The Chat with Ian Williams

Update! Ian Williams' Reproduction WON the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize! So we're rerunning this interview from earlier this year.

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Reproduction, the debut novel by Ian Williams, is a stunner. By any measure. Structurally daring, emotionally profound, intellectually engaged, playful and irreverent, it’s one of those books that makes you feel glad to be alive.

In an interview with the CBC, Williams says "I wanted the book to have a soft impression of people's lives, like a thumbprint…I wanted the book just feel like pressing someone lovingly on the forehead." As a reader, that’s exactly what it feels like.

The Toronto Star says Reproduction “manages to be witty, playful, and disarmingly offbeat — even as it hums with serious themes." Quill & Quire says “Poet Ian Williams experiments with structure to tell a classic love story .... Reproduction is reminiscent of Miriam Toews’ novel All My Puny Sorrows in its balance between grief and humour. It’s an intergenerational story told in an unexpected way.”

Ian Williams is the author of Personals, shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize and the Robert Kroetsch Poetry Book Award; Not Anyone's Anything, winner of the Danuta Gleed Literary Award for the best first collection of short fiction in Canada; and You Know Who You Are, a finalist for the ReLit Prize for poetry. He was named as one of ten Canadian writers to watch by CBC. Williams completed his PhD in English at the University of Toronto, mentored by George Elliot Clarke, and is currently an assistant professor of poetry in the Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia.

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THE CHAT WITH IAN WILLIAMS

Trevor Corkum: Ian Williams, at your Toronto launch you said that your operating universal principle, as a writer, is love. Care to elaborate?

Ian Williams: Trevor Corkum, I only want to write and read love stories for a while. And by love I mean more than romance.

I approach my work-in-progress with love. I got the tip from a friend, the writer Lauren Carter, who got it from another writer who probably got it from God himself. When Lauren and I were both in Calgary, we scheduled a deadline for draft x of our novels. We worked and worked and when the date arrived, we printed our manuscripts, and took them out to dinner downtown. That’s what I mean by love.

We worked and worked and when the date arrived, we printed our manuscripts, and took them out to dinner downtown. That’s what I mean by love.

The alternative to approaching our projects with love is approaching them with scowling faces and saying to them every morning, You’re not good enough and you will never be good enough. The alternative is abuse.

Approaching a manuscript with love means that we recognize that there are stages of development for a project, that we can’t expect the same amount of refinement from a four-month-old as we can from a forty-year-old. When we love our work, we stop avoiding it. We make efforts to connect with it, however briefly, to touch its cheek after dinner.

TC: Reproduction is a novel that literally reproduces itself over the course of four sections. When and how did you hit upon this reproducing structure? And what major structural challenges did you confront along the journey?

IW: The last part was the hardest [to the tune of “The First Cut is the Deepest”].

I knew what I wanted to achieve. I couldn’t figure out how. I couldn’t find helpful precedents anywhere. At one point, I was looking up how to implant subliminal messages in a reader’s mind. I thought I would leave out parts of sentences for the reader to complete. All failures. Anyway, it took a couple of years just to figure out how to plant tumours and have them behave like cancer in part 4.

The tumours, the biology, the mathematics are examples of formal reproduction but there are more subtle forms of reproduction throughout the novel Reproduction: the reproduction of family patterns, reproduction of gestures, reproduction of events. I said the word reproduction a lot just now. That was the kind of subliminal thing that didn’t pan out.

Reproduction behaves like a spiral and a circle: expanding outward yet re-inscribing its shape. Unpredictable yet repetitive. It’s like a gene within us, passed down for generations, waiting to be expressed—will it? won’t it? when?

TC: It’s definitely a novel about love in its various forms—you explore a delicious range of relationships. One of the most moving for me is the relationship between Felicia and Army. You nail the fraught, tender, humorous, and often suffocating relationship between mother and son (shadowed by the absent father). Tell us more about what it was like to explore their dynamic.

IW: Here’s my theory as a reader now, not as a writer. When Felicia looks at her son, Army, she can’t help but see her missing partner. When Army looks at Felicia, he can’t help but see his absent father. The missing man has coded himself within Army and Felicia. Yet the relationship between Felicia and Army is free of resentment. That’s what gets me. They don’t take out their disappointments on the other.

The relationship between Felicia and Army is free of resentment. That’s what gets me. They don’t take out their disappointments on the other.

A Secret. In an earlier draft, Army had a brother (gasp) but he wasn’t necessary. And Felicia dated men (shut the front door) but they weren’t necessary either. Felicia and Army kept swatting people out of their story.

TC: What scares you most, as a writer and Homo sapien?

IW: Oh man.

TC: On a final note, you also explore the entitled, super-privileged, and emotionally stunted world of a certain kind of masculinity. Edgar and Oliver are men who give masculinity a bad rap. And yet—while deftly chronicling their general obliviousness to anything behind their own neurotic wounds, you render both men deeply human. Why is it important for writers to create characters who may be challenging to love?

You may pick one of the following answers.

1. Because I would want the same kind of compassion extended to me.

2. Because not every man has his masculinity worked out.

3. Because although our flaws may not be as egregious or unfashionable as Edgar’s and Oliver’s, we are nevertheless susceptible to their obliviousness (your word) when assessing our character traits.

