Wade Davis

Interviewed by Geoffrey Gideon

I was introduced to Wade Davis through the University of British Columbia. I was a student in the first introduction to anthropology class he would teach at UBC, and his lectures were unlike anything I experienced in academia. I remember one class we were learning about the complexity and intelligence of the Polynesian Wayfinders, a culture that perfected navigation well before European contact. Sitting in front of me were two twenty year-olds. The first couple of classes they were the backwards baseball cap wearing students who would rather talk about their weekend plans than listen. And in fact that’s how the class started, but midway through the lecture they stopped talking and for the rest of the term they listened.    

Those students never stood a chance. Wade Davis has lectured at the American Museum of Natural History, the Royal Ontario Museum, given numerous Ted Talks, and delivered the CBC Massey lectures. He’s also the author of twenty books. Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest received the 2012 Samuel Johnson prize, the top award for literary nonfiction in the English language.

Not only can Wade Davis speak in a non-academic fashion, but between 1999 and 2013 he served as Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society and is the BC Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at UBC. In 2016 he was made a Member of the Order of Canada.

I sent Wade an email thanking him for his class and asking him for an interview. A couple days later he responded and happily agreed to speak with me about literary non-fiction, anthropology, and even Donald Trump.    

How do you select a project? Do you go looking for a story or do the stories find you?

I think Hemingway said the most important credential for a writer to have is something to say that the world needs to hear. He also said famously that anyone who thinks that writing is easy is either a bad writer or a liar. In other words, book projects are always all-consuming and I’ve always found that the thing that gets me through a project is passion, and I mean that in the sense that I really have to care and feel to some extent that I’ve got some mission. This is not something that I think about consciously; it just seems to be the way that it works.

If you look at all the books that I’ve written they’re always driven by a sense of mission, so for example when I came upon voodoo having no previous experience with the African world view I became in a sense outraged at how this religion had been reduced to caricature. There’s no question that that was a motivation that kept me pursuing that subject. At one level it was a scientific investigation but it was also driven by an almost evangelical sense of addressing that wrong and revealing to the world that voodoo was by definition the religion of Africa. That’s why it was so appropriate that the subject that I was studying, zombies, was a phenomenon that had been used in explicitly racist ways to denigrate what is in fact a remarkable religious world view.

Similarly when I wrote the book One River, I was really motivated by a desire to position Schultes in the historical light that he deserved, and Tim Plowman. In fact that book was literally conceived as I stood at the podium at the Field Museum in Chicago delivering a eulogy at Tim’s funeral service. Other books, such as The Wayfinders, were driven by my concern as an anthropologist and trying to draw the world’s attention to the central revelation of anthropology, the idea that every culture has something to say and each deserves to be heard. So all of my books have been driven by some kind of sense of personal mission if you will.

You just never know where that idea is going to come. I mean, the most important book I’ve ever written, and by far the best, is Into the Silence, and that was almost conceived on a whim on the eastern flanks of Everest when I stood on ground higher than anything in North America and looked up at two vertical miles of ice rising on the face of the South Col. And my friend who had brought me to the valley, Dan Taylor, suddenly began to speak of these Englishmen dressed in tweeds who read Shakespeare to each other in the snow at twenty-two thousand feet. And I was always intrigued by the great war and knew a lot about it.

That little whimsical decision to write a book about these men would end up consuming twelve years of my life, but that’s what books are all about. They become measures of your life. When you pass on as a writer I suspect what people will think about is the books, and that’s why books are so powerful. They outlive the author. It’s like when Faulkner was asked what he thought of what Hollywood did to his books and he just points to his bookshelf and says, “They didn’t do anything to my books. They’re not books.”

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Douglas Coupland

Interviewed by Jackson Weaver

Douglas Coupland is the author of over thirty books of fiction, non-fiction, film and teleplays, as well as a world-renowned visual artist with instillations displayed throughout Canada and abroad, including a major survey of his work at the Vancouver Art Gallery everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything. His breakout novel, Generation X, popularized the term that has since come to describe every person born between the early 60s and late 70s and, since then, has had a career spanning over 30 years of continuous publication and critically acclaimed work. He has been described variously as “iconoclast,” “exegete,” and “genius.” We talked about his past, an artist’s struggle, and never taking vacations.

