Guest Author–Kayla Hounsell


Photo: Alex MacAulay

It is my pleasure to welcome Kayla Hounsell to my blog today to talk about her book,  First Degree: From Medical School to Murder. Kayla is an award- winning journalist who covered the murder trial of Will Sandeson. She is now the CBC’s National Reporter for the Maritimes. Based in Halifax, she has worked in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ottawa, Rwanda, South Sudan, and Liberia. This is her first book.

Book Blurb:

A murder, a missing body, and a sensational trial that shocked the community. Will Sandeson seemed like a model son. A member of the Dalhousie University track and field team, he was about to start classes at Dalhousie’s medical school. He had attended a medical school in the Caribbean; he worked at a group home for adults with disabilities. “There’s times for whatever reason that things don’t go quite as planned,” a Halifax police officer told Sandeson shortly after he was arrested for the first-degree murder of Taylor Samson, who also, on the surface, seemed like a model son.

Samson lived in a fraternity house near Dalhousie, and when the six-foot-five physics student disappeared without a trace, the focus eventually turned to Sandeson. Sandeson’s trial, blown open by a private investigator accused of switching sides, exposed a world of drugs, ambition, and misplaced loyalties. Through interviews with friends and relatives, as well as transcripts of the trial and Sandeson’s police interrogation, award-winning journalist Kayla Hounsell paints a complex portrait of both the victim and killer, two young men who seemed destined for bright futures. First Degree includes previously unpublished photos and details never made public until now.

First Degree: The Story Behind my First Book

It was May 2017 when I was asked to write First Degree, although it didn’t have a title then. My first thought was, “Of course I want to write this book. This book has to be written!” But my immediate second thought was, “But what will Taylor’s mother think?” It was a question that would follow me through every step of the process, every line I wrote, every social media post I made, and every public appearance since. (I even asked her to read this blog before it was published. She told me it was not necessary and that she wouldn’t want to edit my feelings.)

First Degree: From Med School to Murder: The Story Behind the Shocking Will Sandeson Trial is ultimately about two promising young men whose families were destroyed after one plotted to kill the other. Taylor Samson, a Dalhousie University physics student, is now dead. Will Sandeson, a Dal medical student, is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder. Samson’s body has never been found.

So it was that I was live-tweeting from the murder trial in my role as a reporter, when I received an email from Elaine McCluskey at Nimbus Publishing asking if I’d consider writing a book about the case. It quickly became clear that my employer was not willing to work with me, so I quit my job. It was shocking to everyone in my life. After all, it was a great job that I had held for many years, the people I worked with had become family, and now I had what? A book deal, great. But then what? I had no idea and it was terrifying.

But there was no way I could not write this book. So that was that.

Next, I had to tell Taylor’s mother and humbly ask for her participation. By that point I had been covering the case for nearly three years and felt I had developed a positive relationship with Linda Boutilier, but I was well aware committing to an interview for a TV story that would last less than two minutes was far different than agreeing to participate in a project of this scale. I had no idea what she would say. I invited Linda and Taylor’s childhood friend for lunch. On a break from the trial at Nova Scotia Supreme Court, I went around the corner to Stayner’s Wharf Pub & Grill, my heart pounding.

To my absolute astonishment, Linda gave me her full support. I went so far as to point out that there would be parts of the book she might not like to read. I knew even then that parts of it would be graphic, and I would have to point out that her son was a drug dealer. I had no intention of shying away from the truth of the matter and I certainly did not want that to be a surprise to her.

“That’s okay,” she said in that downtown Halifax restaurant, “I know if you write it, it will be fair.”

Again, astonishment.

For a journalist, there is no greater compliment. That level of trust cannot be matched when you build everything you do on trust, balance and fairness. It also came with an incredible amount of pressure and it played on me over and over as I wrote lines, deleted them, and rewrote them.
Since then there have been multiple conversations, endless text messages, and even words of encouragement from Linda for me.Imagine.

You may think you know a little about Linda Boutilier by now, perhaps you’ve seen her on TV. You might think that she seems tough, you might even judge her because she knew her son was selling marijuana. But you do not know what I have come to know over the last three years. Linda Boutilier is fierce. She is fearless in the face of unimaginable adversity. She is her son’s defiant defender. She is also rational and compassionate and she has my utmost respect.

