By Miranda Abraham
Dan Rubinstein, journalist and author of the upcoming book Born to Walk, thinks I should try walking from my apartment to Ottawa’s Algonquin College. That’s a distance of roughly 14 kilometres and three hours on foot, according to Google Maps. He told me I’d be surprised at how walkable some places can be.
He’s right. Although I don’t see it on my daily drive to school, the path I would have to take by foot includes a beautiful bike path along the Ottawa River, followed by a suburban area with gorgeous houses—views I would undoubtedly enjoy.
Though the message of his new book is not a stern “you should walk” directive, the aim is certainly to invite the reader to meditate on the subject. “One of the goals we have in mind is making you think about walking differently,” said Rubinstein, former acting editor Canadian Geographic. “If everybody walks a little bit more that’s a lot of small steps in the right direction.”
Rubinstein has always had an interest in walking, not only as a means to get from Point A to Point B, but also as an opportunity for great human experiences. His background as magazine editor allowed him to read a wealth of non-fiction, especially about natural history. In talking to other writers who had a similar affinity for walking, things started adding up to the idea of writing a book.
“I thought, ‘There’s something here that could be explored in a very deep way,’” he said. Although the path from journalist to author is fairly well travelled, Rubinstein learned a lot on the road.
Initially, Rubinstein targeted Greystone Books, a division of Douglas & McIntyre. The publisher had released plenty of natural history books, and Rubinstein knew some of the authors who had published with them. So, in early September 2012, he sent Greystone a proposal he had been working on for about three months. By October he had received an enthusiastic response and had discussed some tweaking with them.
“The day after we talked about revising the proposal, or maybe even the same day, I read in the Globe and Mail that they had gone bankrupt,” he said. Oddly enough, Rubinstein didn’t feel disappointed. “I felt liberated. I thought, ‘Oh well, back to Plan B.’”
At this point Rubinstein went about getting an agent. As any good journalist does, Rubinstein turned to his connections. He knew Kevin Patterson, a medical doctor and the award-winning author of Country of Cold. It was through Patterson that he met Martha Webb, Patterson’s own agent, with Anne McDermid & Associates in Toronto.
The turn-around time from learning about Greystone’s bankruptcy to having Webb agree to be his agent? A few days.
In the field
Rubinstein did not want to write a “boring academic book,” but his approach to the book’s structure was highly logical. He divided the book into eight chapters, each of which features an individual whose story explores a different theme and whose work revolves around walking.
We meet, for example, Dr. Stanley Vollant, Quebec’s first Aboriginal surgeon, who took a six-year-long walk through every First Nations community in the province. This chapter explores walking through the lens of activism and spiritual healing. The end result of this structure is a kind of travelogue with research woven throughout so that the book doesn’t get bogged down by information and remains engaging.
In terms of researching and reporting, Rubinstein was more than prepared for writing a book. The reporting stage began in January 2013 and took slightly over a year. He incorporated some previous research he had conducted years earlier as well.
The research required many of the skills Rubinstein had primed from working as an editor. And since much of it was conducted in the U.K. and U.S., he used his well-honed organizational and scheduling skills in the name of saving time and money. “It meant spending a day with someone and then hoping on a train for four hours and spending a day with someone else,” he said.
By September 2013, Rubinstein was ready to begin writing. “Five thousand words was the longest I had done, and this was 85,000 words,” Rubinstein said. It took persistence and breaking some old habits.
“Usually when I write for magazines, I like to go back to the beginning and proof. I had to force myself not to look back and just keep writing. It’s also not necessarily a linear process.”
When Rubinstein first set out, he started out with the prologue. He quickly learned this might not be the best approach, so he skipped straight ahead to chapter three, a chapter he thought would be fun to write.
This was advice he’d also heard from friends: “You can, and probably should, jump around. Everything will fit together in the end, but right now you can look at it as a series of disjointed pieces,” said Rubinstein.
Luckily for Rubinstein, his wife, Lisa Gregoire, is an award-winning writer and editor. He would pass along chapters to her as he finished them. “It was great to have early feedback from someone you respect as a person but also as a journalist,” he said.
Rubinstein also worked with editor Jen Knoch, who was very involved with the project from the start. “Not every publisher does it that way,” he said. “Some will hire freelance editors, especially for non-fiction. You might be on your own in the beginning.”
After more than a year spent investigating, discussing and writing about walking, can Rubinstein still go for a simple walk? He can now. But during the process, it definitely became challenging. “You can’t go for a walk to clear your head,” he remembers. “After days of writer’s block, to just go for a walk and think about it would often make things worse.”
So there is a certain feeling of relief to having completed the book. That being said, Rubinstein has not lost his passion or excitement for the subject. His feet remain his preferred mode of transportation. “When I have a few hours without responsibility, I might as well walk it,” said Rubinstein. “Everywhere is a good place to walk.”
Born to Walk is on bookshelves April 1.
Miranda Abraham is a journalism student at Algonquin College, currently interning at the Ottawa Citizen arts desk.