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