Best of 2019 Q&A: Leah McLaren

Leah McLaren appears on our Best of 2019 list for her piece “The $500-Million Family Feud.” You can read it at Toronto Life.

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

1. How did you start working on this story?

It was an assignment in October 2018 from one of my trusted longtime editors at Toronto Life, Emily Landau. She emailed and asked if I wanted to take on the inside story of the ongoing succession feud among the Stronachs. “I think it could be quite the family epic,” she said. As usual she was right.

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

The reporting took ages. I didn’t properly get cracking on it until December 2018 due to other commitments, but once I was able to dig into the Statements of Claim I was overwhelmed at how much material there was: literally thousands of pages of legal documents, not to mention press and research materials.

The Stronachs are obviously a very famous Canadian family—in particular Belinda—and in many ways their lives have been well-documented. But what surprised me most was how many truly bonkers details about the case hadn’t been reported by the Canadian business press at all. It wasn’t like I was digging up stuff that was hidden, it was all a matter of public record. It was just a bit difficult to comprehend and explain in all its weird complexities. It took time and space which is the luxury I had writing for a magazine like Toronto Life.

As a reporter I felt like I’d struck gold, so I mined it. It’s a very complex business story involving webs of companies and complex deals, so I spent a good deal of time calling up experts in such matters and getting them it explain it to me in plain English.

In terms of sources there were dozens. Several family members were involved in the case, all of whom have teams of employees, reputation managers, publicists, lawyers, friends, exes, etc. In total I spent 3-4 months calling around talking to sources, most of whom were off the record with a few notable exceptions.

I wrote the first draft in 48 hours over Easter last year and it came to over 10,000 words (the assignment was for 5000). I sent that, with a lengthy timeline outlining the family and business history of the Stronachs in Canada to the long-suffering Emily, who then helped me winnow it down to size.

Normally I’d never send a draft that long to an editor but in this case I wanted Emily to be really familiar with all the material (even the stuff we weren’t going to use) so she’d be as up to speed as I was. Also I completely trust her judgement.

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

Probably just turning my attention to it in the first place. The statements of claim sat in an enormous toad-like pile on the sofa in my writing shed for over a month before I could bring myself to actually read them. But once I did I was hooked—it was like reading a Russian family epic written by Canada’s finest corporate litigators.

Unlike many of the stories I work on people were largely happy to talk. Everyone loves to talk about rich people destroying each other—a lot of my interviews segued into conversations about the story’s parallels to the HBO series Succession and King Lear.

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

Reading Frank Stronach’s self-published book The Question of All Questions which reads like the deranged political rantings of a tin pot despot was an eye-opener, especially from a man who holds the Order of Canada.

Also the much-reported fact he spent $55 million on a pair of giant bronze statues of a pegasus defeating a dragon, one of which is housed in a warehouse in China. I mean, you literally couldn’t make this stuff up.

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

I think it’s been largely positive? I know my editors were happy because the story was widely read. I don’t get to talk about my Canadian work much because I live in the U.K.

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

For me, with any long piece there always comes a moment in the process where I feel completely overwhelmed and uncertain and absolutely convinced it will never come together.

Eventually, after many years, I had the realization that this moment of doubt—both the experience of it and getting past it—is actually a part of the process.

I almost welcome it now, like a deeply irritating old friend. I’m like, “Oh hey, there you are Moment of Doubt. Come on in, I was wondering when you’d arrive! Would you like a cup of tea?”

7. What writing projects are you working on currently?

I’m working on another story for Toronto Life on the Muskoka boat crash civil suit involving Kevin O’Leary and his family as well as a story for Air Mail, Graydon Carter’s new magazine based out of New York about a very strange and nebulous AI startup run by a North American couple in Notting Hill.

I’ve also recently signed a book deal with HarperCollins US to write my first non-fiction book, but I’m not ready to talk about it just yet.

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

As someone living in the land of Brexit peering across the Atlantic at Trump, I feel like the outlook for anything Canadian is pretty bright these days, comparatively speaking. If being the last politically stable, rules-based western liberal democracy isn’t enough to get over the cultural cringe I’m not sure what will be.

Find Leah on Twitter: @leahmclaren

 

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

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