Exposing oneself to millions

By Caitlin Kelly

Thanks to a reader here, I decided to pitch one of my earlier blog posts as a larger, reported story about medical touch — and my own experience of it — to The New York Times, and it ran today, prompting many enthusiastic and grateful tweets.

Here’s the link, and an excerpt:

It started, as it does for thousands of women every year, with a routine mammogram, and its routine process of having my breasts — like a lump of dough — manipulated by another woman’s hands and placed, albeit gently, into tight compression. It’s never comfortable, but you get used to it because you have to.

Unlike previous years, though, my next step was a biopsy, for which I lay face down, my left breast dangling through a hole in the table. Several hands reached for what’s normally a private and hidden body part and moved it with practiced ease, compressing it again into position for the radiologist’s needles, first a local anesthetic and then the probes needed to withdraw tissue for sampling.

I was fearful of the procedure and of its result and, to my embarrassment, wept quietly during the hour. A nurse gently patted my right shoulder and the male radiologist, seated to my left and working below me, stroked my left wrist to comfort me. I was deeply grateful for their compassion, even as they performed what were for them routine procedures.

 

It is decidedly weird to out one’s health status — let alone discuss your breast! — in a global publication like the Times — but it also offered me, as a journalist and a current patient undergoing treatment,  a tremendous platform to share a message I think really important.

 

I hope you’ll share it widely!

 

 

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Every patient needs to be touched kindly and gently

My writing life, recently

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

This summer has meant dodging endlessly between various doctors, hospitals and offices, so the time and energy I’ve had for making a living has been limited.

 

Some of what I’ve been up to:

— Tried again to see if there might be a staff writing job for me at The New York Times, since there’s a new editor on a section that could use my skills. I got a nice, quick reply so we’ll see if it turns into anything more serious.

 

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— Twice revised a 1,000 word profile of a French farmer, working in French, to insure accuracy.

—- Found/interviewed 11 people for a 1,500 word story about how fitness has become something aimed largely at the affluent. Editors, both of them new to me (always a nervous moment) both liked it a lot.

— Pitched a story set in British Columbia to a Canadian business magazine (no decision after 3 weeks.)

 

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— Invited to a conference in northern Ontario, decided to head up for a break.

— Pitched two ideas to Amtrak’s magazine, which had asked for pitches. Twice. Crickets.

— Sent an LOI to someone who does content marketing, (the only source of true income now for writers), and got a quick, positive reply but no immediate work.

— Checked in with an Atlanta editor, (thanks to a friend’s referral), to see if she’s got anything. Stay tuned, she tells me. (Again.)

— Took a story killed by the Times (which cost me $500 in lost/expected income) and re-framed it as a pitch to a business magazine. Three weeks later, still awaiting an answer after an initially positive reply.

— Pitched a story about an unusual Canadian arts program to The New York Times Magazine (twice); no answer.

 

GLOBE

 

— Met with editor of a brand-new website focused on people in their 50s and 60s, and chatted over lemonade about story ideas. We hit it off, and I hope to produce two stories a month for her.

— Was interviewed twice for a job as editor in chief of a small weekly newspaper in a very wealthy town in my county. Very odd experience! We decided, cordially, this was not a fit for me.

— Pitched/wrote/revised a story for The New York Times about one specific element of my recent medical experiences.

— Got a surprise assignment to interview the new coach of the New York Rangers hockey team, whose offices are a 10-minute drive from my home. Met him on a Wednesday and turned in 1,200 words by Friday morning.

 

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— Reading a book of letters written by Martha Gellhorn, one of the 20th century’s best female journalists and war correspondents, (and one of Hemingway’s wives.) She knew everyone, and many of her letters are to her good friend Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1938 she was paid $1,500 by Collier’s magazine for a story — the equivalent today of $26,000. I get paid $1,500 today — 80 years later! — for some of my stories — and my monthly health insurance alone costs $1,400. Do that math.

— Joined a new-ish online writer’s group, StudyHall, which has proven surprisingly civil, friendly and extremely supportive of one another.

— Blogged, as usual.

 

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— Read, as usual, the NYT and FT seven days a week, plus several books, plus NPR, plus magazines, (mostly for leisure, like Vogue and House Beautiful and Bon Appetit.)

