Kingston’s writing community

Kingston author Merilyn Simonds discusses the writing scene in the Limestone City

Kingston’s location and culture make it an ideal community for writers, local author says.
Kingston’s location and culture make it an ideal community for writers, local author says.

“Dynamic. No, I don’t like that. Compelling ... no, see that’s not quite it …”

Merilyn Simonds, author of nine non-fiction books and finalist for the 1996 Governor General’s Literary Award, mulled over how best to describe Kingston’s literary culture in a single word. Otherwise effortlessly eloquent, Simonds sighed lightheartedly and instead settled for a single phrase.

“Personally, I find it endlessly intriguing,” she said.

Simonds said while Kingston has gained a two dimensional reputation for having nothing but schools and prisons, it actually has a fairly unique demographic, which is precisely what has made it so appealing as a literary setting and home for writers.

“Kingston is not just an upper middle class town, it has a raw side as well. It has a broad mix of economic realities, and I think that’s a more comfortable place for writers to be,” she said. “[Writers] are interested in a broad spectrum. Judith Thompson wrote The Crackwalker here, Kate Stern [wrote Thinking About Margritte]. They are both writing about a very different part of Kingston.”

Thompson’s 1980 play The Crackwalker tells the story of two impoverished couples trying to make it in Kingston, while Stern’s Thinking About Magritte, written in 1992, takes place in “Limestone”, a town where the prisons, a mental hospital and university are all interchangeable in appearance. Simonds said she first moved to Kingston to be closer to her job. She’s since left her job, but has found reason to stay in Kingston.

“It was a complete terra incognita for me and most of the people I know came in a similar way,” she said. “Especially in the last 20 years, Kingston was not as expensive as Toronto but still very cultural.”

Simonds set her 1996 book, The Convict Lover, in Kingston. The Convict Lover is a national bestseller and Simonds’ most renowned non-fiction novel.

A cache of old letters and dusty memorabilia that she found in the attic of her Kingston home formed the raw material for the book. The letters lace together the correspondence between a convict at Kingston Penitentiary and a young village girl. It’s a story that couldn’t be told without Kingston as a backdrop.

“It shows the kind of true stories that are here,” Simonds said.

Although the realities and dynamics of Kingston have changed over time, it seems that this small Ontario town has always been a unique environment for literary inspiration. Grant Allan, who was born on Wolfe Island and lived there until he was 13, was a well known science writer and novelist. Grant wrote crime novels and was friends with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Wolfe Island Scene of the Crime Mystery Writing Festival was created in his honor. Canada’s first novel, St. Ursula’s Convent, or The Nun of Canada, written by Julia Catherine Beckwith Hart, was printed and published here in 1824, and The Cook Not Mad, Canada’s first cookbook, was published here in 1931.

Another Kingston writer, the late poet Bronwen Wallace, has an award named in her honor for unpublished authors under the age of 35, funded in part by the Writers Trust of Canada.

Simonds, the chair and artistic director of Kingston WritersFest, said the vibrant literary community might be one of the reasons so many writers are drawn to Kingston. “You want to be in a place where there’s a community,” she said. “Writers are pretty individual and solitary. They don’t necessarily hang out a lot together, but at least your community is here, people who talk the same language.”

Kingston is host to several annual literary festivals and youth projects designed to promote awareness for local, national and international authors in Kingston. Annual events like WritersFest in September and The Scene of the Crime Mystery Writing Festival in August help to perpetuate a flow of outsider influence. The events also work parallel with local institutions to channel and cultivate emerging young voices.

Even before the festivals got started, Kingston was a literary hub, attracting visitors like Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. Simonds said Kingston encompasses a best of both worlds scenario geographically. The town lies almost equal distance between Montreal and Toronto—Canada’s hubs of metropolitan culture—but maintains characteristics similar to smaller towns, which has always appealed to the creative minds of writers.

“You are on the border and you are on the lake, so there is a sense of openness and dynamic nature to Kingston that you don’t necessarily find in other places that are kind of landlocked,” she said. “There is a real sense of mobility and of change. The landscape is very beautiful.”

Homegrown Lit

As the temperature continues to fall and the sweaters get thicker, outdoor activities seem like less and less of a good idea, so why not cosy up indoors with a book set in our very own city of Kingston? These books all have very close ties to Kingston, with many of the authors having close ties to the city and using Kingston (or a fictionalized version of it) as their primary setting.

One Bird’s Choice (2010) by Iain Reid
Iain wrote this memoir about being forced to move back to his parents’ hobby farm in Kingston as he tries to get back on his feet. What seems like a major setback for the educated yet unemployed twenty-something turns out to be quite the learning experience as Iain “finds himself fighting the farm fowl, taking fashion advice from the elderly, fattening up on a gluttonous fare of home-cooked food, and ultimately easing ... into the semi-retired, rural lifestyle.”

The Salterton Trilogy [Tempest-Tost (1951), Leaven Malice (1954), A Mixture of Frailties (1958)] by Robertson Davies
Written by one of Canada’s most popular and well-known authors, The Salterton Trilogy focuses on the various residents of the fictional town of Salteron, ON, which was heavily inspired by Kingston. Readers are shown events through the eyes of a Shakespearean theatrical group and a beautiful girl who is given an unexpected chance to chase her dreams and witness a wedding conspiracy involving feuding families and a town newspaper. Be sure to take this one in nice and slowly, for as Davies writes in A Mixture of Frailties, “art is wine and experience is the brandy we distill from it.”

Written In Stone: A Kingston Reader (1993), edited by Mary Alice Downie
If you prefer shorter pieces, Written in Stone: A Kingston Reader may be for you. Downie, who loved Kingston so much that she packed up her life and family to move here from Pittsburgh, compiled a collection of Kingston’s finest works. The book is a prose and poetry anthology that chronicles many the musings of authors that have lived in or written about Kingston. It is comprised of poems, travel writings, memoirs, drama and fiction by authors like Steven Heighton, Samuel de Champlain, Matt Cohen, Kate Sterns, Tom Marshall, Michael Ondaatje and many more.

Thinking About Magritte (1992) by Kate Sterns
Born in Toronto but raised in Kingston, Kate Sterns’ debut novel was set in the fictional city of Limestone, an obvious reference to Kingston’s nickname, the Limestone City. If you can find a copy of Thinking About Magritte, you’ll be in for some quirky and interesting characters. This surreal book will certainly get you thinking.

The Crackwalker (1980) by Judith Thompson
Judith Thompson worked in Kingston as a social worker and through the real life people she interacted with, she began to develop the main character of the play that would become The Crackwalker. This play is not one for the light of heart. Known as one of the most tragic Canadian plays ever written, the town and characters are so vividly written that the reader can’t help but feel moved by the characters’ experiences.

Andrew Ha

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