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.