The sudden death of local writer Jessica Simon has been met by an outpouring of grief and love from both within the territory and abroad.
Simon was 53. She fell abruptly and severely ill following her return from a four-day hike over the Labour Day long weekend. Her condition deteriorated rapidly, resulting in her being flown to a Vancouver hospital for further treatment, where she died Sept. 8. She is survived by her husband of 28 years, Mike Simon.
The exact cause of her death is unknown at this time, Mike said.
A memorial ceremony is being planned for Sept. 30 in Whitehorse.
Jessica was born in Quebec in 1964, and moved to the Yukon in 1986 to work for a First Nations newspaper, Mike said. The couple met while he was visiting the territory as a tourist from his native Germany. The couple fell in love and were married at Kusawa Lake in September, 1989.
Jessica was a prolific writer and journalist, contributing to many magazines and newspapers, including Yukon North of Ordinary, Outdoor Edge and the Yukon News. From 2006 to 2012 she regularly wrote the column “World of Words” for What’s Up Yukon.
She was also a writer of fiction, and a member of the Crime Writers of Canada and Sisters in Crime Canada West, the latter of which she served as membership secretary. In 2011 her short story “Gold Nugget Garter” won the inaugural Up Here Magazine Jack London Short Fiction Award and in 2013 her short story “Seven Packs of Sugar” appeared in the anthology Canadian Tales of the Heart: Volume Three, and was awarded an honourable mention in Canada’s Best Short Story Contest.
Much of Jessica’s fiction is set in the Yukon. She was perhaps best known for her 2009 novel From Ice to Ashes, which is set against the backdrop of the Yukon Arctic Ultra race.
Jessica founded the popular writing group Cramped Hand in 2009. The Whitehorse-based group has had several international visitors, Mike said, and has become “something of a franchise” as a result, with Cramped Hand writing groups in South Africa, Germany and Norway.
Jessica had most recently co-edited a book of crime-themed haikus with her friend, local poet Kathy Munro entitled Body of Evidence: A Collection of Killer ‘ku. Munro is currently in Santa Fe, presenting the book at the 2017 Haiku North America festival.
Friend and local poet Joanna Lilley said she first met Jessica in 2008, when she was writing a piece for What’s Up Yukon on the local literary community. Jessica had just signed her first publishing contract, Lilley said, and was “over the moon.”
Two things struck her about that first meeting; firstly, how supportive and dedicated Mike was to Jessica’s career as a writer, having agreed to let Jessica quit her day job to focus on her writing and, secondly, how much Jessica wanted to give back to the writing community.
“She contributed so much to the Yukon literary community and encouraged so many new and existing writers. Some of the things she did … included setting up a monthly, free writing group, with the brilliant title Cramped Hand, and hosting it in her own office,” Lilley said via email.
“These are just a few examples. I know there are many more. It’s impossible to summarize how much Jessica has done for our writing community and how many people she’s helped in so many different ways.”
“The writing community here will never be the same again. I just hope we can honour her memory by keeping the momentum of her energy going as best we can.”
Jessica’s “biggest and most ambitious project,” at the time of her death was to make sure the Yukon was represented at the 2020 Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest book trade show, Mike said. Canada will be the featured country.
“Writing was her biggest passion ever since she was a child,” Mike said.
“The community is left hanging a little bit…. We’ll need someone to step in.”
Far from being a stereotypical bookworm, Jessica was also a lifelong outdoors person, working as a wilderness guide at one point. She was also active in the dog-powered sports community, particularly with the Yukon Quest, which she had been involved with since 2010, said Mike.
Jessica was also an avid forager. Long-time friend Norma Shorty said it was Jessica who taught her to identify wild mushrooms.
“Our friendship was more than mushrooms and berries…. She was a part of my daughter’s upbringing. We always had a friendship…. Her death has come as a shock of course, it took a long time to sink in,” Shorty said.
“The memory of her is never going to be gone…. It’s left an impact on all our lives. She left a really big path for us to follow in many ways.”
The outdoor aspect of her life was one Mike also shares, and an important part of their relationship, he said. When asked what his favourite times with Jessica were, he said being on river with her, especially in September.
“Being out on the water, hearing the birds, camping with her,” he said.
“Those are great memories.”
Contact Lori Garrison at email@example.com