From fact to fiction

Jon Tattrie spent years trying to break into the literary world and get his fiction published. His first book was released this year, and he used his career in journalism to make it happen.

By Vincenzo Ravina

Jon Tattrie's books, waiting to be bought and signed at the Bookmark table at the 2009 Word on the Street festival in Halifax.  (Photo: Vincenzo Ravina)
Jon Tattrie's books, waiting to be bought and signed at the Bookmark table at the 2009 Word on the Street festival in Halifax. (Photo: Vincenzo Ravina)

By Vincenzo Ravina

Chapter One

Thirteen years after he completed his first novel, he’s sitting behind a little table at his first book signing. Black Snow is the sixth novel he’s written, but the first to be published.

He’s a tall, slim man in his early-30s, with brown hair, brown eyes and prominent eyebrows. He’s calm and soft-spoken, with a comfortable smile. His shirt is rolled up to just below his elbows.

Copies of his book litter the table in front of him.

An elderly woman approaches.

Great, he thinks. She’ll buy copies for her grandkids and everything!

The elderly woman picks up a copy of his book. “What’s it about?” she asks.

He tells her. Black Snow is a love story in the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion. Tommy Joyce is a recently returned soldier from the trenches of World War I. He and his wife, Evie, are separated by the explosion. Tommy doesn’t know whether his wife is alive, and he wanders the shattered city searching for her.

The elderly woman doesn’t buy a copy. In fact, she throws the book back on the table and walks away muttering about the gloomy subject matter. Despite that, Jon Tattrie is finally a published author. He has used his career in journalism to crowbar his way into fiction; from picking publishers’ brains in interviews, to using his byline as a form of advertising, he’s smartly maneuvered his way into a difficult industry. After 13 years of trying, he’s finally succeeding.

Chapter Two – Novelist turned journalist turned novelist

The day after graduating from Dalhousie University with a social anthropology degree, Jon Tattrie got on a plane to Scotland. He was still hungover. He planned to spend four months living in Edinburgh.

“I really needed to leave Halifax,” he says. “At the time, it just felt too small.”

He ended up living abroad for seven years.

Tattrie knew he wanted to be a writer. He wrote his first novel in university, but discovered the door to the publishing house wasn’t particularly easy to kick down.

He figured the best way to make a living off his words was a career in journalism. A freelance journalist friend made him see how much fun the job could be. Tattrie also thought journalism could be a back door into the publishing houses.

He got a one-year journalism degree from Telford College in Edinburgh, and became an editor at The Scotsman, gaining a lot of valuable writing experience.

“You learn a lot about how stories are constructed and how it works and what doesn’t work and how you, as an editor, can hopefully improve the story by changing the flow. You see the mechanisms of writing a lot more clearly.”

Tattrie would periodically return to Halifax to visit and ask himself, “Can I live here, now? Am I ready to come back?”

In 2006, he decided he was. “I remember standing on Citadel Hill and looking out over the city and thinking, ‘Yeah, maybe this could work.'”

He wanted to be close to his family again and have a more permanent network of friends and contacts.

Jon Tattrie reads from Black Snow at the 2009 Word on the Street festival in Halifax.  (Photo Courtesy: Vincenzo Ravina)
Jon Tattrie reads from Black Snow at the 2009 Word on the Street festival in Halifax. (Photo Courtesy: Vincenzo Ravina)

On his return, he worked as a copy editor at the Halifax Daily News for almost two years. He also wrote an article for the paper called ‘Confessions of an Aspiring Novelist.’

“The best thing about journalism is it gives you this skeleton key to go and, if you can dream up a story around it, you can do whatever you want. So I dreamed up the story about how to get published and my editor liked it so that gave me a chance to sit down with four or five publishers and talk to them for like an hour or something.”

He learned at a freelance journalism course to ask editors what they were looking for and write what they wanted. Once he developed a relationship, he could do more of his own stuff. “So (it) definitely opened my eyes up as a writer of books.”

He learned to see the industry from the publisher’s point of view. His previous novels weren’t marketable. They weren’t what local publishers were looking for. One of the publishers Tattrie spoke to for his article was Lesley Choyce of Pottersfield Press. Tattrie paid special attention to Choyce.

“I stalked him,” Tattrie says.

“He was the one, was he?” says Choyce. “He has a fairly gentle spirit, so I guess if you’re going to have somebody stalking you, you’d want a Jon Tattrie.”

Tattrie was paying attention to what Pottersfield was publishing, and what Pottersfield would be interested in publishing: something Nova Scotian, something regional.

“And so he did come up with something that was regional,” says Choyce. “Something that was historical, which I think helped place it in a context that worked for us.”

Tattrie sent Choyce a few proposals that were rejected, before sending a 3,000-word short story about a man who loses his wife in the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion. Tattrie told Choyce that if he liked what he read, Tattrie would send along the novel-length manuscript. Tattrie expected his proposal to be rejected like the others. But, Choyce liked this one and asked to see the full manuscript.

Of course, Tattrie hadn’t actually written it.

“I hadn’t written anything apart from the 3,000-word short story,” Tattrie says. “(Choyce) was under the impression that I had written a full novel.”

Tattrie started working on the novel immediately. He bought time by telling Choyce he just wanted to “polish” the manuscript.

That was February 6, 2008. Five days later, the Daily News was shut down, and Tattrie and all of his colleagues were canned. It was Jon’s worst birthday ever. But it left him with plenty of time for writing.

