This week on Off the Page, our interview series with National Magazine Award winners, we chat with author and NMA-winning journalist Dan Rubinstein, whose 2015 book Born to Walk emerged from a National Magazine Award-nominated story in The Walrus.
NMAF: Congratulations on the recent publication of your book Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act (ECW Press). You’re a self-described obsessive walker, meditating on the many benefits walking offers. How did your obsession with walking begin?
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.
Dan Rubinstein is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist and author of Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act (ECW Press). Read more about the project at borntowalk.org/about/. Follow Dan on Twitter @dan_rube.
Very special thanks to Leah Edwards for researching and conducting this interview with Dan.
The 2016 National Magazine Awards are now open for submissions until January 15. Awards will be presented in 39 categories at the 39th annual NMA gala on June 9. Digital publications and magazine content can also enter the Digital Publishing Awards (deadline Feb 16).
More “Off the Page” interviews with award-winning writers
Heather O’Neill, author of Lullabies for Little Criminals
Emily Urquhart, author of Beyond the Pale
Arno Kopecky, author of The Oilman and the Sea
Joshua Knelman, author of Hot Art