Courtesy Ian Willams
Nov. 7, 2019
Former writer-in-residence Ian Williams wins prestigious Giller Prize
Author developed acclaimed first novel Reproduction during 2014-2015 UCalgary residency
Author Ian Williams is only half joking when he equates his time spent as the 2014-2015 Canadian writer-in-residence for the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program (CDWP) with a detective movie.
He vividly recalls the sticky notes, storyboards and complex plot maps taped to the walls of his office in the University of Calgary’s Social Science building, the narrative blocks ever shifting. “I would tape up plans and models on the wall and map out the structural stuff,” Williams says in an interview from his Vancouver home. “It was like those detective movies you see where they’re trying to puzzle out who’s the killer. I was completely immersed in this process for a long while.”
It was during his residency that Williams developed much of the epic plot and ambitious structure of his first novel, Reproduction, for which he won the prestigious Giller Prize, one of Canada’s top literary honours, on Nov. 18.
“That was the critical phase of the book,” says Williams. “I started it before I came to Calgary, but I was working a high-demand job and I didn’t have the time to properly develop it. The CDWP residency gave me the full year I needed to work through the difficult parts of the book.”
To be sure, Reproduction is a novel in need of such meticulous planning. A sprawling, epic and experimental work, it’s the story of a family which cuts across generations, touching on the immigrant experience, date rape, teen pregnancy, love, disease, and issues of culture, race and gender.
Fascinatingly, as per the title, Reproduction is a book in which the narrative literally reproduces itself on the written page.
Written in four sections, part one begins with two characters, Felicia and Edgar, who meet in a Toronto hospital room shared by their ailing mothers. The two eventually fall in love over the course of 23 paired chapters — told from his and her points of view — which make up the first section. These chapters represent the 23 paired chromosomes found in almost every human cell, and they lead to the birth of Felicia and Edgar’s baby by the section’s end.
Section two spotlights four characters over the course of 16 chapters, and section three is composed of 256 small sections. “The story is essentially multiplying,” Williams explains. “From two to four to 16 to 16 squared, which is 256. We move from biology in section one, to multiplication in section two, to this exponential growth in part three, with all of these babies born at the end of each section. Then, at the end of part three, I sweep away the mathematics and I broach the final form of reproduction.”
Here, the novel takes a dark, difficult turn. “In part four, the book itself gets cancer and a series of literary tumours spread from within the text — these growths which appear as a sort of subscript throughout the final section. If you cut these tumours out and read them together, they form a story of their own.”
Williams admits that his radical, decidedly non-linear approach to the book’s finale may make for a “weird read.” “But, if you think about the way cancer operates, it has to interrupt the text. Cancer is a painful disruption of life. My recommendation is to ignore all the cancer subtexts on the first reading and just stick to the main text. On the second pass, read the cancer texts and this second story will emerge more clearly.”
As if this wasn’t ambitious enough, part four also includes another narrative, running parallel to the cancer story, on a video that goes viral. “We see how things can reproduce and proliferate electronically as well,” Williams says.
In many respects, Williams credits his background as a poet with giving him the literary freedom to experiment so boldly within his prose. Before he wrote Reproduction, he had made his mark with the acclaimed poetry collections You Know Who You Are and Personals, along with a book of short stories, Not Anyone’s Anything.
“The mechanics of fiction are so big, and when experiments go wrong it can be disastrous,” Williams says. “In poetry, the scale is so much smaller. You can play with language in various ways and it’s still pretty contained. I think my background in poetry is definitely where that freedom comes from in my writing. It helped me develop the courage to try different things.”
He adds: “It would have been a lot easier to tell this family’s straight, chronological story over 40 years. But there’s not a lot of satisfaction in that, for me. These days we accept such challenges from our movies, music and TV shows, and I think books need to challenge us in these ways as well.”
The Calgary Distinguished Writers Program (CDWP) strives to advance the careers of Canadian writers, invigorate the Calgary writing community, and enhance the activities of the Faculty of Arts and the Department of English. The program achieves its objectives through two annual residencies: one for an emerging Canadian writer, and one for a distinguished writer of international stature. Applications for the 2021-22 Canadian Writer-in-Residence are now open.