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"I think it's good for writers to talk about process. If I had heard more about it earlier on I might have had the courage to drop some of my presumptions and assumptions and go with it. So I feel a real responsibility and a real a real desire to share process. I think it's really needed for people who want to write and are overcome by the school system's approach, which is to study a story or a novel according to its themes."
As I turn, a man passes. Beside him walks a lion. Her fur is smooth, the colour of deserts or sun-scorched plains. Though her paws against the carpet make no sound, I feel a tingling through the soles of my shoes. Her eyes, when she looks at me, are soft with secrets.
When she was a child, Merilyn Simonds lived for a time in a hotel in Brazil with her parents and three sisters. Some of the memories in her book, The Lion in the Room Next Door, were born in that hotel, and one of them focuses on a lion: the lion that lived in the hotel room next to the one her family occupied.
Simonds heard the lion in the night. Or, at least, heard sounds that the 7-year-old her could attribute to no other source. And she saw it. Once. No one else saw the lion. "Of course there was a lion. But was there?" she says. "I did see it. But that's my memory."
Simonds has thought a lot about memory and how we layer it with time. On listening to her speak about it, Simonds has thought enough on the subject to own a thesis worth of information and tidbits. "We don't absorb actuality. And the actuality doesn't influence us. What influences us is what we remember."
The Lion in the Room Next Door is Simonds' look back at her own life through 11 stories set in Brazil, Canada, Sweden, Mexico, Greece and Hawaii. At one point early in the book's development, Simonds thought she was writing a travel memoir, but rethought it after a while, "because it's not about travels to a place or through a place, it's more about how we carry place home with us and how we carry place through our lives."
The result is a lucid and poetic book that reads more like a novel than a collection of -- essentially non-fiction -- short stories. Simonds' very successful 1996 book The Convict Lover was shortlisted for a Governor General's Award, and was made into a successful stage play in Toronto. This latest work is very different in tone, texture and substance but readers who admired that work will recognize Simonds' careful, evocative use of language and her sparse yet rich style.
At 49, Simonds lives in Kingston, Ontario with her husband, the writer Wayne Grady, in a seven-bedroom house the couple purchased to accommodate their combined family of four children.
Linda Richards: I read an interview that came out in the time you would have been promoting The Convict Lover that said you were working on a book of travel memoirs.
Merilyn Simonds: Well, at that point it was, wasn't it? These stories erupted kind of willy-nilly while I was working on The Convict Lover. And because each of them were memories and they crystallized around a different place I thought -- well -- maybe that's what they'll end up being. They erupted not in any sort of order, but all over the map quite literally. So several of them presented themselves during The Convict Lover and I set the book aside and wrote the stories because the only way I can get something out of my mind is to put it on a page. So I'd sort of stop, write one of the stories, then get back to Convict Lover and think: okay, that's that. Then this other thought would impose itself on my brain and I wouldn't be able to stop thinking about it, so I'd put The Convict Lover aside and do the story.
It was actually really great work-wise too, because The Convict Lover took so many years to complete. And these stories I could do in about a month, so it was very satisfying to do something short and contained that you could actually finish, rather than The Convict Lover which was seven years long. Then when I had finished The Convict Lover I had three or four stories and notes for half a dozen more that I wanted to write and I thought, "Well, obviously these aren't going to let me rest, so I might as well just turn my attention to them." So I did. And when I had a dozen -- I worked on them for about two years -- I thought I should read them to see if they amount to anything or if I was doing it for my own edification. So I went to Mexico and I took the manuscript with me and just for the sake of convenience I arranged them in chronological order to read them -- because they hadn't appeared that way at all.
I was going to ask you that next.
In fact the eighth story was first, the first story was second, the fifth story was third, so... it was very odd. So when I read them chronologically I realized that although they were in some ways about landscape and about travels, they also told this other story, this other journey. Kind of an interior journey over time as well as space. I realized it was a book, but it wasn't a travel book. Because it's not about travels to a place or through a place, it's more about how we carry place home with us and how we carry place through our lives. And it's about memory and place.
So after that reading I pitched two of the stories which were redundant. I realized that another story needed to be written. So the only story that I sat down and intentionally wrote was the fourth story. I wrote it because I felt that in between those stories of childhood and adolescence and then the first story of adulthood, there needed to be a story that tried to grapple with the question of why I married the man I married. It sort of set the scene for the final story. It lends an arc to the whole book.
I had a sense of the chronology as I read.
I'd never written short stories. I had to basically learn the short-story form, but it's interesting to me that form -- as with The Convict Lover -- is not something the writer decides, but rather the material decides. It's the content that shapes the form, not the other way around. After the fact, I realized how perfect it was that these were short stories, because one of the book's overriding themes is memory and how we remember and I think that is how we remember our lives: in stories. Rather than in memoir, which to me implies backward looking and a continuous narrative like a novel, and I don't think we remember our lives like novels. We remember our lives like stories.
Exactly. Vignettes that we shape -- in our minds -- that often don't really have a lot to do with what really happened.