— Send out four LOIs (letters of introduction) to what I hoped might become new clients. Crickets!

— Applied for staff jobs at the L.A. Times, The Independent, Globe & Mail and a local business newspaper. The Globe responded quickly and kindly, (I used to work for them), but, as I suspected from the start, will likely send someone down from Toronto as a plum gig. Applied a while back for a reporting spot at ProPublica — 700 resumes received. Form letter rejection.

— Helped a younger writer (who pays me for it!) navigate some tricky bits of freelancing.

Leaving this week for a 12 day break in Ontario!

Failure? Let’s discuss

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By Caitlin Kelly

In the shiny, buffed world of social media, how often do you see someone — or do it yourself — admitting to failure?

It’s a parade of perfection, and one that can make any of us feel like a total loser for not being as thin/pretty/well-dressed/groomed/wealthy/well-employed/living on a Greek island…

Loved this New York Times piece about why we need to talk more openly about it:

In a new working paper, co-author Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, found that discussing failures can help to humanize the sharer by making them seem more approachable and relatable in the workplace. It also generally increased levels of so-called “benign envy,” which can motivate and drive employees to perform better.

However, the enemy of benign envy, according to the paper, is “malicious envy”: The type of envy others feel when we talk about our achievements much more often than our struggles. Projecting that image of perfection can be especially harmful for those in leadership positions who risk coming across as disingenuous, Ms. Brooks and her colleagues found.

A simple way to understand this is to look at the polished-though-unrealistic lives many of us present on social media.

 

 

One of the most powerful lessons I learned last year — despite their towering reputations lasting centuries — is that Japanese print-making legend Hokusai, Michelangelo and even Leonardo da Vinci all suffered setbacks and penury and failure.

It happens!

I’ve spoken here a few times about the many failures I’ve experienced in my life and career, but let’s review a few.

The only true value of failure is learning something useful.

 

— Moved to Montreal age 30 for a staff newspaper job I had doubts about (not a very good paper.) Was gone within 18 months after some unpleasant interactions with my boss and a union that shrugged and wouldn’t help.

Lesson: trust your gut.

— Moved to a small town in New Hampshire, pre-Internet. Despite efforts, made no friends and, again, left within 18 months to move to New York, just in time for a recession.

Lesson: I’m not a rural girl!

— Took six months, crying every day, to get a magazine editing job after cold-calling hundreds of strangers.

Lesson: Re-starting your career in a highly-competitive industry in a highly-competitive city with zero social connections is really hard.

— Married in 1992, husband walked out 1994. 

Lesson: Don’t marry someone who won’t do the work to go the distance.

— Have applied many times for competitive fellowships like the Knight-Bagehot (to study business at Columbia), the Alicia Patterson (tried three times), a Canada Council grant (worth $20,000 Canadian) multiple times.

Lesson: Thousands of competitors want the same bag of goodies. You can keep trying, even if you feel pissed off and humiliated.

— Spent many hours in 2018 producing two full book proposals, both of which were rejected by five agents. Fun!

Lesson: Intellectual growth — creative growth of any kind — is almost always going to be unpaid, speculative and suck time away from paid work. How much do you want it?

 

I admit, though — I’m much less amused by failure at this point in my life.

I want to stop working within five years, ideally sooner, which places a lot of pressure on me to to do good work and well-paid work and work that I really care about and am proud to have produced.

All of which now run directly counter to current industry trends in journalism.

I’m not someone who spends her days consumed by envy when I see social media brag-fests. Sure, it hurts to see people winning, especially if you feel like you’re losing. But it doesn’t accomplish anything to focus on their success and your (relative) failure.

No one succeeds alone, so I’m also attentive to people’s headwinds and tailwinds — the many invisible forces beyond talent, skill and experience — that can propel some people to massive/quick success while the rest of us struggle.

That might be family money, social capital, alumni connections, anything that offers a leg up.

Some of my younger friends, in their 20s and 30s, end up consumed with envy at their peers’ glittering achievements, which is a terrible distraction. I do think, once you’re past 40 or 50, life should — ideally! — have brought you some of the rewards you once coveted.

A feeling of success, despite the inevitable setbacks and failures we all experience.

I’ve also found that some things we’re completely obsessed with at 25 or 35 or 45 can shift so that not getting it — i.e. what we once would have deemed a failure — is no longer a goal we even want.