You’ve written for almost thirty years in fiction and non-fiction, create and showcase visual art around the globe, and have a fan base that spans generations; that’s not a bad CV at all. That said, was there ever a time you were afraid an artistic life wouldn’t work out, or didn’t seem to be working out in the moment?

Not to be disingenuous but every single day. I have been, if nothing else, self-employed for 29 years, and the thought of not being free always keeps me on red alert. Having said that, there are moments like the past year-ish where I can’t imagine writing fiction. It will return — it always does — but what I write will be different from anything else I’ve ever written. Every book is different from every other book; I have no genre.

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V.V. Ganeshananthan

 

The South Asian Women’s Creative Collective (SAWCC) presents its Fifth Annual Asian Literary Festival. Titled “Electric Ladyland,” the two-day event featured a series of readings, panels, and workshops at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and the New School for Social Research. Photo by Preston Merchant.

Interviewed by Seema Amin

“We must go on struggling to be human

though monsters of abstraction

police and threaten us.     

~   Robert Hayden

V.V. Ganeshananthan is a novelist, short story and non-fiction writer, as well as a journalist and poet. Her debut novel, Love Marriage (Random House, 2008), received widespread acclaim; it was named one of Washington Post World’s Best of 2008 and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and was also longlisted for the Orange Prize. Spanning the fraught margins of war, diaspora, ethnicity, identity, nation and geopolitics, her work has been distinguished as passionate, and continues to be unrelenting, lucid, and fierce. Tracing the political and personal genealogy of a Sri Lankan Tamil American girl called Yalini, whose immigrant family’s move from the US to Toronto acts as a catalyst for the unravelling of secrets, both familial and national, personal and transpersonal as Yalini grapples with an ex-militant uncle, a link to the 25 year war still raging (at the time) in Sri Lanka, Love Marriage is the seemingly innocuous title of a courageous debut novel that had its origins as a series of vignettes composed while Ganeshananthan was still a student finishing her Bachelor thesis at Harvard in 2002.  In the years between, Ganeshananthan had established herself as a journalist and non-fiction writer.

Since then, she has continued writing across genres, though themes and areas of interest, whether intellectual, personal, aesthetic or regional, certainly overlap and reinforce each other.  Formerly Vice President of SAJA (South Asian Journalists’ Association), her articles, reviews and essays have regularly appeared in The New York TimesThe Atlantic MonthlyThe Washington PostColumbia Journalism ReviewThe San Francisco ChronicleHimal Southasian, and The American Prospect, among others. Her short stories have appeared in Granta, Ploughshares and Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014.  She has served on the board of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and is presently part of the graduate board of The Harvard Crimsonas well as a contributing editor for Copper Nickel. A graduate of Harvard College, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Bollinger Fellow at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, she was Delbanco Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Helen Zell Writers Program at University of Michigan from 2009 to 2014 and has been teaching at University of Minnesota since 2015, with a stint as visiting assistant professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fall of 2016 as well. Earlier, she was awarded fellowships by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, Philips Exeter Academy, Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. She is a founding member of Lanka Solidarity and serves on the board of the American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies.

How has your sense of place and childhood (where you grew up) and school experiences influenced your decision to pursue journalism, write novels? I know you later worked with Jamaica Kincaid in Harvard, who supervised your thesis, what was that like?


I grew up outside Washington, D.C., in Bethesda, Maryland, and my friends and I talked about politics all the time. We read the newspaper voraciously and liked to dissect things going in the White House and on Capitol Hill. It makes some sense to me now that this might have contributed to my political interests in storytelling. I always thought and was taught that life and politics were intertwined. And I saw people tell stories to gain political power, or to take it from others. 

Jamaica Kincaid was a generous editor and teacher; she used to have me read my work aloud to myself, and then she would help me edit as I was reading. Being her student was a transformative experience.

