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.]

En marge, avec Nicolas Langelier

Nicolas Langelier (Photographe : Maxime Leduc); Nouveau Projet numéro 6
Nicolas Langelier (Photographe : Maxime Leduc) ; Nouveau Projet numéro 6

Nicolas Langelier, cofondateur, éditeur et rédacteur en chef de Nouveau Projet, a accepté de répondre aux questions de la Fondation dans le cadre de notre série d’entretiens « En marge ». Nouveau Projet s’est illustré lors de la dernière édition des Prix en décrochant plusieurs mentions honorables, en plus d’être nommé finaliste au titre le plus convoité, Magazine de l’année.

FNPMC : Les membres du jury ont encensé le côté audacieux et original de Nouveau Projet, tout en soulignant la qualité exceptionnelle de la direction artistique et du design. Quelle fut votre réaction lorsque vous avez appris la mise en nomination de Nouveau Projet au titre de Magazine de l’année?

Nicolas Ç’a été à la fois une grande surprise et une immense fierté. Pour un petit magazine indépendant qui compte seulement deux années d’existence, d’être finaliste au titre de Magazine de l’année, c’est un honneur inespéré.

Je me souviens aussi d’avoir ressenti une très grande reconnaissance envers les Prix du magazine canadien, pour arriver ainsi à prendre en compte des publications aux ressources et clientèles aussi diverses.

FNPMC : À quels facteurs attribuez-vous le succès remarquable que connait Nouveau Projet?

Nicolas : Je pense qu’il y a d’abord notre obsession pour la qualité, dans tout ce que nous faisons, du choix de nos sujets jusqu’à notre présence sur les réseaux sociaux. Nos lecteurs ressentent ce souci constant, et considèrent que c’est quelque chose pour lequel ils sont prêts à payer.

Et puis il me semble que nous venons combler un vide qui s’est créé dans le paysage médiatique. Avec la tendance générale vers des textes plus courts, des sujets plus sensationnalistes, du travail fait plus rapidement, s’est libérée une place pour des gens offrant justement une contre-tendance à tout ça.

Beaucoup de nos lecteurs nous disent que nous leur faisons du bien, et je pense que c’est parce que nous offrons quelque chose que beaucoup de publications considèrent que les lecteurs ne veulent pas, ou ne veulent plus.

« Faux-self mon amour » par Fanny Britt (Nouveau Projet) ; Médaille d'or, Journalisme personnel, 2012
Faux-self mon amour, par Fanny Britt (Nouveau Projet) ; Médaille d’or, Journalisme personnel, 2012

FNPMC : L’excellence de votre travail vous a valu plusieurs mentions honorables aux Prix du magazine canadien. Quelle incidence cela a-t-il eue sur votre carrière et sur le rayonnement de Nouveau Projet?

Nicolas : C’est certainement quelque chose qui a eu un impact positif pour nous. Peut-être plus au niveau de notre perception par les autres membres de l’industrie que par le public comme tel, parce que ce dernier (au Québec du moins) ne les connait pas nécessairement beaucoup—mais cette reconnaissance de nos pairs, des annonceurs et des collaborateurs actuels et futurs a une grande valeur pour nous.

Et j’ose aussi croire que cela a permis à Nouveau Projet de commencer à avoir une certaine visibilité au Canada anglais, ce qui est important.

FNPMC : Vous avez contribué à de nombreuses publications québécoises. Que fait la singularité des magazines québécois et canadiens, selon vous? En quoi se distinguent-ils par rapport à d’autres publications internationales?

Nicolas : C’est déjà un exploit d’arriver à survivre dans un marché aussi petit, qui pourrait être envahi par les publications étrangères. Je pense que ça en dit long sur la persévérance et le courage des gens qui composent cette industrie. D’arriver à produire des choses de grande qualité dans des conditions aussi difficiles, c’est quelque chose dont on peut être fiers.

« Solstice +20 par Nicolas Langelier (Nouveau Projet) ; Mention honourable, Essais, 2013
Solstice +20 par Nicolas Langelier (Nouveau Projet) ; Mention honourable, Essais, 2013

FNPMC : Vous participez fréquemment aux Prix du magazine canadien, et êtes membre de notre jury bénévole. Alors que vous étiez président de l’Association des journalistes indépendants, vous avez créé les Grands Prix du journalisme indépendant. En quels termes qualifieriez-vous le rôle essentiel que jouent les programmes de prix?

