Off the Page, with Carol Shaben

Off the Page is an exclusive new series produced by the NMAF that reaches out to former National Magazine Award winners to find out what their awards have meant to them and what they’re up to now. Off the Page will appear regularly on the NMA blog during the winter and spring of 2012. This week we catch up with National Magazine Award-winning writer Carol Shaben.

NMAF: Your debut magazine article, “Fly at Your Own Risk” published in The Walrus, about the state of safety regulation in Canada’s airline industry, was a big hit at the 2009 National Magazine Awards, winning Gold in Investigative Reporting, Silver in Politics & Public Interest, and Honourable Mention in Best New Magazine Writer. How did you develop that story and find a home for it in The Walrus?

Carol Shaben: The issue of aviation safety came to my attention several years ago when I met the pilot involved in a 1984 small plane crash that killed six people. My father was one of four survivors.

The pilot told me that he hadn’t wanted to fly that stormy night, but as a twenty-four-year-old rookie struggling to work his way up in a competitive industry, he’d felt he had little choice. The crash ended his career and in the decade that followed he tried without success to improve airline safety.

I began investigating his story and discovered two staggering realities: 1) the situation hadn’t changed in a quarter century, and 2) the Canadian government was now trying to offload responsibility for aviation safety to airlines themselves. My research also unearthed tragic personal stories of loss resulting from small plane crashes that could have been prevented. In short, the Canadian government was failing to protect the travelling public when it came to airline safety.

The Walrus immediately came to mind as one of the few magazines where this story could be told in the depth and detail it required. The magazine has a reputation as one of the smartest and most rigorous investigative reporting venues in the country and has a crackerjack editorial team.

NMAF: How did it feel to win a National Magazine Award? What has it meant for you professionally and personally?

Carol: The impact of this award was stunning. Here I was, writing from an isolated basement office in Vancouver, and all of a sudden my work is being recognized nationally. Personally, it was an unbelievable affirmation that the sacrifices I’d made to leave a twenty-year corporate consulting career had been worth it. Professionally, it was a game changer. The NMA nominations provided me with an entrée into one of the country’s top literary agencies. I met with and acquired Jackie Kaiser of Westwood Creative Artists as my agent the day of the awards ceremony. In short, I believe that the recognition of the National Magazine Awards catapulted me from the ground floor of my writing profession to the penthouse suite.

NMAF: Where has your career in magazines/journalism taken you since then? 

Carol: The article that won the awards had been part of a larger story—one that I’d hoped to publish one day. However, both literary agents and publishers had rejected my previous attempts to “sell” that story. Days before the announcement of the 2009 National Magazine Awards nominations, I’d decided to give up on the book.

The NMA resurrected it. Three months after the awards, rights to publish my book sold to Random House Canada. Less than two weeks later Macmillan (UK) and Grand Central (US) also acquired publishing rights. I’ve spent the past year writing the book, titled Into the Abyss, which will be published in the fall of 2012.

Also exciting is the fact that major magazine editors have approached me to write articles. The opportunity to take advantage of the doors that have opened as a result of the National Magazine Awards is something I will gratefully look forward to in the future.

For more on Carol Shaben’s new book, watch this video of Random House Canada vice-president Anne Collins talking about Into the Abyss. Read Carol’s author bio at Westwood Creative Artists.

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