Best of 2020 Q&A: Andrew Duffy

Andrew Duffy appears on our Best of 2020 list for the piece “The Boy Called Vimy.” You can read it at the Ottawa Citizen.

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

How did you start working on this story?

Vimy’s drowning was covered as a news story in early July, but his name wasn’t released by police and his family didn’t come forward so the event quickly disappeared from local media. But Vimy’s death notice appeared in the paper and I emailed his mother one month after the tragedy, saying I would like to write about her son. I received a kind reply in mid-September.

How long did it take to write this piece?

I worked on the story off-and-on for a month.

What was the most challenging part of writing it?

The key challenge was to capture the personality of a 14-year-boy in a meaningful and honest way. Vimy’s parents, Eilis and Justin, graciously facilitated interviews with Vimy’s teachers, coaches, relatives and friends. Together, they offered me the anecdotes that are the lifeblood of any profile.

Do you have a particular writing ritual you follow?

At this point in my career, my writing process is fairly well established. I start with a single paragraph that captures the essence of what I’m seeking to write: A boy full of mirth and mischief, kindness and confidence, Vimy Grant died as the sun set on the first Friday in July: He leapt into the water from the Prince of Wales Bridge and never resurfaced. His family and friends are now trying to come to terms with that terrible accident – and navigate their river of grief. I then decide on the narrative structure: Where in the timeline do I want the story to begin? How to build in suspense? How will the timeline move? I write and interview intensively, full-time, until I have my first draft.

After that, I obsessively rewrite, edit, fuss, edit, rewrite and fuss. This is part-time work and is always well-served by changes of scene: For some reason, I’m a much better editor on the couch, fortified with bourbon.

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

This was an extraordinarily difficult story and the pandemic made it harder still. I had several emotional meetings with Vimy’s parents, and it felt unnatural to maintain physical distance when people are so much in pain. I would have also liked to visit Vimy’s bedroom – to understand it as a microcosm of a 14-year-old boy’s world – but that just wasn’t possible.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about your subject during the process?

Vimy was a compelling young man. Unusual for a 14-year-old boy, he was physically affectionate with his parents – he hugged them at the hockey rink – and thoughtful (he wrote to thank his Grade 8 teacher). He was also scared of spiders and heights. The latter was a fear he had to overcome to climb to the top of the Prince of Wales Bridge.

What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

The story was well received because it solved the mystery of what happened on the bridge that night while offering a portrait of a boy in full. Many parents, I think, could imagine their own child taking the same kind of risk. I think readers also recognized the immense courage of Vimy’s parents in sharing their grief.

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

The best writing tip I was ever given came to me from former Toronto Star city editor Lou Clancy who told me I had to become a better reporter if I was to be a better writer. It is a plain and simple truth: If you don’t push yourself in the reporting phase to better understand your subjects, unearth anecdotes, detail and truth, no other writing tip matters.

What writing projects are you working on currently?

Right now, I’m working on a feature about the only man in Canada who has been investigated twice for serial murder.

Find Andrew on Twitter: @citizenduffy

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

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