Interviewed by Andrea Hoff
Over the past fifteen years, Tyee Bridge has been writing essays and features on ecology, religion and urban culture. His work is gutsy and deeply researched, often exploring polarizing issues and drawing together unexpected narrative threads: the need for mythic stories in an era of information overload; a voyage to Antarctica and the pending apocalypse of Western Culture; an exploration of the fate of residential garbage in Vancouver from bin to landfill; the causes, cultural effects and possible solutions to Vancouver’s lack of affordable housing, to name just a few of the themes in his work.
His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Swerve magazine, Westworld, BC Business, and many other publications. He is the recipient of four National Magazine Awards and seven Western Magazine Awards since 2007.
He and fellow journalist Anne Casselman recently launched Nonvella, a publishing house dedicated to nonfiction novellas.
I caught up with Tyee Bridge via email at his home in Vancouver, BC to discuss the ideas behind Nonvella, his influences in writing, and what he envisions for the future of long-form journalism.
Can you chart the path you took into writing literary journalism?
I was physically inept and bookish from an early age. The first book that made an impression on me was D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths, with the great illustrations, and I was always a fan of comic books—Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge, Spiderman, X-Men. I have an uncle who for some reason thought I would enjoy reading a box set of the collected essays and plays of Woody Allenat age 13 or so, which I did, and was permanently warped as a result. Fiction was sci-fi and fantasy: Tolkien, Herbert, Stephen King. I started to appreciate nonfiction and essays much later, mainly via the work of Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry.
As ridiculous as it might sound to anyone who is married to or otherwise financially entangled with a writer, what got me into writing nonfiction was realizing I needed to earn a living. Having run up my credit card while living in Portland and trying to write the Great Work of Metafiction That Would Change Everything, I hit the wall in more ways than one. I needed money and couldn’t go back to working in hotels and restaurants without having a panic attack. So I got into magazine freelancing.
What are you reading right now, and what kind of writing most interests you?
I read more nonfiction than fiction these days, but in either case I like work that has some kind of mythic underlay, where opposites collide and something new comes of it. Wild nature intersecting human culture, faith coming to terms with earthly evil. The “mythic” element means some hopeful force for transformation and redemption is present, some X factor. Two recent favourite nonfiction books are John Vaillant’s The Tiger and J.B. MacKinnon’s The Once and Future World… and if I had to pick a favourite essay it would be the short version of Annie Dillard’s For The Time Being.
Your work is embedded with complex background information; it must take months of research for each article. I’m thinking of your features such as “Gravel Battle in the Fraser River” and “The Enchantment of Slow Stories.”
What do you look for in an idea that can sustain the amount of time you need to spend with it?
I’m not sure I look for ideas, or any of us really do. They tend to find us, because we all have chips on our shoulders. Or for a different cliché, some grain of sand in us that irritates us enough to turn it into a piece of writing. Some passion, for whatever reason, for figuring out what’s really going on with an issue or reality.
How important is the research phase in writing long-form nonfiction?
For journalists who are trying to write readable, compelling stories about public issues in newspapers and magazines—if that’s what you do or what you want to do—I would say that you’re acting in the public trust. The research standard is high. Your job is not to find two points of view (the Coke-Pepsi “beverage journalism” as Jon Stewart put it) but to learn enough about your subjects to know what is real and what is bullshit.
There are not always two sides to every issue. There are not two sides to whether the Holocaust occurred, and there are not two sides as to whether humans are causing global warming. The truth is out there, but it takes work to find it, and usually it’s more complicated than you first assumed. But if you signed up for journalism, that’s your job. It’s not repeating what officials say in press conferences or media releases. If that’s what you do, you’re not a journalist. You’re a drainpipe.
There is much discussion in the nonfiction writing community about the “death of long-form nonfiction”—partly due to the changes happening in the magazine and publishing industry—mainly the transition from a print–based media to various digital formats. It is rumoured that people don’t read long-form in the digital age. What have you experienced?
Long-form features of 5,000 or more words are the slow food of the nonfiction world. They take time and a good deal of effort and imagination to produce, so as a result they’re more costly for magazines than, say, celebrity profiles or cocktail-recipe roundups. And magazine editors are less and less at liberty to spend the money it takes to produce this kind of literary nonfiction—the work you’d see from a Jon Krakauer, Lawrence Wright, or Susan Orlean.
The advent of desktop publishing, the Internet and now ebooks are only a small part of the reason that magazines have turned away from this kind of work. Like newspapers, most glossies are in a self-fulfilling death spiral: reducing quality to save money. The cost-cutting is usually imposed from above, and doesn’t have to do with addressing core needs so much as diverting more profit to shareholders and executives. When you keep cutting out the quality, the craftsmanship, people get the whiff of airline food— stuff you can get anywhere and everywhere—and readership dissipates.
In the last three years or so I’ve come to believe the opposite—not that digital publishing is destroying long-form, but reviving it. The advent of boutique digital publishers and on-demand printing is opening things up for long-form nonfiction of 5K to 20K words. We’re seeing these works, which I’ve come to call nonvellas (for nonfiction novellas) sold by digital outlets like The Atavist, Byliner, Kindle Singles, the Canadian Writers Group. There’s also more straightforward investigative journalism from the new Matter imprint, and ProPublica. I think all this upstart “disruption” of publishing is pretty exciting.
Tell me about Nonvella. I’m curious where the idea came from. Was it inspired by a lack you saw in the publishing industry or did it arise from another source of inspiration?
