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.

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He said, they said: inside the trial of Matthew McKnight

“By the morning of the third day, Juliette was starting to worry. It was the middle of January, 2020, a viciously cold week in Edmonton. She’d been so sure the jury believed her, believed them. But after 26 hours of deliberation, she wasn’t as certain as she had been, and now the question hung on her like a stone: What was taking so long? The others were waiting, too.”

Jana G. Pruden – The Globe and Mail – July 2020

Hitchhiker, hero, celebrity, killer

“It was late in the morning on Feb. 1, 2013, when Caleb Lawrence McGillivary met Jesus Christ on a highway outside Bakersfield. McGillivary had been on the road a good while by then, having left his home in Alberta as a teenager to find his own way in the world. He’d gone back at times, back to his family, back to school or work, but that kind of routine never suited him for long, and by the early months of 2013, he was drifting once again. Not homeless, he would tell people. Home free.”

Jana G. Pruden – The Globe and Mail – June 2020

 

 

 

‘Is it really 50 years?’

“Mr. Milgaard is 67 years old. His name, like his face, is deeply familiar, a part of our history and our culture. His story is one of Canada’s most egregious wrongful convictions, and it is never out of the news for long, even now. On the day I arrive at his townhouse outside Calgary, it is almost 50 years to the day since he was arrested and charged for a murder he didn’t commit.”

Jana G. Pruden – The Globe and Mail – August 2019

 

Searching for answers

“When teenaged best friends Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod drove north out from Port Alberni, B.C., around July 13 in a vintage Dodge Ram pick-up truck and Bigfoot camper top, they were heading to Yukon and Northwest Territories in search of work, better jobs than they had working the night shift at their home-town Walmart. Or, that’s what they told people.”

Jana G. Pruden, Mike Hager, Justin Ling – The Globe and Mail – July 2019

After the Fire

Jana G. Pruden – The Globe and Mail – October 2018

Domestic Silence

 
Jana G. Pruden – Edmonton Journal – November 2015

The day I met a serial killer

 
Jana G. Pruden – The Globe and Mail – August 2018

Little Girl Lost

 
Jana G. Pruden – The Walrus – June 2016

The news scarf mystery: A true story of fashion and coincidence

“I wrote the story in April, 2011, when I was a reporter at the Edmonton Journal. You can see the blur of my name at the beginning of the story, the smudge of my e-mail address at the end. If you squint your eyes, you can find certain words in the text. Canadian beef, brain, Creutzfeldt-Jakob. Of all the stories I’ve written through the years, a piece about a fatal degenerative brain disease seems a particularly odd choice to wind up on a piece of clothing.”

Jana G. Pruden – The Globe and Mail – December 2016