Journalists switch from facts to fiction

Some journalists are living out a lifelong dream of writing from the imagination.

By Kyle Barnhill

Stephanie Domet read aloud from her new book Fallsy Downsies at the Halifax waterfront (Kyle  Barnhill photo).
Stephanie Domet, of CBC Halifax, reading aloud from her new book Fallsy Downsies. (Photo: Kyle Barnhill)

Fiction by journalists: another kind of truth telling

By Kyle Barnhill

Russell Wangersky strides forward from the panel of fiction writers onstage at the Word on the Street annual literary festival on the Halifax waterfront.

He opens the cover of his prize-winning book Whirl Away, sifting through the pages he has marked for reading. He leans into the microphone and begins to read with the confidence of someone who knows he is meant to do this.

The night before Whirl Away, a collection of short stories, won the Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award and a $25,000 prize. It was another honour for the journalist-turned-fiction writer, who is still the editorial page editor and a columnist for The Telegram in St. John’s, N.L.

Wangersky, 51, is one of many journalists who have taken up fiction writing as a second career. Whether it’s a need for creative freedom, a means to gain some extra income or a lifelong dream, journalists are making the push to publish stories with characters born from their imagination.

[pullquote]I wanted to just make characters and stories that would do the things that I wanted to address. And the only way I could do that was to make stuff up.

– Russell Wangersky

[/pullquote]

He joins other journalists who have won awards for their fiction. Of the 14 winners of the $70,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize, a Canadian literary award, 29 per cent of the winners between 2000 and 2013 were journalists. This includes Linden MacIntyre, Elizabeth Hay and Austin Clarke.

For Wangersky, Whirl Away’s success is the culmination of a lifelong dream.

“When I was 14 or 15 I told my parents (that) Robertson Davies and Margaret Atwood, they were all getting very old and they were gonna die soon and there’d have to be new Canadian writers and I’d be one of those.”

Wangersky gradually moved into journalism, gaining experience through odd jobs, but it never scratched his fiction itch.

“Because people are people and stories are stories, they’re not complete,” he says. “I wanted to just make characters and stories that would do the things that I wanted to address. And the only way I could do that was to make stuff up.”

Also present at the waterfront was Stephanie Domet, the Halifax host of CBC Radio’s Mainstreet and Atlantic Airwaves, reading from her new novel Fallsy Downsies, the story of aging Canadian folksinger Lansing Meadows.

She graces the microphone with a few humorous quips to warm up her already packed audience. After ten minutes of reading she asks, “Should I keep going?” A crowd has now gathered around the CBC tent. Domet receives two encores.

Like Wangersky, Domet always had a flare for fiction.

“As soon as I learned how to hold a pencil I started writing stories,” she says. “I always loved stories. I loved being read to and I loved telling stories.”

Domet also read the newspaper “religiously” as a child. “I thought, ‘Well, the thing I want to do is write, and here’s an obvious example of a place you can write, in a newspaper’.”

This pattern is true of many journalists turned fiction writers.

Robert MacNeil, 82, best known for his work on PBS and The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, left college with the intention of becoming a playwright. When that didn’t work out, he decided he had to “earn a living” and became a journalist.

“I thought I was practicing journalism with my left hand,” he says on the phone from Manhattan. “But with my right hand I was at home, as many of us were in those days, writing the novel or the play that was going to bring us our fame and fortune.

“That didn’t happen.”

MacNeil went on to publish three bestselling novels. One, Burden of Desire, is about the Halifax Explosion. The others are The Voyage and Breaking News.

Making the transition 

Susanne Alexander is a publisher at Goose Lane Editions in Fredericton. She says authors with journalism experience can be both helpful and crippling.

Russell Wangersky reads from his award-winning book Whirl Away at the Halifax Waterfront. (Photo Kyle Barnhill)
Russell Wangersky in Halifax, reading from Whirl Away. (Photo Kyle Barnhill)

One aid is the ability to write well.

“Part of the act of writing is pen to paper or keyboarding every single day. It’s not something that can be treated as a hobby,” she says.

Journalists benefit from writing on a daily basis, but this can also hurt a writer stylistically.

“The form of fiction is very different from the form of journalism,” says Alexander. “Some journalists who try that transition will find that the formalistic nature of fiction is quite a big mountain to climb.”

Chip Scanlan, director of the Poynter Institute’s writing programs from 1994-2009, considers himself an “accidental journalist.” He grew up wanting to write fiction but needed a job in order to make a living. Scanlan agrees with Alexander, saying the way journalists are programmed to write may lead to obstacles in fiction.

“Journalists are coming from a tradition where literary techniques are not the norm,” he says. “There are strict rules about how things are done and fiction is a landscape where there are, in some ways, no rules except it has to seem real.”

Domet has experience in many different areas of journalism. In addition to her radio work for CBC, she was managing editor for the Coast and also wrote columns for the Daily News. Despite this, she has always considered journalism a “sideline” to her fiction writing.

“I was always doing them as a way to afford to write, because you have to do something, and that is the skill that I have,” she says. “At the end of the day it’s all narrative to me; it’s all storytelling and whether that’s telling it with my voice on the radio or writing it in a newspaper or writing fiction, it’s all the same stuff.