It’s too easy to focus solely on one area of accomplishment — work — rather than being proud that you’ve been a great friend or spouse, have managed to regain and maintain good health, have planted a thriving garden.

We’re all diamonds, multi-faceted, and several sides will always catch the light.

We also all have many successes, if we take time to notice and celebrate them.

 

How do you handle failure?

Do you obsess and freak out or just move ahead?

 

Books I’m reading — and tossing!

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Loved this one!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Our apartment building has a shelf near the laundry room where we exchange books and magazines. I’ve had some great luck, (“Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn), but recently gave up on three books I found there — one by (of all people!) John Grisham, since the book was all scene-setting with no apparent action or plot to be found.

Another was one of those Scandi-noir murder mysteries (ditto) and the third (sigh) was “NW” by Zaidie Smith. I gave up within two chapters. I loved White Teeth but have been so disappointed by others of hers.

I’m still slooooooowly getting through “A Bright Shining Lie”, Neil Sheehan’s doorstop history of the war in VietNam. I’m meandering through “The Lay of the Land,” by Richard Ford, who manages to make the life of a middle-aged New Jersey realtor compelling.

A good friend keeps urging me to write a novel, as I’ve had the vague outlines of a murder mystery in my head for a decade. The idea is a little terrifying, even though many journalists have made a successful transition to fiction.

But I tend to keep returning to non-fiction as I am so often annoyed by fiction and resent wasting time on it.

Some of my fictional favorites:

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery

Later made into a film, a portrait of a Parisian concierge and the upscale apartment building where she works.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob deZoet, David Mitchell

Loved love loved this tale of 18th century Japan. His physical descriptions are beautiful and mysterious.

The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachmann

Written by a fellow Canadian journalist who once worked at the International Herald Tribune in Paris, apparently his portraits of his co-workers are pretty clear in this charming novel about…a newspaper in Paris.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Another doorstop, its size intimidating, I received this as a gift from a friend for my birthday two years ago. I’d been warned it was too long and the last third could well have used a heavy edit. But loved this one, set in New York City and elsewhere.

A Little Life, Hana Yanagihara

Not an easy read, but one of the most powerful and unforgettable books I’ve ever read, a tale of ongoing friendship, also set in New York City — written (in her spare time!) in 18 months by an editor at The New York Times.

In The Skin of a Lion, Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje

He’s probably best-known for “The English Patient”, (still one of my favorite films ever), but reading anything by this Sri Lankan-Canadian author is like entering a dream state, in the best sense. In the Skin is about Toronto (my hometown) in the 1920s and “Divisadero” about a California family.

I was recently given a copy of “Lincoln in the Bardo”, so that’s on the list.

I typically don’t read horror, romance, sci-fit, dystopian, Westerns or YA…

What have you been reading lately (or tossing?!)

 

Journalism’s less-visible heroes

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The New York Times newsroom

 

By Caitlin Kelly

To those who’ve never worked in journalism, it’s easy to forget — or simply not know about — the many hidden talents that make radio, print, digital and television coverage possible.

They include coders, graphic designers, layout people, researchers, fact-checkers and copy editors.

While on-air anchors earn millions, and reporters and photographers, out in public are visible, without cameramen and women, young and hungry interns, production assistants and bookers, none of it is possible.

One of the things my husband, a career photographer and photo editor, and I enjoy is that journalism really is a team sport; without all those talents, it just doesn’t happen.

Here’s a fantastic story from The Walrus, arguably Canada’s quirkiest and most interesting national magazine (for whom I soon hope to be writing!), about the eight women who ran the switchboard of the Toronto Star. Their genius was essential in an era before Google and social media made our jobs  — i.e. finding people fast — so much easier.

 

To the reporters at the Star, the switchboard seemed capable of working miracles. And its feats were all due to dedication of eight women. Most came to the job with a background working switchboards, but the ones who stuck around were those who had the grit to call up dozens of people in the hopes of finding a source and then were persuasive enough keep them on the line. They took the job seriously: lugging yellow pages back from vacations abroad, leaving their home-phone numbers with reporters in case they were needed in a pinch, and working with reporters to revive leads that seemed long dead.

