Off the Page, with Dan Rubinstein

DanRubinstein
Dan Rubinstein (photo by Lisa Gregoire)

This week on Off the Page, our interview series with National Magazine Award winners, we chat with author and NMA-winning journalist Dan Rubinstein, whose 2015 book Born to Walk emerged from a National Magazine Award-nominated story in The Walrus.

NMAF: Congratulations on the recent publication of your book Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act (ECW Press). You’re a self-described obsessive walker, meditating on the many benefits walking offers. How did your obsession with walking begin?

Born to WalkDan Rubinstein: I’ve always been interested in walking, both for fun and as a way to get from A to B. I like how the act allows me to intimately explore places or routes we typically don’t experience on foot. You never know what you’ll see or who you’ll meet, and you gain a deeper sense of how you fit into the natural and human ecosystem in which you live.

But this interest became an obsession in 2012. My “dream job,” as a magazine editor, had become a nightmare, and the long lunch-hour runs I took to escape the stress led to a blown knee. So I started going for walks at lunch, which offered a similar physical and psychological release.

And when I was back at my desk, I kept stumbling over news stories and research studies online that spoke to the many curative properties of walking, from physical and mental health to social cohesion and economic sustainability. I was hooked!

NMAF: Your article “The Walking Cure” — published in The Walrus and winner of two National Magazine Honourable Mentions in 2013 in the categories Society and Health & Medicine — seems to be the starting seed for Born to Walk. Can you talk a bit about the expansion of the article and the development of the book?

Dan Rubinstein: One of the first conversations I had about the myriad benefits of walking was with Stanley Vollant, the medical doctor at the heart of the “The Walking Cure.” He’s an Innu from eastern Quebec — the province’s first aboriginal surgeon — and had started a multi-year walking project, a series of group treks between First Nations communities in which dozens of participants experience the power of this healthy activity and re-establish connections to the land and to one another.

Stanley’s walks are hundreds of kilometres long, often in the winter, and people realize that the only way to reach the end of such a daunting journey is to approach it one step at a time — and they realize if they can do this, they can attempt to overcome any challenges they face. Stanley had the vision that inspired him to begin this project while doing the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain.

He didn’t know why he had to start walking with aboriginal youth and elders in Canada, but as he told me when we first spoke, “When you begin a journey, you don’t know why. The trail will show you the way.”

Writing this article was a natural first step for me, and expanded into the opening chapter of my book, it establishes the main themes and sets the tone. It also introduces Stanley, a recurring voice of wisdom in the book.

Read "The Walking Cure" (The Walrus)
Read “The Walking Cure” (The Walrus)

NMAF: Walking clearly influences the content of your writing, but does it influence how you write? Does the physical endurance built by walking long distances transfer to the long-term focus and dedication one needs to complete a book? Moreover, has walking influenced the form or pace of your writing?

Dan Rubinstein: I find it easier to walk for hours and hours than to sit and write for hours and hours. Walking is invigorating and inspiring — writing, for me, is hard work. But I did keep reminding myself, while working on the book, to take a “one step at a time” approach.

And the book, like many great walks, is a meandering journey, with a lot of side trails, that ultimately leads to a satisfying conclusion. At least I hope it does for readers.

NMAF: Do you have a familiar, favourite walk? Where is the strangest place walking has led you?

Dan Rubinstein: I don’t really have a specific favourite walk. I like walking from the place I am to the place I have to be. I like utilitarian transects that force me to go somewhere unexpected — say, an industrial park, or a subdivision that’s still under construction.

When I lived in Edmonton, I loved walking along the Athabasca River in Jasper National Park, or along the North Saskatchewan River in the city’s river valley. In Ottawa, where I now live, there are some beautiful trails along the Rideau River or in nearby Gatineau Park.

But really, I prefer the more unusual places where I’ve walked, such as the four-day hike I did from my parents’ house in Toronto to their cottage near Algonquin Provincial Park (which became an article for Cottage Life).

You don’t have to travel somewhere exotic to have a profound experience. You can literally walk out the front door and keep going.

NMAF: Since 2003, you’ve won a number of National Magazine Awards for work published in a variety of magazines (The Walrus, Canadian Geographic, Western Living, and Alberta Views). What is the role of magazine work — and magazine award nominations and wins — in the life of a freelancer?

Dan Rubinstein: Magazine assignments help freelancers explore ideas that they’re curious and passionate about. I’ve written about walking, for instance, in a dozen different publications.

This is the fun part of a freelancer’s life. Other gigs, like communications work, help beef up your income, but it’s the magazine assignments that provide the freedom that makes it all worthwhile. And if you write a story that wins an award, that makes it easier to pitch ideas to editors you haven’t worked with before.

Awards and nominations are a good calling card. They can help get you in the door. But at the end of the day, they’re not why most of us do this. It’s the stories that matter.


Dan Rubinstein is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist and author of Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act (ECW Press). Read more about the project at borntowalk.org/about/. Follow Dan on Twitter @dan_rube

Very special thanks to Leah Edwards for researching and conducting this interview with Dan. 

