Author Guy Lawson talks freelancing in the U.S.
Guy Lawson says he’s “finally now ready to be a writer.” It sounds strange coming from a man who’s been published by Harper’s magazine and has been on contract with GQ and Rolling Stone. But now, with a new book underway, Lawson now feels he’s achieved enough success to settle into the role.
Born in Canada, Lawson spent time in Britain and Australia and then moved to New York in the early ’90 to practice law. After 18 months, he quit law to pursue writing. Fifteen years later, his success in the U.S. literary world is remarkable. Lawson’s new book, Octopus, is the story of Sam Israel, a hedge fund manager who was convicted of fraud and faked his own suicide after his sentencing.
Lawson started out in the media world as the host of the TV Ontario book program Imprint, a show previously hosted by Daniel Richler. An aspiring writer, Lawson was recommended to the producers by writer and good friend Merrily Weisbord.
“They wanted someone unknown,” says Lawson. “And I fit that bill.”
After Imprint, Lawson went on to write for major American magazines about extremely Canadian topics: the Quebec referendum, western Canadian junior hockey, and the murder of British Columbia teen Reena Virk.
Lawson took some time to speak with Story Board about the challenges of freelancing and the keys to his success in the U.S.
How did you get your first piece in Harper’s?
It was really the Quebec referendum that started my freelance life. I was covering it for Eye Weekly [now The Grid] and a friend of mine in New York and I were talking and she said “why don’t you try and do something for America about that?” And I wouldn’t have known how to place anything. I was a Toronto media guy. But she was friendly with someone at Harper’s magazine who’s Canadian, so she called him and he agreed to take a spec piece from me with a $500 kill fee. And so I wrote a feature called “No Canada.” It was about the months after the referendum, after everyone had gone and everything had fallen silent. And that was a really tough thing, because I had never written a narrative non-fiction piece and it was for Harper’s magazine. It’s starting pretty high.
So I wrote a draft that was terrible. I mean really unprofessional and unprintable. But Paul Tough, the editor, was kind enough to say “look, I can’t even really comment on this. This is not what we want. I suggest that you just start over. Just think this over and start again.”
I didn’t know what the hell to do. So I went to the library and I picked up Harper’s magazines and I just started flicking through them. What are the approaches? What does a Harper’s piece look like? What would they want? What’s the vernacular? And I read this article about some musicologist doing a piece about Viennese chamber music. The piece started out “one morning I got up and started walking around Venice.” And I thought “oh, that’s what I can do. I’ll walk around Montreal. I’ll metaphorically frame this story, beginning with walking up Boulevard Saint-Laurent or St. Lawrence, this divide.
It was really, really fun. It was really moving. I can be really political and insistent and declarative. And I discovered that I had this whole other personality in writing which was elusive and not didactic and interested in suggestion rather than solution. It just came to me that I didn’t have to shout things.
And then another great thing happened which was that that Paul Tough is a gifted editor. And it’s really gratifying to hand something over to your editor and then to see it improved. And that’s a rare experience. Now I’m 15 years in, that’s much rarer that you’d expect: to feel like this person is not just engaging with the story professionally but also humanely and with an eye to your voice rather than his voice. And an eye to the substance rather than the power. And then really, fundamentally, that they’re not lazy.
Your lack of journalism training obviously didn’t hold you back. It seems that’s part of what’s made you successful.
I think that’s right. GQ had me in and [editor] Art Cooper said the reason he started to commission me was because I did the opposite of what everyone who wrote for the magazine did, which was I didn’t try to tell the whole story in the first 300 words. I buried my lead as far as I could bury it down. I didn’t even know I was doing that. I was so unschooled in journalism that it didn’t even really occur to me that you should have the three declarative sentences up front and then shape it and all the sorts of things that go into newspaper writing. I was just going along doing what I could.
And the other thing I had going for me is that I was the only one interested in Canada. This is how gross it was for me: it was much easier for me to get published in Harper’s magazine and GQ and even the New York Times magazine than it was to get published in Saturday Night and these Canadian magazines because these people were driven so much by their friends and their little tribal petty bullshit politics and if you didn’t belong to their clique you couldn’t get in. And even you did, they didn’t run stories of the kind I was interested in. It was really amazing to me. I was living in Toronto and I couldn’t get something in Saturday Night magazine, but I would get a cover of Harper’s. I published a book in July of this year which gets a full page rave review in the New York Times and doesn’t even get reviewed by the Globe and Mail. I’m not Canadian enough. I don’t know what it is. There’s been no interest. People don’t think of me as Canadian… The self-pitying way to say it is that it’s hurtful when I get totally ignored by this literary establishment. But the best revenge is to live well, just to continue, do your work.
What advice would you offer Canadian writers hoping to get more exposure in U.S. publications?
Don’t be afraid to try it. And don’t begin with the assumption that Canada’s uninteresting. Or that you don’t have something interesting to say. There’s a lot of insecurity about that stuff. I don’t think that you should be not pitching American publications and limit yourself or your imagination to what’s available in Canada at all.
