I am proud to have had the honor of interviewing Lynda Simmons, author of Island Girl. If you missed it yesterday, check out my review.
Here is a little bit about Lynda before we start:
About Lynda Simmons:
With two daughters to raise, Lynda and her husband moved into a lovely two storey mortgage in Burlington, a small city on the water just outside Toronto. While the girls are grown and gone, Lynda and her husband are still there. And yes, there is a cat – a beautiful, if spoiled, Birman.
When she’s not writing or teaching, Lynda gives serious thought to using the treadmill in her basement. Fortunately, she’s found that if she waits long enough, something urgent will pop up and save her – like a phone call or an e-mail or a whistling kettle. Or even that cat just looking for a little more attention!
To learn more about Lynda and her work, visit her website, www.lyndasimmons.com, or check her out on Facebook.
1. The Island plays an intricate part of the story, almost a character in itself. In your acknowledgement, you note that the Island is a real place. Can you tell us a bit about this place and does it have any particular significance to you?
Growing up in Toronto in the early sixties, Centre Island was the place my parents took me for the bike paths, the paddle boats and the excitement of a ferry ride. I was too young to understand what was going on politically between the city and the Islanders, but whenever we rode our bikes through the narrow streets of Ward’s and Algonquin, my mother was always appalled that people were still living there. My family was definitely on the side of parkland and parking lots, believing that the city’s program of bulldozing every home and business on the Island should continue, and the land used for picnic tables and kiddie rides. A nice plaque indicating that people had once lived there would be sufficient. That was progress, after all, a sign that sleepy Toronto was coming into her own and heading bravely into the future.
But despite their best efforts, I was not convinced. There was something about those narrow, dappled lanes and those odd, tiny houses that fascinated me and lingered in my mind and imagination long after I’d grown and left the city.
Over the years, I’ve written other stories set on other Islands, most notably a serialized novella for the Toronto Sun that took place on the Island of Sark in the English Channel. When I started working on this new book, I knew I wanted another island setting and thought about using one of the Gulf Islands off the B.C. coast. But on a trip into the city one summer day, I realized that the perfect spot was right there in front of me, just a ten minute ferry ride across the water.
Never having lived on the Island, I knew I had a lot of research ahead of me, so I rented a room in a B&B on Algonquin and set out to meet and talk to Islanders. To find out what daily life was like without stores or banks or even the most rudimentary motorized vehicle to get you around. Most long time residents were happy to talk to me, inviting me into their homes where they served tea and wine and made the history of the Island and the fight to save those homes come to life for me right there in their kitchens. It was at one of those tables that I also discovered just how chilly the air can become in July when some fool starts talking about the convenience of the Island Airport!
Admittedly, a few people were reluctant to speak to me at all, afraid that drawing attention to the Island might result in renewed calls for the destruction of the remaining homes, or worse – a fear that proved well-founded this past winter when one city councilor actually put forward a motion to build brothels and casinos on the Island, his reasoning being that there is a nude beach there already. Clearly, the man has never set foot on that beach, and I like to think that he has never been on the ferry when it’s packed with kids either. Hasn’t sat with the little ones coming to the Island to learn, or stood among the older ones leaving for High School. Anyone who has experienced those moments couldn’t possibly believe that hookers and schoolkids would make a good mix!
Although I spent a great deal of time on the Island, eventually renting an apartment on Algonquin for a month, and staying a few weeks at Artscape on Gibraltar Point, I am not now and never will be an Islander. I’m not fit enough for all that walking and biking, I find the winds too cold after Labour Day and living by the ferry schedule would make me crazy after while.
But the very fact that I’m not an Islander also meant that I was not bound by the truth. I could take everything I had learned and heard, and then go home and create fiction. I could write about a family who has lived on Ward’s for three generations, blending the history, the culture, and even the airport into the story without any danger of encountering the wrath of my neighbours!
2. A large part of the story is focused around Ruby and how she and her family and friends deal with her having Alzheimer's. How did you do your research on Alzheimer's? What did you learn about Alzheimer's and did it surprise you or change your perception on the disease?
My mother-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s fifteen years ago. While this illness has impacted every facet of our life and introduced us to other families dealing with the same difficulties, when I decided to write Island Girl, I knew I couldn’t simply rely on my own experiences because every case of Alzheimer’s, and every family, is different.
In order to get it right I read books, watched documentaries, spoke to doctors and nurses, visited the Alzheimer’s Association and sat down with the people who run the day programs for patients. While all of this was helpful in understanding the clinical nature of the illness and the pharmaceutical advances being made, my real insights came from listening to the patients themselves.
People often wonder if it was depressing to dig so deeply into this devastating illness and the answer is yes. It was depressing and frightening and even now, if I forget where I’ve left something or can’t think of a word, my stomach instantly tightens and my over-active imagination starts wondering if this is it, if Big Al has landed on my own front porch. But spending time speaking to people with Alzheimer’s was also enlightening. I learned that a lot is still going on in their minds and that they can express themselves much better by writing down what they want to say than they can in conversation. Less stress and more time to make sure they’re saying what they mean makes all the difference.