The 2016 National Magazine Awards are now open for submissions until January 15. Awards will be presented in 39 categories at the 39th annual NMA gala on June 9. Digital publications and magazine content can also enter the Digital Publishing Awards (deadline Feb 16).

More “Off the Page” interviews with award-winning writers
Heather O’Neill, author of Lullabies for Little Criminals
Emily Urquhart
, author of Beyond the Pale
Arno Kopecky, author of The Oilman and the Sea
Joshua Knelman, author of Hot Art

Off the Page, with Genna Buck

Genna Buck (photo by Jessica Darmanin)

This week on Off the Page, our interview series with National Magazine Award winners, we chat with journalist Genna Buck, who won the 2015 NMA prize for Best New Magazine Writer, given annually to an emerging journalist whose early work in Canadian magazines shows the highest degree of craft and promise. 

NMAF: Congratulations on the award for Best New Magazine Writer. Your winning piece, “Finding a Place,” found a place in Maisonneuve. Can you talk a bit about how you discovered Savannah’s story, and why you decided to pursue it?

Genna Buck: I was a super green reporter on a summer contract at the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John, N.B., assigned to cover the provincial court. This was 2012. Savannah, a young woman with severe autism, was brought in for a hearing — I tell that story in the piece — and it was memorable because a representative from Social Development was supposed to be there and had failed to show. The normally very taciturn judge got a bit miffed about it, so I wrote it up for the paper.

Read Genna Buck's award-winning story in the Winter 2014 issue of Maisonneuve
Read Genna Buck’s award-winning story in the Winter 2014 issue of Maisonneuve

The next day I got this heartbreaking phone call from Joy Sullivan, Savannah’s foster mother of many years, who had no idea that her kid was in this situation. She’d been looking for answers but had gotten discouraged by that point.

I learned that this young person who was totally alone, who had no one to speak for her, who was a child of the system, actually had people. She had a family who loved her. And an institution that was supposed to be all about supporting families to stay together had dropped the ball in a really profound way. So the story had a narrative element — the arc of Savannah’s life — and a public-interest element.

I’d seen similar cases, sadly, many times in my short period covering the court, but I’d never found a way into the story until Joy reached out and let me into her life and opened up.

It was extremely brave and I will always be thankful to her for that.

NMAF: In your award-winning piece, readers are given a portrait of woman with autism who quotes Shrek, who crouches by a puddles and pretends to drown a doll, who is bounced from one “holding tank” to another. While you were writing the piece, what were the challenges you faced in trying to accurately represent Savannah’s story to your readers?

Genna Buck: There are a lot of things I would do differently if I could do this story over. I made the choice to share most of Savannah’s life story through Joy’s voice, which wasn’t ideal. I felt very uneasy about questioning Savannah because I didn’t know her well, and I wasn’t totally sure that I would be able to adequately inform her about what I was doing so that she could give her true consent.

I wanted to follow legal and ethical rules to the letter, because when I was doing the initial reporting, it was for my Master’s project, and I didn’t know if it would ever be published.

For practical reasons, I wasn’t able to visit Savannah in hospital. And I really, really did not want to make her think that I had the power to change her situation.

But if I were to do this again, I would spend extensive time with her and get everything from her perspective. It’s important that marginalized people are given a chance to express agency and speak on their own behalf. And that element was lacking in my piece.

There were also just the regular struggles to piece together things that had happened ten or twenty years before — names, places, dates, government agencies, all that.

“[Genna Buck] exhibits patience and grit in this magnificent profile. ‘Finding a Place’ has everything a good magazine piece needs: a gripping story, strong research and poignant writing that is balanced and sensitive.”
National Magazine Awards jury

NMAF: Your piece ends on an ambiguous note — with Savannah still in a psychiatric hospital. What was the impact (if any) of bringing Savannah’s story to the public’s attention? More generally, what do you hope to accomplish with your investigative reporting?

Genna Buck: Well, someone offered to mail a copy of the magazine to the relevant government minister in New Brunswick, so I know that the story got at least a few people fired up over the serious lack of housing and support for people with high needs in that province and across the country.

But to my knowledge — as of a couple of months ago — Savannah’s still in hospital to this day. She’s not sick. And she’s isolated from her family and friends and people who love her. So not a whole lot has changed.

Most of the momentum around this issue in New Brunswick seems to be about making what are essentially institutional environments, hospitals and group homes, nicer and bigger and better-equipped. There’s a real belief, and a stated goal, of supporting people to have a meaningful life in the community. But making that happen for someone like Savannah requires a huge investment of money and expertise.

What do I want to achieve? Well I don’t necessarily want to change the world, that’s not my role and it’s not in my power. My goal is always to get readers to imagine themselves in another person’s situation, to see their lives in a new and complex and visceral way.

Once you help cultivate genuine, sincere empathy, change flows from that. At least you hope so.

Genna Buck accepts the award for Best New Magazine Writer at the 2015 National Magazine Awards gala.
Genna Buck accepts the award for Best New Magazine Writer at the 2015 National Magazine Awards gala.

 

NMAF: Professionally and personally, what the impact of winning a National Magazine Award? How do you see your career as a magazine writer continuing to develop?

