James De Monte, a 2005 graduate of Mount Union, visits Alliance as part of the Fogle Author Series at Rodman Public Library on the heels of the publication of his second book – Where Are Your People From? A Novel in Stories.
An associate professor of English at Lakeland Community College, De Monte will appear at RPL on Monday, August 28 at 6:30 p.m. Registration is required to attend De Monte's visit.
De Monte, who grew up in Dennison and graduated from Tuscarawas Central Catholic, draws on his heritage and his previous employment at various labor jobs as he tells the story of Giacomo Agostini, a retired coal miner and first-generation American, a son of foreigners, a Depression kid who never got over it, the second-oldest living member of the St. Theresa's Knights of Columbus hall, and a pick-and-shovel man from Appalachian Ohio. Spanning ninety years, the book explores the fellowship and hardship of Midwest Italian-Americans in the post-industrial Appalachian region of Ohio through the eyes of a son of immigrants.
Published by Cornerstone Press, Where Are Your People From? followed his 2015 novella Brotherhood, which explored the world of blue-collar railroad repairmen through the eyes of a recent college graduate. Published by Blue Cubicle Press, Brotherhood was longlisted for Shakespeare and Company's Paris Literary Prize.
A staff editor with Chagrin River Review, De Monte earned a Master of Fine Arts from Kent State University and taught at Columbus State Community College, in Sicily and Sardinia, at Central State University, and for the Wick Poetry Center, before joining the faculty at Lakeland Community College.
Ahead of his visit, here are some questions and answers with De Monte:
Q: Can you talk about your experiences at Mount Union and what professors had an impact on you?
A: I initially came to Mount because my older brother was already there, but I ended up loving my time there. The English faculty with whom I studied - -Frank Tascone, Michael Olin-Hitt, Rodney Dick, Andrew Price, Katherine McMahon, Judith Makens -- were superb. Frank, a fellow writer, has become a good friend to me since that time. Also, I took several classes with Kelly Lowe, a wonderful, colorful writing professor who has since passed away, unfortunately. I did a couple plays and took theatre courses with Deb Lotsof and Doug Hendel. Doug's Acting I remains one of the most fun experiences I've ever had in a classroom.
The professor I took the most classes with, Steve Kramer, was actually from Psychology. I became a Psychology minor because of Steve. I don't have space here to list the ways Steve Kramer influenced my time at Mount, my life since, or my pedagogy. I will just say this: the classes I took with Steve were the most important classes and formative experiences I had at any post-secondary or graduate level--bachelor's, master's, or Ph.D. One example: I had never flown on an airplane before meeting Steve. I ended up traveling to El Salvador with him three times, first as a student, then as a group leader, for his Social Responsibility course. That made me want to travel much more and value intercultural connection and understanding. In addition to teaching, I've now served as Director of the Center for International Education at Lakeland Community College for nearly a decade. WIthout Steve, I wouldn't have ended up on this path.
I should say that I also started dating my now-wife, Leah, while at Mount. We ended up getting married about a decade later and now have four young sons together, keeping us busy. So I can thank Mount Union for my family, too.
Q: You are a professor yourself and based on the online reviews from students, you are very well liked even by students who say they do not like English courses. Can you talk about your philosophy as a teacher.
A: I never trust the online reviews, but I'll take your generous description of them! I'm convinced everyone has something to say, and my goal as a professor of various writing courses has been to help each student gain the confidence to say it. I'm also interested in exposing students to new ideas and alternative perspectives, which is why full-class discussions are an important aspect of my classes. I often have students write brief responses in an online forum prior to class; then I can ask individual students to elaborate on those responses in class if they have not said much already. This has been useful at getting the full class to participate each time and create a sense of community.
Q: Your bio says you worked a number of labor jobs. How do you draw on those experiences as both a teacher and a writer.
A: These were all short-term, but I worked on the railroad, for the county's road and bridge department, and for the post office (briefly) as a mail handler. The railroad experience became the setting for my first novella, Brotherhood, in fact. There, and on the other jobs, I appreciated the camaraderie and colorful --if often off-color and crude -- banter amongst the workers. My favorite poet and a good friend who died five years ago, Maj Ragain, wrote about this kind of interaction in his piece, "Blue Talk at Ed Brassie's Garage," which was from his book, Fresh Oil, Loose Gravel. The book's a little hard to find now, but everyone should read it if they come across it. (Mac's Backs in Cleveland Heights has copies!) Maj wrote of the connection made amongst those toiling away in atmospheres like this. He said, "They seemed as brave and as free as any men I ever met. It was as if they used to cuss to break the crust that forms around a man's life, theirs, mine."
I also worked during breaks from college at my uncle's drive thru, selling pop, beer, and cigarettes to locals. I listened to stories from interesting regulars and those who'd just stop in here and there. I appreciated hearing of their unique experiences. In many ways, this prepared me to listen to students, to hear them out, to encourage them to share their stories, too.
Q: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
A: Not really. I read here and there as a kid, and I read what teachers asked me to in school (for the most part). During my senior year of high school, I did read both Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and Camus' The Stranger for a wonderful English teacher named Rich Jagunic. I was blown away by novels for the first time, but I still never thought it would be something I'd pursue until my second year of college. It was then that I took writing courses with Michael Olin-Hitt and Frank Tascone at Mount and loved the creative opportunities and atmospheres both of them fostered in the classroom.
Q: What advice would you give an aspiring writer?
A: This is all stolen from others I've either read or talked to: Read more than you write, though write often. Don't be afraid to explore the extraordinary aspects of ordinary people and the human experience. Be open to surprise and find joy in the process. Have a thick skin.
Q: What can people expect when they come to your visit at Rodman Library?
A: I'll read several selections from the collection. The characters are all the same, but the book is not chronological, so I'll jump around, giving context as needed. I promise not to drone on, and, for the sake of everyone, I'll read short selections that range in style and approach. Ideally, all attendees will come away with something they found interesting. Here's hoping anyway!
Also, I want to thank Mike Patterson, my friend and former editor of the The Alliance Review, for supporting me as a writer and helping to arrange my reading. Alliance is lucky to have such a devoted and delightful citizen in Mike.