I glanced over as he sat down and a hot thrill of pleasure shot up stomach, the same sensation I get on a rollercoaster when it careens downhill. He’s just three tables down from me, shiny white hair, age spots dotting his tanned face, a navy blue polo, khakis and Teva sandals. He caught me staring, and I look away quickly, but I can’t stop glancing over to see what page he’s reading first. It looks like Letters. Here he was — the elusive Walrus reader—taking a coffee in Dooney’s Cafe to leaf through the last issue I’d fact-checked as an intern.
After four months of slaving away, checking fact after endless f’ing fact, phoning everyone, everywhere—a retired pilot in B.C., an expert on the Khmer Rouge trials in Cambodia, a mother who lost her son to Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Kurdish TV broadcaster in Diyarbakir, Pico Iyer on a book tour, a famous librettist and artist in London, my old history professor—who would have thought this lone reader would bring me such a straight shot of unadulterated joy?
Fact-checks are painstakingly detailed. But the reward is the story behind the story. Pulling out every minute detail and putting it through the ringer, fact-checkers go deep, sometimes too deep. Like the case of a fellow intern who got stuck reading one writer’s entire journal to verify some otherwise un-checkable facts about his trip to a remote place. FACT: Attacked by pangs of guilt, this fact-checker squirmed whenever he had to read deeply intimate confessions about the writer’s wife. OPINION: “But if the writer had told that story, it would have been a much better piece” he admitted, closing the journal with a sigh.
Comparing the work that goes on behind one feature to the next, I quickly learned some journalists are better—much better—than others. Journalists get lazy. They are prone to recycle and repackage stories, don’t do the extra digging and heart the mighty press release (and with the lousy pay that journo’s get these days, can you blame them?). “Where’s the payoff?” Alexander lamented to us in our regular interns-and-Ken sit-downs to leaf through the latest book.
I’m rubbernecking it around the couple who so rudely sat down beside me, leaning back to see what he’s reading now. I’m not sure, but it could be a column. Maybe it was the one the writer sent in weeks late, going AWOL and not responding to the editor’s repeated requests for an update. A seemingly juvenile, but actually rather effective and common writer’s trick: pretend you never got the email. As interns, we soaked up these tidbits, and then wielded them ourselves as freelancers. It was a rich learning experience.
Meeting our wide-eyed “replacements,” the new interns, I was reminded just how much I’d learned in four short months. It would be a snap to answer the question that had left me stumped in my internship interview: “What don’t you like about the magazine?” My judgment of a good and bad story sharpened substantially. Fact-checking, shadow-editing, talking to writers, vetting submissions to the general pitch account, after-work beers on the Hooters patio―all of these experiences clued me in to what makes a piece work.
And the Walrus has plenty more good than bad. At 31, I’ve had my fair share of gigs―tour guide, pizza girl, mill worker, PR flak, waitress, researcher, salesperson―but I’ve never worked for free, or worked as hard. It was the best “job” I’ve ever had. From the crusty, nearly flawless editors, to the hard-nosed publisher, to the laissez-faire, supremely talented designers, to the outgoing editor-in-chief, who spent more time with the interns than anyone―it was (mostly) a fun place to be.
But what I’ll miss most is working with my fellow interns. We were like a cheesy Breakfast Club movie. The insightful, whimsical, doe-eyed poet; The East Coast brainiac reporter whose diet consisted of one hardboiled egg a day; The failingly helpful, razor-sharp linguist (and Wikipedia addict); The intensely curious ballerina and reluctant mother-hen; The loud, circus-tall, straight talking older broad. Our bond was so thick and fast, it was almost sickening.
“Where will we all be in a year from now?” my fellow ex-intern asked over an ex-intern-turned-starving-writer breakfast this sunny morning. Blank faces answered back. But I refuse to believe it’s because we’re clueless – it’s because there are so many possibilities.
My man from Dooney’s is gone now. Replaced by a gent in a crisp, striped-shirt sipping a large glass of red wine and reading the Globe & Mail at 2:30 in the afternoon. A waft of marijuana seeps in from the street. Ah… I’m happy to hang up my fact-checking hat. But there’s no denying I’m still in love with that hulking, toothy brown beast.
*also posted on the Walrus’s Ask an Intern blog.