Lethbridge native Scott Sakatch worked a number of years with the Lethbridge Herald and I’m sure inspired many a future journalist as an instructor at the Lethbridge College. He is also a published novelist. Here’s proof:
I caught up with Scott this week through the power of e-mail and asked him about his life and career.
How would you describe your childhood growing up in Lethbridge?
Well, I’m northsider, so all the concussions have affected my long-term memory. But seriously… I went the three-W route in schooling: Westminster, Wilson and Winston Churchill. I lived in Park Meadows and our neighbourhood backed onto a green strip, which was sort of like having our own gated community. When the City turned on the sprinklers we’d all go out our back gates, meet in the park and have water fights, then walk four blocks to the Superette to buy blue whales with my 25 cent allowance. I can still remember when the Safeway opening was a huge deal, because at that point it was the largest Safeway in Western Canada AND IT WAS RIGHT DOWN THE STREET! Also, I’ll never forget the day the Park Meadows 7-11 opened and I watched Darin Grubel order a “mix” Slurpee; the thought that someone could possibly play with the laws of the universe like that made my brain explode. And, of course, all the while I listened to 1090 CHEC as some guy with a push-broom moustache spun all the hit records of the day.
Growing up I always thought I wanted out of Lethbridge, then later, as a father, I realized there was no place else I wanted my family to be. Career took us away from the city after the kids were grown, but Lethbridge will always be home for us.
When did you figure out that you might have a knack at creative writing?
I vividly remember watching Sesame Street at some point, and they were doing this bit where they took a C and pushed it towards an AT (remember phonics?) and made CAT. And suddenly this light bulb goes off in my head and I’m like “That’s how this works? Piece of cake!” I also remember being in kindergarten and arguing with my brother Shawn over his Grade 2 spelling homework. He thought the word was “pickel” and I kept telling him that, no, it was “pickle.” (It’s 45 years later and I’m still doing the same thing on Facebook). So I think my brain is just hard-wired for words, as opposed to say, math, which reduces me to a sniveling puddle of despair. I’d read everything I could get my hands on when I was a kid – comics, Hardy Boys, science fiction pulp stories, cereal boxes – and I’d fantasize about what it would be like to have something I had written be published and read by other people. My first foray into writing was a construction paper book in Grade 1 – I think it was basically pictures of things and “this is a (horse, dog, apple)” but my teacher actually had it placed in the George McKillop library for some reason. And in Grade 2, I wrote something for a class assignment about pollution and next thing I know, I’m on stage reading it to the school. Don’t ask me why either teacher did those things, because I have no clue.
More on the creative writing later…You graduated from the Lethbridge College in Journalism. What inspired you to take the course?
That’s a story in itself. I worked for CP Rail in my early 20s, and after six years I still didn’t have a permanent position, so I was starting to wonder about my future. One evening at the BIGGEST SAFEWAY IN WESTERN CANADA, I bumped into Richard Powell, my Language Arts teacher from Wilson, in the checkout line. Mr. Powell was a huge influence on me as an adolescent, teaching me that imagination was more important than memorization, and I really looked up to him. He asked me what I was doing now (I was 26 at the time) and I told him I worked for the railroad. He nodded politely, but I thought I saw a hint of disappointment in his eyes. I went home and remembered how much I’d enjoyed working on the Wilson newspaper back in Grade 9 (Mr. Powell was the publisher) and that was a watershed moment for me. Within a few weeks, I’d left the railroad and signed up at the college for the following fall. I knew from the very first day, sitting in Veryl Todd’s Mass Communications class in the Coulee Theatre, that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. By the way, if anyone knows how to get in touch with Mr. Powell, I’d love to talk to him. I mentioned him in the foreword to False Witness.
You were a writer and editor for the Lethbridge Herald. How would you describe that time of your career?
I always told my kids growing up that the value of an education, whatever form that might take, was that it gives you the opportunity to make money doing what you enjoy. And if you enjoy your job, it doesn’t seem like a job. That’s how I felt at the Herald. Journalism is unlike any other career – where else can you spend your morning interviewing a celebrity, your afternoon flying in a CF-18 and your evening listening to the city’s finance committee talk about… okay, maybe it wasn’t ALWAYS a thrill ride, but you get what I mean. I had the opportunity to do a variety of work in my nine years there – everything from reporting and writing to editing and layout. One of the highlights of my time was working on developing the Event and Home & Style sections in 2002, which eventually led to a 72-page Saturday edition. I was pretty proud to be a part of that. I got to work with some of the nicest, smartest and funniest people you could ever meet, and I even married one of them. I’ve said many times, in all honesty, that in nine years at the Herald, there wasn’t a single day where I woke up and thought, “Ugh, I have to go to work.”