One of those operators was Eva Cavan, the switchboard’s supervisor for over three decades, who once tracked down the Star’s Washington correspondent by calling up every shop along Pennsylvania Avenue until a pharmacist was able to ID the reporter. During her tenure, Cavan’s team found the prime suspect in the 1972 Olympics massacre, located Terry Fox in Newfoundland by calling up stations he was likely to stop at, and convinced a control tower to delay takeoff so that the Ontario health minister could disembark and take a call with the Star.

I remember with fondness the operators at the Globe and Gazette, one of whom handed me the piece of paper informing me my French mentor had died.

This past weekend was a painful and emotional reminder that colleagues can be much more than the next guy or gal in the cubicle.

We attended the funeral of a man we all thought would live to his 90s, for sure, but who was struck down at 70 quickly and brutally by a rare cancer.

Zvi Lowenthal worked for 44 years at The New York Times, but you never read his name.

My husband worked for seven years inches from Zvi, an avid tennis player who — with Jose, his fellow photo editor — assigned and chose every photo for The New York Times’ business section. They were, according to their co-workers, an old married couple, and it was a good match: Jose is calm, steady, ice in his veins when the shit hits the fan. Zvi was warm, kind, meticulous, the kind of guy who made sure that freelancers got paper copies of their images, a gesture very few editors would ever bother to make.

And, when Jose was a Times photographer, Zvi had also been his editor. While Jose enjoyed seeing his name in the paper with every photo he took — in newspaper parlance his “agate” — editors never do.

The team managed to keep pictures coming through the most terrifying economic crisis since the Depression. It’s not easy to illustrate corporate malfeasance!

Today, American journalists are derided by the President, of all people, as “fake” and “disgusting”, inciting violence against us at his rallies.

 

Our skills and dedication  — visible or less so — remain essential to a functional democracy.

 

 

A literary con artist exposed

 

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Wannabe an author?

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Few things are as seductive to newer/less-published writers as the glittering promise of smoothly guaranteed access to an agent and editors and movie deals and television series.

Workshops in Irish castles and Tuscan villas.

Baring your soul in a room full of other ambitious writers, guided gently by a wise, kind mentor.

Feeling lucky and grateful to have found someone who wants to help you and whose charm and skills and self-confidence are deeply reassuring.

You, too, can be just like her!

 

Here’s a wild tale now racing around American social media circles, about a woman named — (most recently!) — Anna March, whose name I immediately recognized as someone who belonged to several on-line women’s writing groups I participate in.

Turns out, she changed her name repeatedly, took money from writers to help with their manuscripts and promised them access to some of the toughest outlets — she’d sold an essay to The New York Times’ column Modern Love, the equivalent in our world of winning a Nobel Prize; at a NYC conference this spring, I heard its editor, Daniel Jones, tell a crowded room the odds of getting published there are worse than getting into Harvard, (whose acceptance rate is 5.6 percent.)

March knew exactly which buttons to push to enlist ambitious women and lure them into her schemes:

Access

Everyone’s desperate for access to the top editors and agents. Rejection is wearying and dis-spiriting and anyone who says they’ll make it easier…sign me up!

Mentoring

No one can do this work alone, and many of us (me, included) coach other writers. Isolation often means over-relying on social media to connect with people who says they’re a peer, and assuming the people offering you their help — for money — are legit. The difference? I’ve actually published two books.

Sisterhood

Puhleeze. She was quite skilled at persuading women what a great and supportive feminist she is. I’m a tough old boot so this shit doesn’t do a thing for me; actions, not words.

Solidarity

Writing is a lonely and difficult business so when someone is supportive and kind, you think, whew! She gets it.

Here’s a bit of the story:

March had never published a book but had been quietly working literary Los Angeles’ social media connections for months. A spunky, unapologetic, sex-positive feminist ready to raise hell, she was supportive and flattering. She was also conspicuously generous — concerned about the line of people waiting to get into the party, March asked a pair of new acquaintances if she should give $20 bills to those stuck on the sidewalk. The bill for the night would total more than $22,000.

Why is she doing this? people asked, stealing glances at March.

Some had a larger question:

If something or someone sounds too good to be true…it usually is.

