Best of 2019 Q&A: Leah McLaren

Leah McLaren appears on our Best of 2019 list for her piece “The $500-Million Family Feud.” You can read it at Toronto Life.

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

1. How did you start working on this story?

It was an assignment in October 2018 from one of my trusted longtime editors at Toronto Life, Emily Landau. She emailed and asked if I wanted to take on the inside story of the ongoing succession feud among the Stronachs. “I think it could be quite the family epic,” she said. As usual she was right.

2. How long did it take to write this piece?

The reporting took ages. I didn’t properly get cracking on it until December 2018 due to other commitments, but once I was able to dig into the Statements of Claim I was overwhelmed at how much material there was: literally thousands of pages of legal documents, not to mention press and research materials.

The Stronachs are obviously a very famous Canadian family—in particular Belinda—and in many ways their lives have been well-documented. But what surprised me most was how many truly bonkers details about the case hadn’t been reported by the Canadian business press at all. It wasn’t like I was digging up stuff that was hidden, it was all a matter of public record. It was just a bit difficult to comprehend and explain in all its weird complexities. It took time and space which is the luxury I had writing for a magazine like Toronto Life.

As a reporter I felt like I’d struck gold, so I mined it. It’s a very complex business story involving webs of companies and complex deals, so I spent a good deal of time calling up experts in such matters and getting them it explain it to me in plain English.

In terms of sources there were dozens. Several family members were involved in the case, all of whom have teams of employees, reputation managers, publicists, lawyers, friends, exes, etc. In total I spent 3-4 months calling around talking to sources, most of whom were off the record with a few notable exceptions.

I wrote the first draft in 48 hours over Easter last year and it came to over 10,000 words (the assignment was for 5000). I sent that, with a lengthy timeline outlining the family and business history of the Stronachs in Canada to the long-suffering Emily, who then helped me winnow it down to size.

Normally I’d never send a draft that long to an editor but in this case I wanted Emily to be really familiar with all the material (even the stuff we weren’t going to use) so she’d be as up to speed as I was. Also I completely trust her judgement.

3. What was the most challenging part of writing it?

Probably just turning my attention to it in the first place. The statements of claim sat in an enormous toad-like pile on the sofa in my writing shed for over a month before I could bring myself to actually read them. But once I did I was hooked—it was like reading a Russian family epic written by Canada’s finest corporate litigators.

Unlike many of the stories I work on people were largely happy to talk. Everyone loves to talk about rich people destroying each other—a lot of my interviews segued into conversations about the story’s parallels to the HBO series Succession and King Lear.

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

Reading Frank Stronach’s self-published book The Question of All Questions which reads like the deranged political rantings of a tin pot despot was an eye-opener, especially from a man who holds the Order of Canada.

Also the much-reported fact he spent $55 million on a pair of giant bronze statues of a pegasus defeating a dragon, one of which is housed in a warehouse in China. I mean, you literally couldn’t make this stuff up.

5. What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

I think it’s been largely positive? I know my editors were happy because the story was widely read. I don’t get to talk about my Canadian work much because I live in the U.K.

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

For me, with any long piece there always comes a moment in the process where I feel completely overwhelmed and uncertain and absolutely convinced it will never come together.

Eventually, after many years, I had the realization that this moment of doubt—both the experience of it and getting past it—is actually a part of the process.

I almost welcome it now, like a deeply irritating old friend. I’m like, “Oh hey, there you are Moment of Doubt. Come on in, I was wondering when you’d arrive! Would you like a cup of tea?”

7. What writing projects are you working on currently?

I’m working on another story for Toronto Life on the Muskoka boat crash civil suit involving Kevin O’Leary and his family as well as a story for Air Mail, Graydon Carter’s new magazine based out of New York about a very strange and nebulous AI startup run by a North American couple in Notting Hill.

I’ve also recently signed a book deal with HarperCollins US to write my first non-fiction book, but I’m not ready to talk about it just yet.

8. There’s been some discussion recently on the outlook for Canadian non-fiction. How does its future look to you going into 2020?

As someone living in the land of Brexit peering across the Atlantic at Trump, I feel like the outlook for anything Canadian is pretty bright these days, comparatively speaking. If being the last politically stable, rules-based western liberal democracy isn’t enough to get over the cultural cringe I’m not sure what will be.

Find Leah on Twitter: @leahmclaren

 

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

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Best of 2019 Q&A: Kate Black

Kate Black appears on our Best of 2019 list for her piece “Awkward Cause.” 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 Kate’s answers:

1. How did you start working on this story?

The story came as an assignment from my editor, Selena Ross, at Maisonneuve. She knew Nestar and thought he’d be an interesting profile. 

