The 5-Minute Freelancer Q&A #26 — Arno Kopecky

In this regular feature, Story Board asks Canadian writers to share a few details about their work habits and their strategies for navigating the ups and downs of freelance life. 


Arno Kopecky

Arno Kopecky won the 2015 Dave Greber Freelance Writers Award for his article Title Fight, which ran in the Walrus last summer.

The Vancouver-based writer has had his work published in Maclean’s, the Globe and Mail and Reader’s Digest. He has also written two books: The Devil’s Curve and The Oil Man and the Sea, both of which explore environmental and Indigenous issues.

He took some time to speak with Story Board recently about longform journalism, building confidence, and surviving the hungry early years of a writing career.


How do you tend to approach a subject that you want to write about?

Usually I go to a place and live in it as best I can. I should preface this by saying I got a grant from Canada Council for the Arts to write a novel a few months ago, so that is now my life. Which has allowed me to sort of step away from journalism altogether. But I got into freelancing about 12 years ago and it was sort of a way to combine my love of travel and my interest in current affairs and global affairs.

I didn’t really have a traditional training in journalism. I studied creative writing at university and then took a series of internships at Harper’s magazine and the Walrus magazine. And that was sort of how I learned a little bit about journalism. And those magazines embody longform, immersive journalism, which I love. That was partly why I interned there in the first place. And then it became what I was trying to mimic.

After I finished those internships, I just started travelling around. It was just the only way I knew how to do it, was to just go and have an experience and try to have it as fully as possible by living in and amongst the people and situations that I wanted to write about.

And then, especially at the beginning, I think I was uncomfortable setting up formal interviews with strangers. It was more natural for me just to live with people and to let situations evolve a bit more naturally or try to create these situations just by being around all the time. Obviously I let people know that I’m a writer and that everything’s on the record. But as soon as that’s been said, next you’re trying to help them forget that just by being that fly on the wall. I think I take a note from Joan Didion in that approach.

And that just became my storytelling technique over the years. I started out with the environment at the top of my mind. It’s always seemed like the story of our times — this environmental looming threat that has a thousand faces. And as time progressed, social justice and, increasingly, Indigenous rights have kind of come to the centre of my attention. So I’m always trying to find stories that seem like something that I can actually get at and go live a little bit.


How do you narrow down these massive topics? 

The first thing you learn in writing school is that character development is key. And I think it’s especially relevant for environmental literature, whether it’s journalism or any other kind. Traditionally people have kind of been out of the picture because we’re talking about polar bears and melting glaciers and holes in the ozone layer.

But it’s hard to hook readers if you don’t have compelling people in the stories. And so that was something that I have tried. I don’t know if I’ve ever succeeded fully. But I’ve tried to find stories with compelling people at the centre, which are also about some sort of environmental issue.


What would you say the most important thing has been for your professional development over the years?

My internship at Harper’s was huge. I did a string of internships. The first one was actually at a corrupt newspaper in Oaxaca, Mexico. I was a cub reporter for this weird little newspaper in Oaxaca because I had lived in Spain and learned Spanish. It was sort of a bohemian move but I was also thinking, well, if I learned Spanish it would open up Latin America to me as a writer. And then I got this cub reporting gig at this corrupt newspaper. It was named El Imparcial and it was so not impartial. So I was a reporter there.

And from there I applied for this internship at Harper’s, which was the exact opposite end of the journalistic spectrum. And from Harper’s I went to the Walrus. And so it was this trio of internships and in my mind they all loom as this one big journalistic education that I didn’t really get at university. That was pivotal. Those, together, lasted two years and I think of them as my journalism degree, basically.


So you had a hands-on education.

Yes. And you’re fact-checking and you’re following in the footsteps of these journalists. You’re kind of seeing how they put their stories together. And you’re going over it bit by bit and then in the process you’re watching how editors make their changes and how the story improves over time and you realize “oh first drafts often suck.”

Even the best writers hand in terrible first drafts. And so it just kind of humanized the whole process and made me feel like, okay, a) this is how you do it and b) this is something that I could do, too.


What advice would you offer to writers who are just starting out? 

It’s a tough question because there’s a thousand ways into it. For some people I think journalism school is great. Go to journalism school, get the education and then follow that route, which is kind of the traditional way.

But for me that was not at all the way. For me it was much more valuable to get out into the world and just get some real world experience travelling and living in other cultures. Get another language, which I think was huge.

But I do think that an internship with a publication that you like and that you would like to write for or that kind of publication, I think that’s huge. I really think it opens all kinds of doors both for confidence — it gives you connections to people and editors — and it just gets you in that world.

Because when I was starting out I was like, okay, I think I can tell stories and I can write but how do I get my writing noticed by an editor? It just seemed like this brick wall between me and these publications that I loved.

I just had no idea. It seemed so daunting. Maybe other people aren’t daunted the way I was and they’re just more brave and confident, but for me it was really valuable and confidence-building to get into the building and to be an intern within the magazine and to realize “oh everybody’s just human.” You can talk to anyone, you can call an editor, you can send them an email.


Internships are tough for a lot of people. More and more of them are unpaid these days.

I know. For me, I was lucky, the Walrus internship was paid when I went there. Harper’s was not, but I had a family friend who lived in New York who I could live with for free for those four or five months. So that was how I did that.

I have lots of sympathy for that. It’s not getting easier, I don’t think. But, and I hesitate to say this because you just sound callous, but it’s not like I didn’t have to do a lot of dirty jobs over the years. Whether it was tree planting or construction or labour or landscaping. I was just making enough, doing whatever I could to get two or three grand in the bank, buy a plane ticket and then go somewhere where I could live for a month on $1500 or something like that.

For me, newspaper jobs were never the thing. That pace has never really been for me. I have so much respect for newspaper reporters who can handle daily deadlines, but I always wanted to just freelance and that was the way that I did it, especially at the beginning.

At the beginning, you’re making most of your money from other things and a little bit of money from writing. And then as the years go by, hopefully you’re making more and more money from writing and less and less from other sources. I think we’re all, speaking for myself at least, groping in the dark a little bit and inventing it as we go along.


Arno Kopecky is working on his first novel, which he says will touch on the same kinds of themes as his non-fiction books. You can find some of his magazine work on his website or follow him on Twitter at @arno_kopecky.


Posted on January 29, 2016 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , , , ,

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