Author John DeMont seeks big truths in the small stories
The home page of John DeMont’s website—johndemont.ca—shows him as a toddler standing in a meadow on a plank of wood. He holds a stick and grins. It’s an image of a lost rural idyll, taken near Nova Scotia’s Mira River in Cape Breton, and you get a sense that the journalist and author has spent much of his working life chasing that moment.
His latest book, A Good Day’s Work: In Pursuit of a Disappearing Canada (Doubleday Canada), explores the vanishing landscape of blacksmiths, milkmen and small-town newspaper editors. His previous book, Coal Black Heart (Doubleday Canada), sprung from an agent’s suggestion that he write “something about Cape Breton;” in that book, he used his family’s history to tell of the crushing work that defined Cape Breton.
Before that, he wrote The Last Best Place: Lost in the Heart of Nova Scotia (Doubleday Canada), a travel memoir of his return to Nova Scotia.
Another book, Citizens Irving: KC Irving and his Legacy (Doubleday Canada)—also written at the suggestion of an agent—topped the Globe and Mail ’s best-seller list.
His history as a writer makes one thing clear: John DeMont is a pro whose work takes us on a journey into a lost past.
In the middle of things
Unlike many journalists, DeMont wasn’t a closet novelist when he started work as a sports reporter at the Cape Breton Post. He was inspired to become a writer after reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, but it wasn’t Hemingway he was drawn to: it was the protagonist—a journalist. “It occurred to me that I could make my life’s work doing this sort of thing.”
The appeal of journalism, he says, is that it puts him in the middle of things, but also keeps him apart from them. “I’ve always been looking at things, perplexed by things, trying to understand stuff,” he says.
“I enjoy the way journalism connects me to the world and connects me to life. …I’ve managed to fashion a career where I’ve written about what I want. It’s perfect.”
DeMont spent close to 15 years working for Maclean’s magazine, with stints in Toronto, Ottawa and Atlantic Canada. These days, he is the senior writer at Nova Scotia’s Chronicle Herald. He writes a couple of different columns, in addition to writing features for Herald Magazine. A recent story he wrote for the magazine was called “Longing for Home: In Search of Nova Scotia’s Soul.” In that piece, DeMont explored the yearning that brings so many Nova Scotian exiles home.
“This sense of exile we feel far from home may partly stem from our founding myths. The Acadians were dispersed and their lands given away by a brutal oppressor. An entire culture’s character has been forged, in part, by the knowledge that many of them heroically returned,” he wrote. “The Scots are equally misty-eyed about what they left behind. Their ‘expulsion’ was the Highland Clearances.”
Connecting to the world
While he admits to now having a “very bad” chunk of a crime novel and a fictionalized account of the life of boxer Sam Langford in his writer’s chest, his true love is narrative non-fiction.
In fiction, the reader can always jump off the train and say it’s all made up. In non-fiction, there is no emotional connection. Narrative non-fiction takes the best of both worlds. “Narrative non-fiction is very capable of accommodating all of the art I have,” he says. “You’re taking the chaos of life and trying to impose some order on it.”
He greatly enjoyed researching and writing A Good Day’s Work. After so many years as a national writer, it let him look away from the “mountains on the horizon” and toward the details of ordinary lives.
“Sometimes in my career I’ve written stuff and had no idea whether anyone was reading it; now I’m writing
about communities and it’s just much more rewarding.”
Over the next few years, he wants to explore the “common theme of the ephemeral nature of life and its peculiarity” in his Herald column. He also has an idea for a book about hockey and what it means to the national identity.
“If there’s a theme to these books I’m writing now, it’s social history—stories of ordinary Canadians; all these small stories forming a bigger story,” he says.
And all of these stories, it seems, bring him one step closer to the Mira.
Jon Tattrie is an award-winning author and journalist. He’s written four books: Ultimate Day Trips From Halifax, Cornwallis: The Violent Birth of Halifax, The Hermit of Africville and Black Snow. Follow him @jontattrie.