Genna Buck: Professionally, it has opened so many doors. I think it has put me on the path to being able to support myself as a freelancer, if that’s something I eventually choose to pursue (I might, one day; it’s TBD).

It has also opened editors’ ears and made them more willing to take a chance on a pitch from me that is a bit out-there or weird. I have a forthcoming piece in Flare about thrift shopping, and I’m working on a long form project that incorporates elements of Canadian history, women’s history and the story of how my own great-great-grandmother came to Canada.

Personally, it’s a big motivator. I think everyone in this business has moments where they’re just like, “WHAT WAS I THINKING? I CAN’T DO THIS. THIS WAS A BAD IDEA!” And I’m able to tell myself, “You can do this. Look, you have done it!”

I’m an editor full-time now, and I’m currently working as part of a team to make another MJ grad’s thesis into an investigative series. So what goes around comes around!

National Magazine Award winners Genna Buck and Richard Greene at Winners' Circle, a special networking event for NMA nominees and winners, on Nov 25
National Magazine Award winners Genna Buck and Richard Greene at Winners’ Circle, a special networking event for NMA nominees and winners, on Nov 25

NMAF: What advice would you give to emerging magazine writers?

Genna Buck: I know this is lame, but seriously, be manic about organization. Keep all your notes in one place. Scan and upload your documents. Label all your audio and store it in one place. Don’t shove a bunch of super important loose pieces of paper into a bunch of different folders and binders and notebooks and what-have-you. I learned that the hard way. Evernote is your friend!


Genna Buck is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist, the recipient of 2015 NMA award for Best New Magazine Writer, and a section editor for Views at Metro News Canada. She earned her Masters of Journalism at Carlton University, in 2013. Her work has appeared in Maclean’s Magazine, The Globe and Mail, Maisonneuve Magazine, and other publications. Genna’s Twitter handle is @genna_buck.

Very special thanks to Leah Edwards for researching and conducting this interview with Genna Buck. 

The 2016 National Magazine Award for Best New Magazine Writer is open to any emerging Canadian journalist or creative non-fiction writer whose first feature-length magazine story (1000+ words) was published in a Canadian magazine (including university/college magazines) during 2015. Submissions must be accompanied by a letter of reference from a teacher, mentor, editor or colleague. The submission fee is $25. Three finalists will be named and the winner receives a cash prize of $500. The deadline for entries is January 15, 2016. Enter at magazine-awards.com.

Related “Off the Page” interviews
Catherine McIntyre, winner of the 2014 award for Best New Magazine Writer
Sierra Skye Gemma
, winner of the 2013 award for Best New Magazine Writer
Jeremy Klaszus, winner of the 2008 award for Best New Magazine Writer
Carol Shaben, 2-time NMA winner & 2009 finalist, Best New Magazine Writer
Suzannah Showler, 2013 finalist for Best New Magazine Writer
Liz Windhorst Harmer, NMA winner & 2013 finalist, Best New Magazine Writer

Off the Page, with Today’s Parent editor Sasha Emmons

Sasha Emmons (photo by Roberto Caruso)
Sasha Emmons (photo by Roberto Caruso)

This week on Off the Page–our interview series with National Magazine Award winners–we’re chatting with Sasha Emmons, Editor-in-Chief of Today’s Parent magazine. 

NMAF: Today’s Parent had a banner year at the 2015 National Magazine Awards—8 nominations and 4 Gold Medals including Best Single Issue, Best Web Editorial Package, Single Service Article Package, and Tablet Magazine of the Year. Can you describe the feeling that you and your team experienced that night of the awards gala?

Sasha Emmons: It’s such a cliché but we were just so giddy to be nominated. I’m new to the Canadian publishing scene but I understood that parenting publications rarely get nominated, much less win. So it was pretty surreal to hear our name not just once but four times, especially considering the quality of work from all the nominees. I wish I’d spent more time working on speeches — I really thought there was no way I’d be up there.

Sasha Emmons of Today's Parent accepts the award for Best Single Issue at the 2015 National Magazine Awards gala.
Sasha Emmons of Today’s Parent accepts the award for Best Single Issue at the 2015 National Magazine Awards gala.

NMAF: What has been the significance to you, your team and your readers from winning the National Magazine Awards? 

Sasha Emmons: I think for us it was incredible validation that our digital-driven but platform-agnostic approach to creating content was working. We regularly get caught up in excitement for our projects, and sometimes we lose objectivity and wonder if what we’re working on is as cool as we think it is. Seeing our risks pay off, both with awards but also with audience engagement and amazing feedback, has also given us motivation to keep pushing ourselves to try new, bold things.

The awards have certainly made the industry take notice of us, and that’s led to really talented editors, designers and new partners knocking on our door, wanting to work with or be part of our incredible team.

NMAF: Winning the award for Tablet Magazine of the Year must have been particularly special. How has Today’s Parent developed its presence on the tablet magazine platform, what challenges have you faced in delivering digital content, and how has it been successful?

Sasha Emmons: I really wanted to win for tablet. After we close our print issue, the editors get a bit of reprieve but not our art team, who work long hours on a platform where we have fewer readers than print.