4. Because the word character has two relevant and related meanings.

5. Because difficult characters give us the opportunity to practice for real relationships with people who challenge our empathy.

Excerpt from Reproduction

A pipe had burst on the second floor of St. Xavier and the ER was flooded.

Whenever Edgar went down to smoke, he waded through water that was as deep as his knees, water so heavy he had to rotate his hips just to pull his legs through.

The hospital have more than one entrance, Felicia informed him.

Of course. We’re not in West Africa, he said. But the people, who wants to deal with people?

I’m not African, she said.

Edgar looked up from his keys. Nobody said she was. Good body, useful body. Her body seemed useful to the point of being industrial, assembled out of construction machinery, the kind of body you could ask to retrieve a pen from a tight space with its claw arm. It had calculated a series of compensations for its plainness. Her chest was modest but her broad shoulders gave her shape; her backside was flat but the anterior tilt of her pelvis lifted it; her hips had little flare but her wide stance created a triangular base that balanced the inverted triangle of her torso.

He turned back to sequencing the keys by the course of his day, not just by category—house keys, car keys, office building key, office department key, office key—and explained that the hospital had stopped admitting patients around lunchtime. They diverted incoming ambulances to a nearby hospital, closed the first two floors of A wing, and transferred patients wherever they could find beds.

He finished, That’s how they ended up together.

He lifted the spiral of the key ring with his thumb. What locks were these little duplicate keys for?

He finished again, That’s how they ended up— And finally, That’s how she ended up here.

They just pick Palliative out of a hat and throw she body in here? Felicia asked. Edgar let the spiral snap close. That wasn’t what he said. She kept misunderstanding him.

I think you scored pretty good digs, considering that some people are four to a room. I was adamant that the capacity of this room not exceed two.

There were two chairs in the middle of the room back to back, and a yellow curtain divider. Felicia’s mother was on the side near the window, which overlooked a courtyard with a single leafless tree. Edgar’s mother was on the side near the bathroom. Both of them were covered with cream blankets, four stripes near the legs. Next to the beds were bags of liquid, tubes, metal stands, machines with faces asking to be read or touched. There was a small tissue box on each of their side tables.

The shed key he didn’t need to carry around. He said, It’s the best place either of them could be right now.

In Palliative.

In Palliative, he confirmed.

The sun had gone down. Felicia hadn’t yet removed her hat, which along with her coat looked unnatural on her, as if she did not choose them herself.

The boiler’s working fine, Edgar said with a smile. If she were friendlier he would try to encircle the fulcrum of her waist with his hands. The girls at the office always got a kick out of that. He said, You must be burning up.

But Felicia didn’t want to talk. To him. She spoke just fine to the nurse who came in to collect a medical history. Edgar learned more about her mother than he knew about his own sister-in-law. Her middle name was Eunice. She was born in March. She had a heart murmur. She was advised to leave school early because she fainted a lot as a child. But it might have been the heat. She’d had a boiled egg and porridge for breakfast. No allergies. She didn’t like baked beans, canned food in general, but it wasn’t an allergy. She was married. The husband was back home. The islands. No cancer in the family. No stroke. Hypertension, yes. She also had a sister who had sugar and had her foot cut off twice. Same foot twice. She had five to eight children. Three died in infancy. Felicia was the youngest. That’s how she ended up in Canada. Her mother couldn’t have any more children after Felicia. Something went wrong. Felicia didn’t know. She didn’t know.

Not everybody can have children, Edgar said. He was feeling left out because the women were talking as if he wasn’t there. No, he was only coming to Felicia’s rescue after the assault of questions. (He felt left out.) The woman had a heart attack. Why did he have to listen to her whole reproductive history?

Both Felicia and the nurse turned to him without seeing him, as if resting momentarily from the heat of their conversation.

Roll up those wet pants, Felicia said then led the nurse into the hallway. She doesn’t take no medication except for a tablespoon of cod liver oil every morning with tea.

Edgar set the keys on Mutter’s bed. He rolled up his right pant leg. Much better. Why hadn’t he thought of that himself? He flexed his foot upward to admire his calves. He crossed his legs at the knee to display the muscle to its advantage when Felicia re-entered.

Edgar was deep in a cigarette when Felicia returned. His legs crossed, his socks off, the mark of the elastic smoothed somewhat but red.

She made a face and pulled the dividing curtain. Some people acted like they couldn’t breathe when the thinnest whiff of smoke came their way.

Leave it open, he said.

Your mother have pneumonia, no? Felicia said through the curtain. I can’t hear you, Edgar said though he could.

I don’t see how you could be in here smoking when— Felicia coughed. Speak up.

She pushed her head through the curtain. She wore the endearing expression of a young woman who wanted to wear glasses before her time just to be taken seriously. I don’t see how you could be—

I think you’ve forgotten how lucky you are not to be sitting downstairs in sewage right now, he said and finished his cigarette. What if he sorted his keys by size so he could find them in the dark? Lightbulbs, he had to buy one for the garage. He wouldn’t find a store open before his trip to Calgary tomorrow. Did the distributor people firm up lunch?

She pulled the curtain all the way around her mother.

More doctors smoke Camel than any other brand, he said. He might as well make himself comfortable. He took off his pants and hung them on the footrail of his mother’s bed to dry.

**

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Ian Williams photo credit: Paul Joseph.

March 1, 2019
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