2. How long did it take to write this piece?

I spent about three months writing and doing edits with Selena on the side of schoolwork and work-work. The draft I first handed into Selena was 2,500 words and the final published version was closer to 6,500. 

3. What was the most challenging part of writing it?

It was kind of two connected things: I admired the main subject, Nestar, and worried about flattening into a caricature. I empathized with his moral plight. I felt protective of him, which is also difficult from a journalistic standpoint of wanting to portray someone accurately. 

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

I was most surprised by Nestar’s anecdotes about upholding his low-carbon ethics while he was being treated for cancer—he rode his bike to and from chemo and took the stairs after abdominal surgery because he doesn’t take elevators. It showed me how integral and non-negotiable these ethics are for him. I write in the story that they’re like another set of organs or something.

Unpacking this helped me reach a new understanding about Nestar. Basically all of our normative high-carbon/environmentally destructive habits like flying in planes, eating meat, and driving everywhere privilege comfort and convenience over discomfort. Once you opt out of these systems, discomfort registers differently.

I think Nestar would argue that a low-carbon lifestyle isn’t even uncomfortable—it’s part of him and it’s never going to leave him now. I think doing the best you can, no matter what, in the face of doom opens up a kind of hope or satisfaction more profound than convenience anyway.

5. What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

The piece came at a good time—the question of individuals’ roles in the climate catastrophe is pretty hot right now. I don’t think I’ve ever written something that I’ve seen shared and talked about online so widely. The response has been quite positive too—people have told me they felt less apathetic after reading it and are inspired by Nestar. There was also a heated debate in the online version’s comments section. At the very least, I think it spurred a lot of people to consider their climate responsibilities. That’s a good thing!

I’ve loved hearing from people who came away feeling hopeful. That’s how I felt after writing it as well. 

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

One of my formative editors, the super Lisa Cook at New Trail, drilled into me the importance of a “focus statement.” She taught me to keep a sentence-long thesis handy while writing each story to remind myself where I’m going. I also tweak the thesis as my understanding of the topic deepens. This helps trim away any detail or narrative that isn’t actually serving the central idea of the piece.

And, for the love of god, stop beginning each sentence with a dependent clause.

7. What writing projects are you working on currently?

I’m working on a collection of short fiction for my MFA thesis at UBC. I’ve shelved a book-length non-fiction project on West Edmonton Mall that I’d like to dive into again soon. I’ve kind of hit an inspirational dry spell with creative non-fiction but want to get re-acquainted!

8. There’s been some discussion recently on the outlook for Canadian non-fiction. How does its future look to you going into 2020?

Journalists seem anxious that there’s less support for “fact-based” creative non-fiction in Canada than ever before—Kenneth Whyte talks about this in his recent Globe and Mail opinion piece. What does that mean for our creative non-fiction in 2020? I think it means we’ll be seeing more conversations (and Twitter brawls?) about what kind of writing counts as creative non-fiction and what kind of non-fiction writing is worthy of institutional support. 

I have a deep appreciation for journalistic rigor; I have a deep appreciation for more subjective and experimental forms. I also think they intersect all the time and nobody benefits from keeping them in silos. Hopefully widening the definition can be reflected in a widening of opportunities. Pipe dream!

Find Kate on Twitter: @kategblack

 

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

Best of 2019 Q&A: Julie Chadwick

Julie Chadwick appears on our Best of 2019 list for her piece “Are breast implants making women sick?” 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 Julie’s answers:

1. How did you start working on this story?

I became interested in plastic surgery and its more problematic outcomes (disasters, botched jobs) back in 2005/2006 when I was editor of my university newspaper. What began as a sort of morbid curiosity became a genuine interest once I began to notice the large volume of women talking in online forums about their problems with breast implants in particular.

A pattern of symptoms began to emerge that I thought was worth digging into for a story. It seemed at the time that no one was talking about it, that the issue of breast implants and their complications — covered extensively in the 1990s in the wake of a wave of class action lawsuits — was largely “solved.” It was apparent that this was not true.

My key interview was with Dr. Pierre Blais, a former researcher at what is now Health Canada who now runs a private practice analyzing failed implanted devices. After speaking with him and then women who were experiencing severe complications I became convinced it was a story. My first feature was published in 2006, just as Canada and the US decided to lift the moratorium on silicone breast implants that had been in place since 1992. I’ve been staying on top of the story off and on ever since.