For our busy parents, there’s not a lot of Sunday morning long-reads lounging, and many can’t take out the iPad without their kids clamouring for it. The phone is more our device, and we actually create an iPhone edition each month as well. But despite a huge digital audience that’s largely mobile, the idea of consuming an issue on a phone or tablet hasn’t quite caught on in a big way yet. But it’s growing, and we’re hopeful it will continue to grow.

Our art director Sun Ngo has incredibly high standards but she also promotes a culture of playful experimentation. Her leadership and her team’s hard work are the reason our tablet edition is so great, and I was beyond thrilled to see her be acknowledged for that.

Her philosophy is both simple and complex. She’s laser-focused on making the content readable, with clear text and directional icons. We never want to get so enamoured of bells and whistles that we forget about usability. But then she and her designers go the extra mile, creating gorgeous animated covers, making food and crafts pinnable, integrating video and playing with stop animation.

I really believe our tablet edition is the best, richest way to read Today’s Parent.

NMAF: The package called “30 Awesome Cupcakes” (Gold Medal winner in Single Service Article Package) has been the most tweeted, most viewed article in our awards archive since June, doubtless because it’s just about the most attractive cover line imaginable, and also because the layout is so eye-catching, so much fun. How is that piece exemplary of the editorial mission of Today’s Parent? (And did you get to try all the cupcakes?)

Sasha Emmons: I didn’t know that, and it’s so great to hear. It is one of the great professional regrets of my life I was not on set that day. However, I have to give credit where it’s due and say that this story was already in the works when I started at Today’s Parent, so really Karine Ewart and Alicia Kowalewski, the editor-in-chief and art director at the time, deserve the credit. I did write the line though!

Overall, we aim for a mix of daring, zeitgeisty content, and smart, creative bread-and-butter service. This piece falls into the latter — after all, every parent has to figure out how to pull off their kid’s birthday.

 

NMAF: You’ve called raising two kids “the most humbling thing” you’ve ever done. (“There are moments where I feel like I’ve nailed it, but there are still so many moments where I have no idea what I’m doing.”) How does your daily experience as a parent help guide your leadership of the magazine, and your understanding of what your readers want you to deliver?

Sasha Emmons: I feel like the parents on staff have the best scam going. One of us has an issue with our kid, and we get to talk to leading experts on exactly how to handle it! Seriously, it’s such a privilege that my professional life is centred around what interests me most personally as well.

It’s hugely useful to be a parent and have many moms and dads on staff to gut-check everything we write. Believe me, I’m struggling with everything our readers are struggling with. Overall, I think there are a lot of ways to get parenting right, and only a few ways to get it wrong, and that laughing about its challenges makes the whole thing easier.

I hope that comes through in our content.


Discover more about Today’s Parent at todaysparent.com and on Twitter @TodaysParent, and follow Sasha Emmons @semmons. The mobile edition of the magazine can be found here

The 2016 National Magazine Awards are now open for submissions.

Check out more of our Off the Page interviews with NMA winners, including editors like:
Patrick Walsh of Outdoor Canada
Judith Pereira of Report on Business
Mark Reid of Canada’s History
Curtis Gillespie of Eighteen Bridges

The Call for Entries for the 2016 National Magazine Awards will be announced on December 8. 

Off the Page, with Hudson Christie

Off the Page is back! Our interview series with National Magazine Award winners returns this week with Hudson Christie, winner of the 2015 award for Best New Magazine Illustrator, sponsored by Red Point Media. Hudson generously gave us some of his time recently to talk about his winning work, the significance of his award and building a career as a magazine illustrator.

NMAF: Congratulations on the award for Best New Magazine Illustrator. Your winning piece accompanied a story in Maisonneuve called “A Portrait of the Artist with Testicles in Hand,” (itself a National Magazine Award finalist in the humour category; a personal essay about an angst-ridden young man having a scrotal examination). Can you talk a bit about the process of creating that illustration—from your design brief with Maisy art director Anna Minzhulina, your reading of the text, and the actual construction of the sculptures?

Hudson Christie (portrait by the illustrator)
Hudson Christie (portrait by the illustrator)

Hudson Christie: This was my first commission from Maisonneuve, and Anna smartly matched me with a simultaneously silly and dark article. I’m happiest when I get to work with unhappy themes! Illustrating a testicular cancer scare demanded both a degree of sensitivity for the reality of cancer while leaving room for the nervous laughter that accompanies the dodging of a bullet.

For the picture, I wanted to express the way that this event interrupted the author’s everyday life. We went through a variety of sketches until landing on the classic thinker pose, contrasting the humor inherent to banal, contemporary life (in the form of frozen food) with the (conveniently phallic) home decor.

NMAF: Your style of illustration—clay sculptures, painted and photographed, and sometimes animated—is striking and unique. (The NMA jury called it a “fresh approach to traditional illustration” that proves you are “unafraid to push boundaries and take risks.”) When did you start developing this style as an editorial art form; was it while you were studying at OCAD, or even earlier?

Hudson Christie: I started working on this approach during my 3rd year at OCAD. I was really charmed by figurative folk sculpture at the time and was trying to come up with a way to integrate its uncanny geometric features and deliberate colour palettes into my work.

