I Am the Walrus: Interview with Jonathan Kay, Editor-In-Chief

Editor in Chief of the Walrus Jonathan Kay and Shelley Ambrose, the executive director of the Walrus Foundation, from their recent gala. Photographer Tom Sandler. Editor in Chief of the Walrus Jonathan Kay and Shelley Ambrose, the executive director of the Walrus Foundation, from their recent gala. Photographer Tom Sandler.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings.”
(Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass)

Jonathan Kay started writing opinion pieces for The National Post in 1998 and left in November 2014 after being named editor of the magazine The Walrus in late October of 2014. He  agreed to answer some questions for our readers; here is a sample of some of the questions we asked him.

T. A. Wellington (TW): What made you turn from engineering, to law, to finally journalism? Do you see yourself as a journalist, a lawyer, or do you switch hats?
Jonathan Kay (JK): I became an engineer because I loved math. I did well as an engineering student for the same reason. But in the work world, I found that being able to solve differential equations actually doesn’t get you that far as an engineer. You need a talent for making machines work, and I’m not especially good at that. So I followed my liberal-arts friends into law school. Once again, the pattern was repeated. I did fine at the academic aspects of law, but in the real world of client care and long drawn out legal cases, I was both bored and not especially competent. It was in 1998 that I gave into my lifelong urge to write for a living. I explain all this in my goodbye essay from The National Post.


TW: Do you have any advice for current undergraduates searching for potential career paths?
JK: You know how some people tell you to just follow your dreams and reach for the stars and all that stuff? That’s fine. But you also need a fallback plan. Most of the people I know who started in journalism at the same time I did are now doing other jobs — and the quality of those other jobs depends very much on what skills they had before they followed their writing dreams. Maybe it’s law. Maybe it’s the building trades. Maybe it’s your family business. You need something to fall back on if you don’t become a trapeze artist. Because, statistically speaking, you probably won’t. I love writing. But the fact is, I was lucky.


TW: Who was the most influential person during your university days?
JK: I read a lot of George Orwell. At some point, I became obsessed with his early writing, and ploughed through the 5-volume Penguin edition of his essays, journalism and letters. I still find myself trying to write like him.


TW: Favourite book during your undergraduate years? Any current picks?
JK: The one novel that I read and re-read during my university years was John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. My friend Gregory Guttmann gave it to me when I was sick, and I read the whole thing while lying in bed one weekend. I still think Ignatius J. Reilly is just about the funniest character I have ever enjoyed in a book.


TW: McGill Redmen/Martlets or Yale Bulldogs?
JK: I never got into sports culture at either school (except as a broomball player — it’s a much undervalued sport). One of the best aspects of going to a high-quality academically-focused university is that the jocks are not treated as gods on campus. I read stories about the football programs at big American state schools, where even local police officers look the other way when the star QB gets accused of sex assault or whatever; and I am so thankful that I didn’t go to a school like that.


TW: Conservatives call you too liberal, liberals call you too conservative. Where do you place yourself in the political spectrum?
JK: I tend to react negatively to dogma of any kind. When I was in college, and surrounded by campus lefties, I reflexively became conservative. But then when I joined the National Post, I got a pretty good luck at the rigid ideological tribalism on the right side of the political spectrum, and so that pushed me back toward the centre. So now I please no one. One big influence for me was the process of writing my 2011 book on conspiracy theories (Among the Truthers). I observed that loony, paranoid thinking abounds on both extremes of the political spectrum. And so I became allergic to any kind of rigid ideology among either left or right.

TW: Does Montreal still call to you, after living in Toronto for a while? What’s the thing you miss most about Montreal?
JK: The fact is, the Montreal I knew and loved doesn’t exist any more. And that’s a good thing. I grew up in Westmount at a time when a private-school boy still could live his whole life in English. I went to Marianopolis College and then McGill, and hung out pretty much exclusively with fellow Anglos. French was a subject I studied in school — but it wasn’t a reality I lived in any meaningful way, except maybe when I listened to sports events in French. (I was a passionate Expos and Canadiens fan). That Montreal — the Montreal of the cloistered Westmount anglo — is mostly a thing of the past now. And as I say above, that’s a good thing, because it really was a sort of artificial quasi-colonial lifestyle.

