In 1987, Merilyn Simonds happened upon a cache of letters, albums, and clippings in the attic of her house in Kingston, Ontario. Among the overflowing boxes and stuffed sugar sacks was a collection of letters from the months immediately after the First World War. It was a one-way correspondence, often scratched in pencil on what looked like toilet paper – 79 letters, some of them 25 pages long, written by a prisoner in Kingston Penitentiary to a young girl who lived on the outskirts of Portsmouth village, on the brink of a prison quarry where convicted men broke stone ten hours a day, doing hard time.
Joseph Cleroux was a thief and a con artist, incarcerated in the country’s most notorious prison, a young man determined that jail would not break or tame him. Phyllis Halliday was a seventeen-year-old school girl who fell under the spell of someone she could never meet or touch, except through their clandestine correspondence. He called himself Daddy-long-legs, she called herself Peggy. Their letters allowed them both to escape the confines of their lives, although the risk entailed in that taste of freedom increased as Joe asked more and more of Phyllis and conditions inside the prison deteriorated. William St. Pierre Hughes was superintendent of the nation’s penitentiaries at the time, a reformer out of favour with his political masters. His fate, like Joe’s and Phyllis’s, was bound to the conspiracies inside Kingston Penitentiary, conspiracies that eventually erupted into the first riot in Canadian penal history.
Joe Cleroux’s letters are reproduced in full, laced together with the story of Pegggy and Daddy-long-legs, set against the stark backdrop of Kingston penitentiary and the village of Portsmouth, a community so in thrall to the prison that it seeped into everyday life. More than a haunting passage through the world of convicted man, The Convict Lover is a compelling journey into the hearts of real people, each caught in a prison, only one of whom escapes.
The Convict Lover was originally published by Macfarlane, Walter & Ross (Canada) in April 1996 to enthusiastic reviews and immediately became a national bestseller.
It was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction and the Arthur Ellis Award for Nonfiction and won a Talking Book of the Year Award. It was named one of the best books of 1996 by The Globe & Mail, Quill & Quire Magazine, Elm Street Magazine, and Maclean’s Magazine.
In 1997, the book was adapted for the stage and workshopped in a production at the Grand Theatre in Kingston, Ontario, directed by Layne Coleman and starring Deborah Hay and Christopher Morris. In 1998, it premiered in Toronto at Theatre Passe-Muraille, where it played to sell-out audiences. In February 2016, Hot House, a play inspired by The Convict Lover and written by Canadian playwright, Judith Thompson, premiered at Theatre Kingston.
In 2017, exactly thirty years after Merilyn discovered the convict’s letters in her attic, Project Bookmark Canada erected a plaque in Portsmouth’s Garrigan Park—the site of the old Kingston Penitentiary quarry—to honour the place of The Convict Lover in Canada’s literary landscape.
In 2018, after 22 years in print, ECW Press released a new BackLit edition of The Convict Lover, with an introduction by Merilyn Simonds and an updated epilogue.
“A tour de force. Simonds’ prose is alluring, her historical detective work is flawless…what makes The Convict Lover soar off the page, though, is Simonds’ ability to probe into the psyches of real people, and to find there imaginative truth.”
–Sandra Gwyn, The Globe and Mail
Available from independent booksellers in the United States and Canada.CONTACT MERILYN NOVEL IDEA
This collection of eleven linked stories dances the line between fiction and memoir, crystallizing moments from one woman’s life as she travels through childhood, marriage, and motherhood to the true love that sometimes comes after.
Each tale coalesces around a landscape, distinctly lush and evocative, where episodes from a life are transformed into moments of universal significance. In the title story, a child inhabits her own private realm within a maze of corridors and rooms in a hotel in Brazel where she comes to recognize the truth of what she has heard – even if it is a lion rumbling down the hallway in the night, even if her mother tells her it can’t possibly be so. In “The Blue of the Madrugada,” the girl grows into a wilful young woman and discovers the complexities of love by the light of blue candles. In “Taken for Delirium,” amid the revolving seasons and nature’s endless regeneration of the Ontario woods, the woman and her husband cope as their marriage falters. And in “The Still Point,” the young wife and mother, in a Mexican landscape mysterious with unexplained occurences, breaks free of her bonds.
The stories in The Lion in the Room Next Door test the boundaries of literary prose, unfolding like memory itself in sharply etched images. The narrative is potent with remembered pasts, fragments of myth and dream, and the magic within the mundane. As the heroine travels through exotic landscapes, she struggles to find her own way through the terrain of her heart.
The Lion in the Room Next Door was published in Canada in April 1999 to universally enthusiastic reviews and appeared on all national bestseller lists.
The following year it was published in Great Britain by Bloomsbury, in the United States by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, and in Germany as Der Lowe in Zimmer nebenan by btb.
Curiously, the book was published as nonfiction in Canada and as short fiction in both the United Kingdom and the United States.
“Written with delicacy and grace, illuminating both the nature of memory and the kind of work fiction can perform. It is a great pleasure to read Merilyn Simonds.”