Yet the vignettes do make a story. They do make a narrative. And there are transitions that you don't talk about that we know are happening. It is a whole.
It is. There is an arc over the whole book and partly joined by the fact that it's a single narrator but they also do build on each other in quiet and -- I hope -- subtle but effective ways. You'll see that certain things and certain images recur through the length of the book.
Did you actually smuggle guns?
Hmmm. And was there actually a lion?
There wasn't a lion!
Of course there was a lion. But was there? I don't know. I was seven years old. This is partly what I'm trying to get at in the book. Whether there was or there wasn't, I can't ever answer that question because nobody else saw it. I'm convinced there was. I did see it. But that's my memory.
A metaphorical memory?
To me it's not. To me it's a literal one. But I know enough about memory and actuality to know that you can swear that things happened that in fact never happened. So...
There could have been a lion.
Yes. There certainly could. I've since read memoirs of people in the 20s. One woman talked of living in a hotel and having a pet panther. And in those countries... well, it would certainly have been possible.
When it comes to memory, it doesn't really matter if it's real or not. If it's real to you, and it affected you somehow...
Precisely. That's precisely my point. We don't absorb actuality. The actuality doesn't influence us. What influences us is what we remember. Our memory -- our weird minds -- you overlay an event with the color of your lipstick. Or the blue candle behind you. And the smell in the air. And my mind might layer that with something I've remembered reading in a book and then a bit of a dream and that can concoct a reality. All that stuff becomes layered in your mind, and that's what becomes real. So memory -- to me -- is like fiction. That's why I want to start from the premise of non-fiction and then play with the notion of memory as fiction. Because your memory is a closed world: it's only your world. And ultimately whatever has happened to you that exists in your mind is what you have to deal with. Not the actuality of what happens to you but what you have concocted.
The Faulkner quote that's at the beginning of the book, "Memory believes before knowing remembers." I think that's very true. I think the belief that you hold in memory is very strong. It's a visceral kind of knowing that is much deeper than the intellect. In the last story I go for a walk through the little village that I was in before I went to Brazil and where we lived afterwards for a few years. I walked through that town and I say the village shapeshifts as I pass. I see every house going through its metamorphosis. Every time I've visited the village, each visit is overlaid with the others. So that when you walk down the streets, you don't walk through what's really there, you walk through all of the things that were. All the becomings that you've witnessed.
And the other thing about it is that every time you retrieve a memory -- every time you tell one of those family stories -- it's shaped again because you don't retrieve even the whole of the memory. Even at that point your mind is selecting and layering and adding so that each retelling is further shaping the memory.
Within the arc of the book, the turning point is in the story "Taken for Delirium" and she realizes that it's -- in fact -- her life that she's living. It sounds really cliché, but coming to understand that is a really important phase of a person's life.
Was writing this book an emotional journey for you?
Because I didn't set out to write it start to finish it was more like being taken on a trip than going on one. Like, when I became obsessed with the lion and sort of sat down to focus in on that memory... each one of the stories was a journey, although I don't think I could say that the book as a whole was, because it was such a fractured one in the writing. It didn't have the cohesiveness that it has in the reading.
All of these careful thoughts about memory and thought process. All of this wonderful dabbling with palettes of words. Did your education prepare you for this particular road?
When I was in high school I had an interest in literature and was directed towards journalism. I didn't last very long in journalism because I chased my first fire engine and was told to interview the people as they were watching their house burn to the ground. And while I was extremely interested in watching them watch their house burn to the ground, I could not imagine talking to them and invading them like that.
I didn't actually get out of journalism, but when that happened I was working for the summer after first year university with The Stratford Beacon Herald and after that I asked to go off general assignments and to start working on the supplement that the newspaper published for the Stratford Festival. They did that for me and I started working for the festival, interviewing actors and that sort of thing. I decided I was going to become a theater critic. I switched out of journalism and got a degree in English and drama. So I sort of have a theater background in that respect. My husband was a sculptor and a painter and I became very involved in that. I think that some of that is sort of genetic: your interest in aesthetic concerns. I've always had a strong sense of that. Certainly the visual art thing was enhanced in that marriage. I've been a gardener since I was 12 or 13.
This is your 10th book?
Eleventh, actually. Ten and 11 are really the first literary works. Before that was sort of my apprenticeship. Practical non-fiction. Books that -- if you look at them -- you can see a lot of consistencies with what I'm doing now. Even with the book on soapmaking or the book on gardening or canoe building... in all of those books I always sort of sunk into the subject. Into its history. Into its past. I really wanted to know how people's experience coalesced around it. The dynamics of past experience and how it infiltrates the present -- that's always been a real interest. And I learned about research. A lot about mechanics. Cadences. And a lot about story. Real stories have always fascinated me. It is all of a piece. It is building towards the same end.
The Lion in the Room Next Door is a brave book. I mean, I think you needed to be brave to write it. I don't know if I would be able to encounter myself in that way.
