Best of 2019 Q&A: Patrick White

Patrick White appears on our Best of 2019 list for the piece “Why does any Canadian need a handgun?” written by him and Tom Cardoso. You can read it at The Globe and Mail.

GCL invited writers on the list to answer a questionnaire to give us further insight into their work. The following are Patrick’s answers:

1. How did you start working on this story?

Following the Danforth shooting last year, controversy arose over the origins of the handgun. Did it come from Canada or was it smuggled from the U.S.? This story came of our attempt to trace the gun and place it within a broader data-driven picture of gun violence in the country.

2. How long did it take to write this piece?

Hard to say exactly. We’d been gathering data from police forces across the country since September 2018. This was a slow-moving, part-time phase that didn’t take more than a few hours a week.

It wasn’t until May of this year that some of those data requests started to form a hazy representation of gun crime in the country. That’s when I started working on it full-time for about a month.

3. What was the most challenging part of writing it?

Despite dozens of access-to-information requests we could never assemble reliable figures on the origins of guns used in crimes. The story grappled with this dilemma: does strengthening gun control make sense in the absence of supporting evidence?

4. What was the most surprising thing you learned about your subject (or in the case of a personal essay, yourself) during the process?

The main human subject of the story, Patrick McLeod, is a pro-gun-control gun-owner. I thought that was a bit of contradiction. But after the story was published, I heard from a number of gun-owners (mainly hunters) who similarly believed in strong controls on certain firearms.

5. What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

Oh, the usual. Some loved it, some loathed it. That’s how things go with gun stories. It is such a divisive topic. I was grateful that many readers picked up on a strand of the piece showing how woefully inadequate the proposed Liberal ban on some semi-automatic rifles would be in addressing day-to-day Canadian gun crime. My colleague Tom Cardoso fought hard to get those numbers.

6. For any fellow non-fiction writers reading this, do you have a favourite writing tip to share?

Go for a walk.

7. What writing projects are you working on currently?

My employer, The Globe and Mail, recently shuffled its editorial structure. I’ve been assigned to a new crime and justice team. It remains to be seen what kinds of projects will emerge.

8. There’s been some discussion recently on the outlook for Canadian non-fiction. How does its future look to you going into 2020?

Big, big topic. I assume you’re referring to Ken Whyte’s recent writings on the topic? One of his points is that the Canada Council is funding more and more first-person memoir at the exclusion of fact-based, objective non-fiction. I’m just not sure it’s a solid point.

I dug up the first-ever best-seller list published in the Globe. By happy coincidence, it was published almost exactly 30 years ago – Nov. 25, 1989. Here are the Canadian books on the two non-fictions list (paper and hardcover): Morningside Papers II, by Peter Gzowski; Dance on the Earth, a memoir by Margaret Laurence; The House is Not a Home, a memoir by former MP Erik Nielsen; Ottawa Inside Out, by Stevie Cameron; The Morningside World of Stuart McLean; Looking Out for Number One, by NHLer Dave Semenko; New Founde Land, a collection of Farley Mowat essays; Runaway, a memoir by Evelyn Lau; Lords of the Line, by David Cruise and Alison Griffiths; Metamorphosis, by David Suzuki; Necessary Illusion, by Noam Chomsky (CBC Massey Lectures); Frozen in Time, by Colin Beattie and John Geiger; The Arctic Grail, by Pierre Berton.

That’s 13 books in total. Of those, only four (31 per cent) (Ottawa Inside Out, Lords of the Line, Frozen in Time and The Arctic Grail) would qualify under Ken’s definition of objective, non-sports, non-memoir, fact-based books.

On a Globe list of Canadian non-fiction best-sellers published earlier this month, three of 10 (30 per cent) would qualify. My methodology is lousy, but based on that very thin slice of bestseller lists, there doesn’t appear to be a crisis. One could easily make a more scientific study of this and prove me entirely wrong.

Book sales are down. Magazines and newspapers are shedding jobs and folding. That’s hardly the Canada Council’s doing.

Find Patrick on Twitter: @Nut_Graf

 

This Q&A may have been edited for clarity and length.

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