Karen Wood: Tell me a story about you being or becoming a writer.
Merilyn Simonds: I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t telling stories. I made them up for my little sister. In Grade Ten, I started a weekly column of school news in the local newspaper. At the same time, I started writing little vignettes. I’d see two people talking and would write a story, adding my own dialogue. At university, I studied journalism, but that wasn’t the kind of writing I wanted to do, so I switched to English literature. Ironically, that stopped me in my tracks. We studied novels from a thematic viewpoint and I thought ‘Oh my goodness, I don’t have a theme. I guess I’m not a writer.’ I stopped for a decade or more, then when my kids were little, I started writing magazine articles and how-to books. When my marriage ended, I moved to Kingston to work at Harrowsmith, a magazine that espoused the New Journalism of Hunter S. Thompson. Kingston had a thriving writing community, and so when I found a cache of letters in my attic, that gave me the confidence to write my first literary non-fiction book, The Convict Lover—the real beginning of my writing life.
KW: Tell me about that first literary book, how you wrote it.
MS: The Convict Lover was a wonderful first literary book because I was sure no one would want to read it. I was free to bring the story to light in the most authentic, honest, engaging way possible, because my contract was solely with the material. Out of that experience I developed an ethic for literary writing that has served me well.
KW: Your publications cross multiple genres. On your website you’ve been described as someone who refrains from categorization. Can you speak about that?
MS: The Convict Lover forced me to think through the notion of genre. What was this story? An epistolary novel? Narrative nonfiction? An exposé of Canadian prisons? A penal history? I decided that genre was not something that interested me as a writer. It is of great interest to publishers, to booksellers, and readers—it’s a shorthand way of finding the kind of books you like. But for a writer, genre brings baggage, and for me, the last thing I want when I have a body of material is to wrap chains around it and say, ‘It has to be written like this.’ The Lion In the Room Next Door, for example, was published first as a book of non-fiction stories because it was important to me to signal to the reader that these are stories, but they’re not made up. But it was also published as short stories, as auto-fiction, as memoir, and as a novel. I love the flexibility of the definition of story: a series of events; a fiction.
KW: With categorization there can be porous boundaries between, for example, fact and fiction. As a writer, have you had experiences where that provoked any ethical or moral dilemmas?
MS: Absolutely. To me fact and fiction are not two sides of a coin, but a continuum. The telephone book is extreme non-fiction. Conventional biography is closely tied to facts, but as you move into towards the centre of the continuum, through memoir, interpretive biography, personal essays, the prose becomes more subjective, more informed by the writer and their memory. At the centre is a grey area, where as one reviewer of The Convict Lover said, fact and fiction meet and fornicate. At the opposite end of the continuum is speculative fiction.
To me, it’s a question of readers’ expectations. I had to figure out how to write The Convict Lover, how to deal with the gaps in the story. I wanted to be frank with the reader about those decisions, so I wrote an Author’s Note. I think an Author’s Note is vital, especially for experimental work. And so with The Convict Lover, I said everything in italics in the letters was drawn directly from the letters, the letters had not been changed at all, no characters had been invented, all characters actually lived, etc. However, the dialogue between the characters was invented and the emotions and feelings of the characters were surmised from circumstances. I think readers are sophisticated. As long as they know what’s going on, they willingly fall into a book.
KW: Can you speak to what is delightful for you about writing?
MS: Writing is hard, but it never feels onerous. The moment when the words fall into place and they actually say what you want them to say—well, it is profoundly satisfying. There’s an ecstasy to writing that I don’t get anywhere else, which is probably what keeps me at it. The feeling has to do with story, and all the elements of story, but equally if not more so, it has to do with language. Sentence structure is heartrate, right? You’re designing sentences to control the reader’s heartrate. There’s nothing more elemental than that.
One of the things that keeps me in this work is that I’m pushed back to kindergarten with every new project. Every body of material is new, and every body of material requires its own form. Every book thrusts me right back into a position of not knowing, and I think not-knowing is about the most exciting place to be. A writer is, in some respects, always a newbie, even though you do become adept at revision and the deep mechanics of writing, of making sentences. You learn how to dismantle something knowing that you will make it better, without being afraid that by taking it apart you’re going to wreck it.
KW: Do you have a routine? And if so, what is it?
MS: I work well within a routine. I like to get up with the sun. I go right to my desk and work. Take a break, exercise and then go back to work. Have lunch. Normally I can manage about six hours of creative work. I write my first draft long-hand. I use a spiral-bound notebook. I only write on the right-hand side of the page. As I’m writing, I go back to the left side of the pages and make notes like, ‘Introduce George here.’ That first draft is really an exploration of the limits of the story. Some call it the ‘puke draft’. I call it the donné draft—the gift. From that, I write the first draft into the computer, print it, work it over in longhand, then go back to the computer, make those changes, and print it out, work it over.
In the afternoons I edit, make notes, take care of business, until about 3 or 4 pm. In the evenings I usually read. The last thing before bed, I review what I wrote that day. I always stop in the middle: I never end my writing day by finishing a sentence, a paragraph, or a chapter. I always stop mid-thought. I read that little last bit over, and all through the night my brain is working on it so that when I get up in the morning, I have something to grab onto to get started again.
Born in Winnipeg, Canada, Merilyn Simonds grew up in Brasil, where she acquired a taste for the fabulous. She published her first book in 1979 at the age of 29. She is now the author of 19 published books, including the novel The Holding, a New York Times Book Review Editors’
Choice, and the creative nonfiction classic, The Convict Lover. In 2017, Project Bookmark Canada installed a plaque to honour the place of The Convict Lover in Canada’s literary landscape. Her 20th —Woman, Watching: Louise de Kiriline Lawrence and the Songbirds of Pimisi Bay—will be published in spring 2022.
With roots in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan, Karen Wood is an MFA student whose writing is informed by years of research and community practice, and fueled by a commitment to address gendered violence. New to the world of creative writing, Karen continues to be delighted by the extraordinary capacity of artistic expression to create space for social and political engagement, activism, and change.