You do have to be ruthless. To be a literary writer you have to be willing to cut really close to the bone. It felt more like a letting go rather than an act of bravery and picking something up. Being willing to go where the work takes you. I don't know how that relates to other writers but, for instance these stories; the last story is in four parts. I wrote them probably over a two-year period. The first part came to me in a second person voice. It's very odd. But it just came to me and I wrote it down exactly as it came to me. I thought that was the story. Then when I was reading it, I thought, "Oh. That's not the end of the story." And the second part came to me which was written in the third person: which is so weird. And I thought, "How can this be?" but I wrote it. That's what I mean by the willingness to let go of my assumptions of what a story should be or what a book should be or what a genre should be.
I feel really grateful, in a way, that I came out of the non-fiction world. I think that people who train themselves in fiction and then write it, maybe they're filled with assumptions of what form a story should take. Whereas I just sort of let the material teach me.
So, anyway, I wrote those two and I thought, "Now that's it: that's the story. A two-part story." And when I read that over about six months later there was a line. Just a little line. One line! Near the end of that story and I thought, "Well, that line has to go. It doesn't relate." And as I went to take it out, it's like it was telling me, "You can't get rid of me. You've got to let me breathe." And that line became the third part of the story.
I don't know if I can even describe the feeling of being inside the material and being so open to it. So alive to the material that you're sort of willing to walk where it wants you to walk.
So, if there's bravery, that's where it is. It's in this willingness to be open to this inanimate, abstract thing called a story in your head.
I hear so much passion from you about your work. So much excitement. Is this a growing thing for you? Something you're coming to?
Oh yes, I think so. Enormously. I'm now writing a novel. Which is so weird, again. I don't know how to do this. And the novel springs from two things. In the story "Taken for Delirium," there's a tiny little reference to my great-great-great grandmother who who came from Pittenweem, Scotland, where the movie The Winter Guest was shot. I read a line in a settler's diary when I was writing an essay on gun culture for Canadian Geographic on the differences between the culture of the gun in the United States and the culture of the gun in Canada. To do that essay I read all the settler's diaries in Canada that I could get my hands on to see how they mentioned their guns historically. I came across this one line that was not related to guns at all that I just haven't been able to let go of. And that's the novel.
So, it's historical?
Well, partly. It's set in Scotland and the Muskogas in 1860 and 1970. So it's partly historical, but it's also about this thing that's sort of been on my mind for a long time which is how the past infiltrates the present.
Where are you with that right now?
Not very far. [Laughs] I know the names of all the characters. I've got them into Canada, so I've written a chapter and a half. The Scots stuff is so interesting to me, because people have asked me why I have this fascination with landscape and the way we hold place in our heart. Place is so important to me. It's not like I'm homesick and long for one particular place. It's that whatever place I'm in becomes highly significant.
I've been reading some Celtish material about the Celt character. And when I use the word Celt I mean it broadly: the whole Celtic race. One of the sort of overriding features of those people is their connection to place and landscape. They didn't long for a past place. You'll find with Scots that come to Canada, they don't long for Scotland. They adopt a place and make it their own in a very physical way. The landscape is so important to them and they peopled the landscape. Their relationship to trees and the kind of symbology that they developed around trees and streams and hills. It's very profound.
Are you under contract to do that book?
Oh no: I wouldn't do that. Who knows what shape it will take? And I might toss it out. Who knows if it'll end up being what I think it is now? But I think it's good for writers to talk about process. If I had heard more about it earlier on I might have had the courage to drop some of my presumptions and assumptions and go with it. So I feel a real responsibility and a real desire to share process. I think it's really needed for people who want to write and are overcome by the school system's approach, which is to study a story or a novel according to its themes.
I always had this bizarre notion that to be a writer you had to have something important to say. First you have the theme, and then you figure out the story to articulate the theme. Which is, of course, entirely inaccurate. Writers never know what they're talking about. You write the story and the story has a meaning that even you don't know. What you have to always gauge is how deeply the story affects you. How much it gets into the universals of human experience. And if it has its clutches really deeply in you, it must have something.
You know, when I was flying over the prairies I had this thought. I've always thought writers are a lot like farmers because what we do is such an act of faith. And we're involved with nurturing a sort of magical thing which becomes bigger than you know. But I was watching as they were plowing, right? You fly over the prairies and you see a field with these perpendicular rows. Then the field beside it: horizontal rows. And the next field will be diagonal rows with these lovely burnished curves along the outside. Then there'll be one that's round. Overall they make this beautiful design and I think, what is this farmer in the field thinking? He's just going along his little line, trying to plow as straight as he can. He doesn't even know that he's part of this larger, grander pattern that you have to have a different perspective to see. I think that's what writing is like. You focus in on your little sentence and your little paragraph and try to choose your little word exactly right. Meanwhile it's really left to other people -- readers -- to discern the bigger pattern. That's why I love talking to people who have read the book. Because sometimes they see things that I haven't seen. | May 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of Death was the Other Woman.