Best of 2021 Q&A: Tori Marlan

Tori Marlan appears on our Best of 2021 list for the piece “Penniless.” You can read it at Capital Daily.

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

How did you start working on this story?

I first learned about David Johnston while interviewing a man who takes in precariously-housed people. I was in the man’s living room, talking with him and someone who was living in his yard in a van, when he mentioned that someone in the house hadn’t used money in nearly two decades. I asked for an introduction.

How long did it take to write this piece?

Two and a half months.

What was the most challenging part of writing it?

Figuring out the structure of a story is always the most challenging part of writing for me. But a unique challenge to reporting this profile was that David’s communication channels were limited. I couldn’t just pick up the phone and call him, because he had no cell service.

The best way to reach him—and really one of the only ways—was through Twitter DMs. So that’s how we arranged our in-person meetings and how we “talked” between interviews. My ability to reach him depended on whether he was able to pick up free wifi, so I knew that at any given point he could be unreachable for an extended period of time.

Do you have a particular writing ritual you follow?

No, but my best writing hours are in the morning after I’m caffeinated.

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

Being masked during interviews. Each of my interviews with David lasted for at least a couple of hours. I find it uncomfortable to be masked for that long, so there may have been times I ended the interviews before their natural stopping point, which is not something I’d recommend and not something I’m accustomed to doing.

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

It’s hard to choose just one thing. I was surprised by the combination of luck and ingenuity that allowed David (no doubt along with his privilege) to get by for so long without using money. I was also surprised when he told me that he had children and that he’d had them after giving up money.

What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

This was Capital Daily’s second most-read story of all time. It was widely shared in Canada (thanks, GCL!) and the US, and was translated and published by a news organization in Japan. 
Readers felt strongly about the profile—and its subject.

Some made it clear that they don’t respect David’s choices. They consider him to be selfish and/or irresponsible, and they don’t think he’s worthy of a 6,700-word profile. Others think he’s a fascinating person who raises important questions about how we live. They also appreciate the historical aspect of the story, which is David’s involvement in the constitutional legal battle that changed the way Victoria interacts with its unhoused population.

I also heard from people who wanted to connect with David—to offer assistance, or collaborate with him on a skills-sharing website, or interview him for a documentary. In all cases he gave me permission to pass along his contact info.

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

I find it helpful to put my stories aside for a few days after I have a first draft. That way I can re-engage them with fresh eyes. Having distance from a story makes it easier to find errors or holes in the reporting, and it’s a key part of my editing and polishing process.

What writing projects are you working on currently?

In January I’ll be starting a project on restorative justice. I also have a few other ideas brewing but it’s too early to talk about them.

Find Tori on Twitter: @ToriMarlan

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

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