–Hilary Mantel, author of Wolfe Hall
The Holding is the story of two women, Alyson Thomson and Margaret MacBayne, who leave all that is familiar to live a life of their own making in a rugged clearing in the Madawaska hills of eastern Ontario. Margaret MacBayne arrives from Pittenweem, Scotland, with her brothers in 1859. A hundred and thirty years later, Alyson escapes from the city to the abandoned MacBayne farmstead with her lover, Walker Freeman, a self-absorbed, reclusive ceramist. Both women leave the ghosts of their pasts behind, and in the isolation of the forest, find a controlled and satisfying existence, cultivating their gardens, making a place for themselves in the shadow of ambitious, constrained men.
Told in alternating chapters, Margaret’s harrowing tale of life alone in the Bush interweaves with Alyson’s in mysterious, disturbing ways. When Alyson becomes pregnant, tensions in her relationship with Walker seep to the surface, threatening the careful shape of her days. The death of her infant daughter while she struggles alone during an ice storm unhinges Alyson altogether. For weeks she wanders in the woods, unable to forgive what is past, unable to find a bearing that will lead her forward. One day, deep in the forest at the far boundary of their land, she stumbles on the collapsed remains of a pioneer cabin, all but hidden in the underbrush. Concealed between the logs, she finds an old cookery book and scribbled on its last pages, a story that comes to parallel Alyson’s own. The narrative moves with heightening tension between past and present, illuminating the lives of two women who occupy the same place, more than a century apart.
The Holding is an intimate journey of discovery into the things we keep most guarded, whose truths often lie in unexpected places. Taut, psychologically complex, richly told in language steeped in exotic vocabulary from the natural world, The Holding speaks straight to the heart of what matters most.
The Holding was published in hardcover in Canada by McClelland & Stewart in April 2004. The paperback was published in the spring of 2005.
W.W. Norton released The Holding in the United States this fall to enthusiastic reviews. Sue Halpren wrote in the New York Times: “Simonds is a careful, evocative writer, able to tease out colors from an overcast sky, to find depth in shadows.” The following week, The Holding was selected an Editor’s Choice book.
btb Verlag published The Holding in Germany in the spring of 2006. That summer, btb published an anthology of short fiction titled Seventeen Women Undress a Man, which includes a story by Merilyn Simonds called “Miss You Already.” The story was published in English in the November 2006 issue of Walrus Magazine and is now available as a one-story eBook.
Merilyn Simonds and her garden were featured in the “BackTalk” section of the August, 2005 issue of Gardening Life Magazine.
“Seductive, compelling, The Holding takes us on a haunting journey into the wilds of both the land and the heart. Merilyn Simonds’ cystalline prose is exquisitely crafted – spare, evocative, wise. I was swept away.”
–Sandra Gulland, author of Mistress of the Sun
Available from independent booksellers in the United States and Canada.AMAZON.CA AMAZON.CO.UK INDIGO
Part travelogue, part exploration—a road trip into the reality behind the cultural myth that is America.
Breakfast at the Exit Café begins as a personal story–told in alternating voices by two veteran writer/travellers–of a road trip from British Columbia around the southern rim of the United States, back to their home in southeastern Ontario. It soon becomes a journey of discovery. For Wayne, who was born across the river from Detroit, Michigan, and whose forebears were slaves who came to Canada in the 1870s, it was a journey into fear – the fear of racism, of violence – and into his own family roots in the American Deep South. For Merilyn, who grew up a lonely Canadian in the American School of Campinas, Brazil, it was a journey into the ex-pat promised land, the nation of the American Dream.
Simonds and Grady travel backwards through history, from California, the last frontier of American westward expansion, to the earliest founding settlements of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Roanoke, North Carolina. In pondering the natural splendours of the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River and the Mississippi, the bayous of Louisiana, and the Outer Banks, they consider the impact of physical geography on culture and of culture on the landscape. The Americans they meet along the way–eating in restaurants, manning motel offices, waiting in line for the Martin Luther King Day parade–illuminate a country dissolving in the grip of the final years of the Bush administration, and inspire them to reassess their–and our–assumptions about that powerful and complicated country.
As serendipitous as the trip itself, Breakfast at the Exit Café is told with wit and acuity and frequent side trips into fascinating nooks of history, geography, literature. Part travelogue, part exploration, part mid-winter love story, this is a journey into the heart of the next-door neighbour we thought we knew.
“Like the great travel writers before them, Grady and Simonds entertain and enlighten in a foreign yet familiar world–a brilliant road trip I didn’t want to end.”
–Joseph Boyden, author of Three Day Road
“What, for me, pushed the book from merely really good to sublime were those twinned voices. The things they discovered were secondary for me. I would follow them on any journey. I’d like to listen to the two of them talk all day”.–Linda L. Richards
Available from independent booksellers in the United States and Canada.AMAZON.CA AMAZON.COM INDIGO
A graceful and sharply observed book of inspiration that uses the garden as its central muse.
