J.B. MacKinnon

Interviewed by Stefan Labbé

J.B. MacKinnon is a non-fiction writer steeped in deep-dive book research and a fair share of shoe-leather reporting.

His most recent book, The Once and Future World, was a national bestseller and won the U.S. Green Prize for Sustainable Literature. MacKinnon is widely known for co-writing The 100-Mile Diet (with partner Alisa Smith) which chronicles the personal dietary experiment that helped spark the local food movement. His first book, Dead Man in Paradise won the Charles Taylor Prize for best literary non-fiction. The story traces the assassination of his uncle, a priest gunned down in the Dominican Republic as the country struggled under the heel of dictatorship.

When I first met MacKinnon, he struck me as a freelancer’s freelancer. Part of that has to do with the fact that he has won 11 National Magazine Awards and has written for publications ranging from National Geographic to The New Yorker. But he has also avoided the milieu of a traditional newsroom. Instead, he seeks that clean break from day to day life, slipping away to his broken-down cabin in Northern British Columbia or punctuating his day with rock climbing or birdwatching.

Naturally, I asked MacKinnon for an interview over an outdoor pint. It was December and the nylon awning overhead bulged with winter rain. He agreed on the spot, as long as it didn’t interfere with a whirlwind of reporting trips to Japan, Iceland and Arizona. Several weeks later, we swapped rain and beer for sun and tea in a lazy café in central Vancouver. 

How did you get started in this kind of work?

When I went to university I was looking around for something extracurricular to do. The student newspaper seemed intuitively appealing to me, so I signed up with The Martlet and I just really enjoyed it. I did more work for the newspaper than I did for my classes.

I never learned how to do journalism, so from the get-go I would over-report everything. I mean quite literally, among my first stories for The Martlet, I would be trying to get comments from the ministers responsible for the areas I was writing about, or the premier. I mean, ridiculous—things that I would never do today. And sometimes, oddly enough, I actually got them. I would just follow the stories as far up the line as I could take them every time and then write them way too long. So I was feature writing pretty much immediately.

And then two years into university I had a mix-up with my student loans and I wasn’t able to go back for my third year. Circumstances forced me to try to turn freelance writing into a paying gig. It didn’t pay well, but it worked and that was the end of my university career.

Where did you land after that?

When I left university, the main place I was working for was Monday Magazine, which at that time was quite an important alternative newsweekly on the Canadian media landscape. It gave me the opportunity to do fully fleshed-out feature writing, but on weekly timelines. I did a lot of different stuff: some writing on B.C. politics, municipal politics and a lot of environmental stuff. I became the editor at 24. Too young. Seriously, too young.

Why did you leave Monday Magazine?

I think one of the main drivers was that it changed from independent ownership to chain ownership. Anyone who suggests that there’s not a significant difference being owned by a chain and operating as an independent journalistic entity is full of shit. It was an immediate change in the culture of the magazine. It’s not that the people were evil or malicious. There was just an underlying shift in your understanding of the kinds of stories you should be pursuing. I kind of lost my heart for it.

By that point, I had been communicating a bit with Adbusters and that’s what brought me to Vancouver.

A lot of your writing around that time combined adventure writing with larger metaphysical musings on the natural world. What was it that pushed you into that area when you started freelancing?

Personal interest. I did a lot of outdoor sports. I still do a lot of outdoor sports. I also really admired Outside Magazine in its so-called golden era of the ’90s and some of the writers that spun out of that, like Tim Cahill and David Quammen. I was just attracted by that idea that journalism could allow you to go out and have personal adventures. But even as a reader I got bored really quickly with adventure writing where the only underlying theme was, “Look how badass we are” or “You can do anything you set your mind to” or all those trivial kinds of affirmation-poster-type sentiments that are attached to a lot of adventure writing. I wanted to build in a set of other ideas with history and context.

Throughout this time you managed to stay out of mainstream journalism…

It wasn’t hard…(laughs)

How do you think that affected your development as a writer?

