John (or Jay) Johnston is the author or co-author of 20 books: 15 on different aspects of the history of Atlantic Canada and five novels. The Canadian Historical Association awarded a Clio prize to his Endgame 1758: The Promise, the Glory and the Despair of Louisbourg’s Last Decade, while Ni’n na L’nu: The Mi’kmaq of Prince Edward Island was selected in 2014 as the best published Atlantic book. John was made a chevalier of France’s Ordre des Palmes académiques in recognition of his many publications on the French presence in Atlantic Canada. He lives in Halifax with his wife Mary. For more information, please visit ajbjohnston.com.
Author photo by Nicola Davison, Snickerdoodle Photography.
A.J.B. Johnston is the name on your books. What do the A, J, and B stand for? What name did your mom call you?
The names behind the initials are Andrew John Bayly. When I first started to publish I used just my initials (like a lot of well-known authors at the time) and now I feel locked into that style. My mom called me Johnny, and everyone else either Jay or John.
As a writer, you seem to do it all, writing fiction and non-fiction. How come you didn’t just settle on one thing or another?
For many years, I wrote mainly history (for my longtime employer, Parks Canada, and for my own personal research interests), with occasional freelance non-fiction pieces in magazines or newspapers. I turned to fiction because I came to feel that there were stories I wanted to tell (and themes to explore) that went well beyond any historical evidence. It was an odd sensation in the beginning to invent characters, settings and dialogue. Historians don’t do that! So far, I’ve been able to keep the two crafts separate. I believe that after I moved into fiction, my non-fiction writing for museum exhibits became much more creative.
From your website, I see that you are a chevalier of the Ordres des Palmes Academiques. That’s incredible! How did that come about?
I had a champion — the late Robert Pichette, who among many other accomplishments, designed the flag of New Brunswick — who put together a dossier of all my work on the French presence in the history of Atlantic Canada, especially in connection with 18th-century Louisbourg. The powers that be in France accepted the case that Robert put forward and gave me the honour. There was a touching ceremony at the French Consulate in Moncton.
As well as a writer of books, you are an interpretative writer. What does that mean? And what are some of your favourite projects?
I have written a great many exhibits over the years, beginning with when I was with Parks Canada and then later as an independent writer. It is challenging to write short rather than long, a challenge I like. Not everyone is inclined to do that kind of work. I feel especially fortunate and honored to have written the ground floor exhibit at the Black Cultural Centre, the permanent installation at Truro’s Colchester Historeum, the Ni’n na L’nu travelling exhibit and the recent “Vanguard” exhibit for the Nova Scotia Museum.
Tell me about your latest book, Kings of Friday Night. What is it like to release a book during a pandemic?
I hope Kings reaches different audiences, beginning with those who remember The Lincolns but extending to those who do not, but who are nonetheless interested in a touching, sometimes funny, sometimes sad story that is ultimately a universal tale. It’s a book that is also a partial memoir, with some 1950s and 1960s social and cultural history of Nova Scotia thrown in. The pandemic closures eliminated the usual book launch events, which was a drag, especially the postponement of the Marigold Centre event that was going to include performances by the legendary Lincolns themselves, with Charlie A’Court taking over as the singer after the passing of Frank MacKay last year..
What kind of research did you do for this book?
I found lots of good material, especially images and even a forgotten TV show, in various archives. Decades of experience as an historian really paid off. Even more important than the visuals were all the stories the guys in the band and the legion of fans were willing and eager to share. Those recollections make the story come alive.
I also notice that some of your books are self-published and others are conventionally published. Why did you decide to go the self publishing route? What are the advantages/disadvantages?
I was curious about self-publishing, and gave it a try with The Hat and Something True. They were stories I wanted to get out there, but I can now say that, for me, I much prefer going the traditional route with a publisher. I was especially disappointed that the books were initially only available on Amazon.com not Amazon.ca.
If you didn’t write, what do you think you’d do for a living?
I don’t think I would ever not write. I can’t imagine it. Words are everything. But I have to say that I was lucky to find work (and leisure time) to write history, fiction and museum exhibits, rather than memos about who knows what. Truth be told, I did also write tons of memos, minutes and other things back when I was a public servant. They paid the rent etc. The immense variety of writing over the years gave me the feeling that I could write about anything, because I already had. I’ve never suffered any kind of “block.” If I am not sure what to write next on some project, I’ll go for a walk, and allow the way ahead to raise its hand.
What’s the best book you’ve read lately?
I really like Nicola Davison’s In The Wake. It’s persuasive, moving and thoughtful.
What are you working on now?
I have two projects. One is the fourth and final novel in my Thomas Pichon series. My working title is World Undone. The other is a second book about PEI history with Jesse Francis. That one is entitled Ancient Land, New Land. It was to be launched in the summer of 2020 but complications arising from Covid 19 has pushed it back a year.
– Questions by Marilyn Smulders.