Drake Writers' Retreat: Zoe Whittall

Posted by Jen McNeely, May 12, 2016

After spending these past few months finishing her third novel, award-winning author Zoe Whittall needed a break. So we invited her to Drake Devonshire for a quiet night by the lake.

Following check-in, Zoe enjoyed some sangria while reflecting on the creative process of writing: the feelings and thoughts that occur before and after words unravel.

The Best Kind Of People will be published by House of Anansi on August 27th. We can't wait to fall deep into Zoe's vivid imagination yet again.

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My new novel is coming out this fall. It is now in the capable hands of the proofreader – those unsung heroes of the book world, all! See, that dash probably should either be an em dash or an en dash, but I cannot for the life of me memorize the distinction, nor can I change another word to the book I’ve been writing for six years. I’ve heard writers refer to the months leading up to a new release as a type of pregnancy, but I prefer to characterize it as the time one is most likely to wake up with terror at 4AM with racing thoughts about your obvious forthcoming artistic irrelevancy. Why didn’t I give the main character a loyal dog companion, like Lassie? Don’t people love dogs who can save you from dumb human peril? Why did I decide the teenager should be reading Thomas Pynchon? What if there was a surrealistic unicorn subplot, written in verse?


But it’s done, in the can, dead to me. It is the perfect time to go out of town, to write something new while staring out at the water. So I was thrilled to be invited to the Drake Devonshire Inn, a haven for artists and those who appreciate us. It’s a place that is so beautifully curated, a precise visual exploration of "the good life", that I wasn’t entirely sure I’d blend in. It looked nothing like the chaos inside my own brain.


zoe selfie

A little over five years ago, my ex-partner and I drove through the town of Wellington on our way to Picton. We stopped to get a coffee at the Tall Poppy Café, looked around and thought, what a ridiculously beautiful town. We walked on the beach, and then, before getting back in the car, impulsively popped into a real estate office. For the next few days we drove all over the County looking at rural properties and imagining our new life outside the city.


I’d just published my second novel and was starting to work on a new one. I looked around at the rolling fields and thought, "This is where I could really work without distraction". In our mid-30s at the time, we had a shared dream to live away from the chaos of Toronto. But we didn’t feel like outsiders, really. We’d both been born and raised in small towns – both smaller than Wellington, actually. Over the years when I returned to Picton for vacations or as a guest of the literary festival at Books & Company, I came to feel like the County had a piece of my heart. When we saw Picton teenagers proudly sporting ‘County-born’ T-shirts, we empathized with them – how weird would it be to have your town invaded by tourists every summer? But despite our rural roots, we were the tourists now. We went back to the city and tried to find jobs in Belleville and Kingston that would sustain our County dream. But it just didn’t happen.

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Although Canadian fiction writers don’t make a lot of money, there can be some pretty great perks that sometimes include travelling. I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels in interesting places, inside walled cities of rural France, seaside motels in British Columbia, The Chelsea in NYC before it shut down. I love to write in hotels; there’s something about the comfort of having minimal belongings, a hotel menu, the anonymity of who you may encounter. I wrote a significant draft of the novel from a hotel room in Banff, watching elk outside my window.


Arriving in Wellington, I realized Drake Devonshire was a modern artist haven in the body of an old-fashioned inn, and the contrast was fascinating: a mix of new and old that embodies the feelings I have as a rural-raised, city-based artist. We settled into our room briefly, reading the highly entertaining welcome book, before having an excellent dinner overlooking the lake. My partner and I reconnected over cocktails – the best sangria I’ve ever tasted? – and discussed our plans for the upcoming summer. By the time we were taking goofy selfies on the beach the next morning, reluctant to check out of our room, we wished we could have stayed the whole week.


Drake sangria

It didn’t matter that the only thing I ended up writing on my brief sojourn was a doodle of crude hearts enveloping the initials of my beloved in the steamy glass pane of the BEST SHOWER IN EXISTENCE. Sometimes being ridiculously in love, enjoying the cocktails and desserts (and the superior breakfast scones) and staring out at the lake, is as much a part of a writing practice as putting pen to paper. Reflection and rejuvenation are things we forget are important in our city lives.


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