I think there were positive and negative aspects. The positive aspects were: plenty of freedom to just play around with my style and approach and to pursue my own ideas. I think the negative was that there wasn’t a lot of guidance and mentorship along the way. I had to become a student of writing myself. I’m about as close to self-taught as you get as a writer. I mean Sid Tafler was an important early editor for me at Monday Magazine. He was an old-school editor who liked or didn’t like what you did. You could learn from that, but it wasn’t what you would describe as an instructive type of relationship. I didn’t have any writing mentoring until me and a couple other writers in town formed our own kind of auto-mentoring writing group.

Tell me how that got started.

I believe it started with a conversation between Charles Montgomery and me. We were lamenting the fact that we didn’t have mentors. Our generation of writers wasn’t very large and it was at the time when editors were becoming more and more time constrained. If you were a pretty decent writer turning in pretty decent work then more often than not they were just going to put it through without too many changes. There weren’t editors sitting around saying, “Let me kick that back to you. Let’s talk about this. Let’s make it the very best thing it can possibly be.” We were getting frustrated with that, so we spoke to a couple of other writers that seemed like candidates to join in and pretty soon we had this FCC group.

Part of its lore is that it doesn’t really stand for anything. We ended up debating all these names. We didn’t like any of them, but we liked the sound of FCC. The acronym became the name.

So you are editing for Adbusters, freelancing with magazines like Explore—how did that lead up to your first book, Dead Man in Paradise?

I think I just acquired enough confidence as a writer that I felt I’d like to take on a book project. I think a lot of writers at that point look first to the low-hanging fruit which is, “Do you have an interesting story you can tell within the realm of memoir or family history?” I didn’t think about that at the time, but that is often where writers find their first book ideas. I had one I’d been curious about personally for a long time and it seemed like a book-length investment of time, effort and material.

After my uncle was killed, a book was put out by a priest who had lived in the Dominican Republic in the same era as my uncle. I had read the book as a teenager, but I went back and I read it again. That was my first act in the process of beginning to write the book. I was looking at that book to see, “Is there really a lot here to figure out, or has it all been sorted out in this little book?” I got to the end of the book, and thought, “Oh yeah, there’s a lot there to explore.” Then I got serious about it.

Once you got to the Dominican Republic, there were so many rabbit holes you could go down. How do you know when to stop reporting a story like that?

One of the observations I make in the book is that I realized that sorting out the truth of these things is not triangulation. Up to that point, I had this impression that some people will say things of a certain kind, some people will say something dramatically different, and the truth will fall somewhere in between. That’s not what I found to be the case. You really had to put in a lot of effort to determine something as close as possible to the actual truth of what had happened. There were competing stories, but the evidence didn’t support the competing stories to the same extent. So I would report until I felt most convinced by one or another of the stories. And then proceed from there.

But there are some that, in retrospect, I didn’t pursue as vigorously as I might have. For example, there were two policemen who were sent to kill my uncle. One of them had been sent up there to make sure it happened and the other guy was a local who just kind of got pulled on board. Something I never really examined carefully was why that guy? I was told that he was jealous of his girlfriend’s interest in or possibly relationship with my uncle. Probably through pure family bias I just thought, “Pff, of course not.” You know, “There’s no relationship between my uncle and some woman in the town.” But who knows, maybe there was. And maybe there was enough animosity there that when my uncle’s murderer came to town trying to figure out who should accompany him, people may have whispered in the lieutenant’s ear, “Oh, you should pick Restituyo. He already has a grudge.” That’s one of the things I didn’t look into. But you’re right. You go into a story that’s forty years old, in a country where the telling of the truth is as fraught as it is in the Dominican Republic, it’s pretty tough to really get a handle on things. I would say that to this day that was the most difficult reporting I’ve ever done.

In that kind of immersive reporting, how do you approach capturing facts, experience and your thoughts in the field?

