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Two for the Road

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Two for the Road

Wayne Grady and Merilyn Simonds launched their new book, Breakfast at the Exit Cafe: Travels Through America, at the Kingston WritersFest in September.

When Merilyn and I mount the Kingston WritersFest stage with Marie-Louise Gay and David Homel to discuss the process of co-authoring a book as a husband-and-wife team, the four of us will be taking our place in some pretty rarefied company. There are plenty of literary couples around, households in which both partners spend their working lives dedicated to the written word: Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson, for example; Michael Ondaatje and Linda Spalding; Lawrence and Miranda Hill; Nino Ricci and Erika de Vasconcelos; Joseph and Amanda Boyden. But none of those have actually written a book together. The British authors Margaret Drabble and Michael Holroyd are a couple, but they couldn't even live together for 13 years after they were married, let alone write a book together. Maeve Binchy and Gordon Snell are married, and even write in the same room at the same time, but she's a veritable novel factory and he's a children’s book author, and the idea of them co-producing a book is a difficult concept to grasp.

On the face of it, there is nothing daunting about co-authoring with one's spouse. There have been precedents, of course. Will and Ariel Durant come to mind: they co-wrote the last five volumes of The Story of Civilization (1961 to 1975) — 14 years of co-authorship — which not only earned them a Pulitzer Prize but also put their publisher, Simon and Schuster, on the map. They wrote a joint memoir, A Dual Autobiography, and are buried together in Los Angeles, not far from the Will and Ariel Durant Branch Library on Sunset Boulevard.

Merilyn and I figured that if we could spend two months in a car together — the basis for our jointly authored travel memoir Breakfast at the Exit Café — then surely we could write a book together. And as it turned out, we were right. The process was strange at first. Writers are solitary people, especially Merilyn, who never shows her work to anyone, including me, until it has gone through a dozen draughts. I'm somewhat more extroverted. I'm inclined to print out an hour's work and rush downstairs before the ink is dry and say, "Hey, Merilyn, listen to this!"

We worked more like the married co-authors of On the Road with John James Audubon, Mary Durant (no relation) and Michael Harwood. Like us, Durant and Harwood spent a great deal of time in their car as they followed the peregrinations of their subject, and, like ours, their book is a back-and-forth account of their journeying. Harwood was the historian and naturalist, Durant was praised by Newsweek for her "discipline, assurance, and beauty of detail." They remind me of us.

My reluctance to share is long-standing. Wayne and I got together 22 years ago while I was writing my first literary book, The Convict Lover. I felt I was inventing a form and had little confidence as I fingered my way through the eight years of writing. I would show Wayne pages and watch as he read. If his face showed no emotion, I’d be furious. “Doesn’t it move you at all?” I’d fume. If he laughed, I’d pounce. “What are you laughing at? That’s not supposed to be funny!”

No matter what he said, it was wrong. He couldn’t possibly love the writing enough, be sensitive enough to its nuances, laugh in all the right places or weep where I wanted him to.

Wayne is seasoned editor; I valued his opinion. I just didn’t want to be in the room when he offered it. So over the years we developed a protocol. We would read each other’s work in silence, preferably in another part of the house. We would make our comments in writing, if invited to do so by the other party. We would discuss the work only at the invitation of its author.

I was being ridiculous. Over-sensitive. Neurotic.

Still, when Wayne first said, “This could be a book!” I cringed in my corner of the car. Write a book together? Was he out of his mind?

“Sure,” I said. “That could be fun.”

I thought he’d forget about it. We were both making notes as we travelled down the Pacific coast, across the desert into the American South, then up the Eastern Seaboard. When we weren’t scribbling, we were reading. I read Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans, Vita Sackville-West’s Grand Canyon and Simone de Beauvoir’s America Day by Day. He read Jonathan Raban's Hunting Mister Heartbreak, William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways and Ronald Wright's What Is America? I read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley. He read Ellen Melloy's Eating Stone and Ann Zwinger's Wind in the Rock. When we got home, the trip continued. We couldn’t seem to get off that road.

