Chicken or Egg?

Sunday, 05 February 2012 05:00

When someone asked me the other day what the difference is between writing books and writing for radio, I had to think a bit. To date, I've published six books and am working on a seventh, and four of my titles had--or are about to have--radio adaptations. But what comes first, the chicken or egg? Book or documentary?

At bottom, writing is writing is writing. It's communication of ideas, thoughts, images, sounds. Sound is all-important in creating a radio script. The clips from your taped interviews are like the quotes in your print story. But an interview undertaken to research a book or article doesn't need to be of high sound quality—if you're even recording it at all. Many writers and journalists dispense with tape recorders and opt for a laptop, or the lowly low-tech pen and pad.

Radio work is highly collaborative, with a lot of give and take between writer and producer. I was so lucky to be trained as a radio interviewer by Jane Lewis, the gifted producer with Radio Arts at CBC Montreal. I met Jane in 1994, after a proposal of mine was accepted for CBC Ideas. At the time, I still didn't have a publisher for Journey to Vaja, though I'd been working on my book for more than a decade. By the time "Journey to Vaja," the radio documentary, was ready to air, the book, too, had found its home. That was in 1996.

Writing for radio is in its own way as meticulous as writing a book. In the case of "Journey to Vaja," I had to go back to Hungary to reinterview sources whom I had tapped years earlier. But this time round I was using a quality microphone and quality cassettes, I knew how to get close to my interviewee without being too close, I knew how to check for sound levels.

Chicken or egg: the vast amount of research I'd done for Journey to Vaja gave me the background and authority to come up with the idea for the documentary in the first place. But that's not the case at all with my newest project for CBC Ideas, "William Notman of Montreal." I'll muse soon about how I stumbled on Notman's story before the documentary airs on February 22 and 23.