Welcome to the Book Marks Questionnaire, where we ask authors questions about the books that have shaped them.
This week, we spoke to the author of The Spectacular, Zoe Whittall.
Book Marks: First book you remember loving?
Zoe Whittall: As a pre-teen I read every Judy Blume and Babysitter’s Club book I could get my hands on. As a teen I loved to read 1970s-era troubled teen survival memoirs which were all mostly fake—like Go Ask Alice, an anonymous memoir about a teen runaway.
BM: Favorite re-read?
ZW: Usually my answer to this is Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith, but recently I’ve been re-reading The Seas by Samantha Hunt and Large Animals by Jess Ardnt because they’re both stylistic gems, and when I can’t write I can turn to both of those books to remember what it’s like to marvel at a single sentence.
BM: What book do you think your book is most in conversation with?
ZW: While I was writing the sections of Missy’s childhood on the commune I thought about how Lauren Groff wrote so eloquently about that kind of experience in Arcadia. She really nailed it, I could never get it so right, but I tried. But mostly the book is in conversation with other contemporary works about femme queerness, or bi femmes who are attracted to transmasculinity. I think of Jordy Rosenberg’s love story at the heart of Confessions of The Fox, of Theo and Marisol in Ali Liebegott’s novel Cha-Ching, of The Argonauts, which I read several times while writing this book, several poems by Amber Dawn. There are still so few contemporary novels about queer lives. I like to imagine them all interacting.
BM: A book that blew your mind?
BM: Last book you read?
ZW: I just finished an advanced copy of the essay collection On Freedom by Maggie Nelson.
BM: A book that made you cry?
ZW: I read all of Carrie Brownstein’s memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl while sitting on a beach in California thinking it would be a light, fun read but the chapter about her dogs at the end had me bawling in the sand.
BM: What book from the past year would you like to give a shout-out to?
ZW: Aubrey Gordon’s book What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat. Aubrey’s writing and her work on the podcast Maintenance Phase (with Michael Hobbes) has really made tangible change in the world over the course of the pandemic.
BM: A book that actually made you laugh out loud?
BM: What’s one book you wish you had read during your teenage years?
ZW: Probably Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Good Squad or Kathy Acker’s Blood & Guts in High School, if only because I had no idea a novel could be so formally innovative, and probably would have read more fiction had I been exposed to work that took stylistic risks.
BM: Favorite book to give as a gift?
ZW: I love giving Sarah Manguso books as gifts—they’re so pretty and gift-like in their design, but contain these beautiful, weird, witty vignettes.
BM: Classic book you hate?
ZW: I really hated The Handmaid’s Tale. Is that old enough to be a classic? Maybe not. I had to read it during my MFA and I just felt resentful the whole time that it was consistently the only ‘feminist’ book ever assigned on a course list. If that’s not classic enough, I hated Great Expectations.
BM: Classic book on your To Be Read pile?
ZW: I am always trying to finish Ulysses. It’s a lifelong project. I’m writing a film right now where Joyce is a real character and still haven’t finished it.
BM: What’s a book with a really great sex scene?
BM: Favorite book no one has heard of?
ZW: A Canadian novel that might not be well known in America is The Sky is Falling by Caroline Adderson, a favorite of mine. She really captures the emotional realities of collective activist culture.
BM: Favorite book of the 21st century?
ZW: Bluets by Maggie Nelson.
BM: Favorite book you were assigned in high school?
ZW: I was mostly a terrible delinquent in high school and I read a lot, but rarely what I was assigned. I was obsessed for a while with a memoir by Katherine Kincaid who started a commune based on the book Walden, called A Walden Two Experiment. I used the memory of that to inform the commune in my new novel.
BM: Book(s) you’re reading right now?
BM: Favorite children’s book?
ZW: Are you There God, It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume. I read this in grade five and had a real “oh, I want to be a writer, I didn’t know books could do this” kind of experience.
BM: Book you wish would be adapted for a film/tv show?
ZW: I think Kristen Arnett’s With Teeth would be a chillingly good limited series, like Big Little Lies but with Florida lesbians.
Zoe Whittall is the author of three previous novels, including the Giller-shortlisted The Best Kind of People, the Lambda-winning Holding Still for As Long As Possible, and her debut, Bottle Rocket Hearts. She has published three collections of poetry: The Best Ten Minutes of Your Life, Precordial Thump, and The Emily Valentine Poems. She is also a Canadian Screen Award–winning TV and film writer, with credits on the Baroness von Sketch Show, Schitt’s Creek, Degrassi, and others.
Zoe Whittall’s The Spectacular is out this week from Ballantine Books