A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Q&A: Cleo Paskal, freelance writer

By Quill

Q: What professional organizations do you belong to?

A: ASJA, SATW, NATJA, TMAC, FIJET, QWF and once, a long time ago, the McGill University Juggling and Unicycling Club (OK, we weren’t as professional as we would have liked). Yes, I am a sucker for clubs. I still can’t believe they’ll actually let me join.

Q: What are some of the major publications you have worked for?

A: Sunday Times (U.K.), The Economist, The Independent (UK), Conde Nast Traveller, Columbia Journalism Review, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, National Post, Wired, Maclean’s, Spy (a long, long time ago), Islands, Times of India, Japan Times, BBC radio (as producer, writer and show host), Weekly World News.

Q: A lot of your work is in the U.K. But, some of the stuff mentions Canada. Where do you live?

A: I’m a Canuck, but I was based out of London for almost a decade (I also lived in NYC for a while). I am now back in Montreal, but I’m on the road around two-thirds of the year.

Q: Where did you get your journalism training?

A: On the job. Canada’s national broadcaster, the CBC, used to have a weekend afternoon radio show for teens, by teens. I started working for them when I was 13. They taught us how to edit tape (anyone remember tape?). And that was that.

Q: What is your day-to-day routine like?

A: Get up, check e-mails, answer critical ones, panic about impending deadlines, shower, have breakfast. Make calls, do research, answer noncritical e-mails, go through snail mail, late lunch. More futzing around. Dinner. Write. Write. Write. Bath. Sleep.

Or … travel to far away places with strange sounding names.

Q: You caught Dengue Fever in Kiribati. How long were you sick? Have you have any other serious illnesses or injuries on the job?

A: It took me around four months of not doing much to start feeling normal. It sucked. It’s very hard to say how bad it was because I was outside the conventional health care system. I got sick on a remote atoll (Butaritari, in the Republic of Kiribati) and was tended to by the local medicine woman. So no convenient charts, blood tests, etc. … But she had very good mat-side manner.

As for other illnesses, I’ve been hospitalized on most continents. (The illnesses were) mostly unpredictable, severe allergies. Once, the elephants at the London Zoo put me in emergency. During my convalescence, the ever-sympathetic doctors on staff took to calling me the Elephant Lady.

Q: You married a man from the Faroe Islands. We assume this is your husband and not just another adventure all in the name of journalism?

A: I met hubby at a conference for the world’s smallest countries. He was a representative for the Faroe Islands, I was doing a BBC series on microstates. I imported him to Canada. He wasn’t completely duty-free, but he was worth the premium.

Q: How many days a year are you away from home?

A: About two-thirds of the year. I haven’t been in one place for more than three months since graduating from university.

Q: What is the best thing about your job?

A: I get to travel almost anywhere, meet almost anyone, then ask them almost anything.

Q: What has been your proudest journalistic moment?

A: My dad reading one of my pieces and not finding anything to criticize.

Q: What do you dislike about your job?

A: Financial insecurity and having to sell myself one piece at a time.

Q: Do you have any words to live by?

A: When traveling, look for what we all have in common, not what makes us different.

Q: What has been your most satisfying trip/experience?

A: Satisfying is an odd word. I’m not sure what it means in the context of travel. Somehow I associate it with feeling smug, which means anticipating information and then being proven right. I try not to anticipate because it makes it harder to just absorb without immediately judging. Sermon over.

That said, I’m human. I definitely did once feel smug and satisfied on the road – in a kind of geeky way. I have developed a complex theory about the structure of microstates, based on many visits to countries such as Monaco, Seychelles, Kiribati, San Marino, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Nauru, etc. … A section of it involves land distribution. It seems like all the countries have some way of ensuring that their citizens can afford a place to live in the country. I postulated that it was an almost inevitable byproduct of that sort of political structure.

So, I turn up in Tonga, one of the weirdest countries on the planet, but a microstate. And, sure enough, not only did they fall into all the other microstate “touchstones,” they have a complex, but reasonably effective, land distribution system. Boy did I feel smug. Sorry, satisfied.