I had some mental hurdles to clear in order to figure out a way of making this inherently three-dimensional medium conform to the framed two-dimensionality of editorial illustration.

A huge personal breakthrough was learning how to use the computer to plot measurements of my dioramas, giving me final pictures which are 90% true to the original sketch.

NMAF: One of my favourite recent pieces of yours was your work for Alberta Venture magazine’s “Best Workplaces” issue (June 2015). Every element seems precise and yet whimsical—the oversized water cooler, the dog dish, the first aid kit, etc—conveying a sense of a scene that is both exemplary and fun. What’s the biggest challenge in working with clay to create an illustration like this?

Hudson Christie: There’s always a bit of randomness that takes control between the sketch and the final props I build. For the Alberta Venture cover, I had to employ a bit of trial and error, changing the angle and position of the figures in order to remove confusing contours.

Lighting is another aspect that’s hard to predict during the sketch phase. In this case, lighting the crowd of co-workers while maintaining a sense of depth where they overlapped took plenty of fiddling.

 

NMAF: Can you describe your studio and workspace? I imagine a large table littered with discarded clay limbs and eyeballs, dog tails and unicorn horns. And of course a large oven emitting the earthy aroma of baked clay. Is that close to the mark?

Hudson Christie: You’re pretty close! I work out of a bachelor apartment in Parkdale, so it’s instead a fairly small desk that’s covered in tiny clay body parts. I also have a separate table (read: piece of plywood with detatchable Ikea legs) where I set up my dioramas. I use two halogen photo lamps and a DSLR camera.

Replace “large oven” with “toaster oven” and “earthy aroma of baked clay” with “vaguely burnt odor of Super Sculpey” and you get the idea. I use polymer clay for the speed and versatility, even though it’s a lot less romantic than the real thing.

Hudson Christie has a distinctive and clear voice that will attract notice from audiences and designers. He uses wit and humour to address a provocative subject and his technique is a fresh and a unique approach to form.
— National Magazine Awards jury

NMAF: What is the significance to you as a young illustrator to win the National Magazine Award? Has it helped create other opportunities to publish your work, or amplify your work to art directors and agencies? And is there anything new you’re working on at the moment that you can tell us about?

Hudson Christie: Winning a National Magazine Award in my first year out of OCAD was a really huge honour. Being named in the same breath as other renowned members of the Canadian magazine community made me feel like a real contributor to a larger creative goal.

Since my win, I’ve been featured in The Walrus, another Canadian magazine that I’ve been itching to contribute to since I started freelancing.

NMAF: Do you have any words of wisdom for young and student artists and illustrators about making an impact in the world of magazines and publishing?

Hudson Christie: My first real portfolio of ten illustrations was just my senior year-long project, called “Work Life Balance,” at OCAD, which was based around a self-initiated concept that I was really passionate about.

If you aren’t enrolled in any illustration program, I recommend initiating your own series from scratch anyway. A focused series of pictures is one of the best arguments for your intellectual and artistic ability.


Hudson Christie is a National Magazine Award winning illustrator, a 2014 Medallist in Illustration at OCAD, and the recipient of the 2015 NMA prize for Best New Magazine Illustrator. His work has appeared in Maisonneuve, The Walrus, Alberta Venture, The New York Times, Mother Jones and other publications. Check out his creative portfolio at hudsonchristie.com and find him on Twitter @Hudsons_House.

The 2016 National Magazine Awards are now open for submissions.

Related “Off the Page” interviews
Roxanna Bikadoroff
, 4-time NMA-winning illustrator
Byron Eggenscwhiler, 6-time NMA-winner and winner of the 2009 award for Best New Magazine Illustrator
Gracia Lam, 2-time NMA winner for Spot Illustration
Jillian Tamaki, 4-time NMA-winning illustrator
Selena Wong, 2-time NMA-winning illustrator

Off the Page, with Gracia Lam and the Spot Illustration

Gracia Lam, by Gracia Lam.
Gracia Lam, by Gracia Lam.

Off the Page is a regular interview series produced by the National Magazine Awards Foundation. Today we’re chatting with illustrator Gracia Lam, whose work has been published in Maisonneuve, The Walrus, More, Corporate Knights, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic and others. At last year’s National Magazine Awards, Gracia won both the gold and silver awards for Spot Illustration for two pieces of work published in Maisonneuve, the first illustrator ever to achieve that distinction.

NMAF: The spot illustration holds a special place in the makeup of a magazine. Diminutive, often playful, sometimes underrated in comparison to larger elements of artwork. What do you think makes spot illustration such a fundamental component of a magazine story? 

Gracia Lam

Gracia Lam: I think that spot illustrations are a splash of colour within a sea of text, constructing direction or a break for the reader’s eye. Within a confined space, it is carefully conceived to enhance the content of an article. It assists in the creation of tone and mood, and is used purposefully to amplify a reader’s senses and experience.

NMAF: You achieved an unprecedented feat at last year’s National Magazine Awards, winning both the Gold and Silver medals in Spot Illustration for two different works published in Maisonneuve. The jury awarded gold to your spot illustration accompanying a story called “The Elite Yellow Peril,” which is a very evocative work. What was your creative vision for this piece, and was it created specifically for the text or did you have a broader idea in mind when you created it?