Nicolas : Ils sont essentiels. Bien sûr, ils ne sont pas parfaits, chacun a ses petits défauts, ses angles morts, ses chouchous. Mais d’avoir ce genre d’institutions qui valorisent l’excellence et tirent l’ensemble d’une industrie vers le haut, ça me semble absolument nécessaire. C’est vrai pour les éleveurs de vaches, les architectes ou les artisans qui fabriquent des magazines: nous avons besoin de ces incitatifs à nous comparer aux plus talentueux et rigoureux de notre industrie, et à sortir le meilleur de nous-mêmes.

FNPMC : Votre maison d’édition, Atelier 10, a récemment lancé la collection « Pièces ». Quel avenir souhaitez-vous pour Atelier 10 et pour vos publications? Quels sont vos objectifs à plus long terme?

Nicolas : J’ai envie que nous devenions une référence pour tout ce qui est culture et idées au Québec—et dans le reste de la francophonie, éventuellement. Publier les meilleurs auteurs et artistes visuels, et les faire découvrir à nos lecteurs. Produire différents types de publications, mais toujours avec une grande rigueur, et un souci constant des moindres détails.

Je crois encore beaucoup au papier, en tant que médium pour transmettre des idées, des informations, des valeurs, et j’ai envie de prouver qu’ils ont tort, tous ceux qui prédisent la mort de l’imprimé. Cela ne veut pas dire que nous négligeons le numérique pour autant: tout ce que nous faisons est aussi disponible en version numérique. Mais le papier a une place spéciale dans mon cœur, et je pense que c’est le cas aussi pour la majorité du public. Aussi bien en profiter!

Sinon, ultimement, je souhaite que notre travail ait un impact positif au niveau culturel, social, intellectuel. Si nous faisons tout cela, malgré les obstacles et les conditions difficiles, c’est parce que nous croyons que des changements sont nécessaires, dans notre société, et nous croyons aussi que les médias continuent d’avoir un rôle primordial à jouer pour faire avancer les choses, dans tous les domaines. Oui, les dernières 15 années ont fait mal à notre industrie, mais c’est à nous de trouver les manières de continuer à jouer notre rôle, en dépit de tout ça. Ce serait extrêmement dommage pour l’humanité, si un simple changement de contexte économique la privait de ce moteur essentiel que sont les médias de qualité.

Nouveau Projet numéro 3, direction artistique par Jean-François Proulx. Mention honourable, direction artistique de l'ensemble d'un numéro, 2013.
Nouveau Projet numéro 3, direction artistique par Jean-François Proulx. Mention honourable, direction artistique de l’ensemble d’un numéro, 2013.

Découvrir plus sur le magazine Nouveau Projet au nouveauprojet.com et sur Twitter @nouveau_project

Textes signés par Nicolas Langelier, à lire dans les archives de la Fondation :

Solstice +20, Nouveau Projet. Catégorie Essais, 2013
Le sida a 30 ans, ELLE Québec, coécrit avec Martina Djogo. Catégorie Société, 2011
De l’utilisation du mot pute par la jeune femme moderne, L’actualité. Catégorie Essais, 2007

« En Marge » : Lire d’autres entretiens

Off the Page, with Jennifer Morse & Legion Magazine

Off the Page is a regular interview series produced by the National Magazine Awards Foundation. Today we chat with Jennifer Morse, general manager of Legion Magazine, winner of the National Magazine Awards for Investigative Reporting and Service: Health & Family at this past year’s gala.

NMAF: Tell us a bit about Legion and its readers.

Jennifer: Legion is an independent magazine and one of Canada’s oldest continuously published magazines, founded in 1926. Our mandate is straightforward: Bring the stories of Canada to as many Canadians as we can, with a focus on Canadian military history and issues facing members of the military, veterans, their families and communities. We blend a mix of stories—often by some of Canada’s top historians—with iconic images, using words and pictures to excite Canadians about their history.

We’re not a magazine that is focused just on profit. We have a small, dedicated staff and a budget—like many magazines—that is limited. But we’re passionate. We have a readership, including print and online audiences, of more than 640,000, which is wonderful. Our readers really trust us to deliver quality journalism.

