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Merilyn Simonds is the author of seventeen books, including the creative nonfiction classic, The Convict Lover, a finalist for the Governor General’s Award and inspiration for Judith Thompson’s recent play, Hot House; an internationally acclaimed collection of autobiographical stories, The Lion in the Room Next Door; a bestselling novel, The Holding; a travel memoir, Breakfast at the Exit Café co-written with her husband Wayne Grady; and a collection of personal essays, A New Leaf. Her work is published and anthologized internationally.
In 2012, she released a flash-fiction collection, The Paradise Project, in both a hand-printed letterpress edition and as a digital book. The experience of helping to produce both versions inspired Gutenberg’s Fingerprint: Paper, Pixels & the Lasting Impression of Books, an exploration of the past, present and future of the objects we call “book,” trolling the history, the myths and inventions, and her own 40 years as a writer to discover the truth about the digital shift and how we read today.
Alberto Manguel, author of A History of Reading, calls Gutenberg’s Fingerprint, “a wise love letter to the printed page, as trustworthy as paper and as true as ink.”
Reviewers have called her work, “Beautifully wrought, emotionally complex.” “Stories so solid they seem sculpted, yet so delicate they remain full of mystery.” “The observation of the details of life are Chekhovian in their accuracy.” Susan Halpren, writing in the New York Times, where The Holding was selected an Editor’s Choice, says, “Simonds is a careful, evocative writer, able to tease out colors from an overcast sky, to find depth in shadows.”
Stories have been part of my life forever. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t read, and I hardly remember a time when I didn’t write.
I wrote my first book in the late 1970s on the Smith-Corona portable typewriter I bought when I set off for university, my rosy-lensed stepping-stone to literary fame and fortune. I wrote my second book on my son’s Commodore 64. Since then, my books have taken shape first in notebooks then on various iterations of an Apple computer.
I have always been an early adopter.
Although I don’t love change, it interests me. I am part of the last generation to grow up in a world where books were made of paper, where writing meant moving a pen or pencil through the cursive alphabet, and publishing involved big companies with big machines. I’ve watched the digital revolution replace paper with pixels, pencils with electronic keyboards, publishers with the ability to produce our own books.
Gutenberg described his new invention as Kunst und Aventur–Art and Enterprise–and although his moveable-type printing press is now sidelined by the digital paradigm shift, Art and Enterprise, I believe, still prevail in literature.
I am a lifelong writer. I am a past Chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada where I was neck-deep in issues vital to book-writers. And I am the founding artistic director of Kingston WritersFest, where I spoke with thousands of readers every year.
From this intersection, I’ve watched readers and writers adapt to seismic changes in the literary landscape. I’ve published books in a way that Gutenberg would have recognized, I’ve self-published my own ebooks, and I’ve cheered each time I discover some entirely new way of writing and of getting stories into the hands of readers.
Because, in the end, what matters are stories—stories that we’ve been telling each other, in one form or another, for as long as we’ve lived.
Merilyn Simonds was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, spent her childhood in Brazil, and came of age in a small town in southwestern Ontario. She began as a freelance journalist, publishing nine nonfiction books and scores of magazine articles on subjects ranging from the environment to soap–making, from art and architecture to war.
With the release of The Convict Lover in 1996, she became nationally known as a literary writer, exploring the zone where fact and fiction meet. Now considered a classic in Canadian creative nonfiction, The Convict Lover was nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction and was chosen as one of the top ten nonfiction books of 1996 by the Globe and Mail, Quill & Quire Magazine, Elm Street Magazine and Maclean’s. It was translated into Chinese, Japanese, and German, and in 1997, was adapted for the stage by the Kingston Summer Theatre Festival, premiering at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto in the fall of 1998. In 2016, it was inspiration for the Judith Thompson play Hot House, commissioned by Theatre Kingston.
The Lion in the Room Next Door, Simonds’ collection of linked, autobiographical stories, was published in 1999 to critical acclaim and like The Convict Lover, became a national bestseller. The following year, it was released by Bloomsbury in England, G.P. Putnam’s Sons in the United States and btb Verlag in Germany.
The Holding, her first novel, was published in 2004 and spent five months on the Canadian Booksellers’ Association bestseller list. Published in the United States the following year, it was selected a New York Times Book Review “Editor's Choice.” The novel appeared in Germany in 2007.
In 2005, her short story “Miss You Already” was published in Germany, the Netherlands, and Canada, where it was nominated for a National Magazine Award. Her short fiction has been anthologized internationally and was included in a special 2009 issue of Journal of the Americas on Canadian literature and art.
In 2010, she published Breakfast at the Exit Café: Travels in America, a travel memoir co-written with her husband, Wayne Grady. Selected a Globe 100 best book of 2010, Joseph Boyden called it “a brilliant road trip I never wanted to end.”
In the spring of 2009, Simonds launched a weekly blog— frugalistagardener.com—which was published in March 2011 as A New Leaf: Growing with my Garden. In 2012, she published The Paradise Project, a collection of flash fiction hand-typeset, hand-printed on a 19th century printing press, with end papers made from plant material gathered from her gardens. At the same time, she worked with her son Erik Mohr to produce The Paradise Project, two out-of-print books and five original stories, as ebooks.
The experience of working in both letterpress and digital media provoked an investigation of books and reading that became Gutenberg’s Fingerprint: Paper, Pixels & the Lasting Impression of Books, which will be published in spring, 2017.
Simonds has edited two anthologies: A Literary Companion to Gardens (2008) and A Literary Companion to the Night (2009). She has been writer–in–residence at Green College, University of British Columbia, and at the Whistler Vicious Circle. She writes a monthly column, AboutBooks, in the Kingston Whig Standard. She has taught creative writing at Kwantlen University, was adjunct professor in the Optional Residency MFA in Creative Writing program at UBC, and now privately mentors writers working in both fiction and creative nonfiction. In 2009, with a team of dedicated volunteers, she founded Kingston WritersFest and as Artistic Director, shaped a world-class festival, that draws an audience of 10,000. The Festival has set up the Merilyn Simonds Protégé Project in honour of her work mentoring young writers. She served as Chair of The Writers Union of Canada in 2012-2013 and currently serves on the Board of Directors of McGill-Queen’s Press.
In September 2015, Simonds adapted the Alice Munro short story “Dear Life” into a foundational text and script for a symphony by Zosha di Castri, commissioned by Alexander Shelley, the incoming musical director of the Canadian National Arts Centre Orchestra, with voice recording by Shakespearean actress Martha Henry, soprano voice by Erin Wall, photography by Larry Towell, media production by Turbine, and creative direction by Donna Feore of the Stratford Festival. In March, 2016, Simonds’ essay “Where do you think you are?” was published in The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro, published by Cambridge University Press.
Her forthcoming books include a novel, Refuge, to be released in fall, 2018. And an anniversary edition of The Convict Lover to commemorate 30 years since the finding of the letters at the heart of this classic tale. In fall, 2017, Bookmark Canada will install a plaque to commemorate the place of The Convict Lover in Canada’s literary landscape.
Merilyn Simonds lives with writer and translator Wayne Grady, dividing her time between Kingston, Ontario, and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.