On writing

October 2012

I used to think everyone wanted to write books. The naïvété of youth, I suppose. To think that everyone thinks along the same lines as you.

For me, writing is the best way I know to organize my thoughts. I don’t even know what I really think about something until I begin to write. The very act of putting down (then re-arranging and altering) words on a page (or more often on a screen) is how I think best. The opaque becomes clear, or at least it sometimes does. That was how it was when I sought to write history — trying to weigh the evidence and give it a narrative thrust — and it’s how it is with fiction, though with novels it’s trying to see and hear characters in different scenes and bring them to life.

Un petit mot aux Francophones

October 2012

Même si mon site est essentiellement en anglais, n’hésitez pas à me contacter en français si vous voulez (en utilisant Reader’s Turn).

By the way

October 2012

On 20 October 2012, the “Voice of the People” section of the Halifax Chronicle Herald published this letter from me.

I am intrigued by the federal government’s intention to re-cast the Canadian Museum of Civilization and give it a focus on Canadian history. That could be welcome news. Canadian history deserves to be better known by Canadians, no argument here. Yet at the same time as the CMC is being touted as a showcase for our collective national history, we are seeing the same federal government drastically limiting the public’s access to its system of national historic sites at the local level. I hope no one seriously thinks they can tell the story of Fort Anne, Grand Pré or Louisbourg better from a museum in Gatineau than at those places themselves. Those particular Parks Canada sites, and many more across the country, are to my way of thinking where such stories are best told. Then again, it’s not just government officials behind this trend to centralize the complex, rich history of this land. The general public, with its declining visitation to national historic sites, set the stage. Revenue generation is the new master, in history as in everything else. So here’s hoping that the emerging trend can be reversed. Along with eating local, maybe people will start visiting the nearby places that shaped this land. History is like democracy; its foundation is at the grassroots.

Working Titles

October 2012

The titles that books end up with are rarely those they start out with, unless they’re academic books. In the latter case, academic presses rarely get involved because attracting a target audience or broad market interest is not a major concern for an academic press.

In the case of my first published novel, Thomas, A Secret Life, that title showed up only a month or so before the book was sent to the printers. My original working title for the story — when I conceived it three decades ago — was “La nuit /Thomas”. At the time I wanted the novel to be an alternation between an elderly Thomas recalling his life during the course of a single night and flashbacks of those many scenes. My vision was that it would be a single book and his complete story would be told within its four hundred or so pages. That is no longer the plan. The story is too big for a single book. So there will be several, most likely four.

Parts of what was “La nuit / Thomas” survive in Thomas, A Secret Life, especially in the opening chapter. But most of the rest was written in the past three years. For most of that stretch I was calling it “Down the Dark Wind”, after a line of poetry that Thomas came up with and particularly likes. When the manuscript reached Cape Breton University Press, however, Mike Hunter was not convinced my suggested title was the best. So for a few months it flipped between “The Dark Wind”, “A Dark Wind” and simply “Dark Wind” with no article at all. None of us who were mulling this over — editor Kate Kennedy was a third voice — was crazy over that title. It might sound to some readers like the book was about vampires or other supernatural stuff like that. In the end it was Mike Hunter who proposed Thomas, A Secret Life, and Kate and I thought it was the best title yet. So that’s what it is.

Upcoming books

October 2012

I’ve just completed the second novel that follows the adventures and moral dilemmas of Thomas Pichon and will shortly begin a complete review and revision before sending it off to the publisher for the next stage. Then it’ll be off to the publisher for the next stages. If all goes well, the next novel should be out in the late summer or fall of 2013.

Also appearing in 2013 will be two new history books. One is to mark the tercentenary of the founding of Louisbourg by the French in 1713. Entitled Louisbourg: Past, Present, Future it will offer an overview history, with a great many illustrations, of the place from about 5000 years ago, when its harbour was formed, up to today and on into the future to see what it may hold. Sneak preview: that future is not good and it has to do with the sea. That book will be released by Nimbus Publishing of Halifax, probably by June 2013. The other history book of mine to appear in 2013 I am co-writing with Jesse Francis. Its title pretty much tells you what it’s about: N’in na L’nu: The Mi’kmaq of Prince Edward Island. It will be published by the Acorn Press. It’s a companion publication to a travelling exhibit of the same name that Camus Productions has conceived and designed. It will open at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown in 2013 then travel to other venues after that.


October 2012

People sometimes ask me: what’s up with calling yourself A.J.B.? I agree it’s a little awkward, especially since I’m known to my friends as either John or J. But there’s a history to that use of the three initials. Back when I was studying History in university it seemed like it was the thing to do for historians to go by their initials. There was A.J.P. Taylor, J.H. Plumb, J.M.S. Careless and many more. And my father, on his business cards at least, was J.A.L. Johnston. My first term papers were written by Andrew John Johnston but over time I gradually adopted what I thought was the norm, just initials. I’ve been publishing with A.J.B. for so long now that I think I’ll just continue on.