'It's the Anti-Meet-Cute': An Interview with Ian Williams

The author of Reproduction on "grammatical cathedrals," moods that linger, and how fiction talks.

February 1, 2019

Shazia Hafiz Ramji is the author of the award-winning Port of Being (Invisible Publishing), named by the CBC as a best Canadian poetry book of 2018...

Photo by Paul Joseph

Ian Williams’s first novel, Reproduction (Random House Canada), is an unconventional love story that begins in Brampton and Toronto in the Seventies when two people meet in a hospital, where “both of their mothers were dying in the background.” Felicia is a recent immigrant from an island nation that she refuses to name. Edgar is also an immigrant to Canada, though he moved from Germany when he was a child. They have a child named Armistice, or “Army,” a humourous and versatile boy whose mind is set on making money from a young age.

Williams has written an award-winning book of stories, Not Anyone’s Anything, and You Know Who You Are, his debut book of poetry, but he is likely known for Personals, his second book of poems, which was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2013. In Personals, he mines the language of personal ads to reveal lonely, tender, and perverse voices, many of which fall into patterns that become traps, caught in their own echoes.

Shazia Hafiz Ramji: Reproduction feels like a natural follow-up to your last book, Personals, a book of poems which gives voice to those who are looking for love and seeking connection. How did Reproduction begin? 

Ian Williams: You’re right to make that connection (har). After Personals, I wasn’t sitting around wondering, "What next? What next?," but its themes are subterraneous nutrients for Reproduction. Just as there is a natural physical maturation from childhood through puberty into adulthood, I think there is a natural thematic progression over our lives. The things that concerned me at eighteen (school, the future) didn’t concern me at twenty-five (job, money) and the concerns of thirty (can I be with this person for the rest of my life? Can I be with anyone?) had evolved by the time I was thirty-six (what are children?), and already I’m thinking of middle age (disappointment, the next novel). Really, I was asking myself, "What are children? What material are they made from? Will I always be someone’s child even if I’m not a child?" Reproduction is a very grown-up answer to the question, "Where do babies come from?"

Is the scientific word "reproduction" a grown-up understanding of the accidental or deliberate baby-outcomes of love, sex, hook-ups?  

Nicely put. There is something clinical about the structure of the book and I needed that to offset the chaos, unpredictability, and emotional mush of relationships in it. The word “reproduction” is a sturdy undergarment for a voluptuous body. The back-up title was The Sex Talk¸which is the title of the interludes in the book, but I never grew dissatisfied with Reproduction.

Second point: The word “reproduction” lends a purposeful and puritanical directive to sex—you know, it becomes a kind of duty rather than a pleasure. And, for sure, the whole enterprise isn’t all pleasure. On one end of the business, there’s the booty-shaking and on the other end there’s the transmission of one’s DNA in an attempt at immortality. But Reproduction is a love story at heart.

The opening chapters alternate between the perspectives of "XX" and "XY,” which are also the names for the chromosomes that determine the sex of a foetus. (If XX, then female; if XY, then male.) What was it like to write the perspectives of XX and XY?

People assume that because I’m a dude, I write most naturally in the voice of a man. I mean, I can. I do. I have. I will. But I really do like writing women—not writing with any appropriative intent, only artistic curiosity. It makes me listen more carefully to the women in my life, to attend more thoughtfully to the women in the news and media. It also attunes me to a part of myself that gets beat up by another part of myself.

I think of part one as a boy-meets-girl story. It’s the anti-meet-cute; it happens in a hospital. There’s phlegm. It’s a highly specific story with specific characters but tagging them as XX and XY universalizes them to the level of biology. Part one is structured as a series of 23 paired chapters, just as we are all made of 23 paired chromosomes. It’s a kind of gestation toward a new character in second part.

The second part is my favourite, because it’s set in the mid-Nineties and we enter the world of Armistice, Felicia and Edgar’s child. He learns to make money from a young age by opening a barbershop in a garage his mom doesn’t own! It strikes me that the roles of caregiving are switched right from the start of the book, when Felicia and Edgar are caring for their parents. Even though Army's money-making schemes are funny, I felt such a tenderness towards him as he took on the responsibility of trying to make money from such a young age. 

Agreed. The best gift that Felicia and Edgar gave him was their failure. He grew in an environment where he could be himself, hustle, try something else. He starts talking before he’s even born. I really feel a lot of affection for Army. Same with the landlord’s children, Heather and Hendrix. I was in a grocery store recently and I thought, Hendrix would love these fish heads.

Why does Reproduction begin in the Seventies? 