I also learned patience and the importance of maintaining human dignity, but the most surprising thing I learned was not to generalize when it comes to this illness. I understand now that every brain is unique and therefore, so is every case of Alzheimer’s. Certainly, memory loss is a constant, but beyond that, there are no absolutes. Progression depends on where the illness attacks, individual neuron activity, overall health, etc. etc. etc. There is no constant and there is certainly no ‘karmic gotcha’ about Alzheimer’s. It’s an illness just as cancer or lupus or multiple sclerosis are illnesses. Alzheimer’s doesn’t discriminate, doesn’t care who you are or how much money you have, or how good or bad you’ve been, or what you have or haven’t done with your life. Big Al is an equally opportunity thug and once he gets hold of you, there is no escape. Not yet, anyway. But who knows what lies ahead?
3. Speaking of Ruby, I thought you made her character incredibly believable. I don't think she always made the right choices and she could be downright abusive sometimes but she still remained a sympathetic character. Can you tell us more about the development of Ruby or did you write her with a set of characteristics already determined?
Ruby started out as a secondary character in another book, and right from the start her personality was strong, her opinions definite and her voice far too loud to be ignored. She soon began to overshadow the main character so I replaced her with a different type of person altogether, and put Ruby aside, knowing I could only bring her on-stage again when I could give her a book and a platform of her own.
Island Girl was inspired by the differences I saw in the approach that the generations take to Alzheimer’s. My mother-in-law’s generation, for example, lived through the depression and the war, and learned to accept whatever life threw at them without question. Suck it up and soldier on, could be their motto. When diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, they tend to trust their doctors and their families to do what’s best for them, questioning little as they enter the system of the Long Goodbye.
The caregivers, on the other hand, the people of my generation, are completely different. We are the children of the revolution, after all. We fight everything and take nothing and no one at face value. We demand a say in all things affecting our lives, and work hard to ensure that we get it. We also talk to each other in facility lounges and dining rooms, and when we let down our guard and speak in candid whispered words, most of admit that we want no part of the Long Goodbye. We want to have a say in our own futures.
It didn’t take me long to realize there was a story in this. A story of a woman accustomed to being in control, accustomed to making things go her way, suddenly finding herself in a situation where soon, nothing will be within her control – the perfect story for Ruby.
Ruby has always been strong-willed and often not the most likeable character I’ve ever created, but while working on this book she became so real for me that one afternoon when I took an hour away from the keyboard to go to a Pilates class, the woman on the reformer across from me stopped half-way through the class and asked if I always traveled with an entourage.
The instructor quickly explained that this woman was a spiritualist and she was "seeing" the people around me.
"One of them is Rose, or Ruth," the spiritualist said. "Do those names mean anything to you?"
I shook my head, wondering if I should call it a day at Pilates, when she added, "I see water all around her. You must know someone on a coast or an island with the name Rose or Ruth -"
"Or Ruby?" I asked.
She snapped her fingers and pointed at me. "Ruby, that's it. Ruby is here. Do you know her?"
Did I know her? Only too well.
I explained that I was a writer and Ruby was a character. She wasn’t surprised. She said this often happened, and went on to assure me that Ruby was pleased with what I was doing and wanted me to finish the book. Imagine my relief. What could be worse than a main character who doesn’t like your book?
Whether the spiritualist saw something or not, it was clear that Ruby was the character I most related to in the story. While I have a deep respect for Liz and Grace and how difficult it was growing up in their mother’s house, I have to admit that as a mother, my heart was, and always will be, with Ruby.
4. I went into this book thinking it was going to be quite sad because of the topic of Alzheimer's. However, I was pleasantly surprised at all the humor. Ruby, Grace, Liz and Jocelyn were quite the characters who often made me laugh and smile. Was this intentional or did these characters just evolve like that as you wrote?
I started out writing romantic comedy for Harlequin and Kensington because those were the stories that came naturally. It’s not that I’m a Pollyanna, far from it, but I do believe that finding the humour in life has enabled me to keep pushing forward when situations seem hopeless. Even during the saddest times, there are moments of hilarity that lift me up, allowing me to see over the darkness, if only for a second. I’m married to an incurable optimist, so I suppose this helps, and I credit our long marriage to our ability to laugh at ourselves and at whatever life sends us.
While I didn’t plan on adding humour to Island Girl, it always finds a way into my writing and I don’t think I could change that if I wanted to!
5. Ok, now I'm not sure if you'll tell us or not...or if I was supposed to figure this out...but out of the three characters: Ruby, Grace, and Liz - who is the Island Girl of the title...or is it all three?
For me, they are all Island Girls – and Jocelyn is well on her way!
Lynda Simmons was gracious to offer two copies of Island Girl to two lucky US/Canada residents.