“One Martyr Down” by Adam Day (Legion); Gold Medal, Investigative Reporting, 2013

NMAF: Earlier this year, Legion Magazine’s commitment to excellent journalism was recognized with two Gold National Magazine Awards: one in Service: Health & Family (“Lest We Forget,” which is about veterans struggling with PTSD) and the other in Investigative Reporting (“One Martyr Down,” the incredible story of the death of a Canadian soldier serving with UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon during the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006). How do these stories exemplify Legion’s publishing mandate, and what kinds of responses have you received from readers about these stories and/or the awards?

Jennifer: There has been an overwhelming response. In the last couple of years we’ve made a commitment to publish more longform journalism, which is difficult for publishers; obviously it’s more expensive. But these stories really exemplify our mandate and we want to pursue them no matter how difficult or how limited the resources are.

On those stories in particular we received a great deal of feedback from a cross-section of readers, both military and civilian—lots of letters and comments on Twitter and social media, and it’s great to get that kind of participation. People feel like it’s their story, too. There are a lot of challenges facing Canada’s veterans and a lot of debate about benefits for veterans. Sharon [Adams] really got to the heart of this in the PTSD story and another one [“Collateral Damage: Families in the Wake of War,” which won Honourable Mention at the National Magazine Awards]. These stories have been talked about in Parliament and the Senate; they are stories that may help lead to change. The recent announcement [that the government will commit $200 million to military mental-health care and benefits] I think had a lot to do with Legion’s work.

When we won the National Magazine Awards, lots of people—readers—contacted us to congratulate our writers and the magazine. These were the first two National Magazine Awards we’d ever won, and it was great for morale in the office. We already knew these stories were important to tell, and the awards and response put a stamp on it. I think readers felt like it was partly their award, too. We were very delighted.

"Collateral Damage" by Sharon Adams (Legion); Honourable Mention, Service: Health & Family, 2013
“Collateral Damage” by Sharon Adams (Legion); Honourable Mention, Service: Health & Family, 2013

NMAF: Is there a measurable impact that winning a National Magazine Award has on the business of Legion Magazine, and where do you see this?

Jennifer: I read a statistic recently about how magazine newsstand sales are soft, down 23% combined in 2012 and 2013. We all know there are challenges out there for publishers. We’ve fortunately had the opposite result over the last two years in that we’ve experienced growth in both direct circulation and advertising.

It’s not always easy for a special-interest magazine such as Legion to succeed on the newsstand. Our special “Normandy” issue was on newsstands when the National Magazine Awards were announced, when we received a lot of news and feedback. And that issue has become one of our best sellers, the top one or two issues of all time. We are also seeing a pick-up in subscriptions via newsstand copies, and we’re forecasting a 14% increase in the second half of this year. Is it related to the awards we won—let’s hope so, but I think absolutely there has been a great impact, and we are thrilled.

NMAF: This time of year is especially significant to Canadian veterans, with Remembrance Day and the WWI anniversary, not to mention the recent attacks on members of the armed services in Ottawa and Quebec. What is Legion presenting to its readers right now?

Legion Magazine, Nov-Dec 2014

Jennifer: In our November-December issue on newsstands now, we have a profile on Julian Fantino, and about the growing frustration of veterans about government neglect. I think the level of frustration being felt is unprecedented and we wanted to address that in the story. Our editorial addresses the Veterans’ Affairs

We want to put these stories in context, to present the facts for our readers, because they are important stories to Canadians. And in a future issue we’ll be covering more of the story about the attack on Parliament Hill.

NMAF: Who should be reading Legion magazine that isn’t right now?

Jennifer: Every single Canadian! A reader recently told me he bought the special Normandy issue for his 90-year-old father, a veteran of the Second World War, who said he found it so satisfying to read something truly about Canada. We’re a country with our own story. I think Legion should be read in classrooms, in senior centres, and anywhere people want to discuss what we’re doing as a country, whether we’re doing it wrong or right. We know there is an appetite for stories like Legion presents, and our readers love the discoveries they make.

Legion Magazine is published six times per year in English with a French insert. In addition to its two National Magazine Awards, Legion also won a Silver Award in Audience Development in 2014 from the Circulation Management Association of Canada for its “Victoria Cross” special issue. Find out more at legionmagazine.com and on Twitter @Legion_Magazine. Check out Legion’s holiday subscription offer for a chance to win a free Apple iPad Air.

