Where and when did you write these three poems? I wrote these poems over the course of several years. I carried them with me on walks, at vigils, washing dishes, visiting family. For me, an initial draft of a poem begins to take shape when I have time to be in a quiet space (or in a coffee shop with headphones!). It gives me the chance to revisit observations and thoughts I’ve been combing through. To be honest, I can’t remember exactly where the initial drafts of each of these poems were written since they came together slowly and in various iterations. I moved several times in the years these poems began to take shape and was very fortunate to have a number of peers and teachers, whose work I deeply respect, offer their suggestions and insights.
Did you set out to write them together? I didn’t actually! The poems grew from my experience connecting with family and learning more about my Cree heritage, trying to teach myself the Cree language from the internet, wrestling with how to write about everything I was learning. I didn’t grow up with the Cree side of my family and so much of my writing circles in on identity; what it means to contribute to a community, how to negotiate my position as both a settler and an urban indigenous person, how to be mindful of where I come from, how I was raised, and how I am learning.
I am interested in the way languages shape our worldviews and the knowledge and power language contains. The poem “Waȟpániča” by Layli Long Soldier comes to mind. That poem was electric for me. She captures the complexities of loss, hope and identity in relation to language. For me, poetry provides a space to ask questions, to imagine new futures.
You’ve spoken before about changing details in your poetry to protect your own and other identities. How do you decide what to mask and what not? Poetry, in many ways, provides me space to work through the messiness of life. I don’t live in a vacuum, and so changing certain details in my work is often done out of respect for the people in my life. I will sometimes blur time, I will shift details. It’s something that I think about quite a lot; how much do I share? Who am I really writing for? How vulnerable do I actually want to be on the page?
You’re currently working on a book of poems that addresses your Cree and European heritage. How did you decide to focus your energy here? It was not so much a choice to focus my energy there as it informs who I am, my experiences, and the things I am compelled or interested in writing about. I can’t imagine writing a book of poems that negated or erased that, it would be an erasure of myself. In my work, I keep returning to and circling ideas around identity, around settler responsibility, around womanhood, and language learning.
I am slowly working on a manuscript of poems, a section of which will make up my creative writing thesis at UBC.
What did it mean to you to be recognized at the NMAs last year? I was so surprised! It was such an honour to be published and nominated by The New Quarterly, let alone win. I can think of so many incredible writers, including the other nominees, who deserve that award. I am so grateful to so many writers: Jordan Abel, Gregory Scofield, Leanne Simpsons, Lee Maracle, Louise Bernice Halfe, Liz Howard (to name only a few!) whose work has paved the way and carved out space for indigenous voices within the literary community.
Can you describe when you first began to identify as a poet? My mother has had a huge influence on my creative life. She was always very encouraging and even from a young age, she took the poem-like things I was writing or speaking aloud to myself and identified them as poetry. That said, it’s taken most of my life to gain the confidence to call myself a poet. I can recall someone asking me, do you write? Then you’re a poet. I loved that. I love the idea of poetry being something that is accessible.
What makes poetry your preferred form?
Poetry renders language to its most crucial elements. In the world of a poem, every word has the potential to carry multiple meanings. It asks you to listen, to uncover, to consider the complexity of a moment, a single word, a comma, a breath between lines. Poetry demands your attention and has the power to reveal what may or may not always be obvious. It reveals what is possible. I find that so exciting and empowering!
What’s it like for you to live and work as a poet today? I feel very lucky to be surrounded by a strong, thoughtful community of people who work and publish with a deep consideration of their positionality in the world, who are advocating and writing towards an inclusive, decolonial future. There is a lot of hope and energy present. There is also a lot of work to be done.
Reading and hearing the incredible work of other indigenous writers like Jessica Johns, Carleigh Baker, Joshua Whitehead, Gwen Benaway, Samantha Nock, and Arielle Twist, (to name only a few!) inspires me, teaches me, moves me. I feel really lucky to be able to work at something I love so much.
Off the Page is a regular interview series featuring National Magazine Award winners. In this interview, we chat with Montreal-based writer and photographer Terence Byrnes. Last year at the NMAs, Terence was awarded the gold medal in the category of Photography: Photojournalism & Photo Essay for “South of Buck Creek.” Byrnes succinctly captures the premise of the photo essay by way of a subheading: “A Canadian memoir of black and white in America’s unhappiest city.”Read on for Terence’s thoughts on maintaining sympathetic neutrality towards the residents of Springfield, Ohio; smart phones and the democratization of photography; and his advice for emerging photographers.
First, congratulations on winning gold at the NMAs for “South of Buck Creek,” published in Geist. Your photo essay describes Buck Creek as a “cabinet of wonders.” In your career as a photographer, have you found other subjects, or places, that could be described as such?
I shot for a while in Buffalo when that city was among the rustiest of rust-belt towns. The industrial desolation, abandonment, and sense of fallen empire were awe-inspiring. In a residential area, I saw a man, wearing only dirty white briefs, roasting a wiener in a hubcap where he had built a fire with twigs. This was at the end of a street of McMansions protected with black iron grillwork over every door and window. Is that a wonder? I don’t know.
The essay portion of your piece notes that you took approximately 10,000 photos of Buck Creek, over a span of 45 years. How do you organize all of your photos?
Ten thousand was a guess. It’s more than that. Many are negatives, with some chromes. I worked from proof sheets to produce scans on a Nikon scanner. I moved to digital capture in 2003. Lightroom keeps track of it for me.
Do you have an absolute favourite from those 10,000 photos?
One day, I was photographing an oddly shaped building—it may even have been a skinny parallelogram—that housed a bar. “Bob City” was painted on one end of it. Railroad tracks, a sidewalk, and several streets converged and diverged behind the building, and dandelions had popped up in a patch of grass in front of it. I spent about 45 minutes finding the right position and height to put these elements into proper relation with each other. When I processed the film (this was probably 30 years ago) air bubbles had stuck to the best frame in the series, rendering it unusable. Wanting to salvage that frame eventually led me to early digital scanning of negatives and moved me out of the darkroom to the screen, where I patched the bubbles. I can’t say if this image was an “absolute favourite,” but it’s got a lot of history stored in it.
Within the first few pages of the photo essay, we jump from the sixties with “Terria (1966)” to the early 2000s with “South of Buck Creek” (2001), then to the 90s, with “Joy (1999).” What were your intentions behind the non-chronological organization of this photo essay?
“Intuitions” is probably a better word that “intentions.” When you establish an order for a photographic series, some arrangements just look better. I suppose I want the eye to re-orient itself to the formal elements of each image so the photograph is actually seen. Also, ordering by year suggests development of some sort, or it implies a narrative. As it was, the images themselves were my first priority.
Very early on in the photo essay, you state that your role in Buck Creek shifted from spectator to participant. Certainly, that theme—of your enmeshment in the Buck Creek community—runs throughout: there’s the “crazy moment” when you “fantasized about adopting” one of the boys from the Vision for Youth residence; you carried the “Friends (1977)” photo around for years, hoping to eventually deliver it to one of the photo’s subjects, “scary guy.” What challenges came along with crossing that line from spectator to participant?
Great question. I had to maintain sympathetic neutrality toward everyone and to learn—more than once— that folks who looked down-and-out could be as smart, respectful, and as deserving of respect, as anyone else. Honesty and openness were crucially important. A subject might say, “Take my picture, but don’t ever use it,” and my agreement would have to be as good as gold.People were blown away when I would come back a year later with free photographs. That’s how the street cred developed. Of course, there were rough spots and challenges that were both emotional and physical. I saw families living in misery and stripped of dignity thanks to bad luck, fear of gang activity, and profound physical and emotional disability (with no health care or institutional support). You want to help, but you can’t.
“Marriage (1998)” features a woman in her bikini, with her two twin daughters. The narrative portion states, “In the later years of this project, women wouldn’t so easily agree to have their pictures taken. They were afraid, as one told me, that their faces would appear atop a nude body on the Internet.” It seems that while the Internet has encouraged people to document their lives—via Facebook, YouTube, Instagram—it’s also made it more difficult for photographers to act as the documentarian. Are there other ways in which the growth of social media and the shift to digital have impacted your career as a photographer?
Camera phones have, in a sense, radically democratized photography and, for many people, have done away with the cachet of the physical print. Academic criticism and identity politics have also had a less than salutary effect on the documentary form. Some months ago, I glanced outside my window here in the Point-Saint-Charles district of Montreal and saw an 11-year-old boy got up in a home-made superhero costume, holding a garbage can lid as a shield. I knew it was pure Arbus, but couldn’t resist. When I asked the boy if I could take a photograph, a teenage girl ran up and began shouting at me. Her assumption—thanks to her familiarity with internet images—was that I was about to do something that was immoral as well as illegal.
Your first camera was an Agfa Ambi Silette loaded with Tri-X film. These days, what’s your camera of choice?
Actually, before the Agfa, there was a Kodak “Pony,” which I had forgotten. You’ve caught me at a crossroads now, though. Should I move up from my Nikon D810 to the new D850 or switch to the mirrorless Sony A7R III? Probably the new Nikon.
In 2008, you published Closer to Home: The Author and the Author Portrait, which you had worked on for 10 years. That means that there was some crossover between the literary portraits and Buck Creek. What similarities were there between these two seemingly very different projects?
Both were closer to the subjects’ homes than to the studio. I tend to shoot on-site and to make it up as I go along. This can produce really banal results, but also great surprises in lighting, posture, expression, and mood.
What was the impact—personally and/or professionally—of winning a National Magazine Award?
I think it makes me an easier sell to editors who don’t know me. And if I pitch an idea, I’m more likely to be listened to.
What advice would you offer to a young photographer?
The advice I give myself is often so disastrous that I should keep my own counsel. That said, I think of current work that catches my eye. I love the work of Tamas Deszo, Sebastián Liste, and Ruth Kaplan. Or Michel Huneault’s photographs of Lac Mégantic after the train disaster. There are some wonderful documentarians out there who do far more than record event. I would have been interested in photographing the refugees/migrants who streamed across the border in Quebec’s Eastern Townships in the belief they would find a home in Canada. Good projects don’t have to be topical, but they do have to be fresh.
Previous to Byrnes’ NMA gold award, he received two NMA honourable mentions. The first was in 2009, for “The Imagined Portrait” published in Queen’s Quarterly. The second was in 2012 for “The Missing Piece,” published in The Walrus. For more information on Byrnes’ photography and writing projects, please visit his website.
How did it feel to be the first reporter atPrecedent to win a National Magazine Award for writing?
It was super satisfying! We’d been recognized at the Canadian Business Media awards and the KRWs before but to have a piece of writing given some recognition by the best people in the business was huge. It’s not something that happens to everyone and there’s no guarantee that it will happen again. It wasn’t something that I expected, so it really was just a huge treat.
Can you tell me a bit about how your first got the Bryant story? Sure! I guess that’s going back to the winter of 2015. Sean Robichaud, a criminal lawyer who runs his own law chambers, had mentioned to Melissa Kluger (editor and publisher of Precedent) that she might be interested to know that a high profile person just joined his new chambers—it was Michael Bryant. When she told me, I didn’t immediately know the story was going to have the kind of richness that would be required for a long cover story. But it was interesting enough, even just the fact that he was getting back into the game after people hadn’t seen him in so long would’ve at least justified a short front of book news piece.
Tell me about your reporting process.
I got in touch with him fairly quickly but didn’t hear anything for months. In the spring he responded to my initial email and said he’d be happy to chat about what the story might be about. After I met with him for the first time, I had an inkling of what the story might be: the attorney general who ran the justice system is becoming a criminal lawyer and starting to see some of the injustices in the criminal justice system that he was oblivious to when he ran it. That was what sold me and made me think that there might be more to the story. When I took it back to Melissa to talk to her about it I could say that there was something here that’s richer than just “here’s Michael Bryant becoming a criminal lawyer.” There was a kind of poetry to the story that we could pack in and make it a cover story.
Bryant published an autobiographical book called 28 Seconds: A True Story of Addiction, Tragedy, and Hope in 2012, how did it influence your story?
The big blockbuster revelation in his book which I think people knew but he hadn’t spoken publicly about, was the fact that he’d struggled with alcoholism. He also talked about what happened on the day of the accident (1) and going through that experience. I think in that book he was pretty proud of his tenure as attorney general. So we had to think… the accident is old news, we certainly don’t want to re-litigate what happened, the fact that he struggled with alcoholism is also old news and so much had been written about him already. We really had to think what could we add to the story, what we could add to the next chapter in that book. I would also say that it’s a huge advantage to write about someone who has a published autobiography because an enormous amount of the work is done for you. I had not ever done that before, or since, and I wish every one of my sources would provide a full biography.
Did anything stand out to you while reporting?