I don’t really like the word "multigenerational"—usually that word sounds dull to me—but, alas, Reproduction is a multigenerational story and I needed forty years to tell it. I couldn’t go farther back into the past. I guess I was alive, technically, in the Seventies. Barely. But it’s funny how the mood of the decade lingered, so that by the time I was conscious in the Eighties I could still catch a whiff of it. When I look at my parents in albums from the Seventies, I see them at their freest and most beautiful without any thought or desire for me or my brother.

Your books so far have alternated between poetry and prose with each publication. Do you write both regularly? 

I spent most of 2018 writing poetry and it was probably the happiest year of my life to this point. Probably for other reasons too. I mean, I also played a lot of tennis. The years I spent writing fiction were like a complex, tortuous, involved conversation with someone who kept demanding details. My interactions with poetry are largely pleasant, efficient, sparkling, and fun. Poetry is not really surly or frightening. Fiction talks so much! It’s exhausting. 

There is a lot of dialogue in Reproduction. The dialogue doesn't use the conventions we’re familiar with, such as quotation marks or em-dashes. It feels closer to the way lines of poetry are set, where speech flows with the rest of the narrative and breaks in speech are conveyed.  

It’s funny—my short story collection uses quotation marks, so, in that way, it extends a conventional courtesy and convenience to the reader. With Reproduction, I didn’t go through the novel and delete all the quotation marks. They were never there at any point, in any draft, and yet the book is readable. Their absence indicates to me the fluidity between our language and our thoughts or between our language and our being. We tend to think of language as something that’s intended for the outside but really language is constantly running inside of us. It’s hard to know exactly where a sentence starts. Even the most rash utterance needs breath to be conveyed. I don’t know. I was collapsing a boundary between the inside and the outside, between the self and the presentation of the self, and rejoining dialogue to the soup of prose.

Felicia speaks in English whose grammar and syntax is different from the English taught at school in Canada.

Felicia’s not from Canada and she won’t tell you where she’s from. Stop asking her. She’s capable of moving back and forth between public English and intimate English. Edgar at one point says that she writes grammatical cathedrals but speaks in shacks (he didn’t say the last part but he was thinking it, trust me). For sure, there are other Englishes that are as flexible as the North American version, more colourful, inventive, pliable, expanding, open-minded. Felicia has to deal with common questions among immigrants: Why does this accent mark me so significantly to the people of this country? Is my grammar incorrect even if it follows predictable patterns that happen not to be the Queen’s? And beneath the confusion is a sense of inferiority or shame, of the immigrant’s patterns struggling against the majority’s. The battle over language, grammar, and pronunciation is just a microcosm of the aggressions faced by immigrants. One of the tricks of Reproduction, and novels generally, is to have all of this understood without pausing the narrative to say it explicitly.

When asked where she's from, Felicia admits that she comes from "the islands," but she doesn't specify where.

Yeah, it’s a bit of a running joke throughout the book. A joke that turns into an irritation. She refuses to be pinned to a place to satisfy anybody’s curiosity. My theory is that when people ask about your place of birth they only seek to confirm an assumption they have about you and by consequence to reinforce an assumption they have about who gets to be from Canada.

She insists on speaking the way she does, even when Edgar points out her "grammatical cathedrals."

She insists on speaking the way she does because it’s natural for her.

What do you think novels can do? 

I can only try to answer this question. One of the things a novel does because of its length is give us slow, sustained time with ourselves. As unpleasant as that may be, slow time with ourselves is the antidote to cheap stimulation, the entertainment mindset, the anxiety of being alone, the need to check our phones for comfort. Sure, reading a novel can be (ought to be?) entertaining (ideally) but it also offers ancillary benefits. When I look up from a novel, I feel a kind of achievement in saying, "Hey, I was quiet for two hours." It’s like the visible part of me disappears for a while and I get to be with the infrared part of myself, the part I see only under certain conditions, such as silence and solitude. In a slogan, books taste great and they’re good for you. Like granola.

Jonathan Franzen seems acutely aware of the need for "slow time." Last fall, he shared "10 Rules for Novelists" at Lit Hub. Rule #8 says: "It's doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction." 

Personally, I think the novel died with the fax machine. No, really, is it even possible to downgrade to dial-up anymore?

You're working on another novel called Disappointment. Did Reproduction lead to Disappointment

Haha, yes. They were originally the same project then Reproduction forked one way and all the other stuff went into a Disappointment folder. But since then Disappointment has really grown into itself.

Can you tell us about Disappointment? Are there more babies?

At the moment, Disappointment involves no babies, no dying, no marriages—just adults, living, alone.

Shazia Hafiz Ramji is the author of the award-winning Port of Being (Invisible Publishing), named by the CBC as a best Canadian poetry book of 2018. Her writing is forthcoming in Carte Blanche, Canadian Literature, Poetry Northwest, Music & Literature, and the Chicago Review of Books. She splits her time between Toronto and Vancouver, where she is at work on a novel.