NY Daily News halves staff; an ex-reporter, some of my memories

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One of my notebooks, complete with coffee stains! That funny thing in the middle is a stylized early camera, and the News’ logo, as it was once the city’s picture paper…

By Caitlin Kelly

It was, when I worked there in 2005 and 2006, the sixth-largest newspaper in the United States, with 600,000 readers, a real source of pride. Today it’s down to 200,000.

This week its owners Tronc (ugh, what a name) fired half of the Daily News staff — including almost every photographer and sports reporter– insisting their latest gambit will be a focus on breaking news.

Oh yeah, that thing that Twitter already owns…

Some details:

 

Media conglomerate Tronc bought The Daily News in September, adding it to a stable of other newspaper and magazines that includes The Chicago Tribune and The Baltimore Sun.

The Daily News, once the country’s largest-circulation newspaper, has been among the most aggressive New York City publications in its coverage of President Donald Trump, with the newspaper’s cover often needling Trump about recent scandals or missteps.

The paper has received 11 Pulitzer Prizes including one in 2017 in conjunction with nonprofit investigative organization ProPublica for coverage of evictions based on obscure laws that pushed business owners and residents from their property.

My year at the News was the weirdest, most stressful and eye-opening of my career in journalism — and I’d already worked for the Toronto Globe & Mail and the Montreal Gazette, both broadsheets, a name that denotes the physical size of a newspaper as much as its more sombre approach to news.

The News is a tabloid, a whole new world.

I hadn’t worked in a newsroom in 20 years when I was hired there, thanks to a manager I’d known and worked with in Montreal who came to New York from Chicago to run the paper.

For him, and for me, it was a poor match; he’s British and Canadian and didn’t know the five boroughs of New York City intimately, tribal lore for anyone working at the News. Neither did I.

The paper used to inhabit a gorgeous Art Deco building on 42d Street; I arrived to their offices on the very western end of 33rd Street, sharing a building with the Associated Press.

The newsroom didn’t even have cubicles, just a huge bullpen stretching a full city block, sunlight straggling in through clerestory windows.

I stepped into a 1940s movie, full of guys in suspenders and gold chains who liked to yell at one another and saw two co-workers edge up to a fist-fight over a noisy cellphone.

As my manager-to-be greeted me for my job interview, he eyed my outfit, (no blazer or jacket): “You packing?” My first book was about women and guns.

Never dull!

As a reporter there, I quickly discovered a city I hadn’t known before — the News’ reader’s median household income was $44,000 — maybe a healthy salary elsewhere but not much in New York City.

I drove alone to Harlem and the Bronx and Queens, getting to know its lower-income neighborhoods and residents. (I once got into such an altercation in the Bronx over a street parking spot I had to call the cops in fear of attack.)

I did a stake-out in Midtown in sweltering summer heat and humidity, which meant sitting on the sidewalk for hours — surrounded by all the competing press — waiting to nab an interview with a Quebec tourist who’d been attacked. (I got the assignment after the city editor hollered into the newsroom: “Who speaks French?!”)

I kept sneaking into the hotel to find her, only to be caught and thrown out by a furious security guard. This, after a New York Times reporter followed me into the elevator, guessing I knew where I was going and trying to match it.

I ducked into the ladies’ restroom to ditch him.

I interviewed an African-American family who showed me a blanket with images woven into it of their slain son.

I spoke with legal aid attorneys in the Bronx.

I interviewed the father of a soldier whose helicopter had fallen off a mountaintop in Afghanistan and women soldiers suffering from PTSD.

I broke a national story about how many crimes occur on cruise ships that, for many reasons, go unreported and unaddressed.

We spent a brutal afternoon listening to 911 calls from the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Digital advertising has stripped away newspapers’ primary income stream, and newsgathering — even with crappy salaries — isn’t cheap.

It’s a tough time now to be a staff newspaper reporter.

I’m glad I had the chance.

 

 

 

My tribe — journalism

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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One of the many reasons I still enjoy journalism  — after working in it for more than 30 years — is the people who choose to do it for a living: smart, sharp, a quick learner, down-to-earth and a team player.

I’ve worked as a staff reporter and feature writer for the Globe & Mail, Montreal Gazette and New York Daily News, each of which offered some wild adventures. At the Globe, I covered a Royal Tour across three provinces and met Queen Elizabeth aboard Brittania; at the Gazette I flew into an Arctic village of 500 people and came home through an iceberg and at the Daily News broke stories like the DHS — back in 2006 — holding onto migrant children.