I remember I interviewed his pastor because a big part of Bryant’s narrative was that after the accident and after he’d fallen away from politics, he started going to a non-denominational Christian charity in downtown Toronto. His pastor revealed to me that Byrant had considered becoming a minister and that he thought that maybe religion was going to fuel meaning in his life. The story only got richer the more that things went on.
How was it to interview him? He’s known to be a bit gregarious.
He was a fun interview. There’s no question that he’s a very seasoned politician. But also as a politician he was sort of a straight shooter. I think journalists enjoyed talking to him because he didn’t necessarily stick to party line talking points. He was happy to sound off on what he thought was wrong with the justice system, he wasn’t mincing words.He had no problem saying that the presumption of innocence was a joke. He was a fairly easy interview subject.
How is this story different from others that you’ve worked on?
I guess we knew how much attention it was going to get from our audience and we knew that it was probably going to get more of a focus from the wider world as well. You know the next piece that I wrote on document review did well in the legal community, but I don’t think that people outside of it really picked it up which is fine, that’s not our goal. But I think we were aware that Michael Bryant is a bit of a lightning rod for controversy. We know that he is a polarizing figure to people both in the legal community and outside and we knew that people really didn’t know what had happened to him. We knew that it was going to make a certain amount of a splash upon publication.
What sort of feedback did you get when the piece came out?
The feedback was fairly positive, which was also gratifying. Overall both readers and people from outside of the legal world seemed to be inspired, which wasn’t necessarily the goal of the piece, but they were inspired nonetheless by him trying to make the most meaningful second half of his career as he could. I think people read it and were pleased to hear someone who once perched atop the justice system speak candidly about its flaws. I think people who are in the trenches (so to speak) of defense law—prosecutors and crowns—they know that the system has its problems and so to hear someone like Michael Bryant give voice to that was somewhat satisfying. And I think people just enjoyed the yarn. We don’t write that many 4500 word single profiles.
Fish recently wrote the cover story for Precedent JD (Precedent’s law student magazine) called Are There Too Many Lawyers? He is working on a project now that is exploring the link between mental health problems and the practice of law. You can follow Precedent on twitter here.
Off the Page is a regular interview series featuring National Magazine Award winners. In this interview we chat with award-winning art director Anna Minzhulina, who spent 10 years at the creative helm of Maisonneuve. “Maisy” was named Magazine of the Year at the 2016 National Magazine Awards, and over the years it has been among the most lauded and decorated magazines for design, illustration, and photography (as well as its writing and reporting).
NMAF: Let’s start with Maisonneuve. You spent over a decade as the art director of the award-winning Montreal quarterly.
Anna: Maison-who?! I have never heard of it?! Is it any good?!
(Sorryyyyyy, I just could not help myself!) Indeed, my tenure at the magazine was exceeded only by the logo itself–the infamous Maisy dude. I could easily be a special edition Maisy mascot!
I joined Maisonneuve in 2005, shortly after I graduated from the Design Art program at Concordia University. Then in the summer of 2006, I became the Art Director. At the time, the magazine was in its fourth year of publication.
Looking back, we were both wild spirited newbies! Maisonneuve was just getting noticed, but still in the early stages of fully developing its editorial and visual personalities. And, there I was…an idealistic designer taking my first steps into the professional art world I felt so passionate about…excitedly searching for the special place to house my creativity. There was maison and it was neuve.
We complemented each other very well. And in a retrospect, the collaboration blossomed into a fruitful and long-term relationship.
NMAF: Maisonneuve is one of those magazines that is sometimes difficult to describe, yet always attracts alluring descriptions: quirky, bold, refreshing, imaginative, passionate, delightful, thoughtful, exciting…
Anna: For people who are familiar with Maisy (the affectionate in-house name), you may say…A versatile humanitarian with socially and culturally inclined tendencies and some very personal issues, who welcomes anyone into its Open House, obsessively collects Letters from Montreal…in addition, has strange Fictional fantasies, whole-heartedly laughs at the Comics…at times gender confused, but very intelligent and oh! such a visual feast for the eyes to devour ;)!
Undoubtedly, Canadian readers have a variety of great magazines to choose from. Just as easily, dozens could fit the description you gave. But even so, I feel the major difference between other publications and Maisonneuve is the consistency. It’s Maisonneuve’s extraordinary ability to remain uncompromisingly true to its philosophy of high-quality editorial and visual story telling, from one issue to the next and throughout the years.
To sum up…Maisonneuve is a voice of organic harmony, which with equal strength speaks to and of both human experience and human expression.
NMAF: How would you describe the creative vision you set out to achieve at the magazine?
Anna: I feel successful visions are the ones that are flexible in nature. They adapt to the circumstances and times. With enthusiasm and passion, there is nothing impossible…as long as it’s based on the principles of honesty and integrity.
I always strove to design the best magazine I could possibly create in spite of the numerous limitations. In my mind, there were Plans A, B…Z and, if none of those worked—well…I would do it myself!
Over the course of a decade, those visions and approaches evolved beyond simply design aspect/aesthetics and into an understanding of such important values as creative collaboration and the conceptualization of emotionally deep visual narratives capable of touching and evoking lasting impressions and intelligent conversations.
Furthermore, I like to think of the magazine pages as the walls of an art gallery, where art is displayed for practical reasons, such as the pictorial entourage to an article. The words and pictures co-exist.
But at the same time, the images exist in a realm of their own and are appreciated as a separate entity with their own story. Usually, that story is connected to the written one, but it does not have to be in a literal way. I liked to commission illustration that, if there were just empty pages with no words, the images would still have the visual power to stand on their own.
If you think about it, that’s the natural state of the words before they arrive on the designed page. Why can’t the images create their own sustaining presence? That’s one reason why I think Maisonneuve has been so successful… it has had these multiple strong presences that can stand alone and also interact.
NMAF: Is there a magic formula for directing such a unique publication, or do you re-invent the wheel, so to speak, every time you start work on a new issue?
Anna: Hmm… yes and no?! Each issue is a new experience, for the team and for the readers. Be that as it may, you don’t reinvent the philosophy—it’s the anchor. You adapt and modify the approach to the underlying design to provide individual and suitable reflection of each story and its characters, which are unique in their own right.
NMAF: It’s fair to say that Maisonneuve has been one of the most celebrated magazines in Canada over the past decade, as judged by its peers in the industry and its readers. As its art director you have collected 6 National Magazine Awards for your work—3 for Best Magazine Cover and 3 more for Art Direction—among more than a dozen nominations. Maisy has also won Magazine of the Year twice in that span.
Anna: The number of people, who defriended me on the Facebook skyrocketed! 😛
Truthfully, I am humbled and very honoured for every nomination and award. Thank you!
NMAF: What has been the significance to you of the National Magazine Award recognition from your peers?
Anna: Aside from what it personally means to me as well as everyone else involved in Maisonneuve’s production, the recognition of effort, sacrifice, time, sleepless nights, grey hair, broken promises, cancelled dinner dates…it is the acknowledgement of women’s visibility within creative fields.
I believe in the vital role women play in diversifying the publishing world by exposing it to their sensibly strong perspective. So kudos to National Magazine Awards Foundation! I hope it will inspire young women illustrators, photographers, and art directors in Canada to persevere. So that in the future, there are more female voices such as Marta Iwanek, Gracia Lam, Selena Wong, Suharu Ogawa, Genevieve Simms, Heidi Berton, Ness Lee…and the list goes on and on.
NMAF: Let’s take a closer look at some of your most celebrated work, and perhaps you can tell us a quick story of how it came together:
In 2011, you won a Silver Medal in Art Direction for a Magazine Story for “Monuments: The City in Three Parts”—a progression of towering illustrations by Amy Casey accompanying a suite of poems by Roland Pemberton. What was your inspiration here—was it the poetry itself, or something more?
Anna: The challenge with poetry is: it’s an art form naturally open to interpretation. Overly strong visuals can clash with or even crash the delicate aesthetic of poetry itself. But no visuals at all, in a magazine like Maisonneuve, would be a cop out.
In the case of “Monuments” the inspiration came equally from both—the beautiful text and Amy’s wonderful work. I created a collage of collapsing imaginary houses so the text could interact with Amy’s images in a way that allowed both to stand on their own and coexist in peace on the same spread. That’s hard to do! So often with poetry there is a love-hate relationship with surrounding images, but this one worked.
Amy was reluctant at first, but when I showed her what I have done as a mock-up she was very excited and happy for her work be adapted in this creative way.
NMAF: In “Gays for God”—Silver Medallist in 2013 for Best Magazine Cover—you created (with photographer Kourosh Keshiri) an irresistible image of a contemplative Jesus draped in a rainbow flag, which accompanied the cover story by Clancy Martin about a new LGBTQ-friendly evangelical movement. This is an image of infinite subtleties—from the blue eye to glowing halo and the soft edges. The mood is very inviting to the story. What were the questions you asked yourself as you worked on this design?
Anna: Perhaps, at one time or another, we all contemplate being draped in the fabric of our own fears and doubts, while waiting for the divine to show the way…it’s the concept that talks to universal experience while personal as well. A close-up portrait was the best way to capture the dichotomy.
As for the questions…I am asking myself the same ones today, as I have done then. One of them is how can I, a gay woman myself, shine the light on the relationship LGBTQ community has with spirituality in a singular iconic image to the broader audience? To create a bold and intelligent visual statement to inspire pride in one side and to engage into conversation the other one.
NMAF: How did it come together?
Anna: Well…it’s not that easy to find Jesus wondering the streets, more so to convince him to be gay for the photoshoot! But hey, drop the Maisonneuve name here and there and you might be surprised! 😉
Usually, I have a lot of ideas and sketches for the cover (story). Drew Nelles [the editor-in-chief at the time] and I agreed on this concept as the final one—the stand alone powerful image and the direct reflection of Martin’s story.
With the help from dear friend and brilliant photographer Kourosh Keshiri, I was able to get amazing raw shots to work from. Subsequently, I photo edited and photo illustrated the selected image (the most sincere and devoid of pretence) into the final cover version.
In other words, I deliberately de/emphasized and added specific details (such as halo, blue eyes, serene lighting, deep shadows)—the visual signifiers, to create a stronger impact.
NMAF: The “TV We Hate Issue” cover (also a Silver Medal winner for Best Magazine Cover in 2015) looks like it was absolutely fun to create—a friendly poke at the subversive, gonzo style of MTV. Were any TVs actually harmed in the production of this cover?
Anna: Ha! Well, yes, twice. How many of us just get so annoyed with what is on TV we just dream of taking a hammer to it?…or in this case, a butcher knife! I deeply apologize to TV set lovers for butchering a very cool retro television…All in the name of art!
The amazing Ian Patterson and I worked on five covers together, the “TV We Hate” was the second one in that sequence. Ian is the example of someone you just click with. He has mastered an amazing skill—working with natural light.
For a start, there were many, many doodles and sketches for this cover. As I remember correctly, we narrowed it down to two main concepts. What made this one the final one was the minimalism and pointedness. The complexity lay in the precise execution–the limited (minimalistic) number of elements did not leave the room to hide mistakes. It’s something that either works or completely fails. This is why, when one element was off the whole cover had to be reshot. Afterwards, just as with the “Gays for God” cover, there was extensive photo editing to ensure the right details are highlighted while the unnecessary ones either overshadowed or removed completely.
Visual knowledge is important, but it’s not necessary to enjoy something from purely aesthetic point of view. That’s why the most interesting and iconic images successfully and equally merge both, concept and beauty, into one.
Here’s a peak at how the design evolved:
NMAF: Do you have another favourite creation from your Maisonneuve career?
Anna: For many artists, myself including, the favourite creation is the one yet to be created. Otherwise, what is there to strive for?
The favourite ones are the most memorable ones, which in one way or another enriched me with certain experience, insight or knowledge. Each image I worked on has a story behind it.
The ones that jump to mind, though, are:
Ian Patterson‘s “Married to PTSD” cover and the divine images accompanying the story;
Each one, no matter how big or small, was an unforgettable moment in time shared between kindred spirits.
NMAF: What do you look for in a creative partnership with an illustrator or photographer? What is your process of communicating an artistic vision for a magazine story that brings out the best in an artist?
Anna: My choice with whom to collaborate on projects is based on a great admiration for artists themselves and their work.
Imagine, you receive a bucket and it’s filled with stories for the next issue, you lift it up above your head and just turn it over…so the words just wash over you, like a waterfall. Most of the water will drain away, yet some will penetrate your skin and leave you with a sensation…a feeling or thought.
Out of the heart and straight to your mind, that will be your guide to conceptualize ideas and find the right voice to breath the life into the story. You can only bring out the best in others if you yourself believe passionately in what you do. Then your enthusiasm will ignite the alike spirits to join you on the crazy joyride called creative collaboration. And they will become your partners in art crime.
