Give Me Homework

Before I worked at CBC, I used to think hosts like Eleanor Wachtel and Jian Gomeshi were superhuman. Not only had they read all the books they were interviewing authors about, they had beautifully well-developed questions ready in a tidy narrative arc. Then I started working as a producer behind the scenes and realized I’d be pre-interviewing the guests and coming up with a lot of those beautiful questions.

But the achievement still stands that these great hosts are doing a massive amount of reading to be prepared to talk to their guests. I’ve been doing a lot of preparatory reading for stories myself lately. It’s eerie how much of a thrill it is to know you’ve done your homework when you pick up the phone or start prattling on in front of a microphone.

One of Raymond Biesinger's outlandish illustrations in She of the Mountains
One of Raymond Biesinger’s outlandish illustrations in She of the Mountains

This week, you’ll be able to read a story I wrote for Vue Weekly about Vivek Shraya’s fantastic new novel She of the Mountains. I interviewed Vivek a few years ago about his documentary What I LOVE About Being QUEER, and She shares many of its themes in exploring race, sexuality, and searching for a sense of belonging. I guarantee you’ve never read a novel like it, though. It’s an almost minimalist love story about a man searching for a way to reconcile his love of both men and women, learning to love himself, interwoven with the domestic blisses and bloody battles of Hindu gods and goddesses.

More recently, I got to race through Edmonton political affairs commentator Satya Das’ book The Best Country: Why Canada Will Lead the Future in anticipation of moderating a panel talk for ACGC. I love hosting events like this, because there’s so much research and craft that goes into guiding a conversation among speakers with vastly different perspectives live with an audience.

And my last blast of preparatory reading this summer was for Terra Informa. We had a summer reading club, where we reviewed wilderness journey Being Caribou, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Year of the Flood, and the dense eco-poetry book Kill-Site. It’s exciting to have a springboard in front of me with sticky notes and scribbles in the margin, from which I can leap off into questions about That Moment You First Heard Pierre Trudeau Speak, or What Stories From Your Childhood Inspired This Battle Scene.

In summary, feel free to give me homework that I can turn into a story or an engaging conversation in front of an audience. I crave it.

Scott Vaughan, What Páll Makes, and Life Without ID

This spring, I’ve had the chance to peek into what life without ID looks like in Canada, interview one of Canada’s most interesting authorities on environmental policy, and produce the most music-centred story I’ve ever done for Terra Informa.

A close-up look of the stone harp.
A close-up look of the stone harp that Páll invented.

First off, the story I made for the many people who asked to hear the recordings I made of artist Páll Guðmundsson while I was in Iceland. This story was a mix of liquid luck and preparation that paid off. If ferry workers hadn’t been striking in south Iceland where we originally wanted to go, our friends at the tourist bureau in Reykjavík would never have recommended we go check out Páll’s rock sculptures in his tiny summer village of Húsafell. Fortunately I had packed my pocket-sized Zoom audio recorder just in case I met someone life changing, whose story I absolutely needed to tell.

Have you ever gone somewhere new and had the feeling that you’ve been there before? Imagine going away on a trip and finding that everything you see reminds you of home: the stores have the same shape and sell the same clothes, the restaurants serve the same sort of food, the people listen to the same kind of music…

What about somewhere embraces its own character and qualities? That’s what I saw in Páll Guðmundsson, an artist whose local and naturally inspired work makes his home feel one-of-a-kind. Listen from about 10:18:

scott vaughan
Scott Vaughan, plus my hand.

Next, my interview with Scott Vaughan, Canada’s former Environment Commissioner and the new President and CEO of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). IISD just took a big leap forward for themselves, and for aquatic science in Canada, by successfully negotiating to become the new operator of the Experimental Lakes Area in northern Ontario. It’s one of Canada’s most important (and most famous) scientific research facilities.

There, scientists have a unique ability to conduct experiments on entire lake ecosystems — in some cases, their research lasts over decades. The research there has caused major changes in the way we live in Canada: like how acid rain affects freshwater fish, and how phosphates in our detergents can cause algae blooms.

But in 2013, the federal government said it felt the Experimental Lakes Area’s research was no longer necessary, and to be be shut down. That set off a mad scramble from environmental groups, activists, and researchers around the world to find a way to keep it alive.

I got a chance to meet Scott Vaughan at the Zero 2014 sustainability conference in Edmonton to discuss how the year of upheaval will affect the research at the ELA, and what he learned about the federal government’s attitude towards research during his time as Canada’s Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development. We had a frank talk about whether he and the other parliamentary officers who’ve irritated the government ever get together and commiserate, but regrettably I had to cut it out of this Terra Informa story. The rest still makes for a fascinating story, I think. Listen from about 1:28:

Finally, this week I finally got a story out that I’ve had in my head for a long time. Last year, I noticed a flyer up in the Stanley A Milner library in downtown Edmonton, advertising an ID storage service at Boyle Street Community Services. I was intensely curious why anyone would need to have the centre lock their ID away. It led me down a rabbit hole of the frustrations that face seniors, homeless people, the recently-incarcerated, anyone who wasn’t born in Canada, and ultimately, our democracy.

You can check out the story online or on newstands in Vue Weekly.