Readers of Canadian Writers Abroad met Merilyn Simonds through Mexico, in her article, Reading Abroad, which was swiftly followed by a review of her novel, Refuge. In addition to living in Mexico, she’s lived in Brazil (four years of childhood), and travelled extensively in Greece and Sweden. She has published 20 books internationally, including The Holding (MClelland & Stewart, 2004), which was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, and the Canadian nonfiction novel, The Convict Lover (rpt. ECW Press, 2018), a finalist for the 1996 Governor General’s Award. In 2017, Project Bookmark Canada unveiled a plaque to honour the place of The Convict Lover in Canada’s literary landscape.
She is currently working on a novel set during the Zapatista war in Mexico and a book of personal essays called Still Life with Beth. She and her husband Wayne Grady divide the year between Kingston, Ontario and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
CWA: Where were you a decade ago?
Exactly ten years ago this morning, I was onstage at the San Miguel de Allende Writers’ Conference, a bilingual tricultural four-day literary event that takes place in a small city in the mountains at the geographic centre of Mexico.
For years, my friend and fellow author, Sandra Gulland, had been trying to lure me south to the historic town where they live half the year. I resisted, propped up by preconceptions — Mexico was dangerous, and worse, San Miguel was packed with gringo ex-pats — until the festival invitation arrived. That morning a decade ago, I was presenting a keynote address called “A Writer’s Place.” I talked about quests — the movement from one place to another in search of wisdom — a deeply embedded theme in world literature. I explored the way stories, an individual’s personal story as well as the stories we write, move across time and place, the longitude and latitude of literature and life.
CWA: Is place important to your work?
The week before I arrived in San Miguel de Allende, I was onstage with American poet Tess Gallagher, who said something I hold to be true: “Art happens at the moment when you are unseated.”
Few things are more unseating than moving to a new place, where nothing is familiar, the senses raised to high alert. I have moved a lot in my life: to Brazil as a child, which became the springboard for The Lion in the Room Next Door; to northern Ontario, where the seeds were planted for The Holding; to Kingston where I found the letters that became The Convict Lover; to Mexico where I now live half the year, the inspiration for Refuge.
Every book I’ve written has in some way been an exploration of the questions I posed first in Lion: “What was it that made a person love a place? That made them seek it out? That made them leave the place they were born to and strike out into the unknown?”
Even in A New Leaf, ostensibly a book about the making of a garden, I poke at the notion of place: “You may choose whom you spend your day with, who sits down to share your meal, who comes to your bed at night, but there is no choosing love. It erupts wild, in inappropriate places, where it must know it can never grow, though it does, defiantly, without care for whether it is needed, or useful, or desired, until it is part of your landscape, whether you like it or not.” Perhaps “place” is not the right word. Through the writing of The Holding and A New Leaf, I kept a poem by Octavio Paz propped on my desk, with the lines “A garden is not a place: it is a passage, a passion.” Perhaps that is what a writer’s place is: a passage, a passion.
CWA: What are you working on now?
When I was coming of age as a writer, many Canadians didn’t consider their country a source for significant stories. It was a Uruguayan, Eduardo Galeano, and a Columbian, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who taught me by example to look to my own history and to my physical place for inspiration.
My new book, Woman, Watching: Louise de Kiriline Lawrence and the Songbirds of Pimisi Bay, is a hybrid memoir/biography of one of Canada’s most accomplished and fascinating mid-century amateur ornithologists and nature writers. I knew Louise in the last years of her life; our forests were only a few kilometres apart as a bird flies. Before Louise died in 1992, she asked me to be her biographer. I couldn’t imagine how to write such a book until a few years ago, when I began migrating to Mexico to pass the winters in the company of the birds that raised their families in our Canadian woods. The birds circled me back to Louise.
I am in San Miguel now, putting the final touches on Woman, Watching, which will be released in May. I look up from my laptop at the wonder tree that flames as brightly as the wonder tree that I move outside my Kingston house in summer. Broad-billed hummingbirds probe the bougainvillea here, just as the ruby-throats thrust their bills into the crocosmia there.
These places seem so alike, yet they reliably unseat me twice a year, prompting the explorations that will become books.
- Book launch, national and virtual, for Woman, Watching, 6:00 PM Eastern at Eventbrite.
- Project Bookmark Canada.
- Merilyn Simonds on digital technology in Quill and Quire (22 Feb. 2017).
- Publisher’s Weekly review of Woman, Watching.
- Michael Harris review of Gutenberg’s Fingerprint, The Globe and Mail (7 April 2017).
- Brief 2005 review of The Holding in Kirkus.
- Review of The Lion in the Room Next Door, Q&Q 1999.
- Audiobook of Woman, Watching at Tantor.
- Karen Wood interviews Merilyn Simonds (19 October 2021).
- The Paris Review interview with Octavio Paz.
Header photo of orioles and finches wintering in Mexico by Rodrigo López.
Author photo of Merilyn Simonds by Wayne Grady.