I love working with people who see creative process as an adventure. This requires trust, open-mindedness, and mutual respect. You are pursuing a common vision, yet ping-ponging ideas back and forth to create something spectacular. Some people can’t do that. It can be hard to find great collaborators. But when you do, it’s like a drug, the highest high.
NMAF: Now that you’ve moved on from Maisonneuve, what’s next for you? What would you like to achieve with the next stage of your career?
Anna: You mean, beside the grandiose production of the Maisy mascot costume?!
Well…it took me a while, but I finally launched my website www.annaminzhulina.com. It’s a collection of the work I have done during my Maisonneuve years. I invite everyone to come say hello! And reminisce of some of the Maisonneuve’s classics.
All in all, I still love publishing and want to pursue it further—magazines, books, other design projects…but I’m also curious about art exhibitions, conceptual design in larger spaces, on real walls, not just paper or virtual ones… it’s all fascinating to me, as long as it’s creative and/or collaborative.
In the meantime, I am working on a drawing series titled “See You”—portraits of random people sketched in shopping malls and plazas and other interesting, mundane places… my apartment walls are covered with them!
There is life beyond Maisonneuve… 😉 But I’m keeping my subscription! And so should you.
One last thing, before I bow my farewell to Maisonneuve, I would like to thank one very special person, whom I never got to thank at the NMAs:
“My dearest mom, Thank you! for giving me a precious gift— the courage to live my passion and to follow my heart.”
Anna Minzhulina is an award-winning art director, designer, artist and illustrator. For ten years, she was the Art Director of Maisonneuve magazine, where she was recognized for her imaginative concepts in cover design, design, photography and illustration. At Maisonneuve, Minzhulina collaborated with dozens of photographers, illustrators and artists, many of whom won awards for their work under her direction. More at annaminzhulina.com.
Of the Page is an interview series featuring National Magazine Award winners. This week we’re chatting with Montreal writer and editor Simon Diotte. He gained recognition for his 2016 National Magazine Award-winning travel story “Sur les traces d’un écrivain voyageur” (“In the Footsteps of a Travel Writer”) published in Oxygène, where he is editor-in-chief. The story recounts a multi-day hiking trip in France in the company of a donkey named Muscade, following the trail of the great Scottish adventurer Robert Louis Stevenson who hiked the same path in 1878.
NMAF: For the uninitiated, tell us about Oxygène magazine and your readers?
Simon: A newcomer to the world of outdoor magazines, Oxygène launched in 2013 and is published twice annually. We have a circulation of 25,000 copies distributed for free in Quebec, mainly at shops and businesses that specialize in the outdoors. Distinguishing itself from other publications that focus on all outdoor sports (trekking, climbing, alpine skiing, surfing, etc), Oxygène focuses on the classics—camping, hiking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
NMAF: So which came to you first: A taste for adventure or a love of writing?
Simon: Writing. I grew up reading L’actualité. I loved their “territoire” features which explored a particular region under a specific theme. I admired the journalist Luc Chartrand in particular, winner of numerous National Magazine Awards. I recall one of his reports that explored the wild regions of Haute-Mauricie. As I read it, I dreamed of walking in remote areas, a notebook in hand. It was stories like this that prompted me to choose to become a freelance journalist, and I started writing articles about the outdoors, which then gave me opportunities to go on adventures.
Paradoxically, in real life I am not necessarily a great adventurer. But I like to have the opportunity to travel in a professional context, where I can have access, as a journalist, to places and people (such as business leaders, politicians, etc) who are not easily accessible to everyday folks.
NMAF: So in addition to your role as editor-in-chief of Oxygène you’ve also been a freelance journalist for over fifteen years. Over the years, you’ve been published in magazines including que L’actualité, Les affaires, Coup de pouce, Châtelaine and Nature Sauvage. And you cover a wide range of topics, including personal finance, the environment, and tourism, to name a few. Tell us about the process of selection stories to pursue. And what topics are currently arousing your curiosity as a journalist?
Simon: Even though I love to work on adventure-oriented stories, I see myself as a jack-of-all-journalism-trades, which corresponds well to my personality. I enjoy stories on the performance of the stock market or the latest film of a famous filmmaker. And so I transpose my diverse tastes into my work as a journalist.
To succeed as a freelancer, you have to be an idea-generating machine. As soon as an idea starts to form in my mind, I immediately make notes on it. I do a quick search to see if it’s a subject that’s already been covered. Sometimes it takes years for an idea to grow into a magazine story—often because of the lack of time or opportunity to pursue it. I have tons of ideas in the bank, but unfortunately I lack the time and budget to pursue them all. Right now I’m working on several stories about hunting. Stay tuned.
NMAF: Your story called “Sur les traces d’un écrivain voyageur” won a Silver Medal at the 2016 National Magazine Awards. You weren’t able to attend the gala, but you responded almost instantly to the announcement on Twitter. What was the first thing that came to your mind when you heard the news?
Simon: I was really proud that a story by a freelancer writer in a small Quebec publication had managed to stand out among the panoply of high-quality magazines across Canada. As a freelancer I often have the feeling of being David against Goliath in various journalistic contexts. Winning the National Magazine Award is proof that with audacity and determination, you can do great stories.
Simon: In my many years as a freelancer, I’ve experienced periods where I’ve questioned myself. Should I continue or should I do something else? The recognition of the National Magazine Awards has affirmed my decision to keep living by the writer’s pen. And working independently gives me the freedom to work on the stories I really want to. Awards provide confidence to freelancers and raise our profile among clients. They help us stand out.
NMAF: The Canadian magazine industry has undergone some profound transformations over the past few years. One need only think of all the print publications that have migrated to digital platforms, or of the recent announcement of the sale of a number of Quebec magazines by Rogers Media, including L’actualité, the most decorated French-language magazine in the history of the National Magazine Awards.* In such an uncertain environment, what is the key to success for a freelancer?
Simon: As a freelancer, diversification is a major asset. The publications I write for trust me to handle a wide range of topics, as they know I’m versatile enough to do them. It’s also a great idea to get creative and pitch stories that seem a little off the beaten track. The work I do is about 50% ideas that I pitch, and 50% ideas that are commissioned.
That said, the future doesn’t look so bright for journalism, even for the best freelancers. With falling revenues, magazines have less and less money, and of course that has an impact on content. Like most freelancers, I often wonder whether I’ll still be able to do this exciting work in a few years.
Simon Diotte is the editor-in-chief of the magazine Oxygène and a National Magazine Award-winning freelancer writer based in Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @sdiotte.
This interview was originally published in French on the blog Prix Magazine. Interview by Émilie Pontbriand. Translated from the French by Richard A. Johnson.
Off the Page is a regular interview series featuring National Magazine Award winners. In this interview we chat with freelance journalist Virgil Grandfield, who won the 2016 National Magazine Award for Investigative Reporting.
In his award-winning investigative story “The Cage” (Eighteen Bridges) Virgil Grandfield describes one particular day of his multi-year investigation into human trafficking allegedly linked to Red Cross humanitarian efforts in Indonesia, post-tsunami. “Eva” is his assistant; “Mulyo” is a labour agent who may have been involved in human trafficking; “Otong” is a worker who disappeared while working on a Red Cross project and was allegedly murdered while trying to escape.
NMAF: In 2008, you decided to resign your position as spokesperson for the Red Cross / Red Crescent reconstruction efforts in Indonesia’s Aceh province. The international community had poured millions into rebuilding the region after the 2004 tsunami and 2005 earthquake, and from your position you were able to observe human trafficking creeping into the humanitarian project. How did you start down this road?
Virgil Grandfield: I was spokesperson for all Red Cross Red Crescent tsunami relief operations in Aceh in 2005-2006. In that time, I was proud of our work there. Only when I returned to Aceh in 2007-2008 as a delegate for the Canadian Red Cross did I uncover evidence of an epidemic of modern slavery in our housing reconstruction operations.
Before I go on, I should say that when describing the focus of my investigations in Aceh, I never use the term “corruption.” That word can sometimes be racially loaded, and too vague, subjective and misleading. As you mentioned, what I found on Red Cross and other tsunami projects in Indonesia was the very specific and clearly-defined crime of human trafficking—a discovery that rocked me to my core, in part because I immediately understood that it was our own fault. We had lost our way.
In short, the British, Canadian, Australian and American Red Cross had decided that rather than working with local people to rebuild, they would take a massive short cut and outsource all of our reconstruction projects to private contractors. Agents working for those contractors brought in tens of thousands of workers to our projects from more than 2,000 km away in Java. The agents and contractors deceived the workers, stole their pay and forced them to work against their will, often as outright slaves in squalid, malaria-ridden labour camps and often provided them little more than one bowl of rice per day.
This happened to virtually all of the thousands of construction workers on Red Cross and other tsunami rebuilding projects. It was the second, secret disaster of Aceh.
NMAF: What was the breaking point for you, and why did you decide to become a whistle-blower?
Virgil Grandfield: When I first discovered and confirmed the trafficking problem, I was really sad and angry. Another worker had died of malaria in one of our project camps the day before I had arrived there. And yet, management was refusing even to allow us to provide bed nets or spray for mosquitos in our camps, claiming the workers were not our responsibility. They had become so focused on material results—numbers of housing completions—they had totally ignored the humanity of the workers on our projects.
I reported what I had found to management in Aceh and Ottawa. They warned me to drop the issue. One told me that I was “too close to the people,” and said I had a choice: “You can either be with us, or you can be on the side of the workers.”
At the risk of losing my amazing career, I kept investigating and demanding action. Management agreed to look into the issue, but only interviewed the contractors and agents, the very men who had been doing the trafficking. They never spoke with the workers. After an incident where some of our workers were beaten by a local mob accusing them of stealing some jewelry to pawn in order to escape, I broke protocol and informed the Canadian Red Cross board of governors of the trafficking and implied that if we did not act within the month, I would go public. Only then did management approve anti-malarial measures in worker camps. They also promised me they would begin a feeding program for the workers and would hire the Ernst & Young auditing firm to do a more thorough investigation. And, I was offered a new contract and a possibly a promotion, on the condition that I drop the worker issue.
I told myself: “You carry a lot of responsibility, Virgil. You have fought for a long time to uncover and get the truth out. And you might have only this one chance to say some important things.”
A few months later, I heard from one of my former field officers that our head of mission in Aceh had interfered in the auditors’ investigation when he gave the contractors weeks of advance warning, and had tried to restrict the auditors to only two of our twenty-two housing projects. I also learned that the Red Cross also never implemented the promised feeding program for our workers. And although the auditing firm Ernst & Young confirmed my findings, Red Cross refused to consider compensating the victims.
That was the last straw for me. I resigned my Red Cross Overseas Delegate status and eventually leaked the story to a producer at Radio Canada in Montreal where I had done a graduate program in journalism at Concordia University.
NMAF: Having made the bold move to resign, you launched your own investigation, returning to Indonesia not as a delegate but as an independent journalist? How did you manage that?
Virgil Grandfield: Radio-Canada said they needed more proof of the trafficking before sending a team to Indonesia to investigate and film a documentary—an investment of at least $100,000. So, a year after I had resigned, I mortgaged my home in Alberta to fund a more thorough, preliminary investigation. I returned to Indonesia in 2009-2010, rented vehicles and equipment and enlisted teams of human rights workers—and at one point, even a local mafia boss—to help me find hundreds of Javanese labourers who had been trafficked on Red Cross tsunami projects in Aceh.
The evidence and video testimonies we took from those victims and scores of witnesses were enough to convince Radio Canada to send their own investigative team to Indonesia. Unfortunately, after their documentary “The Forgotten Workers” was broadcast on Radio Canada and CBC in March 2010, Canadian Red Cross denied all findings and shut the issue down. And it seemed like Canadians just kind of shrugged.
I was devastated, and it took me a long time to recover.
NMAF: In “The Cage” you describe a second journey you made to Indonesia in the summer of 2015 to meet a man named Mulyo, who may have been a trafficker of slave labour during the Red Cross reconstruction. You put your own life (and that of your assistant, Eva) at risk just to try to gain access to some of the workers who were exploited. What was the significance of that particular journey, and what did you expect to discover that day?
Virgil Grandfield: In 2015, with a little money from a writer’s grant and an income tax rebate, I headed back to Indonesia to try again. This time I could only afford to hire one person to help me, not whole teams. During my first investigation five years before, I had met families of men who had died on Red Cross projects or while trying to escape. I promised some of those families I would try to find the graves of their dead fathers, sons and husbands. So, this time, instead of searching for hundreds of surviving victims, my assistant and I would only search for the dead.
My assistant Eva (not her real name) is a gutsy, smart elementary school teacher about the size of a half sack of potatoes. She started searching for leads in North Sumatra even before I arrived. She found a labour agent named Mulyo (also not his real name) who claimed that 160 of his workers had been forced to work at gunpoint on an American Red Cross tsunami project.