The January/February 2015 cover of Legion.
The January/February 2015 cover of Legion.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Read more Off the Page interviews with National Magazine Award winners.

The 2014 National Magazine Awards are now open for submissions. Early-bird deadline: January 11.

An Interview with National Magazine Award-winning Fiction writer Jess Taylor

Jess Taylor on stage at the 37th annual National Magazine Awards, June 6, 2014.
Jess Taylor on stage at the 37th annual National Magazine Awards, June 6, 2014.

Recently the literary journal Echolocation published a great interview with Jess Taylor about her National Magazine Award-winning short story, “Paul,” the challenges of writing and her pursuit of a book project: the story collection Pauls will be published in 2015 by BookThug.

The interview was conducted by Liz Windhorst Harmer, herself a National Magazine Award winner earlier this year for Personal Journalism (“Blip,” published in The Malahat Review).

In this excerpt from the interview, Liz and Jess discuss the “hard place,” the core of the writerly being from which the literary art emerges.

Liz: What is exciting to watch as far as your “emerging” (a word with multiple meanings, it seems to me!) career, is just how many things you manage to balance and balance well. You recently wrote about ways of building community. You of course are the founder of Toronto’s Emerging Writers series. Your Puritan article discusses the joys and pitfalls of building community, and in it you use the phrase “the hard place”: you hoped “you’d meet people who’d understand you and what you describe as a hard place in yourself”. I love this essay. As we close out this interview, I hoped you could talk a little about the hard place.

I think I know what you mean by the phrase, and you don’t need to elaborate, but I wondered if your relationship to it has changed as your life as a writer has become more public. The transition from aspiring to published and awarded comes with its own costs. Have you found this?

Jess: Thanks, Liz! I’m glad you liked the essay.

The hard place for me is this little place inside of me that tells me I will always write, that I’m a writer. It’s the one aspect of my identity that is always consistent. It’s what spurs me on and gives me my sense of self. I know I’m a hard worker, I take pride in being a hard worker, and writing is my work. I hope this means that I will be able to build a life either from writing or around writing, but I know that even if no one publishes me, it will always be something I do and something that contributes to my sense of self. Some people may describe this as confidence. I think it’s different than confidence. It’s a baseline. More than knowing my name is “Jess,” that the word “Jess” refers to me, I know that this place exists in me.

To me, this is separate from any sort of public writing life or awards or publications. It’s a deeply personal and special thing. Of course, with public recognition comes a little validation that you’re doing the right thing, that other people can see it and know that you’re doing good work. But that’s almost an extra. Having the hard place in me has allowed me to not worry too much about whether or not my work fits into the current trends of writing. Having studied literature, it’s obvious that what’s popular changes and what’s lasting remains to be seen. So I’m just going to do what I like, write the type of work I like to write and read, and hope that the enjoyment comes across to other people. After winning an award or signing a contract, I guess all that changes for me is that I start to think, “Oh, ok, people are starting to see this my way. They like this too. Interesting.” But that could all change again in a moment.

This isn’t to say that I don’t have moments of doubt. We all do. Right after I was nominated for the National Magazine Award, I had a huge crisis. It was one of the first times I really doubted the hard place existed. I was happy about the nomination and starting to think about focusing on Pauls instead of the novel I was currently working on. A couple of my male colleagues who I really respected told me I should wait until I was older to publish. One was barely older than I was! It made me desolate. Normally someone else’s opinion about that sort of thing wouldn’t faze me; it might make me a little annoyed, but it wouldn’t put that doubt in me. It made me feel that awards were pointless because it wouldn’t change the fact that I was young and a female writer. There would still not be the same level of respect, even if I was doing good work and working hard. And having the award nomination just meant that people would gossip about me and form these opinions about me, about whether I deserved it, and I had no interest in being the subject of this sort of gossip or these dismissive attitudes.

But then everyone was surprised because I did win. The hard place was restored, as it was the one time I think I needed some external validation for that hard place. I’d been sending work out and getting rejected (as we all do), had never had a paid publication in my life, and all of a sudden I had won an NMA. It changed a lot in my life. I finally qualified for TAC grant, which only requires one paid publication, people were actually reading my work and coming to my readings, people were respecting me for my work instead of just as a promoter, it helped me with my job, and I signed a contract for Pauls. The hard place whispered, “I told you so, Jess, you big idiot.”