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Michael Booth

Interview by Aliz Tennant

Michael Booth has studied at the world’s most famous cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu, had his book on his family’s food-filled adventure across Japan turned into a NHK World Japanese TV animation and travelled across Scandinavia trying to find the key to their success. 

The award-winning author of five non-fictions books, Booth is also a journalist, broadcaster and speaker, writing predominantly on travel and food. His work has been published in The Guardian, The Independent, Independent on Sunday, The Times, The Telegraph and Condé Nast Traveller magazine among other publications. He is a correspondent for Monocle magazine and their radio station Monocle 24, reporting from Copenhagen, where he lives with his family. 

His first book Just As Well I’m Leaving provided him with an opportunity to escape Denmark, when he followed Hans Andersen’s travelogue across Europe, making his own adventures on the way. His latest book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People, sees Booth continue to explore his relationship with Denmark and the Nordic countries as he travels to each of them in the hope of understanding their secrets to success, what they think of each other and whether the lifestyles meet up to expectation.

I interviewed Booth via email to ask him to share his secrets to success when it comes to writing.

You worked in television before you began writing for magazines and going back to university to study journalism. Why choose a career in writing?

Television was absolutely awful, a toxic environment, but I stuck at it for a while because I had been brainwashed into thinking it was the job every graduate wanted. Eventually, I realised it just wasn’t ever going to lead me anywhere remotely happy-making. It was only when a friend mentioned that there existed such a thing as a post-graduate course in feature journalism, that I saw a possibility to become the kind of journalist I admired without having to work on a local newspaper reporting on overdue library book scandals and suchlike. I realised that freelance feature writing was a passport literally to the world, and would allow me to butterfly around to whatever subject interested me.

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André Picard

Globe and Mail business journalist Andre Picard poses in the Montreal offices on September 6, 2012. For Promotions (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

Interviewed by Vanessa Hrvatin

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at the Globe and Mail where he has worked for 30 years. Over this time, he has established himself as a leader in the field of health journalism, being named Canada’s first “public health hero” by the Canadian Public Health Association. He has won many prestigious awards, including a National Newspaper Award—Canada’s top journalism prize—for column writing. Mr. Picard has also written several non-fiction books, his most recent Matters of Life and Death: Public Health Issues in Canada set to hit bookstores in April.

When I spoke to Mr. Picard, he was in Quebec City covering the recent mosque attack. I managed to catch him at a quiet moment where he filled me on his long-standing career as a health reporter.

Was being a journalist always what you wanted to do?

No, not at all. I actually studied accounting. I only got involved in my student newspaper because I’m a big music fan, so I ended up being a record reviewer—that’s how my stellar career began. But the funny thing is because I was a business student I sort of got drawn further and further into the paper because student newspapers always have money problems. So I got drawn in in an odd fashion and never became an accountant.

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Evelyn C. White

Evelyn C White%2c by Joanne BealyInterviewed by Clara Chandler

Evelyn C. White is a dual Canadian and American citizen and a resident of Halifax, Nova Scotia. She holds degrees from Wellesley College, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Harvard. Coming from a background in journalism and civic advocacy, she is now a celebrated writer of nonfiction. Her most ambitious project to date was the ten years of research she put into her authorized biography of Alice Walker. Booklist wrote that Alice Walker: A Life (WW Norton, 2004), “meticulously traces and analyzes the stages of Walker’s life, emphasizing the impact on and importance of her literature in American culture.” 

White’s writing is informed by feminism and African American culture, as well as her ceaseless curiosity. She is passionate about ping pong and okra.

I was fortunate to correspond with her by email recently.

At what moment in your childhood/adulthood did you understand that you needed to be a writer? Not so much that you wanted to make money being a writer, but that you were one of the tribe who has to write things down. Where did you go from there? 