Mulyo had told Eva that one of those workers, a young man named Otong, had been murdered by his guards, likely as a warning after trying to escape the project with a group of 30 other workers. Soon after my first meeting with Mulyo, Eva and I began to suspect that he himself had been a guilty party in the trafficking of Otong and the other men.
We tried to gain Mulyo’s trust, and that meant we had to give him our trust, too. We stayed in his home. We brought him gifts. We even went night fishing with him a few times at a kind of gambler’s pond where everyone treated Mulyo like the Godfather. We kept telling Mulyo we had to meet Otong’s co-workers in order to verify his story and perhaps find a way to meet and help his surviving family. Mulyo kept making excuses for not taking us to the surviving victims. Eventually, though, he said he was ready to take us to meet Otong’s former co-workers. But, he said we would have to go alone with him.
Eva and I knew there were two possibilities: either Mulyo had decided to try to help us, or he had decided to take us out somewhere to get rid of us once and for all—to kill us. If it was the first, we would be that much closer to getting the story that might finally get people to understand and care about this issue, a story that might shock the American public in a way that had not happened in Canada.
I had spent years of my life fighting this battle. I had sacrificed the career I had loved. I felt I had little left to lose and that I had come too far to fail. Getting to the bottom of this particular story about the murder of one worker might be my only way to finally get publishers and readers to care about the bigger story. And because the stakes were so high and there had only been denial on the part of the Red Cross, getting this story second or third-hand was not going to work. I had to meet the eyewitnesses—starting with the men who had also been trafficked—and record their stories. The only way to do that was to trust Mulyo.
I was prepared to risk death. The more important question was whether Eva understood the danger and was willing to make the same gamble. That is the moment at which our story “The Cage” begins, when Eva answers that she also was not afraid to die. It would not be the last time she would say that, in even more dangerous situations.
It felt important that this story reach Eighteen Bridges readers, for two reasons: First, because I felt our audience and the wider audience that might come across the story would greatly enjoy and benefit from Virgil’s mix of compelling storytelling and scrupulous moral inquiry. Second, because we at Eighteen Bridges really do believe in the power of the written word to open eyes and enact change, and it would have been wrong not to publish Virgil’s story. —Curtis Gillepsie, editor-in-chief, Eighteen Bridges magazine
NMAF: “The Cage” is now one chapter in a larger book project you have planned about the Red Cross reconstruction in Indonesia. On the one hand, your investigation focuses on the large-scale labour trafficking involving thousands of Indonesians who essentially became slaves to the agents and contractors who pocketed large sums of humanitarian funds. And then you’re also trying to unravel the mystery of the murder of Otong. What is it about his death that you think illuminates a piece of the larger investigation?
Virgil Grandfield: One problem I have had in speaking with literary agents was that they did not think this issue would be relevant to Canadians. They also said the fact I was a former employee of the Canadian Red Cross might create legal problems or doubts about motivations. Also, when I spoke to people in Canada about the trafficked workers, they just didn’t get it. Everyone has that uncle or brother-in-law who has been stiffed on a job. No big deal. And quite frankly, when people hear the numbers—that up to half a million men were trafficked on tsunami projects—they tune out because it sounds like statistics.
So, when I returned to Indonesia in 2015, I decided firstly that I would not look for any more victims from Canadian Red Cross tsunami projects—not even one. I would only look for victims from other Red Cross or UN or other tsunami projects. Americans have not yet heard about this scandal, and neither has the rest of the world..
Secondly, this time I wanted to investigate and tell, as well as I could, the story of just a few victims—people who had died because of the trafficking. I wanted readers to really feel and understand how horrible this thing was, how cruel and deadly it had been for humanitarian agencies to turn their operations over to profiteers and criminals and look the other way and even cover things up.
So, I thought the story of one man—among tens of thousands of tsunami slaves in Aceh—being murdered for trying to escape an American Red Cross tsunami project might get that point across. This was not your uncle being cheated for work he did on someone’s house. It was outright slavery and even murder. And I believed then as I do now that people will care more about one or two or three persons whom they feel they know than they will about thousands they don’t.
NMAF: “The Cage” ends with a bit of cliffhanger—Mulyo points you towards people who might know about the fate of Otong, but he advises you against speaking to them. Without giving too much away from your forthcoming book, have you since discovered more of the truth about Mulyo and Otong?
Virgil Grandfield: Mulyo eventually did take us to meet Otong’s co-workers, the witnesses to his murder. After telling us the story of their own ordeal as tsunami slaves and their escape from an American Red Cross project, they drew us a map. Eva and I then used the map to go on a kind of “Heart of Darkness” journey to follow the investigation of Otong’s murder to its end. What we experienced and discovered will be thrilling and mind-blowing to readers: a cat-and-mouse story of facing and narrowly escaping death—in typhoons and at gunpoint—in order to investigate and solve a crime implicating those in the “whited sepulchers” of Ottawa, London, Melbourne and Washington D.C. as much as anywhere else..
Eva and I are both currently writing those chapters for a section of the book called “The Map.” Using a mix of narrative and raw transcripts, we have also recently finished putting together an experimental work of literary non-fiction called “The Monument,” about a man and wife who were victims of trafficking on a British Red Cross project.
And, we will soon be writing our third main section of the book about keeping a promise I had made five years earlier to find the grave of one Javanese family’s father and husband who had died because of trafficking on an Australian Red Cross tsunami project. Our two-month search for his grave took us to an island where as many people died because of labour trafficking on tsunami reconstruction projects as died in the tsunami itself.
NMAF: At the 2016 National Magazine Awards gala, you accepted your award for “The Cage” on stage with a passionate call for critical Canadian attention to humanitarian relief and reconstruction projects, and the gaps in the system that enable corruption and trafficking. Can you talk a bit about your vision for a better system of oversight and implementation of these projects?
Virgil Grandfield: I was so utterly shocked and grateful to win the award at the NMA gala. I had originally written “The Cage” as a chapter for my book, so, I felt it was a fragment at best. Other stories in my category were more complete, I thought, and more polished, and by excellent and well-known journalists. But, I also figured that in the very remote case I did win, I had better be ready to speak. I told myself: “You carry a lot of responsibility, Virgil. You have fought for a long time to uncover and get the truth out. And you might have only this one chance to say some important things.”
In my speech, I thanked Eva and other people like her who have over the years risked their lives with me to investigate this story for little or no reward. I acknowledged the pain the family members of the victims had to endure in opening old wounds to tell me their stories. I spoke of the trust those families put in me, and through me, the trust they were putting in Canadians to finally make things right.
I also reminded my colleagues at the NMA gala that Aceh was not the first tragic misadventure the Red Cross has had in outsourcing its humanitarian responsibilities. Thousands of Canadians lives were ruined or lost because of the HIV or Hepatitis they contracted from the tainted blood bought by the Red Cross from American prisons in the 1980s. Not only did the Canadian Red Cross deny that problem and refuse to take responsibility for its victims in the Tainted Blood Scandal. It also refused to clean house after it was censured by the Krever Report.
NMAF: What do you think Canadians should expect of the money and goodwill that they and their government contribute overseas?
Virgil Grandfield: At certain times, even our most noble institutions fail.. Yes, there is something very broken in the world now, and that was and is the deeper problem. Neo-liberal organizations like the WTO and World Bank have been forcing the poorest countries to do away with protections for their most vulnerable workers. So they share responsibility for what happened in Aceh.
But the labour trafficking scandal in the Aceh reconstruction was also due to a massive failure of humanitarian leadership. The directors of the Red Cross, for example, deliberately chose—against all of our stated principles—to use a deeply-flawed and inhumane outsourcing system, instead of working with local people to rebuild. And they chose to continue to do so, even when they became aware of the trafficking. The agencies had too much money, their boards were in too much of a hurry, and their managers acted in ways that were ambitious, heartless or blind.
The great danger for humanitarian organizations—especially the large, well-funded ones—is that they work in places where institutional corruption and failures of leadership can have immense and deadly consequences. Even at the field level, professional aid workers can also let themselves become divided from their own compassion and humanitarian principles and responsibilities. They focus on careers and promotions and perks, and because there is no job security in humanitarian work, they don’t rock the boat. They turn the other way, or compromise with corruption, or cover things up.
I reported what I had found to management in Aceh and Ottawa. They warned me to drop the issue. One told me that I was “too close to the people,” and said I had a choice: “You can either be with us, or you can be on the side of the workers.”
And meanwhile, the media give them a free pass, as if they are somehow better than normal, flawed humans. Reporters never ask hard questions, don’t investigate, and when told the truth, like most Canadians, they don’t want to believe. But the stakes are so high and the dangers and consequences of failure so prevalent and drastic, especially for vulnerable people like Otong and countless others.
That is why the press must be far, far more curious, independent and critical. You must seek out the powerless, the voiceless workers and others in our projects, and ask them for the truth. You will only help prevent more human-made disasters and save more lives.
As for oversight and implementation, the so-called “Aceh Model” of privatizing humanitarian work has been touted as a huge success to be emulated in other disaster zones. That is an outrageous and inestimably dangerous lie that must be refuted at every level and opportunity. Everyone living in Aceh saw the disaster we caused there by outsourcing our projects; we caused far more harm and pain than would have been if we had never gone there. Only smaller, community-minded organizations refused to take the easy, outsourcing path, and only they avoided the trafficking disaster.
Unfortunately, after disasters, Canadians give the vast majority of their donations to the Red Cross—an organization which at its best only handles first stage relief work. There are other organizations which specialize in actual reconstruction work which is done with communities, and I am certain that some have better leadership than the Red Cross, at least right now. Canadians must demand that the Red Cross clear out anyone involved in the Aceh or the Tainted Blood scandals. Our government must legislate open-book auditing requirements for any agencies receiving public funds, diversify disaster funding to include small organizations through a national umbrella funding agency, and establish a related but fully-independent unit of anti-trafficking investigators and project evaluators, as well as independent ombudspersons for humanitarian sector whistleblowers.
Aid organizations must establish an international convention on standards for payment and living conditions for all workers on humanitarian projects and must ban outsourcing in all relief and reconstruction work. I mean, why use the worst, least-humane business practices for what is supposed to be the noblest of human endeavors–to help others?
And finally, it is my personal hope that we find and compensate at least some of the families of those men and women who died because of our gross negligence in Indonesia. We cannot fix the huge mess we created, but at least we can try to help those most harmed by our mistakes. It is our unfinished business.
NMAF: Can you talk a bit about the process of having Eighteen Bridges publish this story and help it gain a larger audience? And what has been the significance to you of winning the National Magazine Award?
Virgil Grandfield: At the NMA Gala, I also thanked Curtis Gillespie for his faith and support as an editor and mentor, and for his uncommon courage in publishing a story others would be afraid to touch. Without Curtis and his terrific team and the supporters of Eighteen Bridges, you and I would not be doing this interview.
As for the award’s significance, I think it will help me get over a huge wall that has blocked me and my work for years. People have called me a “whistleblower”; there is even a Wikipedia entry to that effect about me. It is something that can be a badge of honour, but in my case, the label is not quite right, not anymore, at least.
A whistleblower is someone who tells the public what he or she learned while on “the inside.” I did discover the tsunami slave trafficking scandal while employed by the Red Cross, but 99 percent of what I know about the story is what I dug up often at extreme effort and cost—only after I resigned.
Before I worked for the Red Cross, I was a journalist. The skills I had learned as a reporter helped me to first sniff out the problem in Aceh, and I have relied on those skills in all my work in the region since. I have done hundreds of interviews and asked thousands of questions. I have done endless research. I have triple-checked every fact and cross-verified every story. I have geo-tagged photos with victims and witnesses, gotten signed affidavits, recorded and transcribed interviews. I have had to treat every case as if it would go before a judge, and so, I have put aside scores of unverifiable stories for every solid one that I am reporting. I have also had to take unbelievable risks to follow stories to their rock bottom.
After the NMA Gala, a couple of the judges in my category came to shake my hand and to commend me for having done all that of that work. Their congratulations, and the award from the NMA, and the kind reception I received from my journalist colleagues at the gala were a terrific validation and homecoming. And when I introduce myself to publishers, from now on I can and will do so not as a whistleblower but as an award-winning investigative journalist.
I was thrilled for Virgil winning the National Magazine Award. I don’t think there are many writers who have suffered—literally suffered, physically and spiritually—as much as Virgil did for this story. On a different plane, I was pleased to see him win because it reinforces our overall message to Virgil, which is that he has a unique talent he is meant to pursue. And so when he won I could only say, Bravo, but this is just the beginning! —Curtis Gillepsie, editor-in-chief, Eighteen Bridges magazine
NMAF: When will we be able to read the entire story in your book? Have you been able to complete your journey that you started all those years ago, to finally illuminate the truth about Indonesia’s reconstruction?
Virgil Grandfield: To paraphrase a saying from Texas, where I grew up, “It’s all over but the writin’.”
