Zoe Whittall

October 2014

with Meaghan Strimas


photo of Zoe Whittall by Vivek Shraya

photo of Zoe Whittall by Vivek Shraya

HLR: How do you schedule time to write? 

ZW: Right now I don't have a regular work contract, so I'm trying to work on my fiction from 9 a.m. to about 2 p.m., and then do freelance work in the afternoon. I'm writing this from California where I've taken a trip with a friend to switch up the scenery and also spend the days working on a book. It's the first time I've been able to do something like this, and it feels great to have a break to focus between contracts.

HLR: What obstacles (real and imagined) make it a challenge for you to find time to write, and how have you dealt with them?

ZW: Most of my obstacles are financial, and sometimes that has resulted in my not writing fiction for months and months. I also have obstacles related to my self-confidence and procrastination, and second-guessing creative choices, and fear of failure. 

HLR: Do you find you work better when your schedule is clear, or when you are pressed to find time?

ZW: Sometimes I do manage to write well when I have the pressure of only a short amount of time, but mostly it's best when I have a clear schedule. Having that freedom is a lovely and productive thing.

HLR: What are some of the specific challenges and pressures of writing for television as compared to writing your own poetry and fiction?

ZW: The most challenging part of writing for television is the collaborative process, which has also became one of the most exciting things about it, once I got used to it. Fiction writers are so private and guarded, and people are so protective of what they write and are fixed on getting credit, etc. But in TV, everything that ends up onscreen has essentially been written by a group of people, even if there is one name credited as the episode writer. A group comes up with the A, B, and C stories and things get re-written and re-edited so many times, so quickly, it's the opposite of the book-writing process. It's also challenging to stop writing physical descriptions and setting the scene, because the directors and the team of creative people do that stuff, so it's all brief action and dialogue – and not just dialogue, but the shortest dialogue imaginable. I felt like I had to unlearn a lot of things about writing good prose and interesting sentences in order to learn an entirely new medium, but it was very helpful to me, now that I've gone back to working on a novel again after 4 months on a TV show, because I'm thinking about the narrative arcs and the action and the most exciting way to write the conflict and action in ways I hadn't considered before. I hope that working in both TV and fiction ends up being a complementary thing. So far, so good.

Zoe Whittall is the author of two literary novels, most recently Holding Still for As Long as Possible, published by House of Anansi. Her debut, Bottle Rocket Hearts (Cormorant) was one of the best books of the year in the Globe & Mail. She has published three books of poetry, most recently Precordial Thump. She's written for The Walrus, The Believer, The Globe & Mail, The National Post, and more. She has an original sitcom in development with CTV and was a writer on Degrassi season 14. Her next novel, The Normal, will be out with House of Anansi in spring 2016. 

Follow her on Twitter: @zoewhittall