Gracia: I often describe my two-dimensional pieces of illustrations as a short film. In film, the story is narrated through multiple frames and over a time period; my illustrations reveal the climax of a story in one frame.

My vision for the “The Elite Yellow Peril” was to create a connection with the viewer that is immediate and impactful. To achieve this, I created an illustration with imageries and representations as closely related to the text as possible.

NMAF: The article that featured your Silver winning spot, “The Tar-Sands Trap” dealt with the highly controversial, nationally debated topic of the Keystone XL pipeline. As a spot illustrator, how does your level of awareness on the associated story influence your creative process? Before you begin working on an illustration, how does your familiarity with the topic guide your conceptualization process?

Gracia: When working on any assignment, I allow the story to directly inform my creative process from conceptualizing initial sketches to final colourization. During the first read through of the assignment, I take notes and highlight bits and pieces of writing that round up the theme.

For “The Tar-Sands Trap” article, I needed to familiarize myself with specific elements of the story such as its location, the visualization of its landscape and environment, and the pipeline.

When the Art Director gives me complete freedom, I approach the conceptualization process with how I think the mood should be represented—which is to portray the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline as a danger to the community.

NMAF: Your work has appeared in a large number of magazines, including many National Magazine Award-winning publications. Is there a “Gracia Lam” style that is boldly consistent throughout your work in various publications? And what is the process of adapting that style to align with the vision of the art director or of the textual part of the story?

Gracia: My visual language is created using mixed media, combining hand painted and drawn elements along with digital execution. I love to delight the audience with wit by reimagining everyday objects, mundane environments, and familiar situations with visual puns.

The process of adapting that style is mainly through practice. I am grateful that throughout my career I have been given many opportunities on various topics and stories from business and finance articles to science and health stories. These challenges allow me to identify my strengths and edit out my weaknesses, so each project contributes to the gradual tightening and refining of my work and portfolio.

NMAF: You swept the Spot Illustration category at last year’s gala, taking home both the Gold and Silver awards. Before that, you had been nominated three times since 2010. Winning both top spots within a single category is no small feat. Can you describe the difference in transitioning from nominee to two-time winner? What effect have the awards had on your career since last year’s ceremony?

Gracia: I was absolutely blown away by last year’s awards and want to thank the judges who recognized my work. I have always been excited to be nominated alongside many known names in the field—many of which are my peers and idols. The transition from nominee to winner is humbling because winning any award from the NMAs had been a goal. Since the awards last year, I have been working proficiently to improve on each piece to be on top of my own game.

Gracia Lam is a National Magazine Award-winning illustrator, born in Hong Kong and raised in Toronto. She likes to reinvent everyday objects and mundane environments.. To view more of her work visit GraciaLam.com

Special thanks to Leah Jensen for conducting this interview with Gracia Lam. To view more nominated and winning work, visit the National Magazine Awards online archive at magazine-awards.com/archive.

Check out more of our Off the Page interviews with National Magazine Award winners, including illustrators Byron Eggenschwiler, Roxanna Bikadoroff, Jillian Tamaki and Selena Wong.

The nominees for this year’s National Magazine Awards will be announced right here on the NMA blog on May 4. This year’s awards gala is June 5 at the Arcadian Court in Toronto. 

Off the Page, with Emily Urquhart

Off the Page is a regular interview series produced by the National Magazine Awards Foundation. In today’s conversation we chat with Emily Urquhart, folklorist, mother and winner at last year’s National Magazine Awards gala. Her incredible memoir on raising a daughter with albinism, “The Meaning of White,” published in The Walruswon Silver in the Personal Journalism category.

Two years after being published in The Walrus, her story is being revisited with her upcoming, debut book Beyond The Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of our Hidden Genes (HarperCollins), which will be in bookstores on March 31.

NMAF: Your background in folklore brought an interesting perspective to understanding human differences in your story “The Meaning of White.” How would you describe the creative process of writing this piece, in which you combined your study of folklore, experience as a mother and passion as a writer into a single story?

Emily: I knew right away that I wanted to document the early stages of my daughter’s life as we went through the process of discovering that she has a rare genetic condition. She was three months old when she was diagnosed with albinism—which is a lack of pigment in the hair, skin and eyes, and causes low vision. I started taking notes shortly after she was born. Back then, it was a way to process and understand what was happening.

I recorded the details of events and encounters, as well as my feelings and observations, on lined recipe cards that I stashed in my purse and around my house. I had a newborn, so sometimes I could only manage a few words, or a list, but as I found more quiet moments, the words became sentences and eventually paragraphs.

At that time I was in the final stages of my PhD in folklore at Memorial University in St. John’s, NL. I’d been studying folk tales, legends, beliefs, rumours, ballads and tall tales — the stories people tell to explain and illustrate their world. I realized that human differences were at the heart of many of these genres. I looked specifically at albinism and discovered worldwide beliefs and stories about this condition. Some were beautiful and I wanted to relate these tales to my own. Some were terrible and I wanted to turn away. Ultimately, exploring both good and evil helped me to come to terms with my own feelings about disability and difference, and what it means to be a parent. I wanted to write about how I came to this conclusion, both through my research and the story of our life.

