‘The memoir is always there’

It’s been a year of upheaval for everyone, but 2020 has been particularly poignant for author and occasional Halifax Magazine contributor Marjorie Simmins.

In June, her husband Silver Donald Cameron died from complications arising from cancer. Even as she tried to deal with losing her sweetheart, best friend, and “first reader,” Simmins worked to promote his final book, Blood in the Water, and launch her latest, Memoir: Conversations and Craft.

“I’m doing fine,” she says. “Sort of. Kind of. It’s been flat out since May. That’s good and that’s bad. It keeps me focused on getting things done. It’s because when I stop and realize how life has changed, I don’t do so well… A lot of the time is spent on estate matters. It’s like I’m now the president of the company in addition all the work related to my own writing.”

It would be a challenging time to promote Memoir: Conversations and Craft even in a normal year. “I’ve never had a book come out in a pandemic before,” Simmins says. “I thought if I just worked harder than usual I’d achieve what I wanted. This book hasn’t had the fair shake I’d like to see it have—no launches, no events. Just Marjorie hollering on a hilltop in Cape Breton.”

Fortunately, the Cape Breton Writers Festival was able to have a few pandemic-safe events this year, giving her a much-craved opportunity to connect in person with readers. “And dammit they wanted to hear people read good books,” she says. “There are certain bits in the book that read aloud well—almost performance pieces.”

Marjorie Simmins and Silver Donald Cameron. Photo: Facebook

Simmins stresses that anyone who appreciates the printed word will find value in her book. “It’s not just for somebody burning with memoir,” she says. “It’s for people who have respect for those writers, who want to know more about a genre that is ever changing… It’s for any reader who loves to read about life stories.”

The book is chockablock with encouragement and insight for new memoirists, but it’s also a compelling read for any student of the human condition. Underpinning the book are long candid interviews with writers like Linden MacIntyre, Donna Morrissey, and Lawrence Hill.

“It’s a serious book on memoir,” she explains. “People are really responding well to the interviews. These are wonderful writers. I’m very proud of those interviews. They’re candid, detailed… It took two years to write but you might as well say 25. I drew on all the years of teaching and putting on workshops, which I hope to resume in 2021. “

Simmins celebrates the art of interviewing. “People tend to say things to me very openly,” she says. “I present that way myself. If you’re decent enough, you get the trust factor going… The first time I sent the rough interview to Linden [MacIntyre], he was a bit shaken: ‘My goodness, I was open with you that day.’ And Lawrence Hill is such a gentleman.”

The common thread connecting the interviewees is the respect Simmins has for them. “Maybe I was phenomenally lucky,” she adds. “We were strangers sitting down and talking very frankly. Donna Morrisey and I had too much fun.… She was coming to memoir after six or seven novels. It was interesting to see someone of that caliber of fiction writing coming to memoir at that point. She was struggling with some of the things I try to teach.”

The memoir is one of the most-read genres in Western literature, a broader category than many realize.

“One of my favourite subcategories of memoir is hybrid,” Simmins says. “The book may contain different genres within it. [My memoir] Coastal Lives punctuates narrative with essay. Some combine poetry, maps, graphics. There’s as much individuality as there is with people. It’s not quite the same with the fiction. Memoir takes you places you ordinarily don’t get to go, explains, and gives context. “

In the early days of the pandemic lock down, lots of people smugly said things like “Now you have no excuse to not finish your book.” Simmins’s view is more that any time is the right time.

“The material for a memoir is always there,” she says. “You won’t be able to write about really difficult things early on; you have to sit with things for a while, gain perspective. But COVID has given some people time they didn’t have before, to get started on their writing. It’s always the time to write, it’s always the time to create. We also tend to write more in difficult times, or start writing, period, because we’re uneasy, and seek the comfort of writing down stories.”

And next on the horizon is her book Somebeachsomewhere, due for release in spring 2021. It’s the story of the acclaimed Truro racehorse of the same name that set the world record for the fastest mile for a three-year-old in harness racing history. Beach won 20 of 21 races, set multiple records, and sired multiple other champions.

“I completed it just as Don got ill,” Simmins recalls. “It’s the only book I’ve written that he hasn’t read… Looking forward to that coming out and building on it. It’s the perfect next step for me. The horse world is something I love and this one is going to be published in the U.S. and Australia. I think it’s going to change the game for me.”

After a year of dramatic change and devastating loss, Simmins takes life day by day.

“The best I can, I’m looking to the future in a positive way,” she says. “It’s very strange to be Marjorie without Don. It’s a chilly world but Don stays close to me. One of the great joys of our lives was writing together… Every time Don opened his mouth I learned something. I’ll see where this goes. The worst case is I learn something else. The best case is that my heart starts to heal.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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