Lezlie Lowe laughs as she reads her childhood diary entries.
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By Carrie Gilbert
Lezlie Lowe writes with wit, derision and in-your-face prose. The words carry you towards something fresh, towards the delightful unknown.
Lowe, 35, has been a columnist, feature writer and contributing editor at Halifax’s weekly the Coast since the early nineties. Her popular column The Lowedown is featured in every issue.
Coast editor Kyle Shaw lauds how skilfully Lowe makes her writing local.
“Lezlie represents that incredible skill, that national, international calibre feel from a local person, from a person who cares about local issues . . .What she brings to the paper is excellence.”
Lowe is relaxing on her couch, shoes kicked off and an elastic hair band around her wrist. Her living room is colourful and inviting, her kids’ toys found here and there. Lowe, who received her degree in contemporary studies and philosophy from the University of King’s College, says it was not her intention to become a journalist. She knew Coast publisher Christine Oreskovich from the gym where Lowe was an aerobics instructor. She had been planning to take a year off after being accepted to do a masters in urban planning in what was then the Technical University of Nova Scotia. In 1993, Lowe wrote a review of Ozzie Osborne’s Ozmosis for the Coast. After that first article, Lowe went on to be music editor and copy editor.
“I love writing and I love journalism and I love what I do, but everything’s really kind of fallen into place,” she says.
“I try to write the way I talk,” says Lowe of her writing voice. “I don’t want to say folksy,” she smiles, “but that’s the only word coming to mind.”
Lowe has written an award-winning three part series on Haligonions living with HIV/AIDS. The Living with HIV/AIDS series won a Gold Award for feature writing at the Atlantic Journalism Awards. Lowe makes the three people living with the disease average people living their day-to-day lives.
Lyndsie Bourgon, fourth year journalism student at the University of King’s College, has been a fan of Lowe’s writing since having her as a journalism tutor in 2004. “She tells their real stories and her writing doesn’t get in the way of their stories and then it makes it that much more powerful.”
Chasing Amy, Lowe’s feature story on artist and drug addict Amy Lee Collins, captured Amy’s voice when she couldn’t speak for herself. Amy’s best friend Terry invited Lowe into his home and gave her Amy’s journals because he admired the previous pieces Lowe had written on drug addiction.
This was the point where Lowe became nervous about the story. “That kind of ramped up the stress,” she explains. By reading her journals, Lowe let us into Collins’ world with a detachment that let Amy’s voice tell the story. This is the reason Bourgon admires the piece.
When asked how Lowe manages to accomplish this, Bourgon has to pause and think. “I have no idea. I mean, when I read the Coast story Chasing Amy, I think probably the way she did that was by reading her journals, which was extremely admirable.” The idea of the emotional toll invested sets her to a quiet awe. “To go through the journals, I can’t imagine how that must have felt, I can’t at all . . . .”
It was the most difficult piece Lowe ever wrote. “I was walking down North Park Street very close to Christmas . . . and I saw this memorial set up with Amy’s picture and I knew Amy just from the neighbourhood and from giving her money and it totally shocked me but I thought immediately, I want to write a story on this.” She laughs as she explains how she got out her notepad, made a drawing and wrote down some details. She knew Amy’s friend Dorothy Patterson, who works at the ARK Outreach Centre on Gottigen Street and got in touch with her. Through Patterson, she was able to contact Safety, Amy’s husband, and visit with him in the hospital.
Writing Chasing Amy began as an emotional struggle and continued to have an effect on Lowe following its publication. When she wrote the story, she was upset by reading Amy’s journals and going through her drawings. “I had written the piece and I was doing the read-through out loud, and I got to the part where she dies, and I just lost it,” she describes. “I was crying.” Lowe had to leave the story for a few days before she went back to it.
Lowe received a surprising phone call while she was reading to her kids the night of its publication. “Kevin, my husband, answered the phone and I heard him going, ‘She can’t come to the phone.'” It was evident to Lowe that it was an awkward conversation. “He came to the door of the kids’ bedroom and said ‘I think you need to take this.’ It was this woman, a complete stranger, bawling . . .” Lowe says. She had met Amy three times and decided to call Lezlie after reading the story. “I ended up leaning against the bed talking to this woman. She was crying and I was crying.”