On the very last day of my search in Indonesian in 2015, by a series of investigative miracles, I found a family I had been searching for half a decade. They told me the heartbreaking tale that will form the first and last chapters of the book.
I am now finishing coursework for a graduate program at the University of Lethbridge, with a research focus in Narrative and Social Justice. After that, I will get right to work full-time on the book. I don’t know if it is possible, but I would like to publish the book in early 2018. That will be the 10-year anniversary of a crucial moment in my life when I had to decide whether or not I was in the Red Cross for the career or to help people. It was also when I had to answer whose side I was going to be on—that of the powerful or that of the powerless.
In the decade since then, I have learned the hard way that I cannot force a resolution. I am too small. What I can do, however, is investigate and try to tell the whole story of what really happened in Aceh. I must do that.
What comes afterwards will be up to the rest of you.
Virgil Grandfield is a National Magazine Award-winning investigative journalist and a former overseas delegate for the Red Cross. He is doing graduate work in social justice and literary non-fiction at the University of Lethbridge and is writing a book about labour trafficking in Indonesia during Red Cross post-tsunami reconstruction work.
Read the original story “The Cage” in Eighteen Bridges from the National Magazine Awards archive.
The opinions and perspectives presented in this interview reflect those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the National Magazine Awards Foundation, its board or staff.
Virgil Grandfield’s National Magazine Award-winning story “The Cage” in Eighteen Bridges magazine was a work of first-person, narrative journalism which does not customarily bear the same requirements as standard news reporting for obtaining official replies from all concerned parties. Nonetheless, Virgil has emphasized that although in November, 2008, the secretariat of the Canadian Red Cross officially terminated all communication with him concerning the tsunami slave trafficking scandal, the organization has been offered multiple opportunities to respond to his findings and those of other journalists. Virgil has also said that he continues to welcome any initiative by Canadian Red Cross to reverse its decision not to communicate with him about the findings of his and others’ investigations.
Off the Page is a regular interview series featuring National Magazine Award winners. Recently we caught up with Jennifer Varkonyi, publisher of Maisonneuve, which was named Canada’s Magazine of the Year in 2016, among 5 NMAs it took home last year. A quarterly magazine of arts, literature, ideas and culture, published in English in Montreal, Maisonneuve publishes new and established writers, artists and photojournalists packaged around award-winning design.
NMAF: Congratulations again on winning Magazine of the Year in 2016, the third such honour for Maisonneuve since 2004. In presenting the award, the NMA jury said:
“Maisonneuve fulfills its bold mandate of ‘banishing boring,’ clearly striving to engage, inform and inspire. From its refreshing and imaginative art direction to its passionate editorial voice, the magazine feels like it’s constantly evolving, yet at the same time seems to connect with a sense of familiarity with its readers.”
As a publisher, how do you achieve this winning formula of evolution and continuity? And what was the significance to you and your team of winning the big award?
Jennifer: The answer is simple: the people. Maisonneuve has been blessed with great editors, art directors, writers, artists and interns who give their all to the magazine. We take the editorial process seriously, which means we do everything we can to help writers shape their stories to be the best they can be.
This striving for excellence has been a part of the magazine’s ethos from the very beginning, with founder Derek Webster’s drive to create a magazine that reflected intelligence, humour, and genuine curiosity, and the tradition has been carried forward by Carmine Starnino, Drew Nelles, Haley Cullingham, Daniel Viola and now Andrea Bennett.
Winning Magazine of the Year is significant for Maisonneuve. It reminds us that the hours upon hours of toil the editors dedicate to a fifth draft, or to tweaking display copy or scouring for typos, are noticed by readers and recognized within the magazine community. Being in Montreal can feel a little isolating at times, so coming to Toronto and winning the top honour is gratifying. The win also helps raise the magazine’s profile, especially among contributors, and it draws more people to the magazine.
NMAF: What three words or phrases describe the typical Maisonneuve reader? To what extent do you think about your current (and future) readers when you’re putting together and promoting a magazine issue?
Jennifer: I think here I have to go with the three qualities I used earlier: our readers are intelligent, have a sense of humour, and are curious about Canada and the world around them.
As publisher I consult with the editor-in-chief about upcoming issues, stories and themes, but the work of putting the content together really rests on the shoulders of the editors. Our editors ask themselves how they can best draw the reader into the story – how to begin a feature about, say, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder in the North? How do you grab someone’s attention when discussing the politics of creating a national park? What messages do our graphics send, and are words and images working in unison? These are the kind of questions considered around the editorial table.
NMAF: What are the biggest challenges for a (small) magazine publisher in 2017? How do you address them?
Jennifer: The biggest challenges are resources (money) and maintaining circulation. Many people have a lot of love for the magazine, but connecting with that love and growing circulation even to 5,000 is a huge challenge. That’s partly a reflection of a competitive environment: there is so much amazing content out there competing for eyeballs and subscribers.
The Internet has put small Canadian magazines into direct competition with every other magazine in the world. Without our grants from all levels of government, we would not survive. I wish we were not so dependent on these funds, but it is a reality for most small Canadian magazines. Former editor Daniel Viola recently remarked to me that Maisonneuve runs on enthusiasm, and that is exactly right. I wish we could provide more remuneration to everyone who contributes to the magazine. I think every small magazine editor and publisher in Canada feels that way!
NMAF: Maisonneuve has a national perspective, but also very clearly reflects its Quebec and Montreal heritage. In many ways, Maisonneuve could be said to be the voice of Quebec for the rest of English Canada, in literature, art and current events. How has the magazine embraced this role, and why is it important to project Quebec (and Montreal) onto the national stage?
Jennifer: Maisonneuve has always wanted to blur borders – be they real or ideological. The magazine’s identity is rooted in Montreal, but it’s a cosmopolitan identity (which is very Montreal) so the result on the page is wide-ranging and eclectic. There are regular moments, such as in the Writing from Quebec section, where we shine a light on some new writing from the francophone community, but I think the voice of Quebec is more consistently found in the excellent reporting of L’actualité and the refined cultural commentary of Nouveau Projet, for example.
Maisonneuve really is a national magazine in its scope and story selection. There was a Beaverton headline that made me laugh recently – “Montreal declared the ‘I don’t know I’m just trying to figure my shit out’ capital of Canada” – and I certainly fit this bill when I was 19 and moved to Montreal from Saskatoon. The point being: Montreal presents an alternative to the norm, be it “Toronto” or “English” or whatever – you can do things a little differently in Montreal. Maisonneuve embraces this difference, and people appreciate that.
NMAF: Based on Maisonneuve’s success, what advice would you give to small magazine publishers who are concerned they can’t compete against larger magazines on newsstands (real and virtual) or at the National Magazine Awards?
Jennifer: I think the key is to take chances. Take chances on people, on ideas, on an opening, on a story’s length. If an editor’s interest is piqued, chances are readers will be interested too. One thing that small magazines have going for them is that enthusiasm I mentioned earlier, without the punishing production cycle of larger magazines, so editors can take a little more time with a story, push for something slightly better, and the results can be astonishingly rewarding. That doesn’t pay the rent, but this is where a gold medal from the National Magazine Awards makes the sacrifices worthwhile.
National Magazine Award for Magazine of the Year Submissions to the 40th anniversary National Magazine Awards are now open for submissions. The award for Magazine of the Year honours the magazine that most consistently engages, surprises and serves the needs of its readers. This award recognizes outstanding achievement in magazine publishing over the past year.
The jury shall evaluate each candidate for Magazine of the Year according to four general criteria—quality, innovation, impact, and brand awareness—and its success relative to the magazine’s editorial mandate. Each submitter will need to complete an application form providing details supporting each criterion. There will be 5 finalists for this award and one overall winner.
The deadline for submissions for Magazine of the Year is January 27.
(For all other categories, the deadline is January 20).
Off the Page is a regular interview series featuring National Magazine Award winners. Recently we spoke with Adrian Forrow, who won his very first National Magazine Award in 2016, winning the Gold Medal in Illustration for his series of illustrations featured alongside the article “My Prescribed Life” (The Walrus). The story is a memoir about the longstanding link between mental health and prescription dependency, and it also received an Honourable Mention for Best Health & Medicine article.
NMAF:As splashes of colour that break up pages otherwise saturated by text, magazine illustrations give the reader a welcomed break, a moment’s pause before they jump back into reading. What do you think the role of an illustration is for people reading magazine articles?
Adrian: The role of editorial Illustration should be additive. It should help set the mood of the forthcoming text. The image can help evoke visual interest and transport the reader to a place where ideas and understanding intersect.
NMAF:What details do you need before you can properly begin your creative, designing process? Are there certain elements or information that your client or partner needs to relay, in order for you to develop your concept?
Adrian: What I find that works best for me is to receive the brief and the text and really absorb the core idea before putting pen to paper. Once I feel I have a grasp of the idea, I might discuss the tone of the imagery that I feel is best for the article. This is where collaboration can happen with the art director and it’s a great way to help inform your imagery. I try not to think about the imagery at this stage–just the mood, atmosphere and tone of the picture.
The other detail that is critical for my process is the dimensions of the image. It’s really important for me to consider the whole compositional area. The dimension can ignite my conceptual approach and really make the art feel customized to the space available.
NMAF:You won Gold in Illustration at last year’s National Magazine Awards for your pieces featured in a memoir called “My Prescribed Life.” The story, published in The Walrus, discussed the link between the author’s mental illness and related dependence on medication. How did the subject matter of the memoir influence your creative conceptualization for the piece? How did you decide what tone would be most appropriate?
Adrian:This was a great article and so interesting. It was a delicate and somewhat saddening topic. I knew the colours were going to be really important. I didn’t want to do what was expected. I knew I had to take an approach that might have to be more ambiguous and surreal.
I didn’t want to use this illustration to summarize or define the problem. Instead my intent was to ask a question or pose a contemplative composition so the viewer would be left to decipher the visual symbols that I included.
The colours were mostly primary and that helped carry the idea of youth and aging. The colours also helped to create a surreal or even jarring feeling in relation to the content. The goal was for the colours and composition to carry ideas about an altered state of reality.
NMAF:Your Gold win last year was also your first time being recognized by the National Magazine Awards Foundation. How does winning awards for your illustration work help you, on both a personal and professional level?
Adrian:It feels great to know that my work is being received and appreciated within the industry. Personally, it helps to motivate me to keep developing my skills as a visual communicator. Professionally, it helps to open doors and possibilities for new and exciting opportunities.
NMAF:Your work has adorned coffee cups, been part of the creative for major music festivals and has been made larger-than-life by outdoor mural installations. Your work has also appeared in magazines, including The New Yorker, Corporate Knights and The Walrus. As an illustrator, what types of creative collaborations do you like to pursue? Do you try to not limit yourself to any one medium?
Adrian:I feel that in many ways I am just getting started. I have so many ideas and desires to push what I can do. The best thing about my profession is the variety it offers. One day I’m drawing a coffee cup, the next day I’m painting a huge outdoor mural. Variety is the spice of life, so I try to be diverse in the projects I take on.
I also love the collaborative process and making things that fulfill a need or desire. I have always experimented with different approaches and tools for making images. I think it helps my clients see different possibilities and vary their experiences with illustration.
As of now, I have been collaborating with Warby Parker for a new store mural which I am really excited to share with people. I have also been collaborating with Keilhauer to make some artful promotional products.
Adrian Forrow is a National Magazine Award-winning illustrator whose work has been published in The Walrus, Corporate Knights, Canadian Running & Cycling Magazine and The New Yorker. His debut National Magazine Award was the Gold Medal in Best Illustration, for his series of illustrations featured in The Walrus memoir, “My Prescribed Life“.
Submissions to the 40th Anniversary National Magazine Awards The 40th anniversary National Magazine Awards are open for submissions until January 20, including awards for Illustration and for Best New Magazine Illustrator.
Enter at magazine-awards.com.
In alternate years, the NMAF presents distinct awards for Best New Magazine Illustrator and Best New Magazine Photographer. For this year’s 40th anniversary National Magazine Awards, the Best New Visual Creator award will go to an illustrator whose early work in magazines shows the highest degree of craft and promise.
Read more about the Best New Creators Awards here.
Off the Page is a regular interview series featuring National Magazine Award winners. Recently we caught up with photojournalist Marta Iwanek, who in 2016 was named Canada’s Best New Magazine Photographer from the National Magazine Awards Foundation, in addition to winning the Gold Medal for Photojournalism & Photo Essay for her incredible reporting of the 2013-2014 Ukrainian crisis, titled “The Maidan” (Maisonneuve).
NMAF: In your award-winning photo essay, “The Maidan,” you take the reader on a journey to a winter in Kyiv, where thousands of Ukrainians gathered to take a courageous stand against their government. You capture the Maidan as a place of fear and uncertainty, but also of community and solidarity. How did you get a sense of the place when you arrived, and what were the human emotions that spoke to you as a photographer?