If you’re not, always, insatiably curious — the kid who drove your parents and teachers and professors mad with questions and challenges — it’s not a great fit.

 

It is our job to challenge authority.

 

Right now in the United States, we’re massively and daily under attack, even to the point of murder — as five journalists, a mix of writers and editors, were murdered at a small local paper in Maryland, The Capital Gazette.

This is what I’m talking about:

One week after the shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, President Donald Trump put an end to any speculation that the tragedy could lead to a truce in his unrelenting war on the news media.

“Fake news. Bad people,” Trump said, pointing at the news crews covering his rally Thursday in Great Falls, Montana, as the crowd went wild.

“I see the way they write. They’re so damn dishonest,” Trump said. “And I don’t mean all of them, because some of the finest people I know are journalists really. Hard to believe when I say that. I hate to say it, but I have to say it. But 75 percent of those people are downright dishonest. Downright dishonest. They’re fake. They’re fake.”

“They make the sources up. They don’t exist in many cases,” he continued. “These are really bad people.”

This, from the President whose latest Cabinet member just resigned mired in scandal, Scott Pruitt.

I’m appalled by Trump’s incessant lies and hostility toward us.

Watch his spokesman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, actually insult reporters during White House press briefings and you wonder why anyone keeps showing up to give her the opportunity.

Watch the 2015 film “Spotlight” –– which won the Academy Award for Best Picture and is based on a true team working at the Boston Globe to uncover sexual abuse in the Catholic Church — for one of the best and most truthful depictions of our work.

People who know nothing of journalism or why most of us do it or why we believe it’s of essential value to any functional democracy — at its best, speaking truth to power — can easily spit on us and scream at us or, as several have, kill us.

 

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 46 of us died on duty in 2017 — six of them freelancers like me.

One of them, Kim Wall, was a massively talented young woman who went out on a submarine in Denmark to profile its inventor. He murdered her, dismembered her and threw her into the water.

It stunned every one of us who — by definition  — have to be self-reliant and often go out alone on assignment to meet people whose character and motives we do not know.

It creates foxhole camaraderie.

So I wrote this story, which ran last week on Poynter, a website devoted to journalism, (named for its benefactor) about long-term newsroom friendships, quoting (among writers from the L.A. Times, New York Times and Wall Street Journal, a friend and highly accomplished science writer Maryn McKenna:

 

McKenna thinks that’s, in part, because of Foxhole camaraderie. Journalists work weekends and holidays and have to deal daily with sources who don’t want them there.

“That all tends to build a gestalt of: ‘The outside world doesn’t understand us, so it is up to us to appreciate each other.’ There’s definitely a journalistic personality — we’re simultaneously deeply cynical and utterly committed to old-fashioned virtues of truthfulness and accuracy and grinding hard work — and the stresses of journalistic practice make it clear pretty quickly who in the newsroom shares those values and who doesn’t. Once you find people who do share them, you cling to them.”

Loved this biography of Joni Mitchell

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

If you’re a fan of fellow Canadian, legendary musician and songwriter Joni Mitchell, it’s a book well worth your time.

You know how everyone has a song, or an album that indelibly marks a moment in your life and every time you hear it, there you are — catapulted back to being six or 18 or 27 or 43.

For me, living alone in a studio apartment at the back of an alley in a lousy Toronto neighborhood — all I could afford — it was Hejira, Mitchell’s album from 1976.

The word itself means migration, or flight from danger and the songs are all about movement and restlessness.

On it, Neil Young — another Canadian — plays harmonica and the stunningly talented Brazilian bass player Jaco Pastorius makes this distinctively different from her previous work.

It was a tough year for me, my sophomore year at University of Toronto, both of my parents traveling far away, long before cell phones or the Internet, when a long-distance call to Europe or Latin America was really expensive. I was living on very little, freelancing as a writer and photographer while attending the country’s most demanding school full-time.

I dated all the the wrong men, (as Mitchell did, for decades), discarding them as quickly as I found them. Connection was both alluring and exhausting, a theme of that album.

Mitchell also has a home where my mother — also a fiercely independent traveler for many years — lived for a while, the Sunshine Coast, north of Vancouver.

