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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Best of 2020 Q&A: Vicky Mochama

Vicky Mochama appears on our Best of 2020 list for the piece “Black Communities Have Known about Mutual Aid All Along.” You can read it at The Walrus.

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

How did you start working on this story?

I have wanted to write about mutual aid and money pools for a long time. I’ve been talking to Caroline Hossein, the York University professor who has spent a long time studying informal economies and women running them, for years now and looking for a way to tell this story. But the inspiration to really resurface this history and practice came about during the pandemic when I started hearing more about different forms of mutual aid, especially the idea of them as a novel strategy. I pitched it to The Walrus and the lovely and very patient Hamutal Dotan said yes.

How long did it take to write this piece?

It took around three months from pitch to getting page proofs.

What was the most challenging part of writing it?

Writing it.

Do you have a particular writing ritual you follow?

I print every version of the piece and do rewrites by hand.

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

I write as often as I can about Black people and Black communities; many of the conditions highlighted by the pandemic already existed for Black folks. A key point of the piece is, in fact, that Black people have been in a state of emergency for ages so many of the solutions people turned to were ones that had already been embedded in our communities. If anything, everyone I wanted to speak to was busier than ever.

What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

I’ve really loved hearing from people who are not Black about how mutual aid looks and has historically worked for their communities.

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

I’m still learning so much myself that any tips I have to offer would be ones I haven’t tried.

What writing projects are you working on currently?

Grand apologies for emails that I haven’t responded to.

Find Vicky on Twitter: @vmochama

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

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.

Best of 2020 Q&A: Jody Porter

Jody Porter appears on our Best of 2020 list for the piece “Pathfinding.” You can read it at Maisonneuve Magazine.

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

How did you start working on this story?

I’d been thinking about my experience covering Chanie Wenjack’s story and Gord Downie’s Secret Path for several years, trying to figure out if it was the peak of my career as a journalist, or the moment when I most obviously failed to do my job – to speak truth to power, even when that power was a beloved, cultural icon, with a terminal disease.

But after more than two decades of reporting mainly on Indigenous issues, I was also wary of taking up more public space as a non-Indigenous person to work through my own feelings. Then I met journalist and scholar Minelle Mahtani at a dinner party where I told a version of my story, and she encouraged me to write it in hopes of providing insight for journalism students and others. That was the permission I needed to move forward. I am so grateful for it.

How long did it take to write this piece?

About five months from the beginning to submitting it for publishing.

What was the most challenging part of writing it?

The honesty it required. It is the most true thing I have ever written. My friend and Anishinaabe Kwe journalist Jolene Banning read an early draft and pushed me to be more honest about my sense of being a white saviour and I cried my way through a rewrite of that section.

Another friend and fellow writer, Susan Goldberg, read what I thought was my final draft and suggested that the piece would be stronger if I included a reference to my own sexual assault. It was not advice I wanted to hear. I thought it was too big of a risk to make the piece so much about me.

I resisted the change and set the piece aside for about a month, figuring that I had taken it as far as I could. Then, slowly, the wisdom in Susan’s advice sunk in. I started to work on it again, including my own victimhood, surprising myself as the meta-narrative – the inherent power of telling one’s own story – emerged.

Do you have a particular writing ritual?

For most of my writing life as a reporter, I have had a daily deadline as the only motivation I needed. But this piece was much different. It haunted me for a while as I struggled to find a way in. Then I set myself a schedule of writing for an hour a day – whatever I got down on the page – and then leaving it until the next day. That carried me through to a first draft.

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

More than the pandemic, the killing of George Floyd, the BLM resurgence that followed and growing awareness of racial injustices across North America in 2020 made me feel a particular responsibility to write with care; to honour the courageous work of Pacinthe Mattar, Denise Balkissoon, Christine Genier and many others who are exposing the limits of the way journalism is practiced in Canada and lighting a way forward.

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

That there was a great relief, when it was finally done and published, after the deep pain of finding the right words and my path through them.

What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

I’ve been overwhelmed with positive responses from people I’ve known or worked with in the past, as well as from complete strangers, and, delightfully, the former head of my college journalism program.

I’m also humbled by the fact the piece has been added to the reading lists for some university courses, was referred to and footnoted in Denise Balkissoon’s Atkinson lecture on objectivity and garnered me an interview with Jesse Brown on the Canadaland podcast.

