Today at Thoughtwrestling I’m pleased to feature an interview with Jacques Poitras, Provincial Affairs reporter with CBC Radio (New Brunswick) and the author of three non-fiction books. Jacques’s most recent book is called Imaginary Line: Life on an Unfinished Border. His book describes the history of the Canada/US border between the province of New Brunswick and the state of Maine, profiling different locations on both sides of the border. It’s a great read and it’s particularly interesting to someone like me who has spent almost all of his life within a fifteen minute drive of that border.
I had the pleasure of meeting Jacques after a book reading event a couple of months ago. I thought it would be interesting to share some of the background behind his book, and his writing in general, and so I was quite happy that he agreed to participate in an E-Mail interview. And here it is for your enjoyment!
1. How did you come to write Imaginary Line? What got you started on the project?
I saw some common themes running through the various stories I’ve done as a reporter about the border. These have ranged from cultural links on the Upper St. John between Franco-Americans and francophone New Brunswickers, to cross-border shopping patterns, to road, rail and electrical connections, and to communities trying to maintain their ties despite post 9/11 security measures. Taken together, they’re all stories about people and communities trying to stay connected despite the administrative barrier that might otherwise divide them. It seemed like a powerful message for our times.
From that point, it was just a question of deciding how to put it all together into a book. The history of the border has been told already in several scholarly works; I wanted a journalistic project where I could link key moments in history and present-day events. That’s why I decided to frame the book not chronologically, but geographically, as a journey along the border.
2. Imaginary Line is your third book. Does the book writing process get any easier with each new project?
It does not get easier or harder. I’ve always tried to treat each chapter is the equivalent of a long newspaper or magazine feature, with (ideally, most of the time) a single story to tell. And I’d written many of those before I did my first book. So the task itself does not evolve.
The difficulty depends on the content, not on how long I’ve been at this. A chapter with a very clear narrative direction (for example, the Forest City story in Imaginary Line) is easier to write than a chapter that combines a number of different elements (such as the chapter I wrote dealing with cross-border shopping and business).
What has become easier is the organization of the project. I’ve said often that organization is half the battle: compiling notes, interviews and other materials, keeping track of them all, colour-coding or marking or labelling them so you can pull them together to create chapter outlines: I now have a pretty decent system for doing this. With my first book, I only realized after I’d started that I was going to need such a system. I’m very methodical now, because I know a bit of extra organizational effort at the outset will make for speedier writing later on, because I won’t need to keep stopping and breaking my rhythm to track something down.
3. As a journalist, you have to write on demand. Do you find that same discipline helps you when you’re writing longer pieces (i.e. books like Imaginary Line)?
It does. For a reporter with daily deadlines, bad writing is still better than no writing. So when you’re blocked for some reason, it’s usually worth it to try to splatter something on the “page” (i.e. the screen) rather than stare at it for hours. It may be ugly, but it’s there, and you can always make it better later. Of course, this is my personal approach. Everyone’s different.
I’ve also learned to write very fast. On a good day I can write 2,000 words, and sometimes even more. It’s not always that good. But it’s a start.
With Imaginary Line, I transcribed 90 per cent of all my interviews, something I don’t do for shorter-term, daily journalism. This helped during days when I had writer’s block, because, with my outline in hand, I could cut and paste chunks of interview transcripts into the chapter file. This gave some shape to the narratives within those chapters, which in many cases are driven by lengthy quotations. Often, as the story took shape, I would find myself inserting descriptive paragraphs or transition sentences, and pretty soon the writing juices would be flowing again.
4. Do you ever write by hand or have you converted exclusively to word processing?
I can’t write fast enough by hand, so I don’t. When I’m deep into the writing phase of the project, but in the midst of doing something else — cooking, running an errand — I occasionally write down phrases or sentences that occur to me. So when I return to the computer, I have a pocket stuffed with several scraps of paper, all with scrawled lines on them. Often these are the opening or closing sentences of chapters, or key transitions. Those are important, too, because once I have them, I can write in that direction, with those sentences in mind: how do I point this story I’m telling to that conclusion?
5. How has Twitter changed your work as a journalist and as a writer?
As a reporter, I tweet a lot about New Brunswick politics, and I find that I do reach some people who don’t follow political news on the TV or radio. As an author, Twitter hasn’t had much of an impact. I do have a Twitter account devoted to my book work, @PoitrasBook. I set it up about midway through the writing to try to build interest in the book. I use it mainly to promote book events or link to relevant border stories.
6. What’s the best time of day for you to write (notwithstanding question 3 above)? As a follow-up, do you have a preferred writing location/writing environment?
The best way to answer this is to imagine a perfect writing day, which I’ve had, occasionally, when taking some unpaid leave from the CBC to work on my book. This would be a day free of any other scheduled work or family commitments. On a typical day like this, I am slow to get started: I’m probably in front of the computer by 9, but I would normally spend a good hour reading news online, checking email, and otherwise procrastinating. By 10 I’m ready to start, and normally I’ll work for two to three hours, stopping to eat lunch when I hit a logical point to break, or when I’m having trouble with a particularly stubborn mental block. I’m back at it twenty minutes later and I’m good until 3:30 or 4 in the afternoon, when I start to run out of gas. I’ll often go back at it for a couple of hours at night.
We have a small room in our basement where we have our computer set up, along with bookshelves and the like. We call it “the office” and it’s where I do all my book work. We had a similar room in our previous house. I think it’s good to have a dedicated space free of most distractions.
7. Most creatives (virtually all, really) have had to deal with rejection. How have you had to deal with it as a writer/creative? Any horror stories that you’re willing to share?
I’m loathe to call myself a “creative.” But I understand the premise of the question. I was fortunate that Goose Lane accepted my very first book pitch, which was for The Right Fight. After the success of Beaverbrook, I pitched a couple of books that no one was interested in. I also approached a couple of agents, hoping they’d represent me, but without success. But I can’t complain too much about rejection. I’ve written three books that I’ve wanted to write, and I’m very grateful to be working with Goose Lane.
8. Who are some of your favorite writers?
In non-fiction, I’m a huge fan of Simon Winchester. He blends travel, history and some current affairs in a wonderful way. Similarly, Robert Kaplan also manages to mix journalism and history with some first-person narrative. When I realized that the peculiar challenge of my material for Imaginary Line required me to put myself in the story, I looked to their books for guidance. My all-time favourite political book is Robert Caro’s biographical series on President Lyndon Johnson. And of course George Orwell is where you turn to cleanse your intellectual palate.
9. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I can’t choose just one. My former editor at the Kingston Whig-Standard and the Telegraph-Journal, Neil Reynolds, wrote an essay that made the case for journalism as “literature in a hurry,” a Matthew Arnold phrase. What he meant was that journalism can aim to be something higher than just a quick spewing of words and facts; it can aspire to be well-crafted and full of excitement and character. My first-year political science professor, Conrad Winn, always used to tell those of us who were journalism students that the best thing we could do was read books. And he was right. And George Orwell wrote, “To yield subjectively, not merely to a party machine, but even to a group ideology, is to destroy yourself as a writer.” That’s still the best advice of all.
10. What piece of advice would you give to a new and/or struggling writer?
I would repeat all the advice in the previous answer.
Thanks to Jacques Poitras for agreeing to do this interview!