You made a decision to start your own weekly newspaper with The Journal. What was your thinking behind that and in retrospect, was that a good move for you?
Well, I made money at it, so I guess it was a good move. I’d left the Herald and started a consulting business a couple of years before I was approached by the people behind what would eventually become the Journal. I liked the idea of a community newspaper that was delivered by Canada Post, because it was guaranteed to make it to the reader’s home. At the time, that was revolutionary, and advertisers appreciated it. Plus I was given carte blanche to make the Journal into what I believed a free community newspaper should be, which doesn’t happen every day. In hindsight, there were steps we should have taken that we didn’t, and we definitely encountered some opposition, but I’m glad I did it and I’m proud of what we put out.
Many people say they have an idea to write a novel but never get around to actually doing it. You actually got around to doing it with “False Witness.” Give us the Coles Notes on what the book is about.
False Witness follows Alex Dunn, a reporter for a Calgary newspaper who accidentally witnesses a murder and becomes the star witness in the trial of Rufus Hodge, the ruthless head of an outlaw biker gang. Straight from the description page on Amazon:
Rufus Hodge is the vicious leader of an outlaw biker gang, a cold-blooded drug dealer and an all-round bastard. So when reporter Alex Dunn stumbles upon Hodge executing an innocent man, a guilty verdict is a foregone conclusion. But is Hodge really the killer, or is that just what everyone wants to believe?
As the star witness in the trial of the decade, Alex’s testimony puts Hodge behind bars for life. After a quick conviction, Alex is ready to put the ordeal behind him, but someone has other plans. Within hours of the verdict, other witnesses involved in the trial are murdered in disturbing ways, and it looks like Alex is next on the revenge list. Fearing for his life, he goes into hiding in a mountain resort town from his past. Meanwhile, Hodge’s right-hand man and a pair of Alex’s fellow reporters take a closer look at the case and quickly realize the facts don’t add up. Through it all, Hodge must fight to stay alive in a maximum-security prison with a hundred-thousand-dollar price on his head.
When the pieces finally come together, it’s clear that Alex is an unwitting pawn in a masterful scheme to manipulate the truth, and the people behind the plot are prepared to kill them all to keep the secret buried. False Witness is a head-scratching whodunit that will keep you guessing right up to the last few pages.
Where did you get the idea for the plot?
I actually remember exactly where I was at the time: I was riding my bike through the alley from my apartment on 4th Avenue South to London Road Market. I wasn’t really thinking about anything and suddenly I wondered what it would be like if someone who thought they witnessed a crime had actually NOT seen what they thought they had. And what if that witness was someone who had the public’s trust and people just believed what they said. The question stuck in my head, and it grew from there. I like stories that blur the line between right and wrong, and that make you question your assumptions. Or some such writer-ish nonsense.
How hard was the process to get the book done?
It was ridiculous. The first half of the book, about 50,000 words, took me the better part of five years. I’d write here and there, then put it aside for months, then dust it off and fiddle with it, then give up, then come back to it. I used to go out to Dave and Judi Cassidy’s cabin at Beauvais Lake for three days at a stretch to “get serious about writing.” I usually ended up coming back with 500 words or so. Finally, in 2014, I reread Stephen King’s “On Writing,” where he points out that the vast majority of people who call themselves writers never actually finish anything. Therefore, if you finish something, even if it’s terrible, you’re ahead of the pack. So I vowed to finish the damn thing. And ten days later, I had banged out the second 50,000 words. The crazy thing is, reading the book over, I couldn’t tell where the five-year section ended and the ten-day section began.
How disciplined are you when it comes to writing?
Not as disciplined as I’d like, but vastly more so than when I started. I can usually finish a 65,000-word manuscript in four weeks; sometimes less if I’m really pushing deadline. I’ve written 14,000 words in a day.
Was there ever a time when you said, “Screw it, this isn’t worth it.”
At least once a week, but I managed to talk myself out of it.