Marta: I first arrived in Kyiv in early November (2013) before any of the protests had started. I remember driving through the centre of the city and thinking what a bustling metropolis it was. Then I went out east to work on a film and returned in late November a little after the pro-European protests had begun. Everything was still calm at that point and there was a sense of hopefulness among the crowd.
The protest was to last nine days, but on the last night everything changed. The remaining protestors were chased out of Independence Square (Maidan) and beaten by police, angering many people. On December 1 a large demonstration occurred in Kyiv where the people re-took the square and the movement that became known as “the Maidan” began. I was supposed to fly back to Toronto shortly after, but realized I couldn’t leave.
The feeling was so powerful and strong among the people. It felt like people had been pushed to an edge and they had nothing more to lose. There were feelings of frustration, abandonment and urgency. At the same time, you could still find the glimpses of hope and community as people unified under one cause–to oust then President Yanukovych. I was always trying to show those emotions in my photos and trying to understand the situation deeper, trying to figure out what made it this way? I changed my flight and ended up staying three months, living among the protestors and spending my days and nights wandering the square, talking to people and trying to make sense of it.
I like to immerse myself in stories as much as possible and I hope this translates in my photos. It was also a story I felt personally connected to because my roots are Ukrainian and I grew up in the Ukrainian diaspora in Toronto. I grew up listening to the stories of Ukraine’s constant struggle for independence and to be free of corruption, so the feelings of the people in the square were not foreign to me. However, this time, it wasn’t just my parents talking about it in Canada, detached from the situation and it’s consequences. It was happening in front of me. When it was finally time to leave, I will always remember that contrast I felt when I first arrived in the capital and when I left–the place, the people and the country had been changed forever.
During my years as the art director of Maisonneuve magazine, I had the opportunity to work with many talented women photographers—each one a unique visual voice. Marta Iwanek stands out for the way she brings her compassion to a body of work that sits on the edge of war and peace, among fire and smoke, between life and death situations, especially with her Ukrainian “Maidan” project.
—Anna Minzhulina, former art director, Maisonneuve
NMAF: Over one hundred people were killed in the government reprisals, and you spent time not only on the front lines but also with those who were wounded and grieving. How did you balance your own safety with your passion for capturing every aspect of the story? And did you learn anything about yourself as a journalist that will assist you in the future?
Marta: There were certain days that felt very unsafe on the square, but the majority of my time spent there, things were peaceful. There would be flare-ups between police and protestors and then things would resume back to “normal.” I looked to other, more experienced photojournalists in the square for guidance and advice. I had only been freelancing for three months at that point, fresh out of college and had found myself in the middle of the news cauldron that was Kyiv.
There were many times that I was scared. Even today I think I still would be. The most important thing I learned in those kinds of situations is to trust your gut. There were certain situations I decided to be close-up and others I held back from. Sometimes, I beat myself up for not being in the right place or holding back too much, but you have to be honest with yourself and with what you’re willing to do. It took quite a while to reconcile these feelings, but the experience taught me that I’m not a conflict photographer.
Many photojournalists starting out often have a dream of covering foreign stories and conflicts. I didn’t go to Ukraine searching out a conflict to photograph, I just happened to be there when it all started. And a part of me left feeling like I had failed as a journalist because I hadn’t gotten the most heated moments, and I was actually back in Canada on the day that over a hundred protestors were shot. For me, it was more emotionally heavy to be away from the square during that time than when I was in it. Not knowing about the fate of many friends who were there, as well as feeling the guilt of not being there, took a toll.
We’re taught to want to be this travelling, conflict photographer, but that’s not who all of us are. The whole time on the square, I found myself being much more drawn and interested in the quieter moments and it took me a while to realize those moments are just as important too.
We are all unique and we will all notice different things in similar situations and we will be better at photographing in certain situations over others. Journalism is a communal effort and we need to be honest with ourselves, find out the type of stories you’re best at and are drawn to. Then don’t be afraid to do it.
NMAF: That was over three years ago, and since then Ukraine has experienced war and occupation perhaps beyond the worst fears of those who gathered on the Maidan. How has this story stayed with you since then?
Marta: My time on the Maidan has been one of the factors that keeps driving me to keep coming back to this region and exploring the underlying issues more deeply, looking at why things are the way they are now, what’s caused them and what keeps causing them?
It’s also something I’ve always wanted to do because my background is Ukrainian. I’ve always been drawn to Ukraine and Eastern Europe because I’ve grown up with my cultural heritage being so central in my life, from participating in folk activities, being involved in the diaspora community to regular dinner table conversations about Eastern European politics. I actually started primary school barely speaking English because at home we just spoke Ukrainian. It has a huge place in my heart. I’ve started looking at my own family’s history in the area, connecting with relatives and following the story of Ukrainians in Poland who were deported from the South-Eastern territories in 1947 under military Operation Vistula. Deportations are a huge part of Eastern Europe’s history and play a huge factor in why things are the way they are today.
There has definitely been media fatigue with Ukraine as the conflict reaches yet another year. It’s why I think it’s more important than ever to stay with the story and understand what is happening there, to put the past and the future in greater context for the average viewer.
NMAF: For the camera nerds, what bodies and lenses do you shoot with? And what was your technical approach to the photography on the Maidan?
Marta: Back then, during those three months on the Maidan, I was using a D600 and a 35mm f/2 and a 24-70mm. This is still my favourite set-up although now I have a D810 with a 35mm f/1.4. My technical approach is to go as light on gear as possible, zoom with your feet and build intimacy with the people you are photographing. This will create a much better photo than any lens or camera body can.
NMAF: You worked with Anna Minzhulina, then the art director of Maisonneuve, who said she was stunned by the evocative scenes and characters that jumped out from your images. Can you describe the creative process of how the two of you edited your body of work into a story that connected with the magazine reader?
Marta: Anna is an extremely talented and passionate editor and I am so grateful for her eye. Editing is an art of its own and a skill many photographers often lack, myself included. It was also a story I had immersed myself in, so it can be very hard to be objective about the photos when editing, which is where Anna came in.
So often, I would attach a personal memory or story to a photo and Anna was able to single out the photos that could still speak to a viewer who was encountering them without all the backstory. She chose the photos that could speak on their own and spoke together cohesively to tell the story of the square.
It was also exciting to be able to tell a story in a magazine over so much space. The majority of my time I’ve spent working in newspapers where it’s usually one image to tell a story, but here it was a different process of how the photos work together to form a narrative.
Women photographers are still an anomaly in the male-dominated documentary photo world, with its emphasis on traditionally masculine values like the courage and bravery to ‘shoot’ with a camera. We need to encourage more female visual voices like Iwanek’s here in Canada and around the world. Death does not distinguish between genders. It takes all. But I’m interested in how the female eye looking through a photographic lens might see it differently. It’s important that we have different perspectives, that we pay attention to what they might show us that we haven’t considered before. That’s why we need exposure to more work of female war photographers, such as Iwanek.
—Anna Minzhulina, former art director, Maisonneuve
NMAF: The night of the 2016 National Magazine Awards, you didn’t have a ticket to get in, but as the show started you were hanging out in the foyer in case your name was called. And it was—twice! What was that experience like? And when you were on stage accepting your awards, what was your message to the audience?
Marta: I was generously given a seat at the sponsor table and so in the end I was able to attend the awards. I had a small cheer crew at the table and we had a lot of fun. I hadn’t prepared a speech, but I just went up there and spoke from my heart. I thanked everyone who helped me and it was great to see Anna in the audience as I spoke. I was also thankful that the recognition of the award would bring more attention to the story, which had greatly fallen off the news cycle. It’s a story close to me and so I’m grateful for any opportunity to talk about it.
NMAF: Can you tell us about some of your latest projects, and what you’re up to next as a journalist?
Marta: A project titled “Darling” was actually one of my first projects and still one close to my heart. It is a story about an elderly couple in Trenton, Ontario, where Lex Duncan is the at-home-caregiver for his wife Mary Duncan, who has dementia. I started it as a way to reconnect with a generation I felt I didn’t get a good chance to know after my last grandparent died.
It was a project to deal with the loss and also understanding what my parents, as well as countless others in our country are facing as they care for an ailing loved one. I am so grateful to the Duncan family who opened up their home to me and gave me a chance to get to know them and tell this story.
This year I started photographing in the villages my grandparents came from. They were once Ukrainian villages but after WWII became part of Poland and the majority of the Ukrainians who lived there were deported and dispersed either to Soviet Ukraine or throughout Poland, my grandparents included.
I’ve always been curious about my roots and grew up with a father who has worked as a historian, making films and writing books on eastern European history. So after the Maidan I became interested in exploring Eastern Europe on a deeper level and understanding events in the past that have an effect on the present. Through this project I want to explore how identity changes when a culture is displaced from its ancestral land. It’s been a very personal project, but I’ve also found it to be incredibly universal through the many forced migrations happening throughout the world today.
Marta Iwanek is a National Magazine Award-winning photojournalist whose work has appeared in Maisonneuve, Maclean’s, the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, and other publications. In 2016 she was named Canada’s Best New Magazine Photographer by the National Magazine Awards Foundation. Discover more of her work at martaiwanek.com.
The 40th anniversary National Magazine Awards are open for submissions until January 20, including three different categories for photography. Enter at magazine-awards.com.
Off the Page is a regular interview series featuring National Magazine Award winners. Recently we caught up with Richard Kelly Kemick, who was nominated for 2 National Magazine Awards in 2016–winning the Gold Medal in One of a Kind for his story “Playing God” (The Walrus), a reflection on his singular obsession with building Christmas villages. The story also won him a nomination for Canada’s Best New Magazine Writer.
NMAF: “Playing God,” your story thatwon Gold in the One of a Kind category at last year’s NMAs, was developed at the Banff Centre for Literary Journalism. Can you describe your experience there, and how this somewhat unconventional idea was developed into an award-winning magazine story.
Richard: During my month at the Banff Centre––as every tagline on their website attests––I worked alongside some of the best editors and writers in the business (Ian Brown, Victor Dwyer, Charlotte Gill, to say nothing of the exceptional participants I was writing alongside). What I wasn’t expecting, however, was how affirming it would be for me as a writer.
As I’m sure we all do, I wrestle a lot with insecurity and mediocrity. Banff’s LJ program placed me an environment where I had a month to only write, read, and sit in Michael Lista’s room to watch The Bachelor (he forced us to watch, like, every episode with him). It was an environment which told me––day after day for a month––that as long as I’m writing, I am a writer.
Anytime I get an opportunity to work with an editor, it’s an absolute privilege. The “Playing God” piece was edited, edited, kicked around, and edited again. And while I came to develop a profound hate for the Track Changes bubbles on a word document, my editor, Victor, took the piece from the ramblings of a limp-wristed despot into something with form, narrative, and an actual arc.
NMAF: More recently, your debut collection of poetry, Caribou Run was included in this year’s CBC must-read poetry list. How is recognition — from the NMAF and other organizations — significant to you and your work?
Richard: The CBC list was bizarre. I had no warning; I received an email from my publisher with the link and a note saying “this better translate into book sales” (just kidding, they’re incredibly supportive). It was a very rewarding surprise, just like the NMA.
These types of recognition are indeed significant. So much of what we do as writers is sit at a desk and clack away in an isolation the rest of the world would refer to as cruel and unusual punishment. (If you’re lucky, you’ll have a dog to aid you through this.) Any recognition that someone has actually read your work and––god forbid––actually enjoyed it is inexpressibly quenching.
On the other hand, however, I don’t want to think that recognition objectively signifies quality. There were poetry collections which were far stronger than mine but not included on the CBC list. Same goes for the NMA. A writer once told me that saying you “deserved” to win an award is like saying you “deserved” to win the lottery because you played the numbers well. (That writer was Michael Lista and it was on a commercial break of The Bachelor.)
Rewards are fantastic; anybody who says otherwise is either lying or Buddha. But it’s boom/bust. I was on the boom for a bit. Now is the bust. And I’m finding it hard not to become petty, jealous, and focused on recognition instead of the writing. But I’m trying to work against that, work through it. Because I think there is a name for writers, and the writing they produce, who are like that: fucked.
NMAF: Robert Moore, English professor at the University of New Brunswick, recently wrote apiecefor The Walrus questioning the future of poetry as an art form. In Adam Kirsch’sreviewof The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner, he claims poetry is “the site and source of disappointed hope.” He adds acclaimed poet Marianne Moore’s famous line “I, too, dislike it,” in reference to the craft. You’ve just published your first collection. What inspires you to write poetry?
Richard: As a poet, the perpetual death of poetry is my favourite topic. Yes, poetry now panhandles in the literary ghetto––neighbouring junk mail and the academic essay. Yes, poems gather more dust than acclaim. Yes, when I write “Poet” on credit card applications I all but assure rejection.