2. How long did it take to write this piece?

Technically I’d say I worked on it off and on, rewriting, adding recent updates, rewriting again and pitching it to various outlets, for about four years. That was part-time though, off the side of my desk as I worked as a full-time journalist and editor and wrote a book.

3. What was the most challenging part of writing it?

To be honest, the process of pitching it. The original publication I wrote it for rejected it for being too long and “too medical” for what they thought their readership could handle. Many other editors rejected it because of limited resources.

Medical stories are difficult and time consuming to fact check, and often have an added risk of inviting litigation if you are making strong claims, such as alluding to the possibility that some women have died as a result of their implants. Finally, some editors simply rejected it because they said they didn’t feel the story was important.

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

Even though I am female, I was surprised at the near-universal experience of the women I interviewed expressing how their legitimate medical concerns and symptoms were ignored, downplayed, misunderstood, and rejected.

Some were even told to seek psychiatric help because their — often quite extreme — health problems were “all in their head.” It was a significant thread that ran through the story.

I was also surprised at the extent of women’s health problems and the assertion from some health professionals that the chain of events following on from receiving implants had, in their opinions, resulted in women’s deaths.

5. What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

I’ve heard from a variety of people who have expressed what I suspected — that they thought breast implants were now mostly safe. I think some women who share these adverse health experiences feel vindicated. It also helps that as I was finishing the editing process on the article, a year-long investigation from an international consortium of journalists into implanted devices was also released, and their findings on breast implants paralleled many of mine.

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

If you feel deep in your bones that a story has merit and is worth investigating, listen.

So many times I gave up on this story and told myself that sometimes persistence doesn’t pay off, that maybe I was just wrong. And sometimes that’s true. At times it felt like the feedback I was getting from people in editorial positions was really invalidating. And who am I not to listen to the expertise of these people? But something kept nagging at me. I couldn’t let it go. So I just dribbled on with it, pitching it every so often, re-researching, re-writing.

The editors at The Walrus immediately recognized the value of the story and were on board right from the beginning. So perhaps it really is just looking for that right fit and not giving up if it truly feels that you have a story that needs telling.

7. What writing projects are you working on currently?

Finishing a memoir about political activism and searching out more investigative leads.

8. There’s been some discussion recently on the outlook for Canadian non-fiction. How does its future look to you going into 2020?

The style I employ as a writer, especially in books, comes from a strong sense that well-written non-fiction can be every bit as much of a fascinating page turner as fiction. And this bears out in the fact that many fiction stories and characters are closely based on real events and real people.

Additionally, I don’t think the facts of a story need to be compromised in any way to write compelling non-fiction. It’s more a matter of careful curation. This approach isn’t easy, but the results are fantastic.

So really, as long as storytelling is around and a part of the human experience, true stories will be as well.

Find Julie on Twitter: @JulieHChadwick

 

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

Best of 2019 Q&A: Patrick White

Patrick White appears on our Best of 2019 list for the piece “Why does any Canadian need a handgun?” written by him and Tom Cardoso. 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 Patrick’s answers:

1. How did you start working on this story?

Following the Danforth shooting last year, controversy arose over the origins of the handgun. Did it come from Canada or was it smuggled from the U.S.? This story came of our attempt to trace the gun and place it within a broader data-driven picture of gun violence in the country.

2. How long did it take to write this piece?

Hard to say exactly. We’d been gathering data from police forces across the country since September 2018. This was a slow-moving, part-time phase that didn’t take more than a few hours a week.

It wasn’t until May of this year that some of those data requests started to form a hazy representation of gun crime in the country. That’s when I started working on it full-time for about a month.

3. What was the most challenging part of writing it?

Despite dozens of access-to-information requests we could never assemble reliable figures on the origins of guns used in crimes. The story grappled with this dilemma: does strengthening gun control make sense in the absence of supporting evidence?

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

The main human subject of the story, Patrick McLeod, is a pro-gun-control gun-owner. I thought that was a bit of contradiction. But after the story was published, I heard from a number of gun-owners (mainly hunters) who similarly believed in strong controls on certain firearms.

5. What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

Oh, the usual. Some loved it, some loathed it. That’s how things go with gun stories. It is such a divisive topic. I was grateful that many readers picked up on a strand of the piece showing how woefully inadequate the proposed Liberal ban on some semi-automatic rifles would be in addressing day-to-day Canadian gun crime. My colleague Tom Cardoso fought hard to get those numbers.

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

Go for a walk.

