Zoe Whittall’s Giller Prize long-listed book, The Best Kind of People is about how the family of a well-loved science teacher react to his being accused of sexually assaulting several of his students.
The novel begins with a prologue explaining that high school physics teacher, George Woodbury, is regarded as a hero in his small town for preventing a school shooting a number of years prior to the beginning of the story.
When Woodbury is arrested on charges of sexual assault and attempted rape, the town is divided into his supporters (who include an organization of men’s rights activists) and those who stand by the girls who have accused him.
George’s teenage daughter, Sadie, goes to live with her boyfriend’s family when media attention at the Woodbury home becomes too painful to handle.
Sadie is grateful when her boyfriend’s mother’s partner, Kevin, takes an interest in her. As Kevin begins to pay more attention to Sadie a strange and disturbing dynamic develops between them.
Whittall’s book is an exploration of the complex ways that rape culture permeates North American culture, told from the point of view of George’s wife, daughter, and his adult son, Andrew.
I spoke to Whittall about the choice to tell the story through the eyes of George’s family, her research on men’s rights activists, and the book’s portrayal of being queer in a small town.
You tell the story of the alleged assaults and trial through the eyes of people observing the aftermath of George Woodbury’s arrest as opposed to the characters who were involved in the incident. How did you decide which characters’ point of view the reader would have access to?
I knew from the beginning I didn’t want to tell the story from George’s point of view. I wanted George to be as unknowable as possible. I wanted to allow the reader to feel the same way the people in his life felt about the disjuncture between someone you think you know and someone you’re not sure you know anymore. How helpful is it to know someone? I wanted to have all those questions come up.
We get the perspectives of several characters who are connected to George, but the reader doesn’t see much of what the family and friends of the girls who accused him are thinking and feeling.
It’s true. I did experiment with writing from the girls’ perspectives and I did a lot of thinking about their stories. In the end I didn’t want to tell a crime story, which is why I didn’t tell it from George’s perspective. I also didn’t want to write a survivor novel. I really wanted to look at the particular emotional conundrums that arise when someone you love is accused of something horrible.
What kind of research did you do about Men’s Rights Activists for the book?
I did do quite a bit of research, mostly only online. Many of the organizations focus on issues like losing custody of children and alcoholism. A lot of painful stuff, so you can kind of see how they end up where they do. I wanted to use them as a bit of comedy and also as something that’s very scary and real. Their politics are very scary and real and have real repercussions. I wanted to explore a fascinating moment in time, I wanted to look at why there is this proliferation of men’s rights activists right now.
Sadie and Kevin have a complex relationship, she develops a crush on him and he takes advantage of her but not in the way we expect. What about the idea of ‘being taken advantage of’ were you exploring through Kevin’s character?
I had a lot of fun with Kevin’s character while writing this book. While I think it’s a very serious book all the way through, I was also learning how to write stand up comedy and working on some TV comedy shows. Which ended up being good emotional relief for such an intense book. Kevin’s character came mostly out of my experiences working as a reporter for Quill & Quire Magazine. I wanted to capture the literary bro kind of guy, if you do an MFA there’s a number of them in any MFA workshop. So I wanted to poke fun at that kind of writer.
But you have to have some empathy for every character you write, and I do feel for my whole community of writers who are just trying to make a career, which is very difficult. You can sympathize with Kevin even though he’s a bit of a jerk.
In terms of their dynamic, I was really trying to remember what it’s like to be a teenage girl. One thing that I think is confusing for a lot of young people is when you get a crush on like a camp counsellor or workshop instructor. You meet people who are in their early twenties, not much older than you but that really feels like a significant age gap when you’re a teenager.
Sadie is dealing with feelings that could’ve come up anyway, but have new meaning because of the accusations against her dad.
You’ve painted a pretty bleak picture of life for queer people in rural America. What was your inspiration for the rural queer scene described in the book?
I grew up on a farm and I think that if I had stayed there I never would have come out because it never would have occurred to me. I moved to the city when I was in my late teens and that’s when being queer became interesting and possible.
As a result, in my adulthood I’ve become really fascinated with small town gay bars and gay bar culture in rural areas.
A number of years ago my girlfriend and I were travelling around, I think we were in Clear Water, Florida. We ended up in a lesbian bar that was literally just a block of cement on the side of the highway and it had a gay bar next to it. I modeled ICONS after the architecture of that bar.
We went in and it was as though we had gone back fifteen years in time in terms of the aesthetics of the bar and the music they were playing. It felt very much like when I came out in 1995.
Certainly for Andrew, ICONS was his only way to access gay culture when he was younger. I wanted to look at the role of the gay bar in terms of his development and how he made choices.
I’m really interested in how you get by when you’re queer in a small town. I think it can be great if you’re near a big city and I think sometimes it can be really difficult.