After a year passed I pitched the idea to John Macfarlane at The Walrus. We worked on the idea together through a series of emails. He accepted the story and gave me far more space than I’d originally asked for. I’ll never forget receiving that message. I was so excited I couldn’t tell my husband, Andrew. I just handed him my phone so he could read it himself.

"The Meaning of White" by Emily Urquhart (The Walrus, April 2013). Illustration by Byron Eggenscwhiler.
“The Meaning of White” by Emily Urquhart (The Walrus, April 2013). Illustration by Byron Eggenschwhiler.

NMAF: Due to be released at the end of March is your debut non-fiction book, Beyond The Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of our Hidden Genes. Your name appears on countless lists for books to look forward to in 2015 (alongside your mother and celebrated novelist, Jane Urquhart). Did you always intend to write a book, or was this something that came after publishing your story in The Walrus? What was the process in turning a 5,600-word memoir into a full-length book?

Emily: By the time I turned in my first draft of “The Meaning of White” I’d cut it by one third and it was still over my allotted 5,000 words. That was in June 2012. The next month we travelled to St. Louis to attend a National Organization of Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH) conference. I’d never seen another person with albinism besides my daughter. Suddenly I was surrounded by hundreds of white-haired people of all ages and everyone had a story to tell. I also learned a lot more about the discrimination and violence against people with albinism in East Africa, particularly Tanzania.

We arrived home and I sat down with my husband and told him two things: I’m going to Tanzania, and I’m going to write a book. Either statement didn’t surprise him. He said, “OK, I’m coming with you.”

The book follows the first three years of my daughter’s life, so the narrative expands on the article published in The Walrus and also picks up where it left off.

NMAF: Your memoir certainly received international attention. It was featured in Reader’s DigestLongform, Byliner and The Dish, and was even translated for an Italian magazine. How has recognition, such as your award from the NMAF, helped to propel your writing career and bring this story to a larger audience?

Emily: The National Magazine Award was a huge thrill. I’d finished writing the book based on the magazine memoir by the time I attended the award ceremony. Getting that kind of recognition at that point in the creative process was extremely validating. Winning a National Magazine award is up there with defending my PhD as one of my major career highlights, and I can only see it helping my career going forward.

When “The Meaning of White” went online I started receiving several emails a day. Some of the messages came from people with albinism, but a lot were from parents who related to the story and shared stories of their own with me. I’ve heard from people across North America, as well as Europe, Africa and Asia. Messages continue to trickle in now, almost two years after the memoir first appeared in The Walrus. My community expanded after publishing this story. I’ve met a lot of great people and received a lot of support. It’s been amazing. I see all of this as having a positive impact on my daughter’s future.

NMAF: You’ve written for many other award-winning Canadian magazines, such as Azure, Flare and The New Quarterly. Did you always have aspirations of being a magazine writer, perhaps during your days as an undergraduate student at the Ryerson School of Journalism? Or was this a career path that came as a result of your passion for writing? 

Emily: Magazines are definitely my first love. When I was a teenager I read an article in Sassy magazine where the journalist wrote about touring with a heavy metal band. I wasn’t into heavy metal, but the writer crafted such an engaging tale that it didn’t matter. The story was fascinating, but so was the journalist’s career choice. She was paid to go on tour with these guys and write about her experience. I wrote a story about this experience in 2009 for The New Quarterly.

My mom is a writer so I understood that you could be a novelist, but I hadn’t seen non-fiction as a career choice until reading that piece.

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing and it was during my two years in the graduate program at the Ryerson School of Journalism that I saw a professional outlet for this passion. I also loved—still love—the act of reporting. It gives me a rush to approach a stranger and then ask them to tell me their story. I’m still nervous before every interview and I still feel a sense of elation afterwards.

NMAF: Undoubtedly, 2015 will be a milestone in your career with the release of your debut book. As a Canadian writer, what else is on your list of things you hope to accomplish? What might readers expect to see from you in the future? Do you want to write more novels, continue with magazine writing or pursue any other creative endeavours?

Emily: I wrote a memoir ten years ago, but shelved it because the material was too difficult for me to revisit at that time. It concerns a period in my mid-twenties following the death of my oldest brother. I went to great lengths to escape my life—a reporting internship amidst the chaos of post 9/11 New York City, a soggy winter in Vancouver, and nine months at an English language newspaper in Kyiv, Ukraine during the lead-up to the Orange Revolution. Some of the material is dark, but revisiting it from a safe distance I can see that there’s also a lot of potential for humour. Transforming the original memoir into a more cohesive narrative is my next project. At the same time I hope to keep writing for magazines. There are a few ideas that have been waiting in the wings while I finished my book and it’s time to set those stories free.

Emily Urquhart is a National Magazine Award-winning writer and author of the forthcoming non-fiction book Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of our Hidden Genes. Find out more at emilyurquhart.ca and on Twitter @emilyjurquhart.

This interview was produced by Leah Jensen for the National Magazine Awards Foundation.

To read the full text of “The Meaning of White” and hundreds of other National Magazine Award-winning stories, visit our online archive at magazine-awards.com/archive.