But the result is that I no longer can hold myself out as any kind of authority on daily life in Montreal, since the Montreal of today is a much more culturally confident and vibrant, bilingual city than it was when I lived there. There are whole festivals, music scenes, club districts and arts trends in Montreal that I have never heard of. My Montreal is the nostalgic Montreal of Expos, bagels, smoked meat, Pendelis, Orange Julep, Mansarde, Peel Pub, O Blitz, Annie’s, Angels and Radio Free Vestibule. That’s mostly gone. I haven’t lived in the city since 1994. I come back a lot, because my parents and sister still live there. But except when I’m in my childhood stomping grounds of lower Westmount or McGill campus, I feel more or less like a tourist.


TW: What do you think is the driving force behind Quebec politics? Canadian politics?

JK: Ask Paul Wells. I’ve never felt entirely comfortable as a political commentator.


TW: Your op-eds in The National Post have attracted both high praise and criticism. How do you deal with either response?

JK: Reader response was a big deal for me when I started writing, because I was deeply insecure and starved for feedback. But two decades later, in the age of Twitter, I feel like many writers get feedback overload. Moreover, the comments that appear under my newspaper articles often are full of all sorts of passionately argued nonsense. You learn to tune a lot of it out — the good and the bad. You learn that the people responding to you on most controversial subjects (abortion, Israel, Quebec separatism, gay rights, the hijab, First Nations) aren’t really responding to you. Rather, they’re using your column as a pretext to spout off their pent up ideological views on the subject in question. So whatever position you take on those hot-button issues, you’re going to get fan mail and hate mail. After a while, you learn that people usually are responding to the issue, not to your column specifically. You stop taking it personally.


TW: Do you see media studies as necessary in this day and age to become a successful journalist?
JK: No. None of the people I worked with closely at The National Post had a media studies background. And the same is true (or almost true) here at The Walrus. Journalism school is a great option if you want to become a TV producer, or another media job that requires a lot of technical background. But if you want to become a writer, just start writing on a blog. If you’re good and inventive and self-motivated and lucid, you will be noticed.


TW: How did the administrative board of The Walrus approach you in becoming the new editor-in-chief? Were you and the board expecting such a mean response from Twitter?
JK: They got me through a corporate headhunter. As for Twitter, the response wasn’t that mean. There were, like, six people tweeting about me. But in Canada, that counts as a media shitstorm. We’re still a very small, parochial, easily ruffled country in many ways.


TW: Will The Walrus now have a Montreal flavour now that you’re editor-in-chief?

JK: It already did! Our Art Director, Brian Morgan, lives in Montreal. And our senior editor Drew Nelles edited Maisonneuve magazine before coming here. Our Director or Operations, Renée Montpelier, is a Quebecer. And several staff went to McGill.


TW: What makes an article published in The Walrus different from, say, The National Post?

JK: Two words: Fact-checking.


TW: How do you plan to get The Walrus’ content on more platforms?

JK: I’ve been trying to ramp up our web operations in the last few months. We’ve improved. But we still have a long way to go. As you know, a web site is a like a fire: You have to keep feeding it. Without good daily content, people don’t get into the habit of incorporating the site into their daily media-surfing routines.


TW: What is your vision for The Walrus? What have you changed in the magazine? What has stayed the same?

JK: I’ve only been at the magazine for a few months, so it would be pretentious of me to talk about some grand plan for remaking the thing. It will take me a little while just to figure out the nature of magazine editorial work. But the goals that I have shared with my colleagues are: slightly shorter, punchier articles — more closely related to subjects that are in the news, and that ordinary Canadian readers find accessible. The Walrus is well-known among the museum and book-club set. It’s high time that the rest of Canada discovered us as well.

Jonathan Kay spoke in Montreal in connection with the Blue Metropolis festival and the event How to Animate a City.