In a two-notebook way. In the field I’m recording with a recording device. I’m also taking notes. I have my whole process of gathering whatever documentation I can to support factual findings. But then I do daily journaling as well. I’m really disciplined about it. I think of those daily journals as the first draft of anything I write, in a sense. And that’s where the musings and the writerly stuff kind of rises up, through the journaling. That’s where the more human descriptions and all of the little things that stick in your head day-to-day come out.

At day’s end I sit there and think, “What did I see today that caught my eye. What was interesting?” You know, buying fruit from a guy and realizing that those guys are followed around town by bees and wasps. That probably didn’t go into my day-pad, but it definitely made it into my journal. It’s the synthesizing part of the process. It allows all that other stuff—bigger themes, my own emotional state—to make it into the written record.

Are reporter you and writer you the same person?

I don’t think they are that different. I think I’m a fairly thoughtful reporter and I’m a fairly thoughtful writer. When I’m reporting I’m not spending a lot of time on the five Ws [who, what, where, when and why]. I do cover those off, but I’m much more interested in reporting how people are interpreting the things that have occurred, or what meanings people are seeing in them. Stuff that’s not going to turn up in book research.

Which role do you feel more comfortable with?

Oh, I’m way more comfortable doing anything but reporting (laughs). Reporting requires an actual shift in my day-to-day personality for me, so it’s really energy intensive. It takes a lot out of me to go reporting. But I enjoy it.

I don’t do a lot of quick interviews. I just had a note from a PR person in the government. My least favourite question is, “What’s your deadline?” I hate getting a call saying, “We’ve got our CEO and they can talk to you,” or “The minister is prepared to give you five minutes.” I’m just like, “I literally don’t give a shit about your minister. Give me your best informed bureaucrat.” It’s come full circle from The Martlet where I’d chase it all the way up to the minister. Now I can’t even imagine that.

Why doesn’t it matter?

I mean, it matters to other writers. If you’re working in the world where you need to get the minister on record then it’s very important. But I’m working more at the level of grand narratives and ideas that are shifting and changing in society. The ministers and the spokespeople for corporations are just not the people who are engaged at that level. The people who are engaged at that level are either ordinary people or scientists, really engaged bureaucrats, activists or lifelong obsessives.

In your first book, you described over and over again how flashes of anxiety-induced sweat would haunt your reporting. Has it gotten any better?

Well, not having to do interviews in a second language at 32 degrees Celsius reduces the sweat a lot (laughs). Yeah, it’s gotten better. The effort of doing that book has made almost everything since then seem lesser, at least in terms of the amount of anxiety it’s going to cause.

Since Dead Man in Paradise, I notice your tone really shifts as you jump from project to project. How do you decide what tone you are going to use for a piece?

You carry forward certain insights from previous writing projects and that changes the way that you write. But for me, a lot of it is audience. If I had written The 100-Mile Diet in the more poetic style of Dead Man in Paradise, I don’t think it would have reached readers in the same way, or as many of them. That book seemed to call for a personal, more breezy story-telling type approach. And then The Once and Future World felt to me more like natural history essay writing with an element of science journalism. I expected that book to speak deeply to a smaller audience; The 100-Mile Diet, to speak less deeply to a broader audience. In both cases, the decisions were the right ones.

Certainly if you read Ryszard Kapuściński, his voice and tone are the same book to book to book to book. But he never really varied the kinds of things he wrote about. He was always writing quasi-memoirish literary political non-fiction from different parts of the world. But he wasn’t, on the one hand, trying to describe a personal dietary experiment and on the other do a book of travel writing effectively. And then a book on natural history essays, right? I guess I jump around more than most writers do. Which is again, probably not a good idea.

Why not?

The whole publishing industry, including readers, conspires to suggest that you should find a path to walk in. I’m just not comfortable there, so I change. It’s frustrating to me as a writer that I haven’t found a place where I can just remain and keep writing in that style. Maybe my attention span is too short.