“You’re trying to do the same thing, which is to tell a good story the right way.”

Even so, fiction has often been held in a higher esteem than journalism as a method of telling stories.

Shelley Fisher Fishkin is the author of From Fact to Fiction, which discusses famous journalists such as Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway and their transition from writing journalism to writing fiction.

Patrick Murphy edits someone’s manuscript in his office at Nimbus Publishing (Kyle Barnhill  photo).
Patrick Murphy editing at Nimbus. (Photo: Kyle Barnhill)

To her, fiction trumps journalism because it allows a story and characters to be fleshed out.

“Journalists are limited by how individuals chose to reveal themselves at the moment they were being interviewed or observed,” she says over the phone from Stanford University in California.

“The freedom to imagine other words, other perspectives, other events can often make a scene or a character more vivid than what a journalist happened to be present to witness.”

The truth in fiction

Even when journalists are writing creatively, research remains an important part of the process.

“Fiction is less about what’s factual and more about what’s true,” says Scanlan. “A fiction writer wouldn’t be asked ‘How do you know this?’ A fiction writer would be asked ‘Is this really plausible?’”

Wangersky, who tends to focus on character-based fiction, still uses the observational skills he attained through journalism to bolster his writing. He uses a character with a neck injury as an example.

“The emergency room doctor stood behind him and spoke to him in that ear, in his left ear, to see if the patient would turn his head without pain,” he says. “I had a back surgeon say ‘How did you know that we do that?’ and I said, ‘Well, because I hurt my neck and I was in the emergency room’.”

Observation also contributes to the characters he composes.

“All of my characters are people. Not necessarily a complete person. I take aspects and I mash them together,” he explains. “There’s a character in a book that’s coming up who’s my wife’s father, but it’s not my wife’s father, it’s not the whole guy. But what it is is this one aspect of him that knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that he was right.”

MacNeil used similar methods when writing Burden of Desire.

“The fictional world and the characters came very easily,” he says. “Just because of my knowledge of Halifax and the years I grew up in it and the people I knew.” He still had to do some hard research in order to shape the story, such as the facts about the Halifax Explosion.

The MacIntyre File Linden MacIntyre never expected his early interest in fiction would lead to his novel The Bishop’s Man, winner of the 2009 Giller Prize. “I’ve never really identified myself as a novelist,” he says on the phone from Toronto. “You had some pretty serious writers on that shortlist.” The Scotiabank Giller Prize is among the most prestigious literary awards in Canada, won by famous writers such as Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje. MacIntyre, 70, wasn’t accustomed to the changes that came with winning.
“I just wrote a story, never expecting to have to talk about it,” he says. “I certainly found myself having to talk about it every bloody time I sat down with somebody.” The Bishop’s Man¸ published by Counterpoint LLC, follows Father Duncan MacAskill, who relocates child molesting priests in order keep the Church out of trouble. MacIntyre found the transition to fiction easy. “For me there’s no huge distinction between the two hats. It’s all storytelling, it’s all about what I believe to be true and what I believe to be universal and important.“I write as a journalist. Whether I’m writing fiction or not, I use the same techniques of research and word craft.” MacIntyre advises journalists to keep their day jobs, but not just because of the paycheque.“Journalism puts you in the way of experience and experience is where the material for fiction comes from.”

Fiction is competitive. Of the 200 novel pitches Goose Lane Editions receives a year, only four or five get published.

Patrick Murphy, managing editor at Nimbus Publishing in Halifax, says they receive about 100 fiction pitches a year, and only two or three get published.

It’s not just constructing a believable world, but captivating your audience.

“If you’re not going to do something interesting and wonderful, then there’s no point in doing it,” Alexander of Goose Lane editions says.

Money matters

At CBC, the current starting salary for reporters is roughly $53,000 a year. Wages have also increased by about four per cent over the past three years.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, writing jobs in the United States experienced employment growth of six per cent from 2010 to 2012.

Jeff Gaulin manages a Calgary website,  www.jeffgaulin.com, that helps journalists find jobs in the media. He says these increases don’t necessarily reflect the journalism industry.

“Given the decline and fragmentation of advertising dollars that basically support the media industry, we’ve barely seen wages keep pace with inflation over the last five years.”

When it comes to journalists and fiction, Gaulin says finances aren’t usually a factor.

“Why do you do something on the side?,” he says.  “Maybe partly driven by economics, more likely driven by the passion to do whatever it is that you want to do.”

That’s not to say there’s no money in fiction. Literary successes often reap financial rewards, such as Whirl Away, which also made the 2012 Giller short list.

Wangersky considers himself fortunate as his columns and editorial work allows him to make use of his creative style. His advice to other writers is blunt but truthful.

“Keep your day job,” he says. “I have five books, critical successes, and I don’t think I’m any closer to not having a day job. I can dream about not having a day job. But I still have to pay bills and fiction ain’t gonna do it.”

 

Edit/Layout by Courtney Zwicker.
King’s Journalism Review, November 2013.