If I had to sort of look back on it, broad strokes, I was really blessed to have a couple of people believe in me. And they weren’t powerful people, they weren’t political people, they were just good, decent people who were able to suggest me to someone and give me an opportunity and then I just really took those opportunities seriously.
And I don’t know what the Canadian freelance life looks like these days, but if I’d listened to people I would have aimed a lot lower and been a lot more ready to settle. I wrote for Cottage Life and then I did something for Canadian Health Monthly and I did reviews for the Globe and Mail and some small stuff for the Toronto Star and for Eye Weekly. It wasn’t like it was all grandiose. It wasn’t like my first thing was for Harper’s, I was practicing, practicing, practicing. But if you’re really drawn to something then you won’t feel like you wasted your time if it doesn’t work out. And I think you’re more likely to succeed by following your passion.
Sam Israel, the guy that Octopus is about, faked his suicide after he got sentenced to twenty years. There was something about that that just really fascinated me. I was able to marry that with my legal training to know when it is somebody might be willing to talk, which is after they’ve been sentenced. Before that can get in more trouble. So that was part of it. And then by this time, over the last decade I’ve been in the Balkans, I’ve been in the Middle East, I’ve been all over the world talking to different kinds of people and so I’ve developed an ability to reassure people and make them trust me.
How do you approach people?
You just be yourself. And if you allow people to see your humanity, it gets easier over time. If you really keep your word — and I do, and I treat it like the absolute first imperative — over time that just becomes part of you. And people sense it. And so that’s why all these stories about these awful journalists every six months, it seems, getting caught lying and cheating, that’s what’s so disheartening about it. Don’t exaggerate, don’t lie, don’t tell people you’ll do things you can’t do. Don’t make a character. A lot of times what these people are doing is they’re taking two or three or four different things and putting them together into one, because it’s simpler or tighter or nicer or whatever. Leonard Cohen, his idea is the only way you can get a song is the anvil of rhyme. [Writing is] like the anvil of truth. You’ve just got to keep forging at it and make it beautiful.
Was Sam Israel receptive to your advances right off the bat?
It wasn’t just that he was receptive, it’s that I walked in and he was like basically “this whole thing about the hedge fund fraud is nothing, I’ve got a much bigger story, listen to this.” And he starts telling me this tale about international intrigue and secret bonds and the CIA running a Ponzi scheme through the Federal Reserve and it all sounded totally nuts. And then three weeks later the global financial crisis hit. So I thought at the least that there was something to explore here. And so I did. And the thing about freelancing too is that as you go along, it gets more fun to go longer and to increase the degree of difficulty. I really enjoy [writing] books now because they pull out everything you’ve got. It’s like having a relationship. You have your one-nighters and then you have your three-monthers and then you realize that you really want to get to know somebody and it has its own rewards.
How have things been going with Octopus?
Reviews have been amazing. Sales have been OK. It’s a tough environment. It’s a finance book, although it’s not really. And book publishing’s having a hard time, with reading changing and Kindles and all this stuff. So you catch me at the moment when I’m working on my next book and I feel like I’m finally now ready to be a writer. Because at the end of the day, it’s a very tough business. Even if you’re doing a lot of what you want and even if you’re getting some success at it, nobody’s asking you to do it.
That’s one of the things about freelancing is the getting out of bed. Because there’s no one saying come on, hop to it. Unless you’ve got a spouse or something. Or kids with their mouths open. But even still, it’s self-motivating. So you’re a talented young Canadian journalist and you’re really prepared to invest and do the things necessary to learn your craft and have a freelance life and everything, but there’s no one on the other side of that. You’re the one who has to find the solution. Most people go to their workplace and there’s a team of people trying to solve things. Or the questions that they’re being asked are not that difficult to solve. [As a freelancer] you kind of have to, I think, really want to live a life of challenges. And even talking about this I want to go and lie down! You know what I mean, because it’s kind of exhausting.
But then there’s the payoff.
So what would the payoff be? I mean Octopus was a New York Times bestseller. For a week. But still! That’s not nothing. It’s been a really good next step for me as a writer in terms of marshalling my resources. I’ve learned a lot from this book just purely as a writer and also through the editing process that it went through. But still, I’m still the dude that has to eat the fact that it did not get the promotion and marketing budget that I’d hoped for. And so sales weren’t what I was hoping for. I think in the freelance life you’ve got to live your life at all times expecting a complete stranger to come running out of an alley and hit you over the head with a baseball bat. Because it’s so heartless, right?
It seems pretty hopeless!
Well I don’t think so. I don’t want to boast or anything, but I’ve had some good successes and I think the abiding thing is that you have the work. I am spending today working on this really interesting story about these arms dealers and how the federal government, the New York Times, the Pentagon, all these powerful forces framed this story one way and now it’s up to me to frame it a new way. And that’s fun. And now I’m taking a break from it to talk to, I hope, somebody I can touch out there and inspire them with my Canadian stuff. Because I really do care. As much as I rant and rave, the kid in Estevan [Saskatchewan] matters to me. Because I was that kid. I really was. I was a kid in Regina, Saskatchewan sitting in a basement reading books and imagining one day trying to make them. So I’m really happy to do this. That’s the payoff. Getting to continue doing it and getting to help others.