A New Leaf traces a year of growing seasons at The Leaf, Merilyn Simonds’ acreage in eastern Ontario. A lifelong gardener, Simonds works the soil and the soul for wide-ranging revelations about everything from flowers that keep time, to the strange gift of compost, to great gardens of the world, to things lost and found underground.
She is joined on her journey by a host of companions – including her Beloved, who tills by her side; the Rosarian, who tends to both bud and thorn in roses and life; and the Frisarian, who weeds unwelcome visitors to make room for new growth. Intelligent and intimate, irreverent and elegant, A New Leaf offers a cornucopia of enrichment and inspiration for the fertile mind.
“Like stories passed friend to friend, these wise, funny, colourful pieces enrich our understanding of plants, landscapes and life. A book to grow by, and share.”
–Sarah Harmer, singer-songwriter
Available from independent booksellers in the United States and Canada.AMAZON.CA AMAZON.COM AMAZON.CO.UK INDIGO
What is a garden? A yearning to bring nature close? Or a bid for total control?
The Paradise Project explores in 17 short-short stories the human response to the planted world. Meet the minor diplomat who populates the earth with his lurid purple-fruited plant; the woman encased in a circling bower; the artist who paints a garden for love; the writer who adds a goldfish to a stranger’s sidewalk idyll; the couple who contentedly care for a father’s garden until Will comes along. Erotic, exotic, suffused with startling colour and heady scent, grounded in dark shadows and decomposing duff, The Paradise Project ensures you will never look at gardens the same way again.
Originally published in 2012 in a limited edition by book artist Hugh Barclay of Thee Hellbox Press, hand typeset and printed with endpapers made by paper artist Emily Cook from plants in the author’s gardens. Now released as an eBook featuring the original block prints by Erik Mohr.
“A book unlike any other, a rarity in the publishing world.” Ashleigh Gehl
Gutenberg’s Fingerprint trolls the past, present, and evolving future of the book in search of an answer. Part memoir and part philosophical and historical exploration, the book finds its muse in Hugh Barclay, who produces gorgeous books on a hand-operated antique letterpress. As Simonds works alongside this born-again Gutenberg, and with her sons to develop digital and audio editions of her flash-fiction stories, The Paradise Project, her assumptions about reading, writing, the nature of creativity, and the value of imperfection are toppled.
All her life, Cass MacCallum has flung herself at opportunity with little thought of consequence, travelling to Mexico, New York, and Montreal, first as a nurse-companion to Frida Kahlo, then as a photographer, a witness to the twentieth century’s pivotal moments of change. Still fiercely independent at 96, she has created a sanctuary for herself on a tiny island behind the farm where she was born and where she intends to live out her days.
She is surviving well enough, alone on her island, when a young Burmese woman contacts her, claiming to be kin. Curiosity, loneliness, and a slender filament of hope prompt Cass to accept a visit.
But Nang’s story of torture and flight provokes memories in the old woman that peel back, layer by layer, the events that brought her to this moment—and forces her, against her will, to confront the tragedy she has refused for half a century.
What does she owe this girl, who claims to be stateless because of her MacCallum blood? Drawn, despite herself, into Nang’s search for refuge, Cass struggles to accept the past and find a way into whatever future remains to her.
The following stories were published in various magazines and anthologies in Canada and Europe, but have never been gathered in a collection.
A whimsical, provocative romp through a woman’s life with penises.
Originally published in the anthology In the Flesh, edited by Lynne van Luven and Kathy Page, Brindle & Glass (2012).
I didn’t know what to expect. Not a pale, soft snail curled on a taut peach (peach because of the cleft, though it looked more like a rubber ball, it was that exact dull pink, the texture rough).
Want to see? he said and pulled wide the waistband of his shorts.
We were sitting cross-legged, face to face in the white hammock under the guava tree. (White, under that old fruit tree? Wouldn’t there have been stains?)
Now show me yours, he said…
On the sudden death of her husband, Mary Ann sells her worldly possessions and sets off to visit seven people she has never met.
Originally published in the anthology Seventeen Women Undress a Man, published in Germany (2005) and in The Netherlands (2007), this story was published in Dutch in Vrij Nederland (2006) and in English in The Walrus (2005), where it won the Silver Award for Fiction at the National Magazine Awards.
Mary Ann didn’t think she would want the casket open. But when the funeral director led her in and she saw David’s body lying there, he looked relaxed, almost happy, and the thought of lowering the lid on him seemed wrong somehow.
“Leave it, he looks good,” she said…
Following the death of an uncle, a woman moves through a CT scanner to the brink of her own mortality.
Originally published in Going Some Place: Creative Nonfiction Across Canada, edited by Lynne Van Luven, Coteau Books (2000).
Beep. Take a breath and hold it.
That is all.
Beep. Take a breath and hold it.
That is all.
Beep. Take a breath and hold it.
The machine gives the command and I obey, sucking in air as if through a straw. But have I taken in enough? My lungs are so full they quiver. Perhaps I have taken too much.
It is in my nature to follow orders, though lately, I find compliance troublesome…