You can never control how your work is going to be read, and that's part of the lovely participatory nature of the writer-reader relationship. But it can sometimes be jarring. I spent seven years writing The Best Kind of People, often worrying about how it might be received. It's a challenge to write about something that is so politically charged without being polemical, telling the story as naturally as you can. No matter what you do, readers will come to the book with their own feelings, experiences, and opinions and that will inform how they discuss your work.
And sometimes they will email you their thoughts or come up to you after readings to tell you how they read the book, and it can catch you off guard. This happened a number of times over the last few months, sometimes in a funny way.
A retired child psychiatrist expressed his shock that the characters swore so much, and that the teenagers were sexual, in literature. He had no idea that fiction could contain such vulgarity. He had to ask his granddaughter if this is the way that people spoke nowadays. I found this very funny because the book is narrated by a family of fairly prude-ish WASPs, and definitely the tamest of all my books.
I consider my novel to be unquestionably feminist, but recently a woman told me she loved the book because it was true to life, when I asked how so, she said "it's true that teen-aged girls can be awful liars and try to ruin a man's life, that really does happen." I was so shocked, I had no idea how to respond beyond well, that's a new reading I haven't heard before.
A man wrote me a really long email advising me that I should be a feminist because clearly I wasn't, and the last section of my book made him wonder if I was a men's rights activist (?!). To me the MRA plotline is so clearly satirical, and the choices my characters make are realistic, given the realities of how the justice system is set up against sexual assault victims. The email was so long and ironically mansplain-y, that I'll decided it was best not to respond at all.
Of course, these are the interesting and memorable exceptions. I've been lucky to have reached a wider readership with this book than with others - but that's a whole other topic for future blogs this month.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Zoe Whittall’s next novel, The Best Kind of People, will be published in fall of 2016 with House of Anansi Press. Her novel Holding Still for as Long as Possible, won a Lambda Literary award, was shortlisted for the Relit award, and was an American Library Association’s Stonewall Honor Book. She’s published three books of poetry, and works as a freelance TV writer and journalist in Toronto.
Her books have been translated into French, Swedish, and Korean.