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.

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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.

The art of turning fish into leather

“Chang peels a folded salmon skin from one of the bags and flattens it on the table. ‘You can really have at her,’ she says, demonstrating how to use the edge of the stone to rub away every fiber of flesh. The scales on the other side of the skin will have to go too. On a sockeye skin, they come off easily if scraped from tail to head, she adds, ‘like rubbing a cat backwards.’ The skin must be clean, otherwise it will rot or fail to absorb tannins that will help transform it into leather.”

Chloe Williams – Hakai Magazine – April 2020

You Never Forget the Smell

 
Christopher Pollon – Hakai Magazine – January 2020

The Vulture Watcher

“Manning is 75, and his perilous forays here at Oak Bluffs Park occurred as recently as three years ago. ‘I’ve slidden down, had a couple of close calls,’ he says, as we watch an afternoon wind hurry currents across a shimmery Salish Sea. ‘I got all scraped on the blackberries and the rocks and everything else. I wouldn’t try it now with my bad knee and back. I’m a little too old to be dancing around in remote areas.'”

Larry Pynn – Hakai Magazine – December 2019

Wasted

“From the moment a fisher lands a fish to the moment that fish lands on your plate, 27 percent of it will disappear. Consider the Atlantic salmon you ate for dinner last night—say, 300 grams. Then lop off more than a quarter of it. Now consider what would happen if we piled up your discards and mine, along with all the other fish that disappear from the global food system in a given year.”

Sasha Chapman – Hakai Magazine – July 2019

Return of the Mummers

“Mummering has become a powerful symbol of identity here in Canada’s most easterly province, so it’s no wonder ‘a mob of mummers’ pitched up to march through the capital city, undeterred by a halo of rain, drizzle, and fog—courtesy of the island’s position in the North Atlantic. The original parade was axed when mummering was banned in Newfoundland and Labrador 150 years ago, back when social unrest was high and the disguises enabled violence and public nuisance. At the time of the 2009 festival, I’d lived in the province for three years, there as a graduate student in Memorial University of Newfoundland’s folklore department. I’d studied these disguised Christmastime merrymakers in their various contexts, but the parade was my first attempt at being one.”

Emily Urquhart – Hakai Magazine – December 2016

The Riddle of the Roaming Plastics

“Codfish eat everything. ‘Everyone here has a story about the Barbie doll they found in a cod,’ quips Max Liboiron, referring to St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, her home. So the geography professor at Memorial University in St. John’s thought she knew what to expect in 2015 when she conducted the first study on plastic ingestion among cod in Newfoundland’s inshore waters. The results surprised her; in contradiction of the local lore, the data showed one of the lowest rates of plastic ingestion by fish in the world.”

Matthew Halliday – Hakai Magazine – December 2018

In the Kingdom of the Bears

 
Jude Isabella – Hakai Magazine – October 2018

The Last Cannery Standing

Frances Backhouse – Hakai Magazine – August 2018