He wrote the first draft of Black Snow in six weeks.

“It’s not my usual writing speed,” he says.

The trauma of he and his friends all losing their jobs at once helped him get into the shell-shocked mind of his main character. He listened to a lot of Sarah McLachlan’s “wailing, heartbroken” music to get himself to feel the emotions his characters were feeling. He watched a lot of war movies, and a lot of Blackadder, for World War I research.

“I would literally turn on the radio and expect to hear updates on the Western Front because my whole world was split between the Halifax Explosion and the trenches of World War I, so you definitely get into a very altered state of mind where the physical process of writing disappears.”

When Choyce received the completed manuscript, he says he was impressed with the authentic voice, emotion and power of the work.

Choyce says Tattrie wasn’t like most first time authors who “think, ‘Here’s my gem, my polished manuscript that I’ve poured my life into, please don’t change a word.’ Tattrie didn’t have any problems with any of that. Partly his personality, but also because he was a journalist. He understood the editorial process.”

Chapter Three – Little mutants

Choyce called Tattrie and told him the books had arrived back from the printers. But there was trouble getting them off the truck because the driver didn’t want to drive down the dirt road to Choyce’s home near Lawrencetowsn Beach. Choyce told Tattrie his books were sitting out in the driveway.

“I was like, ‘Lesley, those are my books! Get them inside, man!’ so I sped out there.”

After the Daily News debacle, Jon’s secret fear was that Pottersfield would go under and “everything would fall apart again.” But his fears were replaced with a terrific rush when he opened a box and saw so many copies of his first published book staring back at him.

Jon Tattrie spends a week on a tall ship for his 12-part travel series The Road Warrior, published in the Chronicle-Herald.  (Photo courtesy: Jon Tattrie )
Jon Tattrie spends a week on a tall ship for his 12-part travel series The Road Warrior, published in the Chronicle-Herald. (Photo courtesy: Jon Tattrie )

“I grinned at them … I didn’t cradle them, but I did beam at them like a proud father, (who) wanted to respect their independence and their need to make it in the world on their own.”

He took 100 copies to sell on his own.

And now, “They’re all out there like little mutants floating around in the world, doing their own things, (and living) their own lives.”

Many of his former Daily News colleagues attended the book’s launch party. One such colleague, David Rodenhiser, interviewed Tattrie on stage, and then Tattrie did a reading from the book.

“I think the only other time you’re going to get that sort of experience, where you’re front and centre on the stage, and all of the people you care about most are in there looking at you, is your funeral… It’s a really nice side of being a writer, you get to sort of turn up at your own funeral and hear people say nice things about you.”

Jane Davenport was the Sunday editor at the Daily News. Now the deputy national editor at the Toronto Star — she says one of Tattrie’s admirable traits is his determination to succeed in his craft.

“You could probably get many journalists in a corner and they would confess that they had a book somewhere in their head,” Davenport says. “But off the top of my head, I don’t know how common a transition it is.”

Famous examples of journalists-turned-novelists include Ernest Hemingway and Chuck Palahniuk. A local example is Stephen Kimber, who, in addition to seven books of non-fiction, has written a novel.

Rachel Boomer, another of Tattrie’s former colleagues at the Daily News, says she got into journalism because she enjoyed writing fiction, but “journalism school pretty much beat the fiction out of me.”

Boomer says she’s impressed with people such as Tattrie, who pursue their dreams. “He wanted to write fiction… He structured his life and his work in a way that he could work on fiction and that is an incredibly hard thing to do. I know lots of people who have great dreams about writing a book, and they’re just never able to do it.”

Chapter Four – A very special young man

Tattrie’s grade 5 teacher, Mrs. Jain, calls him ‘Jonathan.’ Tattrie calls her ‘Mrs. Jain,’ because if he called her anything else, she’d clip his ears.

Mrs. Jain taught for 43 years and says Tattrie sticks out as a “very special young man.”

“His was one book report that you would read in detail. Teachers are guilty of skimming when you have 27 to do. But not his.”

Mrs. Jain taught Tattrie at the Kings County Academy in Kentville. She had him pegged as “either a history professor or a professor of literature. And I think in the profession he’s chosen now, he’s combined both.”

Now retired and in her 70s, she’s one of Tattrie’s greatest supporters. She says she berated a clerk at a bookstore in New Minas for not displaying Black Snow prominently enough.

“I said, ‘That should be right out where people can see. Haven’t you got a picture of Jonathan, or a sign to promote this?’ … I might call the manager and be very nice and say, ‘Couldn’t you do something special?'”

Epilogue

Tattrie now works freelance, and is currently working on a book about Africville. He’s recently engaged.

Giselle Melanson, his fiancée, says he’s unbelievably self-disciplined. “He keeps regular office hours, but in his apartment.”

Tattrie wrote a 12-part travel series for the Chronicle-Herald called Road Warrior, indulging his wanderlust. He toured the province, visiting the Deifenbunker bomb shelter, a sweat lodge and sailing on a tall ship for a week. He loves the freedom of freelancing.

Every installment of the series signed off with “Jon Tattrie is a journalist and the author of Black Snow, a novel of the Halifax Explosion.”

“It’s like a little advertisement. You’re showing people, ‘This is my writing. If you like this, you may also like this.’ (Journalism) gives you access to the public on a regular basis, that my writer friends who have ordinary jobs don’t have … With this, you can advertise yourself every time you go to work.”