I think, however, that this apocalyptic setting is what enables Canadian poetry to be so exciting right now. We have an environment which produces writing, not writers. The pinnacle of this is when writers have brilliant collections (Michael Prior’s Model Disciple, anyone?) without floating off into the ether of poisonous pomp. Because the stakes are hedged, there is a democratizing force in contemporary Canadian poetry, a force which I’m not sure exists in any other commercial genre, a force in which free-verse upstarts and seasoned sonneteers are working within the same circles. Yes, there are politics within the CanPoetry community––just like anywhere. But at least we have the decency to wage our wars in divisive Facebook threads, rather than at the Giller’s or, for example, in a wildly offensive open letter.
I started writing poetry (and still do) because I wanted to be a better writer. Poetry––for my money––is the genre that best develops your craft. The attention to language is merciless, and if you can make fourteen lines of ten syllables each tell a story, think of what you can do with some elbow room!
NMAF: Much of your work centres around animals. How does your love for animals influence your writing, and what inspired the theme of caribou migration in your latest collection?
Richard: I write about animals because I’m unable to convey actual human emotion. Animals provide a healthy alternative. Like, if you’ve got a character that is unlovable but you want to make him lovable but you don’t know how–give him a dog. Then name that dog Maisy. Then let Maisy fool a woman, preferably a public school teacher because of the job security, into a long-term relationship. Then feel safe and loved and statistically unlikely to now die alone as you work on your poems all day, drinking coffee from small cups as your wife toils in a grade one classroom, with Maisy curled at your feet.
The caribou idea was just that I thought the migration was pretty rad and already had poetic elements within it. Four years later (which is about a third of a male caribou’s life), a book! Aim for the stars, kids.
NMAF: Your writing ranges from fiction to nonfiction, poetry to prose — do you have a favourite form? And, if you can tell us, what can we expect to see from you next?
Richard: I don’t have a favourite form. I consider forms like my children: they all disappoint me for different reasons.
I’ve currently got a collection of non-fiction essays (one of which is the piece that won the NMA) under consideration. I’ve also got a collection of short stories that was turned down for publication, but I’ve since been working on it and hope to submit again soon.
I’m trying to view rejection as an opportunity for me to make the work better. In five, twenty, or a hundred years (I plan to live forever), I know I won’t mind having been delayed in publishing a collection of short stories, but I will mind if those stories are shitty. I’m not saying that every rejection a publisher makes is sound; but in this individual case, the rejection has given me the clarity to realize that I can make the stories stronger and (after I’d cried myself dry and drank myself wet) I’m trying to do that.
Richard Kelly Kemick is a National Magazine Award-winning writer whose work has been published in The Walrus, The Fiddlehead, Maisonneuve and Tin House. His debut collection of poetry, Caribou Run,(2016, Goose Lane Editions) follows the Porcupine caribou herd through their annual migration, the largest overland migration in the world. Caribou Run was included as a one of CBC’s fifteen must-read poetry collections. Follow him on Twitter @RichardKemick.
Special thanks to Krista Robinson for her reporting on this interview with Richard.
At the start of summer, fall, and early spring, the National Magazine Awards Foundation publishes a comprehensive list of magazine writing contests and prizes. These contests are great opportunities for emerging writers and poets to establish their presence in CanLit. Michael Prior is one such emerging writer, and in just a few years he’s compiled an impressive record of Canadian magazine publications and contest wins.
Doggedly submitting his work to numerous literary publications, between 2013 and 2015 Michael placed in over a dozen competitions and garnered scores of publications in literary journals and magazines across Canada.
His success as a poet has evolved from literary publications to small-press chapbooks–Swan Dive (Frog Hollow Press, 2014) included poetry first published in The Walrus, Lemon Hound and the Winnipeg Review—to a debut, book-length collection recently published by Véhicule Press: Model Disciple (Spring 2016).
Recently the NMAF caught up with Michael, currently pursuing an MFA at Cornell University, to chat about magazine contests and building a career as a writer.
NMAF: Your poetry career emerged quite recently and has been moving at breakneck-speed. How and when did you first set foot in the world of Canadian poetry, and why were you drawn to this world?
Michael Prior: I think, like a lot of other writers, I was nudged into this by a series of passionate teachers and professors. I had always liked poetry, but it wasn’t until later in my undergrad that I actually began to read poems deeply. And then, when I did, they became these fascinating and visceral experiences: Dickinson took off the top of my head. Lowell made me feel like my mind was in a vise. Bishop asked me to look more carefully until the act of looking became a way of thinking.
NMAF: “To Hunt” (2013) garnered you your first poetry contest win: 2nd place in Echolocation’s Chase Chapbook Competition. You were in Vancouver at the time; what drew you to submitting to the Toronto-based Echolocation? What did it mean to win, and what happened—personally and professionally—next?
Michael Prior: Well, I’m not sure anything happened immediately, but placing second certainly gave me a little more confidence. I hadn’t been making poems for long at that point, and I remember having received a few rejections around the same time, so it was a nice validation to think that someone liked something I had written.
NMAF: You’ve since won poetry contests in acclaimed Canadian magazines, such as Vallum, Grain, The Walrus, and Matrix Magazine. There are often financial incentives to entering magazine writing contests, but what are some of the not-so-obvious perks? (Winning the Matrix Lit POP Award, for instance, includes tickets to POP Montreal and offers poets the opportunity to present on stage.)
But in terms of less tangible perks, I would argue that the primary benefit of literary magazine contests is that most are run through a blind submission process; that is, the readers and judges aren’t permitted to see the authors’ names, and therefore have to judge the work on its own merits without the context of a writer’s corpus, their stature in a literary community—in theory, this should level the playing field a bit for less-established writers.
But of course, the factors involved in any contest’s outcome are undeniably complex. There are aspects of contest culture that might favour certain aesthetics, certain experiences, certain types of poems about certain things. Connected to this is the question of who’s actually entering literary magazine contests. Economic means can be an obstacle to submitting (contests usually cost around $30 to enter, which is a lot for someone struggling to make ends meet) and identity can also be a determining factor: writers of colour may be uneasy about sending their work to prizes if the judge is of European descent, while LGBTTQI writers may apprehensive about submitting to a contest judged by a cisgender, straight individual.
Regardless of whether one wins, or doesn’t, I think it’s important to remember that placing in a contest is only a small measure of success. What matters is that one keeps writing and reading and writing.
I do think, however, that contests present an important opportunity for writers, as long as one takes their inscription of hierarchies, their tendencies, with a grain of salt; the magazines that run contests should be thinking (if they aren’t already) about how to attract more diverse submissions from diverse writers. Mostly, I hope that judges and readers are doing their best to be respectful, empathetic, imaginative, and inclusive when considering contest submissions.
NMAF: Which Canadian literary magazines are on your reading list right now?
Michael Prior: There are many great Canadian literary magazines, though due to budget constraints I have to rotate subscriptions. Right now, the stack of periodicals on my bedside table includes issues of Ricepaper, Poetry is Dead, The New Quarterly, Canadian Notes and Queries, The Walrus, Maisonneuve, and The Fiddlehead.
I do my best to keep up with Canada’s burgeoning online publications, and like many of the poet folk I know, I eagerly await each new issue of The Puritan and TheRusty Toque. Also online: the poet Robin Richardson recently founded the Minola Review in order to create a unique publishing space for women, femme-identifying, and non-binary writers; the influential website Lemon Hound, though no longer publishing, remains an important archive; and Plenitude Magazine continues to publish and promote the work of LGBTTQI writers in Canada.
Needless to say, I think it’s apparent that there’s a lot of exciting work happening among Canada’s many literary magazines, of which I’ve only mentioned a small number, and I’m very grateful for all the editors and staff who volunteer countless hours to sift through the submissions and support new work.
NMAF: While completing your Master’s at the University of Toronto, you were a Poetry Editor at Echolocation. You’re now an MFA candidate at Cornell, and an Assistant Editor at Cornell’s Epoch Magazine. How does a magazine editor at a small press literary journal go about attracting new writing talent and new readers? As an editor, what do you look for in poetry submissions?
Michael Prior: To answer the first part of your question, I think an engaged editor obviously needs to read widely: books, journals, websites, blogs, and all the other places poems might be proliferating. This is undoubtedly time consuming—we’re all busy, and resources tend to be scarce at small magazines—but I think this sort of effort is essential to fostering a magazine’s ethos, which emerges over time through both the work an editor solicits, and the work an editor accepts from the slush pile. This becomes an even harder thing to foster at a student-run journal, where the staff changes every year.
Editorial work, in my opinion, requires a simultaneously historical and forward-looking perspective (what has happened, what is happening, what will happen next / what might I like to see happening more in the future). Editors are unavoidably gate-keepers. There’s no way around it: a magazine cannot, nor should it try to be, everything at once (though its scope of interest need not be narrow)—what’s important is that the literary landscape is able to support a diverse range of publications, and by extension, a diverse range of editors.
And of course, I believe editors should always be questioning what they like and why. As Jim Johnstone once said to me, it’s much easier to quickly dismiss a piece of writing than it is to spend the time and learn how it’s asking to be read. Some writing opens up in unexpected ways with a little persistence.
As for what I personally look for in a submission, well, I’m interested in poems that are compelling experiences, surprising experiences, experiences that are emotionally complex and powerful—poems that have something at stake beyond language as a game of phonemic pick-up sticks. Memorability is often a good marker of this for me: if I am re-experiencing a poem at unexpected times (while riding the bus, or when walking a corgi) moments when the poem is not right in front of me, that’s usually a good sign.
I am also interested in a poem’s formal qualities, especially its engagement with what has preceded it—its conversation with other poems, traditions, and modes. In other words, how aware is the poem of the fact it wasn’t written in a vacuum? This isn’t to say I’m only interested in canonically inherited formal structures (though I am a sucker for a well-written sonnet): I’m as equally enraptured by Alexandra Oliver’s metrical brilliance as I am by Alice Fulton’s fractal poetics or Cathy Park Hong’s renovation of the ballad form through lipogrammatic constraints.
NMAF: As both a writer and editor, what advice do you have for those new poets who have yet to enter a magazine writing contest?
Michael Prior: While it’s nice to win, entering a contest can be a helpful creative impetus: use the contest as a deadline to generate new work; use the contest as a way to support an admired publication; use the contest to hopefully get one’s work before the eyes of a favourite writer.
And regardless of whether one wins, or doesn’t, I think it’s important to remember that placing in a contest is only a small measure of success. What matters is that one keeps writing and reading and writing.
Michael Prior’s Model Disciplewas released on March 29th, 2016. Véhicule Press has declared it “one of the most commanding poetic debuts in years” and the CBC included Model Disciple on their Spring 2016 Books Preview. Model Disciple is available in bookstores and for order now.
Michael holds an MA in English with a Creative Thesis from the University of Toronto, where he was the poetry editor of Echolocation. He’s now a poetry candidate at Cornell University, and an assistant poetry editor at Epoch Magazine. Though living in America, he’s still actively publishing in Canadian magazines, with work recently appearing in recent issues of The Puritan and Canadian Notes and Queries. He also has poems forthcoming in Ricepaperand The Fiddlehead. Discover more at MichaelPrior.ca and on Twitter @MichaelPrior06.
Special thanks to Leah Edwards for researching and conducting this interview on behalf of the NMAF.
The nominees for the 39th annual National Magazine Awards will be announced on Monday,. May 2, 2016. Follow us right here on this blog or on Twitter (@MagAwards) to find out who will be the finalists this year.
En juin dernier, à l’occasion du gala des Prix du magazine canadien, la récolte a été faste pour le magazine Nouveau Projet. En plus d’avoir décroché le prestigieux titre de Magazine de l’année, Nicolas Langelier et son équipe ont récolté deux médailles d’or, une médaille d’argent et trois mentions honorables, dont la médaille d’or pour la meilleure direction artistique d’un numéro (« Ce Canada dont nous ne voulons pas »).
Le jury a salué la vision du directeur artistique Jean-François Proulx en lui octroyant la plus haute distinction pour une catégorie visuelle. Depuis NP01, Jean-François Proulx fait équipe avec Nouveau Projet pour créer l’identité visuelle du magazine. La Fondation s’est entretenue avec lui afin d’en savoir davantage à propos de son parcours et de sa démarche artistique.
FPMC : Vous êtes le directeur artistique de Nouveau Projet, mais vous dirigez aussi Balistique, que vous décrivez comme étant un « studio de collaboration graphique à géométrie variable ». Pouvez-vous nous parler brièvement de votre cheminement professionnel et de la petite histoire de ce studio?
Jean-François Proulx :En 2016, Balistique célébrera ses 8 ans, dont 5 passées avec nos amis du magazine Nouveau Projet, depuis leurs débuts. C’est un désir d’indépendance combiné à un certain esprit d’entreprenariat qui m’a poussé à lancer ce studio, après avoir travaillé quelques années en agence, ici, dans le Vieux-Montréal.