Across all the genre and subject matter you deal with, whether it’s writing about the legacy of totalitarianism, rock climbing or our relationship to the natural world, you enter these landscapes of fear and myth-making. What is it that keeps bringing you back to those themes?

I think the myth-making thing is easier to explain. Part of the thing that attracted me to journalism was that I was interested in stripping away the artifice around things to actually pursue the core truths. Myth-making is part of the artifice, so I think I’ve tried to peel away at that in a lot of my writing. Again, it’s the wrong choice. In writing, the easier path to success is to sustain myths, promote them, build upon them, create them, but not to strip them away.

The fear thing, I don’t know. I’ve had life-long problems with anxiety and so it’s become really interesting to me. Fear, fearlessness and all of the things associated with it, everything from the cultural through to the neural-biological expressions of it.

You also seem very comfortable on that bridge between present and past, using history to bring us to that construction of myth and the fear that comes along with it. Is that historical perspective something you look to carry over into your future work?

It’s funny because early on I was really mistrustful of history. I don’t remember when I kind of clued into it. Probably in part after meeting my partner Alisa. She was doing a Masters in History and kind of schooled me. I realized that the histories and context of things is so important. Now I feel insecure going into any project without dipping back first to see how we got to the point where I finally step into it.

In your last book I felt like you put a finishing stamp on a lot of ideas you had been thinking about. Are you pivoting away from re-wilding to look in a different direction?

I’m still sticking with the re-wilding thing. It has opened up an area of interest. But you’re right. That book synthesized a whole bunch of things I’d been thinking about and now I see most environmental issues through the lens that I developed through that synthesis. It’s interesting to look at new issues.

I am working on a story right now that is directly in line with the kinds of things that I wrote about in The Once and Future World. But it’s just an opportunity to take that lens and go, “Here’s a gnarly little problem that’s emerging in the human-nature relationship. Let’s take a look at that with this lens I have.” It’s really illuminating. I’m really fascinated by this story. I’ve had a bunch of things kicking around in my hthat I want to synthesize as well—more around issues of consumption and consumerism.

The Once and Future World seemed to be more research-based. What can we expect in your next book?

This new book I’m doing is reporting-based again. Each of these projects states their own terms. I look at them and say, “Well, who’d want to read it? Who do I want to have read it? And what approach do they demand?” So looking at consumerism, I’ve read a lot of the stuff that’s out there. Everybody is saying the same stuff, but none of it seems to stick. There’s a hollowness in that body of work and there’s only one way to fill that in. I’m not a social scientist. I can’t go out and do academic research, so I got to go out and do reporting.

You don’t take the easy path, do you?

One of the problems I often have with books is that they don’t seem like they involved enough effort. I often read books and I’m like, “There’s not a book’s-worth of effort in what I’m reading.” Dead Man in Paradise was an enormous amount of research. It was an incredible amount of shoe-leather reporting. Almost all of the interviews were by going to where the person was because at that time in the Dominican Republic there wasn’t any Internet, or cell phones, or anything. There was almost no one you could just call up.

100-Mile Diet was a year-long personal experience that was arduous in its own way. The writing was actually the easier part of that. And then The Once and Future World was an absolutely disturbing amount of research. I learned a lot from that about how to try and hone that process. Going into this new book project, I’m a little more selective about what and how much I read.

How has the industry changed for literary journalists since your days at your university paper?

I think the days of it being a pretty glorious profession—easy to get into and the money was good—that world hasn’t existed for a very long time. That was dead in the 1980s. I would really encourage people to not invest a lot of effort agonizing over the state of the industry and just engage with it as it is. The pay is about the worst it’s ever been, but it’s so much easier to get by-lines. Figure out what its strengths and weaknesses are and play to the strengths.

Stefan Labbé is a Vancouver-based journalist whose work has been featured in The Globe and Mail, Open Canada and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. His work spans the gulf between news and features, videography and data-driven storytelling. As a graduate student at the UBC School of Journalism, Stefan is currently reporting a feature length documentary and is a fellow with the International Reporting Program. He rock climbs.

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