Lowe says that she doesn’t think of any one circumstance as extraordinary.
“The challenge was to realize that extraordinary circumstances are everyday life. The people that I talk to, whether it was the woman who used to work in a bank and now spends three hours every afternoon sleeping and had to deal with telling her son that she and her husband are HIV positive, it is extraordinary, but for her that was just her life.”
“That’s journalism,” Bourgon says. “That’s why we get into it I think, is to tell stories about people that lived up the street from you and not celebrities or anything like that, just a person that everyone knew and maybe we could all know their story.”
“Lezlie will often send me her stuff to look at when she’s working on it,” says Coast editor and contributor Stephen Kimber. “What I really like about the way she writes is that it’s very conversational, you feel like she’s talking to you and that’s not easy to achieve in the writer, to get that sense that you’re one-on-one with the reader.”
Lowe wrote a 7,000-word piece on public toilets. “That’s a lot of words on public toilets in a newspaper the size of the Coast,” says Kimber. “Obviously it does have an interest with people because people are interested in it one way or the other. But she wrote it well enough that people read the whole thing.”
“I think it’s one of the things that is hard to learn as a young writer,” Kimber emphasizes. “But it is really important. The more emotional the story, in some ways, the smarter it is to write it straight. Don’t try to play to the emotion or any of that sort of stuff because it’s all there.”
Not everyone is a fan of Lowe’s directness, however. It’s Thursday and a small crises has erupted at the Coast. The news boxes have been tipped over and water thrown on copies of the paper to protest her latest story about how you can eat meat and be environmentally conscious.
Lowe thinks that no matter what journalists are writing, it’s their job to open minds on issues that are often misunderstood. “It’s by not being scared of any topic or being scared of any person or talking to any person.” She uses the example of Amy Lee Collins.
“There are a million reasons I could have thought of in that moment why I shouldn’t write that story,” Lowe explains. “It’s just not being scared.” She becomes pensive. “If I couldn’t do stories like that,” she says seriously, “I wouldn’t do this.”
She looks around her home and speaks with her husband Kevin, who’s busy with their daughters Lily and Georgia. “I have a pretty easy life, pretty idyllic,” she muses, “We have an awesome house, my husband’s a painter, Kevin says it’s like we’ve always succeeded despite ourselves, we’ve always done stuff that we want to do and that we’re into and somehow everything has worked.
“I think I’m only in your face when I’m feature writing by virtue of the fact that I just say it. Just like in my column today. I want my writing to come across as ‘Okay, I have a sexually transmitted disease, yeah, what? C’mon, bring it on!'”
Her column, “Vaccinate My Love” appeared in the September 20, 2007 edition of the Coast. In it Lowe admitted that she contracted the HPV virus when she was eighteen and that she is consequently pro-vaccine.
“I want to do the same thing in features. I don’t want to ever ascribe that way of acting to the interview subjects but I want to just plainly tell their stories and not bullshit. I just did this for the first time when I wrote the AIDS profiles. I started doing direct dialogue.”
It was in this way Lowe was able to show the people in her story and really bring them to life. Instead of explaining what was happening between her subjects, she let their words speak for them. She says that she wrote it like you would a fiction narrative.
‘Do you have AIDS?’ a son asks of his mother in part one of the Living with HIV/AIDS series. That is followed by her asking him if he wants to talk about it and him refusing. “Which is in your face,” says Lowe. “But also serious.”
“Thanks,” Lowe says, her family cramped into the car, headed to play tennis. Talking with her young daughter in that matter of fact fashion, she’s discovered something unknown herself. “You just made me realize how blunt I actually am.”
So why should people keep reading? At least when it comes to The Lowedown? Shaw pauses and after some thought the answer is obvious. “Lowe may be the most curious person they know. They’ll always find out something new by reading her and they’ll always be able to get a different perspective on something they thought they knew about. If she can do that week after week, she’s safe, and people will read her forever.”