Balistique n’est pas un studio au sens traditionnel. Pas de bureaux, de secrétaire ou de photocopieur. Seulement une équipe flexible créée sur mesure pour les besoins de chaque client, travaillant sous ma direction artistique (branding, édition, web, applications mobiles). Les méthodes contemporaines de travail changent, et la mobilité est maintenant un atout pour les entreprises créatives qui peuvent collaborer avec différentes personnes, dans un processus organique.
Depuis 2008, nous travaillons particulièrement avec des organisations dans les milieux culturels et corporatifs. Et cette année marquera aussi le lancement d’un projet parallèle d’entreprise avec la conception et l’édition d’une application mobile (plus de détails à venir).
FPMC :Vous réalisez divers projets sous la bannière Balistique : conception graphique de logos, de jaquettes de livres, de programmes, d’affiches. En quoi votre approche diffère-t-elle selon le projet que vous abordez? Plus spécifiquement, quel est le processus de création en ce qui concerne Nouveau Projet?
JFP : Chaque projet est unique et nécessite une approche différente. Balistique s’entoure de collaborateurs talentueux qui sauront mener chaque projet à bon port. Dans le cas du magazine Nouveau Projet, nous travaillons à proximité de l’équipe éditoriale. Assez tôt dans le processus (jusqu’à 6 mois avant l’envoi du magazine à l’imprimeur) nous organisons des rencontres de production hebdomadaires, qui nous permettent de bien planifier la création visuelle du magazine, à mesure que la direction des textes se précise.
Ensuite, je rédige un brief créatif précis pour commander les oeuvres et photos qui illustreront le magazine. L’apport des collaborateurs est évidemment toujours apprécié et encouragé. Enfin, comme pour chaque projet d’envergure, la production se termine par un mois de production et d’échanges de toutes sortes, entre l’équipe créative et la rédaction. Ces jours-ci, nous travaillons d’ailleurs à la conception du prochain numéro du printemps-été 2016.
FPMC : En page couverture du numéro « Ce Canada dont nous ne voulons pas », pour lequel vous avez reçu la médaille d’or, le portrait de David Suzuki donne spontanément envie aux lecteurs de parcourir le magazine. L’utilisation de la lumière donne l’impression de plonger au cœur des préoccupations du scientifique. L’effet est vraiment saisissant. Pouvez-vous nous parler de la création de cette page couverture et de votre collaboration avec la photographe Dominique Lafond?
JFP: Je pense que cette couverture est toute spéciale pour le magazine. Elle marque l’entrée de Nouveau Projet dans la sphère des grands magazines de société. La couverture a été réfléchie ici, mais c’est à Toronto que nous avons dû rencontrer monsieur Suzuki. Son horaire est extrêmement chargé, et il n’était malheureusement pas disponible pour une visite à Montréal. Dominique Lafond et son équipe (Rodéo Productions) ont réussi à organiser une séance éclair à Toronto. Et quelle rencontre ça a été!
Monsieur Suzuki est un grand homme qui possède une impressionnante expérience. Il était tellement bavard que nous devions parfois l’interrompre pour prendre les photos.
FPMC : Pourquoi avoir choisi le rouge pour le titre du magazine sur cette page couverture, plutôt que le blanc, utilisé ailleurs? Ce choix semble aussi en rupture avec les numéros précédents.
JFP: L’optimisme habituel des couvertures de Nouveau Projet a été légèrement revu pour ce numéro. Le dossier central touche un sujet assez grave, soit la disparition d’une certaine idée du Canada, autrefois perçu comme une nation progressiste. Le rouge semblait la couleur idéale pour illustrer ce sujet important.
FPMC : D’une couverture à l’autre du magazine, le texte alterne entre le noir et l’orange, ce qui rend la lecture plus conviviale tout en mettant en valeur certains passages. Le style est sobre, et la couleur est utilisée parcimonieusement. En quoi ces choix reflètent-ils l’identité visuelle que vous désiriez conférer au magazine?
JFP :Nouveau Projet est un espace de lecture et de réflexion. Sans être brutalement minimaliste, la signature visuelle du magazine favorise une certaine élégance et invite les lecteurs à prendre leur temps (dans la lecture, la réflexion et même dans la vie en général). On s’éloigne aussi de la signature des créations éphémères à la mode (puisqu’elles ne survivent pas toujours à l’épreuve du temps).
FPMC : Depuis l’ouverture de votre studio en 2008, la qualité de votre travail a été saluée à maintes reprises. Aux Prix du magazine canadien en particulier, vous avez remporté cette année la médaille d’or pour la direction artistique d’un numéro, et étiez finaliste dans cette même catégorie en 2014. Quel impact ces distinctions ont-elles eu sur votre carrière?
JFP : Malgré une importance démesurée accordée par l’industrie (et surtout les jeunes designers), les distinctions en design ne changent pas le monde et ne prédisent pas le succès ou l’échec d’une carrière en design graphique. Je préfère toujours réfléchir avec une certaine humilité: je pense qu’un prix en design est surtout une précieuse occasion de remercier le client qui nous a fait confiance, et féliciter l’équipe qui travaille derrière le projet gagnant. On pense immédiatement à l’équipe de création, mais n’oublions jamais le travail passionné de tous les acteurs qui font qu’un magazine de qualité peut voir le jour.
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.
Dan 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.
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.
Very special thanks to Leah Edwardsfor 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).
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.
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.
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!
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 Edwardsfor 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.
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.
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.
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: 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.comand find him on Twitter @Hudsons_House.
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: 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.
The Writer (Write Magazine). Honourable Mention, Illustration, 2012 National Magazine Awards
To Love, Honour and Stay (More Magazine). Honourable Mention, Illustratrion, 2010 National Magazine Awards
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 visitGraciaLam.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.
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 Walrus, won Silver in the Personal Journalism category.
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.
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 oncountless listsfor 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 inReader’s Digest, Longform, 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 asAzure,FlareandThe New Quarterly. Did you always have aspirations of being a magazine writer, perhaps during your days as an undergraduate student at theRyerson 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.
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 Reporting, Science, 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.
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.
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 byAnya 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Off the Page is a regular interview series produced by the National Magazine Awards Foundation. Today we catch up with Charles Yao, publisher and art director of Little Brother, a literary magazine which won its first NMA this past spring. The 2014 National Magazine Awards are now open for submissions.
NMAF: Little Brother only recently burst onto the Canadian lit-mag scene, with your first issue released in 2012 (and alreadysold out, I see). What is your perspective on the value of literary magazines to Canadian readers and culture, and how did this influence what was no doubt a bold decision to launch LB?
Charles: Literary magazines are valuable, for sure. They’re like this living system—new writing, lovingly packaged, parceled out every few months—that keeps the culture moving, keeps it evolving. That’s the best-case scenario anyway.
When we started Little Brother, we wanted to be a part of that, but also do our own thing. If it’s not new, why bother? So we junked what we didn’t like, and made a magazine that we personally would want to read. LB has always been very DIY. No grants, no open submissions, no army of slush readers, no affiliations with universities. Just two people pushing out their literary and aesthetic sensibilities onto the world! We’ve run 10,000-word essays on hot dogs, professional wrestling, illness and laughter, women in print media, the influence of America on Canadian writers. We’ve commissioned photo essays on pop bottles and “boring” apartment buildings. It speaks to the breadth of Canadian literary culture that there’s room—even a relatively sizeable audience—for what we’re doing.
As far as the “bold” decision to launch our own mag. Back then, [founding publisher] Emily M. Keeler was thinking a lot about Canadian literature: whether there was anything new under the sun—that kind of thing. Little Brother is like this candy-coloured mag that, twice a year, says, “Yes. Yes there are new things coming out of Canada that will more than repay your commitment.”
NMAF: Emily hassaidthat she decided to pursue LB as a print publication (as opposed to digital) in part because the magazine wanted to create space for long pieces and experiments, for “prose that isn’t forced to hurriedly unfurl itself.” And she spoke of the rhythm of reading a printed magazine over digital. Is this sense of writer-reader engagement on a kind of special sensory plane a motivating force for you as a publisher, and why is this important in a media landscape with so much content?
Charles: A beautifully designed, thoughtfully paced magazine is simply the best medium for reading a certain kind of literary writing. If you want to read work that requires and rewards sustained attention, then a quality print mag, like McSweeney’s, like The Paris Review, like Little Brother, is still where it’s at.
And part of that, for sure, has to do with the sensory appeal—with, as you say, the rhythm of turning pages. You get that “space” that Emily mentions. You get the literal white space of the margins surrounding nice typography, which is its own kind of minor luxury these days. But you also get the mental space of uninterrupted reading. And you just don’t get that, at least not right now, with the junky impermanence of most web sites. (Just to be clear, though, the web is great for 95% of all reading. Most of my reading—most of everyone’s, I imagine—takes place on the web.)
I’ve also mentioned this elsewhere that an important aspect of publishing is excitement. Does the reader get excited when something is released? I think people still do get genuinely excited when a new issue of a print magazine comes out. They’re probably less excited when a web site gets refreshed. And, let’s be honest, they’re hovering in the bottom rungs of excitement when an eBook is released.
Finally, as producers, making a print, as opposed to a digital, magazine is a necessary motivator. We could have made a Tumblr. That would have been easy, but a little struggle is good. The fact that a print magazine costs money to produce, takes time to design and distribute, requires a wide skill set, forces you to learn new things—these are all pluses. Having stakes is important.
NMAF: A wonderful emerging writer namedJess Taylorwon last year’s National Magazine Award for Fiction, for a short story called “Paul” in LB No. 3. Describe your experience of the nomination and the award, and what were you thinking when Jess walked up on stage?
Charles: Well, funny story. We first heard Jess read an early version of “Paul” at a live reading series, and we immediately wanted it for the mag. Wanted it quite badly. The problem was that she had already submitted it to this other journal, which, incredibly, couldn’t decide if they wanted to run it! I still remember the day that Jess sent us an email to say that we could have the story and start the editing process. That was a good day.
Still, I didn’t think Jess would win. It’s not because “Paul” isn’t great. And it’s not because Jess isn’t amazingly talented. It’s because, you know, she’s a relative newcomer. At that point, she hadn’t published very many stories and Little Brother wasn’t even finished its second year! So: you have a 24-year-old writer with an offbeat but beautiful story about three guys named “Paul,” and it’s published in a small-run magazine that’s only on its third issue—and it’s up against Michael Winter and Pasha Malla [and 3 other nominated writers]. Yet, somehow, she won! Actually, that’s some false modesty, I know: Jess’s story is a stone-cold classic!
When they announced Jess as the Gold winner, we pretty much lost our shit! She ran up on stage, and gave this really endearing speech. Her speech, and the one from an editor at Torontoist, were the best of the night. They were both deeply appreciative and a little shocked and very happy. I remember talking to Emily about whether we should even go to the ceremony; the price of the tickets was not inconsequential—that’s money we could put to good use elsewhere. But it turned out all right in the end. Also: there were two chocolate fountains at the post-awards gala, so I really can’t complain.
NMAF: What are your publishing goals for Little Brother, and where do you see recognition, such as that of the National Magazine Awards helping, to fulfill those goals?
Charles: Our goal is to keep growing, to get in front of as many potential readers as possible.Little Brother No. 5, the meta issue, is the first where we have proper national distribution. It’s important that LB be in stores across the country, in a lot of cities. It’s cool to see a spreadsheet of all the places selling it. My hope is that someone who’s never heard of LB stumbles on it, finds it intriguing enough to pick up, and brings it home. That kind of serendipity was how I found a lot of magazines—like early McSweeneys and Speak—that were important to me.
We’ve also launched a speaker series, called What We Talk About, which was originally started by the late Alicia Louise Merchant and Peter Merriman. Both of them, coincidentally, wrote essays for LB2. One reason we started LB was to build this community of like-minded writers, artists, and readers. So the lecture series is an extension of Little Brother! The first–about Witchy Women!–was held on November 19 at the Drake Hotel.
With Emily now the Books Editor at The National Post, we’ve grown the administrative side to compensate: Lydia Ogwang from Worn Fashion Journal is now our publishing associate, and Evangeline Holtz, who talked us into letting her be our publishing assistant (really!), will be helping us as she finishes her PhD. Jess Taylor, speak of the devil, will become our first fiction editor, which is very exciting. She’s as dedicated as anyone we know to nurturing, finding, and publishing new fiction writers, and she has a sensibility all her own—though it fits well within the context of LB. Emily will still work on the big essays, and I’m still the art director, but now also the publisher.
As for the National Magazine Award, I think it’s given us a certain legitimacy in the eyes of people who might have otherwise written us off as this upstart publication that just does what it likes. That’s true, but getting a Gold NMA is proof that there are other people who like what we’re doing, too.