To launch its new season, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented writer Zoe Whittal reading from her novel Holding Still For As Long As Possible, which was published in 2009. Special correspondent Chris Cornish (BA Hons. ’04, MA ’09) sent the following report to YFile.
You never know how much time you have, right? Think about it now. Feel a little sick? Run your tongue along the roof of your mouth. This is all you are. Cells meeting cells.
from Holding Still For As Long As Possible
by Zoe Whittall
For Zoe Whittall’s latest novel, writing is a matter of life and death. Appropriately enough, it begins and ends in September, a time when students are starting a new school year and the leaves are preparing to turn and fall. She recently visited York as the first author of this year’s Canadian Writers in Person series on Sept. 18.
In Holding Still For As Long As Possible, Whittall’s ensemble of young characters meet life as it happens: complicated, messy, unresolved and interspersed with moments of intensity. Though the main characters are queer, one transgendered, Whittall is careful to represent this community faithfully without drawing unnecessary attention to their orientation. Rather, it was her intent to normalize them, to place the focus on their human experience first; we simply see them living their lives. Whittall is likewise unapologetic for setting the story in particular neighbourhoods of Toronto, grounding the story in the details of a specific and Canadian place.
The novel also considers how we handle emergencies and death. The character “Josh”, through his work as a paramedic, finds people at their worst and most vulnerable, and despite these brief but intense encounters, rarely sees them again except when a chance meeting triggers a memory (Whittall was often surprised when apparently random people recognized her partner, also a paramedic, on the street). She was fascinated with the profession and began to do extensive research, interviewing 30 paramedics and riding along for some of their calls. Because paramedics witness death so regularly, Josh becomes numb to it (“compassion fatigue”) until an emergency involving a loved one wakes him up to a new perspective.
Whittall, who describes her writing process as exploratory, often writes blindly through a first draft, only to discard much of it while experimenting with different tenses and narrative voices. She admits that paramedics (weren’t) didn’t even figure in the earliest draft and that much of the narrative revolved around the dream-world perspective of a character in a coma. Though she says she cut much of this out, she stresses that “writing through” the narrative is an important exercise for a writer to get to know their characters and their backgrounds, even if it doesn’t end up in the final publication. The title also came late in the process (the night before publication), but because Whittall knew her characters so well, she felt that it reflected the sense of stasis in their lives, like a long held breath.
She believes that every character has at least one secret, often shared only with the reader and usually the most humanizing thing about them. Billy is a former Canadian teen idol who is consumed by crippling anxiety. To most of the other characters, she appears relatively cool and confident but the reader discovers her New Year’s Resolution is to stop being afraid, to end her uncontrollable thoughts, neuroses, and compulsions. Whittall was also careful to represent mental illness accurately: as an individual rather than a generalized experience. Because of her own exposure to these disorders, she is fascinated that this generation is the first to have these both normalized and medicated. Yet prescriptions are not always effective and in the face of ineffective treatment, Billy’s ritualized mantra, “Good Will. Good Will. Good Will” reflects her own strategy for self-care.
However, in an age when we are numbed to disasters like SARS, Hurricane Katrina, and the War on Terror, it sometimes takes a more direct confrontation with a critical emergency to start healing and start living.
The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which are free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. At 7pm on Oct. 2, Don McKay delivered a reading from his book of poetry, Paradoxides. On Oct. 16, at 7pm, in Room 206 of the Accolade West Building, Karen Solie will read from her latest book of poetry Pigeon.