As she says in First Degree, “I am who I am. If you judge me because I’m honest, well then you’re going to judge me because I’m honest.”

Linda Boutilier has welcomed me into her home, shared her family photos, allowed me to look through her private text messages and shared her grief.

She has done all of this so that you might come to know her son as more than a drug dealer, so that you will have a full picture of what happened to him, what Will Sandeson did to him, and so that you might have a rare glimpse into the Canadian justice system unlike any you have seen before.
It’s because of her that this is the first page of First Degree:

Dedicated in memory of Taylor Samson. May we not forget that wrapped up in the pages of this crime thriller, a mother and father lost a son, a brother lost his protector, and a young man lost his life.

And as for her words, “I know if you write it, it will be fair,”they played in my mind like a mantra as I wrote, and I did my very best to be fair.

My great thanks to Laura Best for the opportunity to share a little of my writing process.

First Degree is available at Amazon.ca. and Chapters.ca as well as independent book stores.

Thank you Kayla for sharing the story behind your first book. I’m looking forward to reading it. Best of luck to you and your book. 

Author, Author

It never fails to amaze me how two people can go to the same event and have totally different experiences. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, in fact, I think it’s good!. Seeing life from different perspectives gives us a broader picture over all. Sunday was this year’s annual Word on the Street, and what a beautiful day we had! When I read Diane Tibert’s blog post about her experience that day it was totally different from mine. She wrote about the sights she saw on the waterfront and her experience with some of the booksellers  and authors of the day. My time was spent sitting in on author readings, for me, a super big treat. I was in heaven.

I was excited to learn that Halifax author, Elaine McCluskey, was to read from her book of short stories. Elaine’s name I was well familiar with since our work has appeared in the same literary magazines over the years. Here she is reading from her latest book of short stories, “Valerie the Great.” It was an exceptional reading. Not only do I love her subtle humour, but her hair’s something else too. I’m a little jealous to tell the truth.

A real treat it was to hear Binnie Brennan read from her short story collection, “A Certain Grace.” Although I’d heard of Binnie, I wasn’t familiar with her work at all. I can tell you now, both authors are superb short story writers. Their work is well worth reading. Hmm, and just when we writers are being told that short story collections are harder to market! I love knowing these two women have collections out there. I guess the short story isn’t dead yet.

I stopped by the Nimbus table to have a look. Did you really think I wouldn’t? Come on– Nimbus is my publisher and a gal’s got to know where her loyality lies.  Lots of new and exciting titles. Some I’ve read, others are on my BTR list.

I sat in on a reading by Lisa Harrington. Lisa’s new YA novel, “Live to Tell,” is psychological  thriller and the reviews I’ve read have been great. This is a book I’m looking forward to reading.

 Cynthia d’Entrement read from her book “Oak Island Revenge.” If you remember I went to Cynthia’s book launch back in May.I met Cynthia and Lisa back in 2008 at the launch of “A Maritime Christmas,” the  anthology published by Nimbus that year. We’ve kept in touch –Facebook is a wonderful thing–which is kind of nice. It’s always good to see a familiar face at these festivals, and you never know who you’ll end up befriending one day.  🙂

Gary Blackwood read from his book, “The Imposter.” I quite enjoyed Gary’s story about how it took twenty years for this book to find a home. It sounded a bit complicated, and sometimes it’s just the way things work out. A lesson to be learned perhaps is that a book may be accepted for publication, but sometimes things are just out of our control. Sometimes the planets just don’t align properly. I’m sure after a wait like that publication is very sweet indeed.

Allison Maher entertained us with a reading from her book, “Time Flies When You’re Chasing Spies.” Allison has more energy in her baby finger than the rest of us have in our entire bodies. No exaggeration. If you want to be totally entertained do take time to drop in on Allison when she’s doing a reading. Allison’s book launch is coming up on the Saturday and I’ve been invited to go. Truth is, you don’t need an invitation to attend a book launch, they’re most always open to the public—the more the merrier.  You never have to worry about being turned away.

So there you have my account of WOTS 2012. I wish I could have stayed longer, but my chauffeur had to get a little shut eye before work later that night.

Oh, and as for what I did with the copy of my book that I snapped up from the library sale last Saturday, I found a school library I plan to donate it to, and that feels right.  🙂

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