.

Zibby: No problem. Bye.

Zoe: Bye.



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