I started writing book reviews (of my own volition) while living in Seattle in the late 1970s.  I wasn’t assigned, wasn’t trying to make a name for myself. Would just go into the used bookstore on Capitol Hill and buy a book and write a review. I believe that my first published piece was about The Coming Out Stories, an early gay/lesbian anthology.  Some pioneering feminist publishers in Seattle who’d started Seal Press saw my book reviews (in papers such as the Seattle Gay News) and (long story short) invited me to write the first commercial general market book on the physical and emotional abuse of Black women — Chain Chain Change: For Black Women Dealing with Physical and Emotional Abuse. (In later editions the subtitle changed to “For Black Women in Abusive Relationships.”)

These pioneering feminist publishers took me to what was then called a “fern bar” in Seattle: a quasi-fancy restaurant with fern plants decorating the interior. Before this, I had received a check for $13 for one of my book reviews. That was like magic money as I hadn’t asked for any payment. I can still see the check. It was printed on goldenrod. Anyway, the feminist publishers took me to this bar and showed me the contract for Chain Chain Change. The advance was $500. They gave me a check for $250 immediately after I signed my name. This was even more amazing than the $13 check because I hadn’t written a word. The deal was that I got half of the advance upon signing, half upon delivery. 

I realized then that I had an innate talent for writing, that people would pay me to write, but I had no formal training in journalism. Hence, I decided to go to journalism school. I applied only to Columbia and was accepted. Had I not been accepted, I would have taken it as a cosmic sign that I wasn’t meant to be a reporter.

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Susannah Cahalan

clahanInterviewed by Jeri Knopp

Susannah Cahalan got her start in journalism in the summer after junior year, when she got an internship at the New York Post, and worked her way up from grabbing coffee and making photocopies to a general assignment reporter.

One day in early 2009, Cahalan woke up in a strange hospital room, strapped to her bed, under guard, and unable to move or speak. Her medical records from a month-long hospital stay showed psychosis, violence, and dangerous instability. Her New York Times bestselling memoir Brain on Fire chronicles the swift path of her illness and the lucky, last-minute intervention led by one of the few doctors capable of saving her life. As time passed and she moved inexplicably from violence to catatonia, $1-million worth of blood tests and brain scans revealed nothing. The exhausted doctors were ready to commit her to the psychiatric ward, in effect condemning her to a lifetime of institutions, or death, until Dr. Souhel Najjar joined her team. He asked her to draw a simple sketch of a clock, which became key to diagnosing her with a newly discovered autoimmune disease in which her body was attacking her brain.

Also in 2009, Cahalan was the recipient of the Silurian Award of Excellence for the article “My Mysterious Lost Month of Madness,” on which Brain on Fire is based. Her work has also been featured in The New York Times, Scientific American, Psychology Today, and Focus, and she still works for the New York Post, now as their books editor.

As a huge fan of Brain on Fire, I emailed Cahalan requesting an interview, and we spoke on the phone shortly afterward.

When did you decide that writing was something that you wanted to pursue?

Probably for as long as I can remember. You know, those are the classes I enjoyed most. I kept journals when I was really a little kid, I still have them.

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Tetsuro Shigematsu

KamilaInterviewed by Kamila Sediego

Tetsuro Shigematsu has done almost everything. He is or once was: a playwright, a TV writer for CBC’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes, and host of CBC Radio’s The Roundup. He has also worked as a stand up comedian, filmmaker, actor (once with George Takei), Huffington Post columnist, samurai descendent and in-house expert for the MTV/SpikeTV show, Deadliest Warrior, TedTalk presenter, and MC/host/presenter for numerous organizations, festivals, and events across Canada. He wrote his play, Rising Son, an autobiographical one-person show about his relationship with his father, when he was 23 and performed it in cities around the world. The sequel to that play, Empire of the Son will have its world premiere at The Cultch in October of 2015. He is a Vanier scholar and current PhD student at UBC, examining the intersection of race and social media.

Shigematsu also acts as the Artist-in-Residence for Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre, and was a member of the selection committee for 2015’s MSG Theatre Lab. It was through this opportunity that I got to meet Shigematsu. We talked over the phone about advice, some of the worries emerging writers face, and being an Asian-Canadian writer.

How did you begin this cross-genre career of yours?