I was thinking about it in early 2011, after I’d gone as far as I wanted to go in the world of magazine feature-writing and had decided to abandon a pending book proposal. The book was to going to be an exploration of the sense of pending apocalypse throughout human history, especially in Western culture. I thought it would be dead dull as a general survey at fifty thousand words, but that it could work really well at fifteen to twenty thousand words. And there was nowhere really to publish that kind of piece, which was odd in that wasn’t strictly journalistic but exploratory, and in some ways essayish and personal.
Basically I wanted to write a nonfiction novella, and that’s when the word “nonvella” came to me. And when I thought about it, nonvellas of 5000+ words were what I really enjoyed writing as a freelancer, mostly for Swerve magazine here in Canada, and what I’d always enjoyed reading, whether in the New Yorker, Granta,or the Best American Essays series. I found out about The Atavist around this time, which inspired me to do something similar.
Encouragement and interest from several Vancouver writers helped the idea come out of the closet. We had a couple of meetings to discuss possibilities. But it was Anne Casselman’s energy and enthusiasm that helped really kick-start things. She had started a couple of digital and print publications over the years— a science blog and later a magazine, Jargon— and we agreed to build Nonvella as partners.
What kind of writing and topics are you and Anne keen to publish through Nonvella?
It’s hard to pin this down. One tagline we came up with was “Serious writing for people who like to read.” Another was “Writing that matters.” We want serious writing, which doesn’t mean we’re opposed to humour, just that we’re trying to avoid the irony trap, or being too cute and hipster-ish for our own good.
Maybe the best way to say it is that we’re after writing with substance, style, and a strong authorial voice, mainly from North American writers. This might be adventure stories, reportage, memoir or essay. Whatever form it takes, our hope is to publish pieces that are timely but age well, as publishers like Granta have been able to do— Granta in particular has been one of the pre-eminent publishers of relevant and lasting nonfiction in the past 20 years, from authors like Ryszard Kapuscinski, Bruce Chatwin, Rian Malan and many others.
Peering into a crystal ball, what do you see in the future for Nonvella?
We have big hopes. We want to publish great writing by some of North America’s best writers, and (as if that isn’t enough) we also want to be part of changing the publishing game itself. It’s a David and Goliath thing for sure. We’re a boutique, slow-food alternative to the corporate mega-publishers, and as a side-effect we hope we’ll be part of helping spark evolution in the publishing marketplace—the way that the local food movement and farmer’s markets are changing the world of agriculture.
Writers are like organic potato farmers, bread-bakers or apple-growers—for that matter they’re also like chefs, painters, and documentary film-makers. As a society we need these kinds of artisans, and we need to support them as much as we would support a local cheesemaker or the guy who brings you those incredible peaches every July. It’s particularly tough for mature writers in their thirties, forties and older— these are craftspeople at the peak of what they have to offer us as readers and as a culture generally, and they often have to set down their craft and go work in PR or communications to feed their families. I don’t think it has to be that way.
Nonvella splits profits 50/50 with authors, both for digital and print sales, and we collaborate as partners with them in the publishing process. We want to help writers receive value for their work. Most people assume that anyone who has published a book or two has arrived, so to speak, and has money handled one way or another. But that’s usually not the case. We’re losing great nonfiction writers every day because they can’t make the work pencil out financially.
In this context, the nonvella form is not only a great structure for compelling nonfiction, it’s also a more nimble form for writers to receive value for what they do. Writing and editing a 50,000-word manuscript takes a long time and carries significant risk. It can be three years or more before writers see if they’re going to get rewarded for their work. A nonvella of say 12,000 words requires much less time, and thus less risk. And that doesn’t mean the quality is any less. Many ideas and stories read much better at that length. I love print books, and long, hefty ones as well— but only when the material, the writing, the ideas support them.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers in nonfiction—especially those who want to pursue long-form journalism as a career?
I was a generalist freelancer for many years and would write about whatever interested me and happened to be dangled in front of me—architecture, religion, fly-fishing. There’s nothing wholly wrong with that, and maybe some of us need to be generalists to figure out what compels us and what’s a passing interest. But it will burn you out. Learning about carbon trading for three months, then dropping that to write a profile of an architect that requires a whack of new research into that particular vocabulary/history—and after that wading into conflicting opinions about, say, the inflated Vancouver real estate market—it’s exhausting. My advice is: don’t dig a bunch of potholes all over the map. Close in on one intellectual geography that attracts you, and dig a well there. Become an authority in that area. That way every piece you write strengthens your next piece, because it’s all relevant, overlapping, related.
As for the future of publishing, every writer I know is scratching their heads right now about how to make a living. My main piece of advice would be not to settle for the congenial bitterness that happens when writers sit around for cocktail complaints about the lousy state of things. The ice-sheet of the 20th-century publishing model has broken loose of its old moorings, that’s clear, and it’s floating free of the shore; none of us is sure how long we’ll have before our respective ice-floe melts, or if the current is really taking all of us to someplace safe, where things will make sense again. But when everything’s cracking up, you might as well take some risks and try some experiments, because you’re already at risk. Something out there is going to work, so get involved somehow. Be part of creating the new world that’s trying to emerge.
Andrea Hoff is a freelance writer, illustrator and filmmaker. Her writing on social housing, architecture, performance art, and comics can be found in The Tyee, Room Magazine, and Future Social. Her nonfiction comics are published in Broken Pencil, Display Canadian Design Magazine, This Great Society, and the Australian anthology The Emerging Writer. She is currently contributing to an animated film with Quickdraw Animation Society in Calgary and completing her first full length graphic novel.