This post has been updated.
At the 37th annual National Magazine Awards on June 6, 2014, the special award for Canada’s Best New Magazine Writer, sponsored by the Readers’s Digest Foundation, was presented to Catherine McIntyre, author of “Clusterf*ck” (THIS Magazine). We chatted with Catherine about her story and her perspective on writing for Canadian magazines.
NMAF: What is something about yourself that others would be surprised to know?
Catherine: Most of my jobs in the past have been physically labour intensive. I was essentially reared in a vineyard where I built up a tolerance for hard physical work (and a palate for wine). During my months off in university, I planted trees in BC and Alberta and I spent another summer farming in France. Working those jobs meant I spent a lot of time alone. Farm work and especially tree planting can be very solitary; they offer copious time and space, which for me is important for nurturing story ideas.
NMAF: When it came to writing your piece, did you have any sources of inspiration?
Catherine: Curiosity and a bit of fear originally drove me to this story. Growing up around farm country in Nova Scotia, I was exposed to lots of chemicals. I had no idea what kind of harm this exposure was causing long-term, so I started digging for disease rates in Nova Scotian farming communities. I came across Inka Milewski’s study on disease patterns throughout New Brunswick. She found that rates of certain cancers were high depending on the community in question, and she had evidence linking specific types of cancer to specific industries.
This sounded like a huge breakthrough to me: if we know what’s causing cancer, we can change our behaviours and prevent the disease. But no one was talking about this—not the local media, not community mayors—and I quickly realized why that was: drawing attention to Milewski’s findings would worry the public and may even encourage people to petition for change. But the kind of changes necessary to deal with the high rates of cancer would require a total overhaul of New Brunswick’s industries and economy. That’s why the province was ignoring Milewkski and that’s why I had to tell this story. Muzzling scientists like this really irks me. I don’t think people should be kept in the dark, especially when it comes to their health.
NMAF: What are your career goals?
Catherine: At this stage in my career I feel like I have to be flexible, which is the self-assuring way of saying “I’ll take what I can get.” Ultimately, I just want to tell good stories. I want to write feature articles and when the right idea comes around, I’d love to write a book. This is a tough industry, though, and I realize you have to pay your dues before landing a full-time feature writing gig that sustains your lifestyle. For that reason I often flit back and forth between pursuing writing and becoming a farmer and wine-maker. But for now, my sights are set on writing and getting published as much as possible. The business side of magazines has always appealed to me as well, and in the fall, I plan on going back to school to dabble in magazine and web publishing.
NMAF: How did you feel about being an NMA nominee?
Catherine: I was not expecting an NMA nomination. I was obviously thrilled to be nominated, but part of me felt like an imposter. I was fresh out of university when I wrote the article and it was the first feature story I’d ever published. An NMA had not crossed my mind—not for this one. Am I even qualified? The nomination was certainly encouraging though. I’m new to this magazine thing and it’s sometimes difficult to imagine how I’ll ever make a living at it. Being recognized for my work was a reminder that maybe I shouldn’t abandon writing just yet.
NMAF: What advice do you have for up-and-coming magazine writers?
Catherine: Write all the time. Even if you don’t have an idea worth publishing, write for yourself every day. Take any event with some sort of conflict and give it a beginning, middle, and end. Develop a character, sketch some scenes, and there—you’ve got a story. It’s good practice and you’ll start seeing there are stories everywhere. When you get an idea you think is interesting or important, dive into it. Research, make calls, and then pitch your story to a magazine, because if you don’t someone else will.
This interview was edited for content. Special thanks to Nadya Domingo for conducting the interview.
Here’s what this year’s NMA jury said about “Clusterf*ck”:
In Clusterf*ck, Catherine McIntyre dares to tackle a complex and underreported issue, digging into New Brunswick’s data on cancer clusters and correlating illness with areas of heavy industry. In every way a powerful feature—great sources, revealing scenes, vivid details—the work displays a principled grasp of the fundamentals of investigative reporting. Her piece, like the best journalism, has the potential to effect change.