I went to art school in college and did my undergrad in fine arts, but the feedback I continuously got from my profs was that the explanations I gave for my artwork were actually more successful than the art pieces themselves. In other words: my artwork wasn’t that good but I should keep talking. At my profs’ encouragement, in lieu of bringing in finished artwork, I would just talk about what happened with my family over the weekend.

Some of these stories were painful to share but I found it therapeutic. What was surprising was that my classmates were laughing a lot. Doing self-reportage and monologues about my personal life was the beginning of my particular practice. I didn’t have any intention of taking it further until I met the couple renting my sister’s place in Montreal. The man was Paul Dervis, who at the time was the artistic director of 21st Century Theatre. After hearing my artsy monologues he said to me, “I’ll tell you what. You’re Japanese. Let’s do a show about that.” That became Rising Son.

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Jan Wong

IMG_0343-EditInterviewed by Stephanie Kelly

Jan Wong has been living off her words for the past four decades. The Montreal-born journalist majored in Asian studies at McGill University and at 19 moved to China, becoming the first Westerner to study there during the country’s Cultural Revolution, an experience that became the subject of her first book Red China Blues. Wong has been a news reporter, columnist and author, with her byline appearing in some of North America’s most prestigious publications, including the New York Times and the Globe and Mail. In 2006, Wong’s life–both personal and professional– took a dramatic turn. Her story about a shooting at Dawson College in Montreal sparked controversy, leading to a strong backlash from readers, which resulted in her being fired from the Globe. This event led to a long lawsuit between Wong and her former employer, eventually leading her into depression, a story she tells in her most recent book Out of the Blue.

Wong is currently a columnist for the Halifax-based newspaper The Chronicle Herald. She is also a journalism instructor at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick. I was part of Wong’s first class at St. Thomas and will never forget her lectures where she taught us the importance of asking hard questions, finding strong characters, and knowing the subtle but very real difference between percent and percentage points.

Take me back to the time when you first considered writing as a career path.

I guess it was when I was in my 20s and I was still in China. I had gone to China as an undergrad and then a graduate student and I think I began to look at writing as a job once I finished at Peking University and got a job in Hong Kong working on a magazine. It was a start-up and it didn’t last very long. The magazine folded I think in a year and then I came back to Beijing and got a job at the New York Times. That was the period when I thought it was possible to do this for a living.

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Elaine Woo

Elaine WooInterviewed by Yilin Wang

Elaine Woo is a Vancouver-based poet, librettist, and non-fiction writer. Cycling with the Dragon, her debut poetry collection, was published by Nightwood Editions in 2014 and recently nominated for the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness. Her writing has also appeared in ARC Poetry Magazine, carte blanche, Ricepaper Magazine, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and V6A: Writing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Her art song collaboration with Daniel Marshall, “Night-time Symphony,” won a festival prize in Boston Metro Opera’s International Composers’ Competition. She holds a BFA in Creative Writing from UBC and has taught workshops for Megaphone Magazine and the Historic Joy Kagawa House. http://www.elainespath.org

I first met Elaine at the launch of Ricepaper Magazine’s Fall/Winter 2012 special double issue featuring Aboriginal and Asian Canadian writers. We both read at the launch, and since then, I have had the pleasure of listening to her read at many other events. Her writing explores marginalized voices, race, gender, family dynamics, and the creative process with raw emotion and experimental language. I corresponded with Elaine via email to discuss her inspiration, the publication of her first book, and her thoughts on a writer’s social responsibility.

What inspired you to first begin writing?

Creativity is my calling: I’ve always been creative, drawing prolifically as a child until my late teens. My twenties and thirties were fallow years, devoted to schooling in experimental psychology and working as a clerk/secretary. The psychology I studied had nothing to do with the soul, much to my disappointment. By mid-life, I had a lot of stories stored up inside. In 2006, when a couple of friends suggested I take up writing, I signed up for a credited creative writing course at Capilano College (before it became a university) and that was the start of my becoming actualized and whole again. Writing gave me everything to do with the intellectual, social, philosophical, and spiritual in the 21st century. [Read more…]