Best of 2020 Q&A: Jana G. Pruden

Jana G. Pruden appears on our Best of 2020 list for the piece “He said, they said: inside the trial of Matthew McKnight.” 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 Jana’s answers:

How did you start working on this story?

I had been keeping an eye on this case, and thought it might make an interesting longform story. I pitched it to my editor shortly before the trial began, in late September 2019.

How long did it take to write this piece?

The bulk of the time on this piece was spent in court. The trial was originally slated for 10 weeks, but ultimately went longer (63 days in total). I was in court every day, and I didn’t start writing the story until the trial was over. It took me 12 days to go through my material and get a draft down, and a lot of time after that to get it to its final version.

What was the most challenging part of writing it?

There were a number of very challenging aspects to this piece, especially the sheer amount of information. By the trial’s end, I had nearly 4,000 pages of notes from court and many hours of outside interviews. With 13 separate allegations being heard in a single trial, the complexity of the case itself was also a challenge. I really wanted to give people a deeper look into the court’s handling of the case, but I also knew looking at the details of each charge and how they were defended would be impossible.

Do you have a particular writing ritual you follow?

Coming up in daily news with tight deadlines, I’m not too picky about my rituals. That’s why I think breaking news is such good training for all other kinds of writing. If you can file a full story from your car in a snowstorm or crouched in a hallway somewhere, every other creative comfort is gravy. When a story has to be written, I just have to get it done.

That said, coffee definitely helps.

What did you find different about writing during a global pandemic?

The pandemic didn’t have a huge impact on this particular story, but in a general sense the pandemic has introduced some interesting challenges. These include making it harder to report and meet people in person, which can be such an important part of feature writing.

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

There were a lot of twists and turns, but not necessarily any big surprises in this piece.

What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

I was really moved by the reaction to the piece. Most importantly, I got a lot of very meaningful messages from people who felt their personal experiences were represented, whether or not they had any relation to this particular case. I was glad it connected with people in that way.

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

Don’t compare your first draft with other people’s finished pieces.

What writing projects are you working on currently?

I don’t like to share projects in progress because I’m always afraid of getting scooped! But I have a couple of things in the works that I’m really excited about, so stay tuned.

Find Jana on Twitter: @jana_pruden

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

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