Interviewed by Jennifer Spruit
Ian Williams is the author of Personals, shortlisted for the 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize and the Robert Kroetsch Poetry Book Award; Not Anyone’s Anything, winner of the 2011 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.
Not only does Ian write short stories packed with the power of precision and disarming poetry that holds our very us-ness up to the glare as it is refracted back, he’s also working on a novel I’m eagerly anticipating.
I’ve been an admirer of Ian’s writing for some time, and have especially enjoyed his blog, on which I found out he’s a man who prefers a well-dressed serif font. Ian was kind enough to chat with me via email.
Your short story collection, Not Anyone’s Anything, includes simultaneous narrators, flashcards, and a story with a basement. How do you, as a writer, balance reader experience and expectations for how to approach a text with a desire to create something original?
Each story needs a feature that’s formally interesting. If I wrote “While” and “Not Anyone’s Anything” and “Break-In” with the good manners of Dickens, say, then they would be frustrated stories in hand-me-downs. Formal play doesn’t have to be spatial or wild but it should be jagged enough to snag the reader away from all of the smooth prose of emails, advertising, and websites. While writing Not Anyone’s Anything, I kept asking myself, Why must this be a story and not a film or a song or a cake? And the answer led to all sorts of textual exploitations: because your attention cannot be on you and the one you love without one of you disappearing, because there are other literacies apart from English, because people who live in basements are often footnoted.
Trying to be original is like trying to be cool.
One of your short stories, “Prelude”, is about a precocious pianist, Raq, in which you perfectly capture the competitive nature of private Western musical education as well as the sharp longing for perfection which is its hidden curriculum. What is your musical background? Also, have you ever performed surgery?
Well said: “the sharp longing for perfection which is its hidden curriculum.” That is the project of Western musical education, isn’t it? It is a kind of moral education, practice until you are perfect, behave well and you will be well (ontologically). You see the drive toward mastery in both Raq and her brother Dee; one for art, the other for science. I can play some Chopin but not Rachmaninoff (except for the prelude in C-sharp minor, and even that was years ago).
I’m a victim of the hidden curriculum. Sure, I play piano and a little cello but never as well as I should. My piano training is very standard – read and obey the music – but for the last month or so I’ve been sitting at the piano and playing (well, messing around) without music. I’m realizing, after all the years I’ve been playing (I’ve been playing since nine), that I never really allowed the instrument to express its own logic, to reveal its harmonic relationships. I have always enforced a plan on it. I think playing cello taught me to be more responsive and less draconian.
As for surgery, yeah, I’m a recreational surgeon. Kidding. No, the answer is no.
In the here and now, when many (lesser) writers break rules before they learn them for effect, how much does success as a writer depend on setting oneself apart?
Traditional thinking holds that you earn the right to break the rules only after you have obeyed them. But these days, it’s true that many young contemporary writers go around breaking things, sometimes perfectly good things, to achieve certain effects. Because the rules have been so thoroughly abused, because glass and plastic, true art and cheap art, mimic each other, it’s hard for a young writer to know what’s breakable and what’s worth reusing. It’s childish to break the rules just because one can, and it shows in the work. The work ends up brittle and uninspired, sounding like karaoke. Mature writers negotiate between can and should, like the Freudian ego between the id and superego. Rule-breaking should (a rule on rule-breaking, imagine!) come out of necessity or perhaps curiosity, but not petulance.
How do your poetic sensibilities inform your prose writing, and vice versa? Which genre challenges you most, and how so?
The experimental drive and formal play in my fiction come out of poetry. In fiction, the scale is larger and the conceit sustained under greater pressure, but everything I’ve done in fiction, I’ve attempted in poetry first. The narrative drive in my poetry comes out of fiction but it’s combined with lyric disruption. The humour is my cry for help.
Right now, I’m having a poetic swing toward brief, lovely, visual pieces in the mode of someone like bp Nichol as a way of coping with the scale, complexity, and realism of the novel I’m working on. The novel is a great challenge, partly because the scale of initial chaos is so much greater than that of a short story or poem.
Who has championed your writing throughout your career so far?
Robyn Read is Mickey to my Rocky, Mr. Miyagi to my Karate Kid. She was the acquisitions editor at Freehand and picked Not Anyone’s Anything out of slush. Since then, she’s been in my corner of the ring, alternately shaking my shoulders and slapping my bloody face.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Sarah Tsiang’s new collection of poems, Status Update, which would be a good gift for folks in Facebook withdrawal. Each poem begins with a status update from a real person like Julie Bruck or Susan Musgrave then jumps from that cliff. The whole experience is like reading a good book while your phone intermittently beeps for your attention.
Where and when is the best place for you to write? Do you have any (writing) rituals?
Best time to write is in the morning, early, before breakfast or email, before people start talking to you, before the weather needs checking. But I’m not some kind of purist or diva; I can write wherever I’m comfortable and selfunconscious. That usually means at home and alone.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
I’m not really in the position to give advice. Listen more than you talk. Keep a notepad and a pen on hand. The ones that get the most use are on the bedside table and in my car cup holder. Make the effort to wake up in the night to write that urgent sentence down. Try to do something with it within 24 hours.
What would happen if everyone read more poetry?
As North Americans, we’d probably recover the delight in language of the average British citizen. We’d phrase our sentences more carefully. We’d pause at surprising words. A higher percentage of words in the English language would circulate in our conversations. We’d swear less for emphasis. Poets might make a living. We might have a group of people who break into song spontaneously–like in musicals or a kind of language parkour.
What kind of career do you think you would have if you hadn’t pursued literature?
A decade ago, I could have offered you a surer answer. Now, I think I would have boarded a train, a language, an art, a medium, and stayed on it until the last station. Then I would have walked the rest of the way home.
Jennifer Spruit’s fiction, non-fiction and poetry have appeared in several Canadian literary magazines. She lives on Vancouver Island.