Scotiabank Giller Prize Spotlight: Ian Williams

September 15, 2019

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 Ph.D. in English at the University of Toronto and is currently an assistant professor of poetry in the Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia. He was the 2014-2015 Canadian Writer-in-Residence for the University of Calgary’s Distinguished Writers Programme. He has held fellowships or residencies from the Banff Center, Vermont Studio Center, Cave Canem, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and Palazzo Rinaldi in Italy. He was also a scholar at the National Humanities Center Summer Institute for Literary Study and is a judge for the 2018 Griffin prize. His writing has appeared in several North American journals and anthologies.

Do you have a favourite passage/quote from a book?

There’s no passage I’d want to tattoo across my neck. But here’s a quotation from a Zadie Smith essay I read well after writing Reproduction:

“There are of course degrees of these things but I do think every family home is an emotionally violent place, full of suppressed rage, struck through with profound individual disappointments.”

It’s an update on the famous first line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

Where is your favourite place to write?

I used to prefer writing at home, and that’s where most of Reproduction happened (sidebar: the jokes of that title are inexhaustible; it’s “that’s what she said” for the literary crowd). But lately, I really enjoy writing on Friday mornings at Liberty Café in Vancouver with other writer friends who are zoned in on their own projects. We catch up for a few minutes, then the headphones go on, eye contact ceases, while a friendly barista walks around with a towel in his back pocket, dogs nod outside, moms socialize young kids about sitting nicely, Millennials conduct interviews, teen girls pose with cappuccinos for their Instagram. I don’t think we need to shut people out in order to write.

Is there an activity you do to help inspire your writing?

I do things to take me away from writing, to clear the mind. I play a lot of tennis. I play right into the darkness until I can’t see the ball anymore. I bought a mitre saw recently so these days I’m building a giant wooden honeycomb for my condo.

Do you have a tradition for every time you finish a book?

No, but that’s a good idea. Move to a different city?

What are you reading now?

I’m mostly reading poetry manuscripts, student work, Coach House submissions. Here are the books in various stages of completion: Anakana Schofield’s Bina, André Alexis’s Days by Moonlight, Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property, Tea Mutonji’s Shut Up You’re Pretty.

What is your favorite CanLit book?

My stock answer for this is a book I’ve bought and given away too many times to count: Margaret Atwood’s 1971 poetry collection, Power Politics.

What inspired you to write your Scotiabank Giller Prize nominated book?

Basically, I was thinking about reproduction instead of reproducing, much like I was thinking about dating instead of dating when writing Personals. Childbearing/rearing is not a particularly hot subject among men, yet I think we too feel a biological tug when the time is right. Whether my life is progressing as it should (driver’s license, degree, job, marriage, house, children), I’ve been living a parallel life where all these things occur at the appointed time, only in my head. I kind of live beside my life, like running for a departing train. Maybe I’ll be able to jam myself inside before the doors close.

What do you hope readers take away from your book?

There’s no moral. Strangers can become family. There’s really no such thing as a stranger.
And black folks slice tomatoes and go about our business without thinking about our blackness 24/7.

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