People are always going to talk, they are always going to be critical, haters gonna hate. But I know I can’t let it interfere with me and my work. Nothing can interfere with that. And that’s what great about having a hard place … everything else could be gone, they could take away the NMA, the book deal, my job, everything, but I’d still be me. The hard place would still be there. I’d keep trying to communicate and write in anyway I could. I always will. At this point, I’m still emerging, I would hesitate to say I have any real public writing life or that I’m the center of anyone’s focus, but if things were to go that way, the experiences I had over the summer really helped prepare me and reaffirmed why I write and why it’s a necessity.

Read the complete interview here.

Echolocation Magazine (www.echolocationmag.com) publishes fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, visual art, reviews and interviews. Their joint poetry/fiction contest with Qwerty Magazine on the theme of Doubles closes on December 31.

Check out our Off the Page department for more interviews with NMA winners, including our recent chat with Little Brother magazine publisher and art director Charles Yao.

See also:
Writer’s Guide to Canadian Literary Magazines & Journals
Guide to Fall 2014 Magazine Writing Contests

Off the Page, with Byron Eggenschwiler

Byron Eggenschwiler (Photo by Kelly Johnson)
Byron Eggenschwiler (Photo by Kelly Johnson)

Off the Page is a regular interview series produced by the National Magazine Awards Foundation. Today we catch up with Byron Eggenschwiler, five-time National Magazine Award-winning illustrator whose work has been published in Swerve, Maisonneuve, Cottage Life, Canadian Business, Up Here and other Canadian magazines.

NMAF: You call Alberta home and graduated from the Alberta College of Art + Design. Like so many other graduates of programs at ACAD and the Ontario College of Art and Design, you’ve found great success in the Canadian magazine industry. How has your education helped shape your art and your future as a magazine illustrator?

Byron: My education was pretty invaluable, it gave me an environment that encouraged exploration of media and ideas and forced me to sit down and start thinking about the kind of work I wanted to make. The program at ACAD was really great for teaching us about both design and illustration and how the two intersect. Having both those backgrounds has been helpful in my illustration work.

I actually didn’t even know illustration was a career or what it really meant until going through the program. I was lucky to have teachers who encouraged me and steered me in the right direction and some really talented friends in my classes that challenged me to push myself out of my comfort zone to make better work.

"Be Worried. Don't Be Happy" by Byron Eggenscwhiler (Swerve). Gold Medal, Spot Illustration, 2008.
“Be Worried–Don’t Be Happy” by Byron Eggenscwhiler (Swerve). Gold Medal, Spot Illustration, 2008.

NMAF: A year after winning your first NMA for Spot Illustration in Swerve for “Be Worried–Don’t be Happy” in 2008, you were the first-ever winner of the award for Best New Visual Creator [now known as Best New Illustrator or Photographer] for “Tales from Riverheights Terrace” (also in Swerve). How did this recognition help propel your career?

Byron: I am unsure how these things directly affect future work but it helps to get your name out into the world a bit more, which can’t hurt. It is a great event celebrating the Canadian magazine industry and an honour for me to be acknowledged for the work I am doing within that [industry]. It gives a guy a confidence boost to keep moving forward in an otherwise fairly solitary profession.

NMAF: You have a distinct and recognizable style. How much direction do you take from your clients in the magazine industry and how much of your own creative voice goes into designing your illustrations for each piece?

Byron: It can be a balance and depends on the magazine itself, but sometimes an art director has something specific in mind for an idea and I work with that. Sometimes that can be a jumping off point for an even better idea. There are times where there is a bit of back and forth along the way but most of the time it is left in my hands to see where I can take a piece and how I want to finish it. Compromising is part of the job and hopefully no matter what it still carries a bit of me with it at the end.

"Death of a Salesman" by Byron Eggenschwiler (Canadian Business). Silver Medal, Illustration, 2011.
“Death of the Salesman” by Byron Eggenschwiler (Canadian Business). Silver Medal, Illustration, 2011.

NMAF: Many of your pieces seem to be more of an article within an illustration as opposed to an illustration meant to accompany an article. How does conceptualization for some of these, more image-heavy, pieces work?