Here’s the first verse of Refuge of the Roads. (Now, after reading this book, Reckless Daughter, by David Yaffe, I know she’s referring to a Buddhist monk.)

I met a friend of spirit
He drank and womanized
And I sat before his sanity
I was holding back from crying
He saw my complications
And he mirrored me back simplified
And we laughed how our perfection
Would always be denied
“Heart and humor and humility”
He said “Will lighten up your heavy load”
I left him for the refuge of the roads
The book offers a great ride through her life, from her years in small-town Saskatchewan to her initial success in the coffee-houses of Toronto to playing Carnegie Hall and touring with Bob Dylan.
It offers insights into her addictions — to cocaine and to cigarettes — and her deep ambivalence about marriage, which she tried twice.
It’s a compelling portrait of a fiercely independent woman.

Five questions about my 2 books

By Caitlin Kelly

 

This is a regular column that runs in the Arts section of The New York Times. As author of two works of nationally reported non-fiction — the second of which was nominated for the prestigious Hillman Award and published in China — I thought I’d do this here as well.

 

 

BLOWN AWAY COVER
My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsessions

 

 

malled cover LOW

When did you first get the idea to write this book?

I worked at a trade publication in New York City as an editor and was friendly with a colleague there. One evening, having dinner at her apartment — where she had a doorman and a very large dog — I asked her (?!) if she owned a gun. She did, a handgun. I was a bit stunned and wrote an essay about this for The Globe and Mail, my former newspaper in Canada. I went on to attend a three day shooting class and wrote about that for the Wall Street Journal. After writing a much longer feature on it, I realized there had not been a book written about American women and gun use, whether they enjoyed it or feared it used against them or their loved ones. It was clear there was a lot of great material to be gathered and many stories to be told. For Blown Away, I spoke to 104 men, women and teens from 29 states. Here’s a link to the book.

 

For Malled, I was urged from the very start to write about it, but couldn’t see any narrative arc or story line to the menial job of folding, hanging and selling clothing for The North Face. But I worked part-time, at $11/ hour, for 2.5 years — much longer than the average retail sales associate, so I watched the economy plunge into recession (2007 to 2009) from a specific and unusual place. The book is also a story of how the retail industry works, from the inside, so it’s both a memoir and a business book. I was urged to produce the book after a column I wrote in The New York Times prompted a flood of appreciative comments and emails. Here’s a link to the book.

 

What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

 

For Blown Away, the regional differences in how Americans view gun use and gun ownership is huge. People really don’t understand it and underestimate its political strength. It isn’t just the NRA’s powerful influence and deep pockets, but also strong cultural and historical attachment to gun use and gun ownership that’s deeply embedded, for millions of people, in the very idea of what it means to be American. But because those in your local area are likely to share your views on gun use — whether pro or con — you usually end up with confirmation bias, unable to envision or understand this.

For Malled, It was really depressing to hear the words “disposable” used over and over again to describe the hard-working, poorly-paid staff that stand for eight hours in all retail stores. The highly paid executives at corporate headquarters of every major retailer spend millions of dollars buying specialized software — designed to reduce the costs of labor. It was so demoralizing to do a job to the best of our ability and realize that no one (in corporate) cared or would ever compensate us accordingly. My “raise” in 2.5 years? Thirty cents an hour.

 

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

 

They’re both what I wanted them to be — a firsthand and intimate examination of two of the United States’ most intractable political issues: gun ownership and low-wage labor.

 

Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?

 

My parents and late stepmother. My father is a former documentary film-maker and my mother a journalist and my stepmother wrote television series. All worked freelance in challenging and competitive creative industries. I learned early that your own great ideas, presented and sold well, can earn you a living. That was pretty revolutionary, and certainly inspired my own work as a writer.

 

Persuade someone to read “Blown Away” or “Malled” in 50 words or less.

 

Blown Away is the only book of its kind, a nuanced, balanced deep dive into how guns affect women in the United States, whether they use one for sport, work or self-defense, or have been traumatized by the use of one against them or a loved one.

Malled is similarly unique, offering a firsthand examination of low-wage labor in the U.S., and explains in detail what it is like to work for paltry wages in a large and crucial industry and in an economy based on consumer spending.