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The article spans four decades, so there was a lot of rummaging through historical documents and old journals.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.

Best of 2021 Q&A: Erica Lenti

Erica Lenti appears on our Best of 2021 list for the piece “Cases of missing trans people are rarely solved. A married pair of forensic genealogists is hoping to change that.” You can read it at Xtra.

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

How did you start working on this story?

I found out about the Trans Doe Task Force on Reddit (yes, there are spots on there that aren’t a cesspool), after the Christine Jessop case was solved. The folks from TDTF, Anthony and Lee, were involved in the forensic genealogy that went into solving that case. I looked into their work and realized they were both trans and both doing some incredible work identifying cases in the community. So I reached out!

How long did it take to write this piece?

From initial pitch to publication, five months. In terms of the actual writing process: I wrote this story with the support and generosity of the Banff Centre’s Literary Journalism Program, so I had two weeks in July devoted to working on the piece. I usually never get that length of time to work on anything these days, so it was an absolute pleasure.

What was the most challenging part of writing it?

I had to do all of my reporting remotely and virtually, and that has its challenges, particularly when the story is as sensitive as this one. I had a lot of really tough conversations with all of my sources, and there’s only so much you can do to convey comfort to those sources on a Zoom or phone call. I tried to approach everyone with as much empathy as I could. Ultimately, I’d love to someday sit down in person with all the folks I interviewed for the piece. They were so open and generous with their time, and that means the world to me.

Do you have a particular writing ritual you follow?

Because I had those two devoted weeks to work on this, I found it really freeing to not have to think about other distractions. I usually write at my desk in my home office, but I actually finished my third draft at a nearby park while picnicking with my partner and my dog. It was wonderful.

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

Aside from the logistical challenges, the one great thing about writing during a global pandemic is the freedom I have now that I’m working from home. When I’m stuck, I can take my dog for a walk and mull over the details of a scene in my head. When I’m feeling burnt, I can play some Super Mario Maker and go back to work at 8 p.m. My family and I have been privileged to have stayed healthy and safe this year, and I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to keep writing from home.

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

For Anthony and Lee, working on a case means really throwing themselves into the work. When they feel they’re on the cusp of a discovery, they’ll work day and night to figure it out. They’ll forgo sleep to help these trans Does reclaim their identities. There are few people as selfless in their work as Anthony and Lee. Their devotion to the community really floored me. They’re really amazing people.

What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

It’s all been incredibly positive! A lot of readers had no idea this kind of work was being done to help identify trans Does. I hope that I can play a small part in raising the TDTF’s profile, and in turn help them solve more cases.

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

This is kind of a rookie tip, but: read your stories aloud!

What writing projects are you working on currently?

Not much I can talk about, but expect more LGBTQ2S+-related features from me, as usual! You can keep up with my work on Twitter @ericalenti.

And lastly: If you know of any missing persons cases that have gone unresolved, please contact the folks at TDTF. The more cases they have to work with, the more likely they’ll be able to help identify folks who have gone without their name and story for so, so long. Please visit transdoetaskforce.org.

Find Erica on Twitter: @ericalenti

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

Best of 2021 Q&A: Richard Warnica

Richard Warnica appears on our Best of 2021 list for the piece “Rothko at the Inauguration.” You can read it at Hazlitt.

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


How did you start working on this story?
I got the idea for the piece while covering Donald Trump’s inauguration for the National Post. After many (many) false starts, I sold a much revised pitch to Hazlitt in late spring 2019.

How long did it take to write this piece?
From original idea to publication it was four years and 11 months.

What was the most challenging part of writing it?
Figuring out a structure that would connect the narrative threads, allow the themes to emerge organically, and keep the reader engaged through a pretty long piece.

Do you have a particular writing ritual you follow?
I used to try to write until I was done no matter how long it took. I can’t do that anymore. Now I write in chunks of a few hours at most with walks in between and I try to never work past midnight.

What did you find different about writing during a global pandemic?
That is a very big question! I’m not sure I’ve processed the last two years enough to give a decent answer. I did quit coffee during the pandemic (anxiety, etc.) and I now drink tea instead, lots and lots of tea, so that’s different.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about your subject (or in the case of a personal essay, yourself) during the process?
I spent so long with this piece and the materiel that it’s hard to remember what surprised me at the time. Maybe the fact that after everything, I still love the paintings as much as I do is surprising. You’d think I’d be sick of them by now but I’m really not. They’re still magic to me.

What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?
I’ve had a lot of really lovely notes, public and private, about the piece. I had no idea how it was going to land so that’s been really gratifying.

For any fellow non-fiction writers reading this, do you have a favourite writing tip to share?
You won’t always have the tools you need to write a story when you start out. So don’t be afraid of feeling lost in the process. Keep pushing and learning and eventually (hopefully?) you’ll figure it out.

What writing projects are you working on currently?
None! I have some ideas for Star stories I’ll work on after Christmas and a book idea I may or may not get back to at some point but for now my slate is clean.

Find Richard on Twitter: @richardwarnica
This Q&A may have been edited for clarity and length.

Best of 2021 Q&A: Nicholas Hune-Brown

Nicholas Hune-Brown appears on our Best of 2021 list for the piece “The Shadowy Business of International Education.” 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 Nick’s answers:

How did you start working on this story?

I pitched The Walrus a story in 2018 that was supposed to be about students from China. 

How long did it take to write this piece?

I worked on this on and off for three years before it was published. Over those years I’ve had to reimagine my feature over and over again, as the facts on the ground have changed and COVID upended the world I was writing about. 

What was the most challenging part of writing it?

The tricky things with this piece were pretty much the tricky things about any complicated story. First, just talking to enough people and doing enough reading to figure out *what’s going on*. And then working out how to tell readers what’s going on in a way that’s dramatic, true, interesting, affecting, etc. It took a long time to find the characters that would sit at the centre of the story.

Do you have a particular writing ritual you follow?

I had two young kids at home in the middle of a pandemic, so I’m not precious! I just write from wherever I am, whenever I can.

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

See above, but also trying to create scenes, etc, when just about all of my reporting was done over the phone and Zoom.

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 the broad outlines of this story—the millions of dollars at stake, the huge shifts in global migration—but the specific details of people’s experiences struck me most during my reporting.

What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

The response has been really positive, which is a huge relief. I am forever terrified I’ve just got my story completely wrong (not that I’ve screwed up the facts, but that I’ve somehow missed something enormous and fundamental that changes how I should be thinking about the subject). But after publication I heard from a whole bunch of grateful international students, as well as college faculty, who said my story matches their experience.

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

I really have no tips, unfortunately. I find the whole process difficult and mysterious

What writing projects are you working on currently?

A bunch of stories that are too delicate and unformed to risk talking about!

Find Nick on Twitter: @nickhunebrown

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