Byron: I start by distilling an article down to a core point or phrase and then start sketching whatever ideas come to mind with that theme in the back of my mind. I don’t tend to have too many thoughts until I can see the forms taking shape on the page and it is somewhere in that mental wandering and playing around that ideas will emerge for me. Depending on the feel of the story itself this can lead off in different directions, and as long as that initial idea is still there I am pretty open to anything.

I like the idea of creating a new story with my illustrations to tell the author’s story. I think it can add another layer to the article and enrich it.

NMAF: When drawing, do you aim to create an image that contextually matches the text of the article, or does the tone or theme of the piece dictate what imagery will accompany it?

Byron: I like to read an article a few times to get an overall feel for the content and then decide how I want to approach it. If the tone is more serious or if it is humorous it will have a big influence on my thinking of how to approach the piece. I find the end result is much better if I can keep myself open to surprises through the sketching phase and let thoughts show up no matter how out-there they are. I try to make work that captures the feeling you get when you read the story and will speak to you with or without the text.

"Post-Secondary Distress" by Byron Eggenscwhiler (More). Gold Medal, Spot Illustration, 2011
“Post-Secondary Distress” by Byron Eggenscwhiler (More). Gold Medal, Spot Illustration, 2011

Byron Eggenscwhiler is an award-winning illustrator based in Calgary. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Discover, More Magazine, BusinessWeek, National Post, O, The Oprah Magazine, LA Weekly, Canadian Business, Swerve, Runner’s World, Wired, The Walrus, Maisonneuve, Quill & Quire, Uppercase Gallery, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers & more. See more of his work at byronegg.com.

Special thanks to Melissa Myers for conducting this interview with Byron for the NMAF.

Read more about the National Magazine Award for Best New Illustrator or Photographer.

Byron Eggenschwiler created the image for the 33rd annual National Magazine Awards gala in 2010.
Byron Eggenschwiler created the image for the 33rd annual National Magazine Awards gala in 2010.

Byron Eggenschwiler in the National Magazine Awards archive:

How the Nest was Done” (Cottage Life); Honourable Mention, Illustration 2013
Post-Secondary Distress” (More); Gold Medal, Spot Illustration, 2011
Towns on the Brink” (Up Here); Honourable Mention, Illustration, 2011
A Family Falling Out” (More); Honourable Mention, Spot Illustration, 2011
Death of the Salesman” (Canadian Business); Silver Medal, Illustration, 2011
Can You Have a Midlife Crisis on a Bicycle?” (Swerve); Silver Medal, Spot Illustration, 2010
Outlaw Country” (Maisonneuve); Honourable Mention, Spot Illustration, 2009
Be Worried–Don’t Be Happy” (Swerve); Gold Medal, Spot Illustration, 2008

En marge, avec Dominique Forget

Dominique Forget (photo :  Martine Doyon)
Dominique Forget (photo : Martine Doyon)

La FNPMC a le plaisir de présenter « En marge », une série d’entretiens réalisés avec des auteurs primés aux Prix du magazine canadien. Pour amorcer la série, la Fondation s’est entretenue avec la journaliste scientifique Dominique Forget.

Maintes fois récompensée aux Prix du magazine, Mme Forget raflé pas moins de cinq prix: quatre mentions honorables et une médaille d’or. En 2012, elle a récolté trois mentions honorables pour des textes publiés dans autant de magazines. Lors de la plus récente édition des prix, elle s’est encore une fois illustrée, avec l’équipe de Québec Science, en remportant la médaille d’or dans la catégorie Dossiers thématiques : imprimés.

Par Dominique Forget et al (Québec Science), Médaille d’or, 2013, Dossiers thématiques

FNPMC : Québec Science a accumulé les honneurs aux Prix du Magazine canadien au fil des ans. Cette année, votre équipe a remporté la médaille d’or dans la catégorie Dossiers thématiques- imprimés. Que fait la force de Québec Science à votre avis?

Dominique : Québec Science occupe une niche peu exploitée. Il est le seul magazine au Canada qui aborde des sujets de société sous l’angle des sciences.

L’équipe est petite, mais dévouée. Malgré les pressions grandissantes des annonceurs pour publier du contenu payé dans le magazine, Québec Science arrive à préserver farouchement son indépendance et à miser sur des sujets qui comptent.

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