7. What writing projects are you working on currently?

My employer, The Globe and Mail, recently shuffled its editorial structure. I’ve been assigned to a new crime and justice team. It remains to be seen what kinds of projects will emerge.

8. There’s been some discussion recently on the outlook for Canadian non-fiction. How does its future look to you going into 2020?

Big, big topic. I assume you’re referring to Ken Whyte’s recent writings on the topic? One of his points is that the Canada Council is funding more and more first-person memoir at the exclusion of fact-based, objective non-fiction. I’m just not sure it’s a solid point.

I dug up the first-ever best-seller list published in the Globe. By happy coincidence, it was published almost exactly 30 years ago – Nov. 25, 1989. Here are the Canadian books on the two non-fictions list (paper and hardcover): Morningside Papers II, by Peter Gzowski; Dance on the Earth, a memoir by Margaret Laurence; The House is Not a Home, a memoir by former MP Erik Nielsen; Ottawa Inside Out, by Stevie Cameron; The Morningside World of Stuart McLean; Looking Out for Number One, by NHLer Dave Semenko; New Founde Land, a collection of Farley Mowat essays; Runaway, a memoir by Evelyn Lau; Lords of the Line, by David Cruise and Alison Griffiths; Metamorphosis, by David Suzuki; Necessary Illusion, by Noam Chomsky (CBC Massey Lectures); Frozen in Time, by Colin Beattie and John Geiger; The Arctic Grail, by Pierre Berton.

That’s 13 books in total. Of those, only four (31 per cent) (Ottawa Inside Out, Lords of the Line, Frozen in Time and The Arctic Grail) would qualify under Ken’s definition of objective, non-sports, non-memoir, fact-based books.

On a Globe list of Canadian non-fiction best-sellers published earlier this month, three of 10 (30 per cent) would qualify. My methodology is lousy, but based on that very thin slice of bestseller lists, there doesn’t appear to be a crisis. One could easily make a more scientific study of this and prove me entirely wrong.

Book sales are down. Magazines and newspapers are shedding jobs and folding. That’s hardly the Canada Council’s doing.

Find Patrick on Twitter: @Nut_Graf

 

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

Best of 2019 Q&A: Suzannah Showler

Suzannah Showler appears on our Best of 2019 list for her piece “Céline Dion is Everywhere.” 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 Suzannah’s answers:

1. How did you start working on this story?

Daniel Viola at The Walrus was the one who approached me about it, actually. He thought (presciently/rightly) that the end of Céline’s Vegas residency would be the good moment for a profile. We started kicking ideas around, and I got excited about the idea of focusing on impersonators, and things took off from there.

2. How long did it take to write this piece?

Oh man. Like a thousand years? No, OK: it was about a month from when I went to Vegas to delivering a draft. But Danny and I started talking about Céline in November 2018, and the piece was finalized July 2019. So I lived with Céline/the Célines in my mind for a good while.

3. What was the most challenging part of writing it?

Finding a structure, probably. And balancing my inclination to write loftily about the uncanny and dream logic and coincidences against the need to just, like, actually convey information. That’s what editors are for.

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

How emotional impersonation is.

5. What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

I always find that kind of thing hard to tell. Like, is Twitter real? With a piece like this it isn’t really about an issue people are inclined to have hissy fits about. When someone doesn’t like your story, they probably just don’t finish reading it and go on with their lives. This wasn’t really a ‘yell at the author on the internet’ kind of thing. So I think I only saw the nice reactions.

My favourite part was that Céline’s official account tweeted it out. I like to imagine that maybe someone on her PR team read some of the more flattering lines to her.

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

Go for a walk.

7. What writing projects are you working on currently?

Mostly just pitching, trying find my way into Some Big Thing I can donate all my time to. I had a book proposal more or less universally rejected last year, and nothing so far has entered to fill that space. Currently accepting suggestions for book-length projects. Please tell me what to do with myself.

Also, I just started a small, weird side project where I write about books and create workouts that pair with them. This is purely for fun, and it is filling me with joy!

8. There’s been some discussion recently on the outlook for Canadian non-fiction. How does its future look to you going into 2020?

Yeah, that Ken Whyte thing in the Globe? If people want to wring their hands about the state of non-fiction and the production/distribution of journalistic truth in this country, I’d start here: The Globe & Mail is owned by the richest people in Canada. David Thomson and his family are worth about $43 billion and rank 27th on the list of the wealthiest people on the planet. No one should be a billionaire. Wealth hoarding is immoral.

Find Suzannah on Twitter: @ZanShow

 

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