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.


Awkward Cause

“In 2006, Russell was a thirty-six-year-old vegetarian living in New Zealand when he read an article suggesting green-minded voters shouldn’t be taken seriously—because they still fly on planes, all talk and no action. Travelling by plane, Russell learned, is the most environmentally taxing way to travel, partly because of how much fuel planes use, partly because of how high they emit fumes into the atmosphere. About three square meters—a queen-sized bed—of Arctic sea ice vanish for each person on a non-stop flight between New York and London. The same day, he decided he would never fly again.”

Kate Black – Maisonneuve – July 2019

Off The Rails

“Virtually everyone in line for the train was wearing a yellow Youth Pass bracelet. They were smiling and chatting, seemingly blissfully unaware that we were trapped in a humid underworld and it was closing in on 1 am. Someone at the front of the line triggered the wave. Then they started singing “O Canada.” I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt, but a familiar feeling began to grow in the back of my brain, and I fished a mismatched pair of earplugs out from my backpack.”

Kate Black – Maisonneuve – July 2018