What was the moment like when your book was finally done and it was actually available on line?
It was surreal. When you go through the process of publishing on Amazon, it takes a couple of days, so I found myself clicking over and over to see when it finally went live, Then when it’s finally there, you go through it and bask in the glory of being a published author… and then you download a copy onto your Kindle and immediately notice all the spelling mistakes you missed.
You’ve had some positive response to the book. That must have felt pretty good.
I’m ashamed to admit that positive reviews are like crack to me. I’ve ghost-written romance novels that got hundreds of glowing reviews, but my favorite review is one of just a handful I’ve received for “False Witness.” I was sitting in the Calgary airport one day, waiting out a flight delay, and I flipped to my Goodreads page. A reviewer wrote that the book had “turned a train ride from hell into a fun, enjoyable time.” I actually got in touch with the person and thanked her for turning the “airport delay from hell” into a great day for me. All I’m looking for is to give someone an escape for a few hours. I ain’t doing Hemingway over here.
I’m guessing you’re not at the Stephen King level of income for your novels. What do you do to help pay the bills?
I’ve actually been a professional ghost writer for a year now. Since last April, I’ve written seven novels and two novellas (plus another novella under my own name, a thriller called “In Angel We Trust”). Most of them were one-off romances, but the last three have been part of a post-apocalypse series that’s been really fun to write.
Knowing now what you didn’t know when you got your first job in the media, is there anything you would have done differently?
Definitely not, because if I had I wouldn’t have met my wife. But if you take that out of the equation, I think I would have taken a risk and travelled more. There are tons of things going on around the world that don’t get reported simply because there’s no one there to write about them.
What is the future of print journalism?
I think convergence is a foregone conclusion, and that it won’t be long before we forget that there was ever a distinction between electronic and print media. I firmly believe that the business model of print media is unsustainable, as is traditional broadcast, and that we’re going to end up with every news outlet being entirely online soon. I know a lot of people think this is the “death of journalism” but I think it’s actually an opportunity for people to come up with local news websites that offer their local advertisers amazing reach with consumers and a good product that people want to read and watch. It just takes a little imagination and some technical skill.
You’ve been known to have a few political opinions. What were your thoughts when the NDP came into power in Alberta and do you see them winning another term?
I no longer have political opinions, because like the proverbial corn chute, everyone’s got one and no one really wants to know anything about yours. Plus I promised Janine that I was out of politics for good. But if you want an election night story, I can say this: I was standing next to Greg Weadick as the numbers came in, and when it became clear there was going to be an orange crush, I said to him: “You know, if you’d lost by a couple hundred votes, I would always beat myself up wondering how I could have squeezed out a win.” Then Greg said: “When it’s something like this, you just have to stand there and let it wash over you.” It reminded me of the night 15 years earlier, when I was standing next to him as a reporter and it was clear that Bob Tarleck was going to beat him in the race for mayor. Greg shrugged and said “The people have spoken, and they want Bob.” I never believed that a single political party had all the answers; I campaigned for Greg Weadick because he’s a great guy, I believed in him and thought he was the best man for the job. I still think that to this day.
That said, I’m absolutely positive the NDP will win the next election with a reduced majority.
You’re also a big movie fan so…..Name your top 5 movies of all time.
I hate these things. Okay, in order:
- Godfather saga (1 and 2; 3 can suck an egg)
- To Kill A Mockingbird
- Apocalypse Now
- Pulp Fiction
- Manchester By The Sea
And you love music…so…Top 5 albums of all time
- The Wall, Pink Floyd
- Frampton Comes Alive, Peter Frampton
- Kind Of Blue, Miles Davis
- The Sound Of Music, Rogers & Hammerstein
- Nevermind, Nirvana
Top 5 concerts of all time.
Oh, man, so many…
- Snoop Dogg in Lethbridge (I’m not kidding, ask Dylan Purcell)
- Bruno Mars
- Foo Fighters
- Lionel Richie
Tell us about any upcoming writing projects.
I’m currently working on a science fiction novel with bestselling author Timothy Ellis, due out in the next couple of months, called Burnside’s Killer. And I’m planning to launch a series of sci-fi adventure books in September called the Immortal Bastard. I’m going to use everything I’ve learned about online publishing over the last year to, hopefully, get established under my own name. Here goes nothing.