Saskatoon StarPhoenix Review - What I'm Trying to Say is Goodbye

Personal struggle inspired Simmie to create character
Reviewed by: Verne Clemence

Writing her latest novel, What I'm Trying to Say is Goodbye, was a labour of love for Saskatoon author Lois Simmie, but it also presented some problems. She reflected in a recent interview on how she worked on the book off and on for several years, and even considered dropping it entirely at one point. "But (friend and fellow author) David Carpenter kept calling and asking me what chapter I was on now," she laughed. "So I kept going."

With the book short-listed for a fiction prize in the Saskatchewan Book Awards next week, and getting a warm reception from readers, she's glad she did.

There was more to the work than just the challenge of seeing it through to the end. The main character, Matthew, is an alcholic who is struggling to stay sober. Simmie, 71, has long wanted to write something about this sort of situation because she went through her own battle with the battle over 30 years ago.

She's comfortable discussing that part of her life. "I didn't write anything until I stopped drinking," she says. It wasn't easy. She recalls going through much the same process as Matthew goes through in the book. He's arrogant at first and tends to look down those who need help.

He learned a lot during the course of the book," Simmie says. Most importantly, he came to accept and value the help he was offered. In the end, she was satisfied with the character. "I liked him, and I felt I knew what made him tick," the author says.

As for the issue of a woman writing from a male point of view, she didn't encounter any problems. "I don't think men and women are all that different inside," she mused.

Simmie has a deft touch with dialogue and the knack of creating characters that linger in your mind long after you put her books down. She contrasted the new novel with her acclaimed 1981 book They Shouldn't Make You Promise That. "The new story presented more difficulties because it had many more characters," she says. The 1981 book, which was reissued last year, had four characters and was more straightforward.

The larger cast no doubt made the writing more demanding, but it also makes for a more interesting book.

And in case anyone should get the idea that this is a dark story because of the recover alcoholic aspect, it is not. This is a multi-layered novel. It has its moments when the going gets heavy, but there's humour too, and fascinating subplots. 

Several simmer away in the Victoria apartment building where Matthew lives and works as caretaker. Retirees populate the building for the most part, and they're an eclectic bunch. Clandestine romances flourish behind closed doors, and conflicts and intrigues lurk in the dark corners and stairwells.

Matthew paces the hallways when he can't sleep and he feels the watchful gaze of tenants who don't entirely trust him. His mundane caretaker duties are a daily reminder that he's fallen far from his once successful career as a newspaper journalist.

To make matters worse, his wife Delia finally gave up on him and is now living with someone else. Matthew still cares deeply for her but can't find it in his heart to blame her after the years he spent drinking away their money and making promises he didn't keep.

Then there's Sam, Matthew's grandson, barely out of his teens, who is unhappy because his stepfather has joined a religious cult. The cult leader believes the world is going to end any minute. Sam and his mother, who is hooked on tranquilizers, are virtual prisoners in a commune out in the bush.

Everything conspires to send Matthew running back to the nearest tavern. He does fall off the wagon once when a lonely female tenant invites him in for a drink. One drink won't hurt, he tells himself, only to wake up two days later deathly ill and with no recollection of where he went or what he did. He decides at that low point to reach out for the help he obviously needs.

Simmie's last adult book was her 1995 non-fiction title The Secret Lives of Sgt. John Wilson. She has published two children's books since then, the most recent being the award winning Mr. Got-to-Go and Arnie (2001). Her short fiction collections include Pictures (1984), and Betty Lee Bonner Lives Here (1993).

She'd like to write one more adult book, a murder mystery, and then focus solely on the children's books that are her first love. She especially enjoys going to schools to read and talk to her young audiences.

Coteau Books publishes What I'm Trying to Say is Goodbye. It sells in paperback for $19.95.

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