Western Alumni

As it happens

Carol Off, BA'81, LLD'17, finds a story in every moment

By Adela Talbot, BA'08, MA'11

As it happens

Photo by Geoff Robins

There’s no such thing as a frivolous story. Carol Off can attest to that.

In a mere 90 minutes each weekday, the host of CBC Radio One’s As It Happens switches gears repeatedly and seamlessly. Every guest – be it a world leader, an innovative researcher or an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances – is provided space for their story to resonate with listeners.

For Off, this space is a “cocoon” in which she is the conduit the story passes through. Cultivating it requires recognizing the inherent humanity at the heart of every interview. It requires providing time, presence and attention to a single person, a single moment in a world that quickly moves from one thing to the next.

As It Happens is like Twitter. If you’re looking at Twitter, there’s just been a massacre someplace; a disaster someplace else;somebody lost their dog; someone’s got a show someplace; a politician is campaigning someplace,” said Off, BA’81 (English Language and Literature), LLD’17.

“We do that all the time. That’s how we intuit and see the world; we see it as a series of things that come one after the other.”

Throughout her career, Off has covered an array of stories from around the world. In the field and in the studio, she has worked “in the moment.” You just have to be there, she said.

It is hard, she admits. You’re thinking of how much time you have, trying to steer an interview, trying to stay focused while thinking about what’s next in the queue.

“It is a matter of being in a warp, being in a cocoon with the person you’re interviewing. Every time somebody is there, it’s their story and it’s a little piece of humanity. Every single one of those stories is a piece of the human experience. Some are goofy; some are lovely; some of them are simple; some are complicated and hard and of huge consequence. But they are all just pieces of the human condition.”

The feeling the media had failed to aptly show the human condition – from all sides – in its coverage of two civil wars in the 1990s led to Off writing a best-seller, The Lion, The Fox, and the Eagle: A Story of Generals and Justice in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Since that book came out in 2000, she has written three more, including the recently-published All We Leave Behind: A Reporter’s Journey into the Lives of Others, which won the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction.

For teaching her how to navigate the stories she tells, she credits her English degree from Western. What Off learned reading Shakespeare, she uses every day. Reading books, studying Canadian literature with renowned poet and playwright James Reaney, reading Greek and Roman classics, provided Off a “portal into
the world.”

“I understand things so much because of having that knowledge, having studied and trying to make sense of the meaning of literature. I understand things because of what I learned from literature. It was the best grounding in what I do now – knowing the shape of a story, the rise and fall of action, what redeeming qualities are, learning to look for the humanity in everything. That’s what literature does; it seeks the humanity in everything. In every book, at the core of it, is the search for our humanity and the humanity of others. It’s a look at the other to find out what the other is and what the other means to us. I use this knowledge every day. Sometimes I’m aware of it; sometimes I’m not. But I know that’s where it came from, that knowledge, that compassion, to appreciate humanity in its complexity – from the humanities,” Off explained.

“The most important thing we learn from studying literature is contradiction, that there can be contradictory ideas at the same time, that you can have them in your mind, that you can embrace contradiction. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Off was 21 when she walked into her first English lecture at Western. She was pregnant, recently married and had no plans of pursuing a career in journalism. She gave birth to her son during Reading Week of her first year, forging through to complete her degree in five years.

The Gazette, which the proud English student once snubbed, proved a fork in the road for Off.

“The paper was there in the bin every day in the UCC and I was complaining to a friend saying, ‘It’s not even worth bending down to pick one up from the stack.’ And my friend said, ‘If you feel that way, why don’t you do something about it? I said I was planning to be a creative writer, novelist poet, whatever. I’m not
going to be a journalist. But he persuaded me to either stop complaining or go and join – so I signed up,” she said.

Off started her career writing for the arts section of The Gazette, later becoming its editor. Things took off from there, she said.

Working towards her degree, raising a child, while working parttime at the student paper paved her path. She went from The Gazette to a local start-up newspaper from which she was called to freelance for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

“By then, I realized I was never going to be the novelist I wanted to be; I was going to be a journalist. I guess I never looked back.”