Whether he’s writing about climate change in B.C.’s northwest or neuroscience for elementary-aged kids, Matt Simmons doesn’t think complex subjects should be boring. In fact, he thinks they make the best stories.
Case in point: instead of writing a simple news story about the discovery of a body that was several hundred years old in a glacier in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park in northern B.C., Matt retraced the man’s journey to get there from the coast — a route scientists deciphered by analyzing the man’s stomach remains.
“I wanted to capture that visceral feeling in writing that makes you feel like you’re up there in the mountains, standing on that ice, feeling how cold it is.”
It’s a feeling Matt, an avid adventurer, is familiar with.
When he moved to Prince Rupert in 2007, Matt realized there weren’t any trail guides for the region, so he wrote one, which was published in 2011 and updated last year. He’s also authored two kids’ books and is publisher and editor-in-chief of Northword Magazine, which is on hiatus due to the pandemic. In his spare time, Matt makes art, writes short fiction and plays music.
Matt’s enthusiasm to leap across mediums and out of his comfort zone shines through in his journalism. We’re thrilled to welcome him as our Local Journalism Initiative reporter, covering stories in northern B.C. and beyond from his home in Smithers.
We asked Matt a few questions about what makes him tick.
What prompted you to become a journalist?
I was living in England and my daughter was on the way. I decided to take my writing seriously — it was a now or never kind of feeling.
I was living just outside of London during the 2005 terrorist attacks. The day after it happened, I went into the city and went clubbing of all things. I wrote a piece about the juxtaposition between this joyous experience of people dancing and having fun and then coming out of the club and seeing militarized police on every corner and feeling very overwhelmed by the loss and the fear. That was my first published piece. And then I moved back to Canada and started writing for Monday Magazine in Victoria.
Having a kid really makes you prioritize, so writing became a priority.
What do you think good environment journalism looks like?
Environment journalism should be a good story. I love writing that takes me to the place that is being discussed.
I think there’s a pretty clear distinction between simple news where you can get your facts and interpret them as you like and good journalism that goes deeper and gives the reader a chance to have some understanding of the complexity of an issue — and the issues are always complex.
The Narwhal is doing some really great reporting on issues in this way. Given my ethics as a journalist and as a human being who loves where I live and and wants to make sure that nothing terrible happens to it — we align very well.
You’ve spent a lot of time writing for children. What have you learned through that work?
Writing for kids forces you to be aware of every word you put on the page because you don’t want to dumb things down — kids should be treated with respect and as intelligent humans — but the one thing they lack sometimes is vocabulary and context. You have to really think about your reader. You want to make it enjoyable to read, but you also need to nail your subject matter. I used to do a lot of writing for kids’ science magazines, and it taught me so much about trying to take very complicated concepts and make them understandable in a conversational way.
For example, I wrote a feature on neuroscience for readers aged nine to 14. I was interviewing people that are way, way smarter than me, but I tried to make it work for kids to get it. Your writing can’t help but improve when you’re thinking about your audience.
What do you like about living in northwest B.C.?
It’s this awesome combination of people and landscapes. There is a cool mix of people here: lots of self-sufficient folks that are happy to pick up a chainsaw and go buck up a tree for wood for the winter, and then they’ll have you over for a potluck.
The long winters in Smithers are challenging. It’s basically like seven months of winter and that can get hard, but most people I know absolutely love being here: they’re here because they love it.
From where I’m sitting it’s a five minute walk before I’m on the river. The colonial name for it is the Bulkley River, but the Wet’suwet’en name is the Wedzin Kwa. The river looks right up at the mountains and it’s so spectacular. I can drive 15 minutes and hike for an hour and I’m up in the alpine where I’m the only one there and there’s a view for miles. We’re lucky to have all that up here.
You’re a visual artist, photographer, fiction writer and journalist. Are there common themes that you explore across those mediums?
There’s a lot of overlap — I feel like it’s part of the same creative drive that I can’t help but follow. My art is always literary, and I like my writing to be artful and visual.
Two years ago, I had a solo art show at the Smithers Art Gallery called You Are Here. It was about being in the present, but it was also about location within the landscape. I used an old encyclopedia set, and I cut it up and collaged it with maps. Then I painted over top of that, and used the words that I was working with to inform the visuals that came out of it. Words are incorporated into most of the paintings I do.
What do you do to unwind?
I play music — I recently bought myself a little upright piano and that gives me so much pleasure. Before COVID-19 hit, I played noise rock with a group of guys. I consider that to be therapy. A book and a beer is one of my favourite ways to unwind, and I really love solo adventures up in the mountains in the alpine. One of my favorite things is to just sit down somewhere where all I can see is landscape and I’m by myself.