Whig Standard – 25 June 2011

by MERILYN SIMONDS in the Whig Standard 25 Jun 2011

Laurie Lewis could be the poster girl for the older woman. Not only does she look at least 20 years younger than her 80 years, but here she is, making her publishing debut at an age when we’ve been led to believe we should be shutting down, tuning out, taking up some mindless, harmless entertainment such as tatting or tole painting.

Laurie laughs at the suggestion. “It was Betty Friedan who said that people have never lived this long before so it’s up to us to invent how it’s done. We get to decide what it’s going to be like to be 80, 90, a hundred and 10.”

Tomorrow, this dynamic woman will launch her first book, Little Comrades, a memoir about her years growing up in a dysfunctional prairie family that helped lead the Canadian Communists through the Dirty Thirties — a collection of stories that have been percolating for a lifetime.

“I came from a family of writers. I was surrounded,” she tells me as we sit in her back garden in Reddendale, where she moved in 1988. Her husband Gary is author of Dominion over Pine and Palm, a history of California’s Midland School. Her daughter Amanda is a book artist, calligrapher, and author of five books for young readers, including Writing: A Fact and Fun Book and Rosie Backstage, co-written with her husband, noted YA and adult novelist Tim Wynne-Jones. Her brother Alan was a journalist who wrote for the Toronto Telegraph and the Star as well as the Globe and Mail. And her mother was Ellen Stafford, who published a novel Was That You at the Guggenheim? and a memoir Always and After. In fact, her mother was 80 when she made her debut as an author, too.

“I used to say she was Canada’s oldest living first novelist,” Laurie laughs. “But seriously, I came from a family where everybody was writing and I wasn’t.”

That’s not precisely true. Laurie was a single mother before there was a name for it, and she supported herself and her daughter by writing advertising copy, doing public relations and book production at University of Toronto Press.

“I was a big reader, I loved the music of words, but I had no great longing to be a writer. I think the truth was I was desperately intimidated. I couldn’t write a note to the milkman. I was frozen early on by all that scribbling going on around me.”

When she moved to Kingston, that began to change.

After retiring from U of T Press, she commuted two days a week to Toronto to do consulting work. “It was during those hours on the train, when I had unattributed time, that I’d listen to other people’s stories. When I got to Toronto, I’d sit down with my notebook and my brain would unreel all that I’d heard.”

“Shortly after that, I read Adult Children of Alcoholics, and began to write the stories of my growing up as part of my own healing process. For me, they were all separate little pieces, fragments of stories.”

She began volunteering abroad, in the Philippines and Guyana, teaching book design. She wrote a lot while she was away and when she came home, she thought, “I shouldn’t have to leave the country to have a space for myself.” So she converted a shed in the back of her garden to a writing space and kept at it. She started publishing in small literary magazines and ended up at the Banff Writers Studio, where she worked on her “bits and pieces of stories” with Mark Abley.

How much of this stuff do you have? he asked her.

About 70,000 words, she replied.

Well, he said. That’s a book.

“That’s when I began to see that these weren’t separate pieces, that they could be glued together into something. I took an Advanced Creative Writing Course from Carolyn Smart at Queen’s University and had such good feedback from her and from those young students, that I started to build confidence. Maybe I was a writer, after all!”

Indeed she is. The stories in this collection are affecting and beautifully crafted. One of them was a runner-up in the CBC Literary Contest. My personal favourite is “My Father and Lillian Gish,” a disturbing portrait of an abusive, troubled man. In describing the family he came from, she writes, “He was the smartest of the lot too, which he interpreted darkly, wondering where his sharp mind had come from. He suspected his mother of everything but that. Adultery, yes, but not intelligence, never that.”

Little Comrades may be Laurie’s first book, but it won’t be her last. Even as that memoir is still warm from the press, she is dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on the second volume of her life, Love and All that Jazz, about her years in New York, where she stayed at the age of 18 after her mother left McCarthy-era America for England.

I can’t help but return to the obvious: Laurie is 80, the same age her mother was when she published her first book. Just coincidence?

“Women take care of other people. Older women are the caregivers for spouses and parents and children,” she points out. Just as she was hitting her stride as a writer, Ellen began to decline, leaning heavily on her daughter through her final years, as care-giver but also as amenuensis for her own literary efforts. “I’m at the age now at which a woman can finally be free. Women become creative as they grow older because that’s when they finally achieve their freedom.

“And maybe that’s a good thing. You bring the experience of a lifetime to the work. I love the process of writing. I’m old enough to be endlessly fascinated by it. It is where I am and who I am now.”

Merilyn Simonds [was] at Laurie’s launch and will be in the audience at Kingston WritersFest on September 23 when Laurie will talk about her memoir with Merrily Weisbord, author of The Strangest Dream: Canadian Communism, the Spy Trials, and the Cold War.