Jacques Poitras on The Imaginary Line; Enter to Win

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Thursday, April 12, 2012 View Count = 1429

Jacques Poitras on The Imaginary Line; Enter to Win

Author and CBC Radio provincial affairs reporter Jacques Poitras talks here about writing his new book The Imaginary Line, which is a finalist for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing.

Don’t forget to cast your vote for the winner of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize. You’ll be entered to win copies of all five finalists!

     

Jacques Poitras on writing The Imaginary Line:

Describe the genesis of Imaginary Line: Life on an Unfinished Border. What brought you to the subject?

As a journalist in New Brunswick, I’ve covered many stories about the international border that the province shares with the state of Maine. These have ranged from cultural connections with the Franco-Americans of northern Maine, to cross-border shopping and smuggling, to the impact of post–9/11 security measures on border communities. In all of these stories, I saw a common theme: the human impulse to overcome politically imposed administrative barriers and maintain good relations with people who are friends, cousins and neighbours.

How long did it take to write? What were the major challenges?

The book took roughly two years, from the earliest poking around in libraries to the final edits. Because I’m a CBC journalist, I was not able to work on it full-time, with the exception of two months of unpaid leave. So working around my day job was one challenge. It’s difficult to gain momentum, both in the research and in the writing, when you only have a couple of hours per day to devote to the project.

 

The other challenge was how to organize the material. This is a journalistic exploration of the border, not a conventional academic history. (That’s been done, and done very well.) Writing chronologically didn’t strike me as the right approach if I wanted an enjoyable, readable, human story; I opted instead to frame the book as a journey along the length of the border, including first-person narration. This added the feel of a travel book, which, I believe, made it more readable.

Were there any books in particular that influenced you in your approach?

I am a big fan of Simon Winchester, and I looked to his books as examples of how to use a bit of first-person travel narration to frame a blend of history and current affairs. Winchester is skilled at bringing his readers into a place, giving them the lay of the land as it exists today, then elaborating some of the location’s fascinating history. Along the way, he often ventures off into enjoyable digressions about some of the quirky characters that have strayed into the larger story. Yet he maintains his focus on the broader narrative and its underlying themes. My hope was to achieve something similar.

Tell us a little about how the book title was chosen.

My publisher and I spent weeks throwing around ideas for the title. I had proposed Imaginary Line early on, because it seemed perfectly suited for the theme and because, during my research when I had the phrase in mind, a couple of my interviewees used it, unprompted. Goose Lane wanted to see if we could come up with something better, and we exchanged many, many e-mails. But eventually we all agreed that Imaginary Line worked. It’s the first time in three books that my first choice for title has made it onto the cover.

 

The second part of the title, Life on an Unfinished Border, was equally challenging: after agreeing on Imaginary Line, we needed something would explain the theme and, frankly, help sell the book. The word “border” had to be in there, so the question became what adjective described it best. I conclude the book with an optimistic note: the border has been difficult before, and perhaps the current security challenges won’t be permanent. That idea—and the arbitrary way the line was drawn, and the fact that there’s a tiny island still in dispute—gave us the word “unfinished.”

What are you working on now?

After finishing each of my books, I’ve tried to enjoy at least a year of not having to think about another manuscript deadline, so I’m not working on anything now. But I have a couple of ideas, and I enjoy the process immensely. Before too long, I’m sure the right story will come along. Once I start breaking a story down into outlines, themes and chapters, I’ll know I’ve got it.

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