Best of 2021 Q&A: Emma Gilchrist

Emma Gilchrist appears on our Best of 2021 list for the piece “Genetic Mapping.” You can read it at Maisonneuve.

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

How did you start working on this story?

I’d been working on writing about my journey as an adoptee since attending a Banff Centre writing retreat in 2013, but couldn’t figure out exactly what form it should take. When a DNA test led to a new twist in my story, I knew I had to write about paternity surprises in the age of direct-to-consumer DNA testing.

How long did it take to write this piece?

I went to a little Airbnb on the west coast of Vancouver Island for a week and came home with a full draft. The fine-tuning and editing process took about a month after that.

What was the most challenging part of writing it?

The article spans four decades, so there was a lot of rummaging through historical documents and old journals. But mostly, I was really concerned about being fair to all of my parents — all five of them!

Do you have a particular writing ritual you follow?

I don’t write very much these days, except for when I have a dying urge to do so — and then I just really go for it, when the moment strikes.

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

If anything, I think it helped me to focus by limiting distractions.

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

How malleable memory is and how elusive the “truth” can be.

What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

It was really wonderful and a bit overwhelming — I’d never received this kind of reaction to a story before. I heard from people near and far — from old friends to total strangers — who shared how the story resonated with them, which was really beautiful.

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

I wish I did!

What writing projects are you working on currently?

I’m starting to think about writing another personal essay, but I’m not quite ready to share the subject just yet. Other than that, I’m busy working as an editor at The Narwhal.

Find Emma on Twitter: @reporteremma

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

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Best of 2021 Q&A: Brandon Wei

Brandon Wei appears on our Best of 2021 list for the piece “Survivor: Salmon Edition.” You can read it at Hakai Magazine.

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


How did you start working on this story?

I was originally working on a completely different story, and that fell through — an experience I’ve learned is part and parcel of feature writing.

Jude, the editor-in-chief of Hakai Magazine, suggested I investigate some interesting trends happening with Pacific salmon. At first, I was skeptical. I’m a lifelong Vancouverite; what more could I say about Pacific salmon in the Pacific Northwest that hadn’t already been said? 

A lot, it turned out. More than I could fit in 4,600 words.

How long did it take to write this piece?

From pre-pitch research to post-copy-edited final draft, it took about seven months. 

What was the most challenging part of writing it?

Deciding what to include, and what was best left as part of another story.

Do you have a particular writing ritual you follow?

I do my best writing at night. The world is quieter, and my mind has more time and space to be curious.

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

Writing rich imagery was hard. I reported and wrote this story at the height of the lockdowns, and good descriptive writing requires you to go places and meet people — ideally in person.

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

Just how much we don’t know about Pacific salmon, even in a region like British Columbia.

What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

Hopefully positive! The most common feedback I’ve heard is that I’ve looked at Pacific salmon in a way that hasn’t been done so often before.

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

Just start writing. Don’t wait for the “right” time. Don’t wait until you have “something to write about.” Learn to throw shame about your writing out in the window, but always write with humility.

What writing projects are you working on currently?

I’m working on some more personal writing for myself. Other than that, what I write about will be up to whatever 2022 brings!

Find Brandon on Twitter: @Bmwei

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

Best of 2021 Q&A: Lindsay Jones

Lindsay Jones appears on our Best of 2021 list for the piece “The Lives of Others.” You can read it at The Atavist Magazine.

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.