To read other Off the Page interviews–with writers including Sierra Skye Gemma, Heather O’Neill, Arno Kopecky and Byron Eggenscwhiler, who illustrated Emily’s Walrus story–visit blog.magazine-awards.com/off-the-page.

Off the Page, with Judith Pereira & Report on Business Magazine

Off the Page is a regular interview series produced by the National Magazine Awards Foundation. Today we chat with Judith Pereira, senior editor of Report on Business magazine, winner of 5 National Magazine Awards last year and one of Canada’s leading business and investigative publications.

NMAF: It probably isn’t surprising to your readers that Report on Business is a juggernaut of magazine journalism (gold medals for Business journalism at six of the last eight National Magazine Awards; also gold medals for Investigative ReportingScience, Technology & the Environment and Magazine Covers, to name just a few). How would you describe the mandate of ROB to its readers, and its commitment to editorial excellence?

Judith: Our mandate at Report on Business magazine is simple: We engage the best journalistic talent in the business to report on the successes and failures, the breakthroughs and breakdowns of the most intriguing players in Canadian business at home and around the world.

Our experienced team of writers, photographers, illustrators, editors and designers focus on three main audiences: firstly, business leaders across the country—that’s why you’ll find a copy of Report on Business magazine in almost every executive office in Canada; secondly, the new-generation superstars who love an aspirational read; and finally, all those who are interested in the people, trends and brands that shape the way we work and live—as part of The Globe and Mail, we are attached to a well-respected brand that can open doors to a general-interest audience.

"Where Asbestos is just a fact of life" by Stephanie Nolen and John Gray, Report on Business, September 2011. Nominated for a record 5 National Magazine Awards, winning 3.
“Where Asbestos is just a fact of life” by Stephanie Nolen and John Gray, Report on Business, September 2011. Nominated for a record 5 National Magazine Awards, winning 2.

NMAF: How does winning a National Magazine Award help raise the profile of the magazine, with respect to your readers, your journalists or your bottom line?

Judith: When Report on Business wins awards, it shows that the magazine is one of the best, if not the best, in its field of business journalism. This kind of acknowledgement is a big boost for the sales team when they explain to advertisers why Report on Business magazine is a good buy.

Winning magazine awards in a variety of fields also gives the magazine a cachet among award-winning journalists, who want to see their pieces published in a respected publication that consistently garners nominations not just in business, but also in categories like science and technology, humour, arts and more. Similarly, Report on Business magazine attracts top photographers from around the world—names like Neil Wilder, Chris Buck and Matthu Placek—because our design and photography awards signal that we take those areas seriously.

"The Smartest Guys on the Planet" by Eric Reguly, Report on Business, December 2013. Nominated for 3 National Magazine Awards.
“The Smartest Guys on the Planet” by Eric Reguly, Report on Business, December 2013. Nominated for 3 National Magazine Awards, winning 1.

NMAF: Are there any particular ROB stories in the past couple of years that you’ve been especially proud to see recognized by the National Magazine Awards judges, and why? 

Judith: We were really pleased to see Greg McArthur and Graeme Smith get recognized for their investigative work on SNC-Lavalin [“Building with the Brigadier”; Gold Medals in Investigative Reporting and Business, Silver Medal in Politics & Public Interest, 2012]. Staffer Ted Mumford also deserves credit for his editing of it. They spent a lot of time and energy getting to the bottom of that story, and it paid off.

Eric Reguly’s piece about the insurance industry’s decision to tackle climate change  [“The smartest guys on the planet“; Silver Medal in Politics & Public Interest, 2013] was a good example of the magazine’s determination to cover important international stories even if they aren’t specifically Canadian.

We were also thrilled to receive recognition for our coverage of asbestos—a joint effort between John Gray in Canada, Stephanie Nolen in India and photographer Louie Palu [“Where Asbestos is just a fact of life“; Gold Medal, Business, Silver Medal, Politics & Public Interest, 2011]. Our magazine is one of few Canadian publications still covering international stories with any depth, and these nominations show that we need to continue putting them out there.

Our Larry Fink cover, photographed in black and white by Anya Chibis, was one of our most unusual covers. Most top executives balk at the idea of getting playful in front of the camera, and Fink, who runs a $3.7-trillion fund, is no different. But the talented Chibis pulled off what is arguably one of our best covers of all time. The photograph of Fink crossing a Toronto street as he gestures to himself was an off-the-cuff moment that Chibis captured and it not only ended up on the cover–and winning the National Magazine Awards for Magazine Covers and Portrait Photography–but also graced Fink’s 50th birthday cake.

[Editor’s Note: Read our previous interview with ROB Art Director Domenic Macri about the Larry Fink cover.]

To discover more about Report on Business and many other great Canadian magazines, browse the NMA Archive for full-text articles and images of nominated and winning work from past years.

Read more Off the Page interview with National Magazine Award-winning editors, writers, illustrators, photographers and art directors.

The final deadline to enter this year’s National Magazine Awards is Monday, January 19. Enter online at magazine-awards.com.

Update: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the awards and year of the story “Where Asbestos is just a fact of life.” The post has been updated.]