GCL invited writers on the list to answer a questionnaire to give us further insight into their work. The following are Lindsay’s answers:
How did you start working on this story?
I read a CBC Newfoundland and Labrador story about two men who were switched at birth at the Come By Chance Cottage Hospital in 1962. I had never heard of a cottage hospital, and I was intrigued.
I started reading everything I could about the Newfoundland cottage hospital system. This led me to a man, a former nurse, who had worked in a cottage hospital. He had written a book about them and offered to send me a copy. On the phone one night, he told me the name of a fierce nurse, nicknamed Tiger, in charge of the hospital at the time of the switch.The first time I spoke with Craig Avery, one of the men who was switched at birth, I asked him if he had any official documents. He and his wife Tracey read Tiger’s full name from the birth record. My heart started thumping. From there, I was obsessed with this story. I started working on a pitch in the summer of 2020, and in September I travelled to Newfoundland for The Atavist Magazine.
How long did it take to write this piece?
I wrote the story in less than four months, taking on other small assignments in between.
What was the most challenging part of writing it?
It was hard to get the first draft down. I was so afraid of failure and I was petrified about getting Newfoundland wrong. So I procrastinated by making cold calls. People were surprisingly super helpful and dug out their phone books (yes, phone books!) to give me names and numbers. I also read everything about Newfoundland I could find. I read voter lists from the 1960s. I read stats and studies. I read a book on the history of nursing in Newfoundland and Labrador, and found a mid-century magazine written for nurses in England and Ireland.
Finally, my editor Seyward Darby cracked the whip. She wanted to run this story in early 2021. I kept getting distracted by trying to find out more about Nurse Tiger. At some point, I finally forced myself to realize that I wouldn’t know this intriguing woman’s whole story. I started setting my alarm for 6 a.m. to start writing every morning, before my family woke up.
After I turned in my first draft, Seyward wanted more. I’ve never had an editor ask me for more words.
Do you have a particular writing ritual you follow?
In the beginning, I set an alarm for 25 minutes and during that time, forbid myself from looking at email or social media. I just wrote. Often, I would find myself getting into a roll by minute 16.
What did you find different about writing during a global pandemic?
Thank god for the Atlantic Bubble! This travel-restricted area that was created in the summer of 2020 enabled me to report this story in person, which I could only do because of where I live.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about your subject (or in the case of a personal essay, yourself) during the process?
I knew Newfoundlanders were warm and welcoming but I will never forget what some did to make this story happen. They searched out historic marriage records at the local church. They made phone calls on my behalf. They invited me onto their sofas in the midst of a pandemic.They trusted me with the most intimate and distressing details of their lives. And they graciously allowed me to keep coming back with more questions.
What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?
This was the first piece I’ve written of this depth and breadth, and I worried Atavist readers wouldn’t engage or wonder why the hell they hired me to write for them. The day I was told by Seyward the story was a juggernaut – the second-most read story in the history of the magazine – I was gobsmacked. I think people were really craving a story that took them away to an exotic place during the pandemic. This story might’ve done that.
For any fellow non-fiction writers reading this, do you have a favourite writing tip to share?
Keep working on craft. No writer ever thinks they’re good enough, but this isn’t a bad thing. It’s an opportunity to get better and become aware of your blind spots. Cultivate writer friends who you can rant, cry and celebrate with. Writing is lonely and full of let downs and frustration.Follow what excites YOU, not other people. I think this is when the magic happens.
What writing projects are you working on currently?
I’ve had more opportunities than ever before thanks to the Atavist. I’ve also spent more time than ever working on pitches that were rejected. It’s disappointing, but at least I’m in the room.
Right now, I’m working on a longform investigative narrative for The Globe and Mail, to be published some time in 2022. I’m writing short features for Maclean’s, and also – fingers crossed! – working on two ambitious long-form pitches.
Find Lindsay on Twitter: @LindsayLeeJones
This Q&A may have been edited for clarity and length.