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

Write to find your own answers. Rely on friends/fellow writers to help you keep you honest, then blaze your own trail to the truth.

What writing projects are you working on currently?

I’ve had to stop writing for a bit as I resume active cancer treatments, which limit energy and play tricks on the mind. But I expect as my ultimate deadline approaches, I may find I have a few more things to contemplate, and share, in writing.

Find Jody on Twitter: @cbcreporter

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

Best of 2020 Q&A: Christopher Pollon

Christopher Pollon appears on our Best of 2020 list for the piece “You Never Forget The Smell.” 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 Christopher’s answers:

How did you start working on this story?

A friend of mine – a marine biologist – wrote to me with a tip. One of his friends was on a whale-watching trip just off the northern tip of Vancouver island, and one of the passengers was an elderly man who had worked as a commercial whaler at the last whaling stations in North America.

Apparently the man, who was with his grandson, was quite open about his experiences as a whaler.  My friend had his name, so I looked him up, cold-called him and started what became many discussions about his experiences on the coast. Harry was my lead character who I started to build the story around.

How long did it take to write this piece?

Hakai Magazine accepted my pitch around June 2019. That same month I travelled from Vancouver with a photographer (Grant Callegari) to see Harry Hole and Coal Harbour. I spent about a month researching and writing the story, and submitted a draft before the end of summer. The story was slow through edits – Hakai Magazine usually has a long lead time for long features. Seven months later it was published.

What was the most challenging part of writing it?

I tend to do saturation reporting for stories like this, which means I completely immerse myself in the subject if I have the time. I love doing that regarding a subject I am fascinated about, but the challenge with this deep research is that you have to find a way to organize all the information.

In this case, the volume of detail was daunting. Figuring out what to leave on the cutting room floor is always an issue, and was for this story. What helped was having an amazing character like Harry.  He drove the narrative and was someone I always returned to regardless of what tangent I would get on.

Do you have a particular writing ritual you follow?

Depending on my deadline, I force myself to stop researching after a certain point and review everything I have gathered. At this point I write a map of how the story will unfold, making sure that my roadmap is consistent with the story I have pitched. From the beginning, I think a lot about openings and endings.

I always start by writing and rewriting an opening I like – I can’t usually continue writing the article until I have a good idea of how it will open. And I think very early on about how the story will end. My editor, Adrienne Mason, doesn’t like stories that end with quotes. I think I tried to end this story with a Harry Hole quote initially, but Adrienne pushed me to find some kind of summation sentence that resonated. These kinds of sentences are the hardest to write, I find. 

As far as atmosphere, I like classic jazz (without vocals to distract)–in this case Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery – are always on high rotation.

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

I didn’t write this during the pandemic, which I’m grateful for. This story (with the required travel to the northern tip of Vancouver island) couldn’t have been written in the pandemic. 

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

The most surprising thing I learned was that in the late 1950s, the Walt Disney company hired the whalers at Coal Harbour to kill an orca which was gutted, packed with formaldehyde and shipped to the United States on the deck of a ship.

I’ve become kind of obsessed with this stuffed whale. It’s a story I am pursuing. A few weeks back, I was called out of the blue by the son of one of the biologists who worked at the station. He remembered the killer whale specifically, and we’re doing some detective work to try to figure out where it went and more interestingly, where it might be now.

What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

I have been contacted by a handful of people, either readers who remembered that era, or fellow writers who appreciated the depth of detail in the reporting. One of my favorite non-fiction authors messaged me on Twitter (we had never communicated before) and said he liked the piece, which was the most rewarding part of this whole thing. One of the readers, the son of a biologist who worked at the station, is helping me track down Walt’s stuffed whale.

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

If you’re a freelancer, rejection of your ideas by editors is a reality of the job. What’s harder, is dealing with indifference. No matter how good your ideas are, there will be times when they will be met with indifference (i.e., not even a response) by editors, publishers, etc. If you are going to seriously do this work, you have to find ways to stay positive in the face of that.

What writing projects are you working on currently?

In December I found a publisher for my next book, which will be about mining, climate change, and the third world. In the meantime, I am finishing up a series of articles for The Tyee on British Columbia’s melting mountain glaciers.  And of course, I continue to chase the ghost of a stuffed killer whale.

Find Christopher on Twitter: @c_pollon

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