Wayne started writing in earnest. “Read this!” he’d say, coming down the stairs into my study. As I read, he’d nudge me. “When are you going to start?”

I’m a slow writer; it takes me a while to build up a head of verbal steam. The books I write take years and years. I publish one to every five of Wayne’s. I’m the tortoise watching my husband the hare do literary laps.

But one day, I read his section about driving down the Oregon coast, and I thought of the Kim family, a story that had been on my mind all through that part of the trip, a story of loss and being lost. I opened my notebook and started to write.

“Read this!” I said to Wayne, rushing up the stairs to his study.

With Breakfast, I would write a section, give it to Merilyn, and she would read it with an eye for gaps or missing dimensions and fill them in with her own sections, and then go on to write the next section, and give it to me, and I would do likewise, and so we progressed from Seattle to California to the Grand Canyon to Santa Fe to Selma to Virginia to Princeton. The result is an antiphonary of alternating voices that, in their blending, produced, we hope, a pleasing harmony. When we had a rough draft, we noticed that I tended to focus more on the geography and history of a place, while she paid closer attention to the people and to their relationships with their environments and with us. I provided a general sweep, while she filled in the detail.

This taught us as much about our lives together as about our different writing styles. And maybe that's why co-authoring a book with one's spouse is such a challenge. It's a bit like undergoing two years of couples-counselling. The Durant’s 14 years might be too much of a good thing, but our two years of closely examining similarities and differences altered our perspective — on our perplexing neighbour to the south, and on ourselves.


Men and women occupy their silences differently, I discovered. Sharing a space the size of a large bathtub for weeks on end involves a lot of silence, not necessarily profound or significant silence, the kind that comes after a weighty statement or a snappy fight. The silences of travel are often trivial, or downright meaningless, a blank staring out at the passing parade, the mind drifting off into canyons and arroyos of its own. I spent a lot of time thinking about those silences and about something Thoreau wrote: "In human intercourse the tragedy begins not when there is misunderstanding about words, but when silence is not understood."

We’re easier with each other now than we ever have been; our silences are less often misunderstood. And there are fewer of them, I suppose. We’ve always talked about everything, but now we talk about our writing, too. The book continues, just as the trip does, though the last word of it has long since been cast in electronic stone. There is the website to produce, the promotion tour to prepare for, readings to rehearse and the launch to plan. Breakfast at the Exit Cafe: Travels Through America will be launched at Kingston WritersFest, a new readers and writers festival in Kingston that I and about a hundred volunteers put on in late September. This year we have 70 authors coming and 50 events to produce. As artistic director, I’ll be hosting a lot of them, but on Saturday, September 25, which is my birthday, I’ll be a guest instead of one of the workers, raising a mimosa over home fries at our Breakfast launch to toast my partner in life, love and now literature, too.


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Wayne Grady and Merilyn Simonds launched their new book, Breakfast at the Exit Cafe: Travels Through America, on September 25, 2010, at Kingston WritersFest, where they appeared with Marie Louise Gay and David Homel in “Married, with Manuscripts.”


Kingston WritersFest
September 22 to 26, 2010
70 Authors • 5 Days • 49 Events


Merilyn Simonds and Wayne Grady

Wayne Grady is one of Canada’s finest science writers and a Governor General’s Award–winning translator. He has authored eleven books of nonfiction, translated fourteen novels, and edited more than a dozen anthologies of short stories and creative nonfiction.

Merilyn Simonds is the author of fourteen books, including the nonfiction classic, The Convict Lover, which was nominated for a Governor General’s award, and her novel, The Holding, which was selected by the New York Times as an Editors’ Choice. She writes a weekly literary garden essay at frugalistagardener.com.

For more information about Breakfast at the Exit Cafe, please visit the authors' website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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