The jump from journalism to fiction

Journalism is typically thought of as firmly non-fiction. It’s all about reporting the facts in an unbiased and informative way. Journalism is also where the creator and host of The Vinyl Cafe, Stuart McLean, got his start. In 1979, he won an Association of Canadian Television and Radio Artist award for a radio documentary on the Jonestown Massacre. He’s received awards from several Canadian universities and is a professor emeritus of journalism at Ryerson University.

But now, he writes and broadcasts fiction.

That’s not to say that aspects of journalism don’t creep into his weekly radio show. These broadcasts are recorded all over Canada in small communities and big cities alike, and each week he delivers an essay describing the town or city or village he visited.

McLean is most well known for his radio and print stories that focus on a fictional family — Dave, Morley, Sam and Stephanie — as they navigate very different lives in Toronto.

His transition away from journalism and into the fictional world inhabited by Dave and Morley and their family, friends and neighbours is easily explained.

“I remember I was working on a documentary and I boxed myself in with a structural problem,” he says. “I couldn’t figure out how to solve it, how to structure this documentary so I could tell the story I was trying to tell in the 12 minutes I was allowed. I suddenly went, ‘Oh, I know what to do.’ And what I was doing was reaching into a bag of tricks, reaching for a solution that I’d already used when I’d faced the problem on another occasion. At that moment, I realized I had a problem. Once I started referring back to my own solutions, I realized I had to find some new problems that I didn’t know the solutions to so I could stay alive and engaged with my work. I didn’t just walk away from the documentary table, but I knew things would change sooner rather than later.”

McLean went from his Sunday morning radio documentaries, to dabbling with fiction in a segment for Peter Gzowski’s Morningside radio show and continued on when he started The Vinyl Cafe with Morningside’s music producer David Amer. The Vinyl Cafe wasn’t created over night and it was during this period that McLean explored the relationship between the two genres.

“During the transition I learned that the barrier between fiction and non-fiction is more blurred than you would think,” he says. “When you are doing non-fiction you are always imposing your own vision on it, which means you are making artistic choices and you are creating a truth. In my case, it was my truth. It’s the way I saw the story and there are many ways you can choose to see a story. The same story can be presented in completely different ways and different journalists will see things differently.”

He increasingly became enamored with the new set of challenges fiction presented, while at the same time recognizing the similarities between his new and old work might not might not seem obvious at first glance.

“When you are working in supposedly fiction and making things up, you learn very quickly that nothing comes from nowhere,” says McLean. “My ability to make a story up has boundaries. The boundaries are my experience and my imagination. Often, true things work their way into the fiction. It’s a little more blurred than one thinks from just sitting on the sidelines and watching.”

McLean’s show has expanded beyond just his stories. He recites the aforementioned essay every week, has a story exchange where readers can send in stories to be read on air and always features musicians of some kind on the show.

It’s hard to imagine that this all arose from a reticence to reuse a solution that had worked before, but that’s just the magic of The Vinyl Cafe.

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