Best of 2021 Q&A: Emma Gilchrist

Emma Gilchrist appears on our Best of 2021 list for the piece “Genetic Mapping.” 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 Emma’s answers:

How did you start working on this story?

I’d been working on writing about my journey as an adoptee since attending a Banff Centre writing retreat in 2013, but couldn’t figure out exactly what form it should take. When a DNA test led to a new twist in my story, I knew I had to write about paternity surprises in the age of direct-to-consumer DNA testing.

How long did it take to write this piece?

I went to a little Airbnb on the west coast of Vancouver Island for a week and came home with a full draft. The fine-tuning and editing process took about a month after that.

What was the most challenging part of writing it?

The article spans four decades, so there was a lot of rummaging through historical documents and old journals. But mostly, I was really concerned about being fair to all of my parents — all five of them!

Do you have a particular writing ritual you follow?

I don’t write very much these days, except for when I have a dying urge to do so — and then I just really go for it, when the moment strikes.

What did you find different about writing during a global pandemic?

If anything, I think it helped me to focus by limiting distractions.

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

How malleable memory is and how elusive the “truth” can be.

What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

It was really wonderful and a bit overwhelming — I’d never received this kind of reaction to a story before. I heard from people near and far — from old friends to total strangers — who shared how the story resonated with them, which was really beautiful.

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

I wish I did!

What writing projects are you working on currently?

I’m starting to think about writing another personal essay, but I’m not quite ready to share the subject just yet. Other than that, I’m busy working as an editor at The Narwhal.

Find Emma on Twitter: @reporteremma

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

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Best of 2020 Q&A: Jody Porter

Jody Porter appears on our Best of 2020 list for the piece “Pathfinding.” You can read it at Maisonneuve Magazine.

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

How did you start working on this story?

I’d been thinking about my experience covering Chanie Wenjack’s story and Gord Downie’s Secret Path for several years, trying to figure out if it was the peak of my career as a journalist, or the moment when I most obviously failed to do my job – to speak truth to power, even when that power was a beloved, cultural icon, with a terminal disease.

But after more than two decades of reporting mainly on Indigenous issues, I was also wary of taking up more public space as a non-Indigenous person to work through my own feelings. Then I met journalist and scholar Minelle Mahtani at a dinner party where I told a version of my story, and she encouraged me to write it in hopes of providing insight for journalism students and others. That was the permission I needed to move forward. I am so grateful for it.

How long did it take to write this piece?

About five months from the beginning to submitting it for publishing.

What was the most challenging part of writing it?

The honesty it required. It is the most true thing I have ever written. My friend and Anishinaabe Kwe journalist Jolene Banning read an early draft and pushed me to be more honest about my sense of being a white saviour and I cried my way through a rewrite of that section.

Another friend and fellow writer, Susan Goldberg, read what I thought was my final draft and suggested that the piece would be stronger if I included a reference to my own sexual assault. It was not advice I wanted to hear. I thought it was too big of a risk to make the piece so much about me.

I resisted the change and set the piece aside for about a month, figuring that I had taken it as far as I could. Then, slowly, the wisdom in Susan’s advice sunk in. I started to work on it again, including my own victimhood, surprising myself as the meta-narrative – the inherent power of telling one’s own story – emerged.

Do you have a particular writing ritual?

For most of my writing life as a reporter, I have had a daily deadline as the only motivation I needed. But this piece was much different. It haunted me for a while as I struggled to find a way in. Then I set myself a schedule of writing for an hour a day – whatever I got down on the page – and then leaving it until the next day. That carried me through to a first draft.

What did you find different about writing during a global pandemic?

More than the pandemic, the killing of George Floyd, the BLM resurgence that followed and growing awareness of racial injustices across North America in 2020 made me feel a particular responsibility to write with care; to honour the courageous work of Pacinthe Mattar, Denise Balkissoon, Christine Genier and many others who are exposing the limits of the way journalism is practiced in Canada and lighting a way forward.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about your subject, during the process?

That there was a great relief, when it was finally done and published, after the deep pain of finding the right words and my path through them.

What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

I’ve been overwhelmed with positive responses from people I’ve known or worked with in the past, as well as from complete strangers, and, delightfully, the former head of my college journalism program.

I’m also humbled by the fact the piece has been added to the reading lists for some university courses, was referred to and footnoted in Denise Balkissoon’s Atkinson lecture on objectivity and garnered me an interview with Jesse Brown on the Canadaland podcast.

For any fellow non-fiction writers reading this, do you have a favorite writing tip to share

Write to find your own answers. Rely on friends/fellow writers to help you keep you honest, then blaze your own trail to the truth.

What writing projects are you working on currently?

I’ve had to stop writing for a bit as I resume active cancer treatments, which limit energy and play tricks on the mind. But I expect as my ultimate deadline approaches, I may find I have a few more things to contemplate, and share, in writing.

Find Jody on Twitter: @cbcreporter

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

Curio

 
Jadine Ngan – Maisonneuve – February 2020

Testing the Waters

“Still committed to the cause, Jesse tweets out pictures of their attempt to avoid oil-based products like plastic. Boe celebrates the effort on Facebook. ‘Hope you walked and didn’t drive your car,’ someone comments, snarkily. Boe fires back: ‘Can I walk around naked then? Because even our clothing is made using oil.'”

Lauren Kaljur – Maisonneuve – February 2020

Phage Crusade

“Jeff Summerhayes knows the drill. The bleak hospital corridors, the calls on the intercom, the IV tubes in his arms dangling from their holders like chandeliers—all have been familiar since Summerhayes’s childhood. But the bug was still in him and all the antibiotics had failed. Now he was lying in a bed at Vancouver General Hospital with his sister sitting beside him, both expecting to hear, once again, that he didn’t have long to live.”

Mark Czarnecki – Maisonneuve – January 2020

Growing Pains

“A month later, as the first snowfalls of the season were blanketing the roads, the electrician finally had time to check over the building in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. The smell from the sidewalk should have been their first clue. The tenant visibly panicked when they said they needed to enter the basement, and for good reason. After descending the staircase, they found not four but 244 cannabis plants lined up “like a vineyard” under heat lamps.”

Chloe Rose Stuart-Ulin – Maisonneuve – October 2019

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.

Worth the risk?

“In the months after her sixth child was born, Amy Reed didn’t bounce back the way she had in the past. She continued to bleed, heavily, to the point where she had to plan her days around it. She became anemic and even climbing stairs was difficult. Some growths in her uterus, called fibroids, were now hard to ignore—not only could she feel a bulge in her abdomen when she pressed on it, she could actually see her uterus sticking out when lying on her back. When her bleeding finally stopped about eight months after the birth it was replaced with a strange watery discharge. Reed knew this wasn’t normal. When she took her concerns to her obstetrician, the doctor agreed that the symptoms were alarming and recommended having the fibroids taken out.”

Alison Motluk – Maisonneuve – November 2015

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

Nuclear Winter

“Spinning out of control, the satellite came to its journey’s fiery end in January 1978, just four months after its launch. After weeks in a decaying orbit, it re-entered the atmosphere near Haida Gwaii, then known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. The Soviets had intended, in such a scenario, for the reactor onboard to disengage from the satellite’s body and safely burn up seperately. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the remains of Cosmos 954 streaked across northern Canada and the reactor broke apart, spilling its radioactive contents into the air.”

Lorcan Archer – Maisonneuve – January 2019

https://maisonneuve.org/article/2019/01/29/nuclear-winter/