When Ian Williams was serving as the writer-in-residence for the University of Calgary in 2014, he maintained a strict regimen to his day.
Arriving early, he would first run five kilometres in the gym. For the rest of the morning, he would write what would eventually become his debut novel, Reproduction (Random House Canada, 490 pages, $35). He wouldn’t schedule consultations with other writers from the community until later in the afternoon.
“Half my time was private time, with just me looking at the screen,” says Williams, in an interview with Postmedia from a book-tour stop in Toronto. “The other time was just me talking with other writers; at whatever stage, it didn’t really matter. We were all engaged in that very same activity. I could talk to them sincerely, with an appreciation of the struggle they are facing because I faced it that very morning. They are absolutely interrelated. Calgary was the year that this book really solidified and became the thing that it was to be.”
Back in 2014 when Williams was new to his post at the university, he told Postmedia about those struggles. Reproduction became a sprawling novel that is both funny and poignant, powerful and playful. It spans 40 years in its exploration of fragile family ties. In 1970s Brampton, Ont., an unlikely and rocky romance forms in a hospital. Felicia is a teenage girl from an unnamed Caribbean island. The arrogant Edgar is much older and from a wealthy German family. Their ailing mothers are in the same hospital room. They eventually begin a relationship that results in Felicia giving birth to her son, Army. Years later, the lives of Felicia and a now teenage Army intersect with landlord Oliver and his two children, son Hendrix and teenage daughter Heather, who Army lusts after. Eventually, the long-absentee Edgar returns to their lives and the novel’s final act comes full-circle. But, in between, it explores big-canvas ideas about family, love, death, disease, the immigrant experience and even sexual assault.
It is a complex, multi-layered plot and untangling the many elements was a formidable task for its creator. In 2014, Williams was known for his award-winning poetry and experimental short stories. This was his first real attempt at a novel and, at the time, Williams compared the early goings to being the parent of a needy newborn. “They barely smile at you. They just need and need and need and that’s kind of what it feels like now. It takes everything and doesn’t have much payoff,” he said at the time.
Williams laughs when reminded of the analogy five years later. His views on Reproduction has mellowed since then. In a recent interview with Canadian Press, he compared finishing the novel and releasing it to the world to being the father of a toddler, proudly watching as the child takes its first steps.
Whatever the case, Williams says it was that year at the University of Calgary that the novel came of age in his head. It was where he took all the unruly strands and began constructing a solid, structured story.
“It wasn’t intricately plotted at the beginning,” he says. “There comes a point where you’ve just got to settle down and be just pure business and pure engineering in your approach and that point happened in Calgary. That’s when the charts went up on the wall and that’s when the plot lines and the timelines went up as well.”
Williams was born in 1979, which makes him roughly the same age as Army. Like Army, he was also raised in Brampton, a suburb of Toronto. But Williams rejects the idea that Reproduction is autobiographical.
“I couldn’t really access my life for this book,” he says. “The characters aren’t me. The only thing that rings true is the setting of it. But I’m not Army. The time periods kind of line up but my mom’s nothing like Felicia and my dad is not like Edgar.”
Even Brampton, while obviously integral to the plot, was meant to convey more of a universal feeling than a specific place.
“It really should feel suburban, generally,” Williams says. “I think there’s a kind of familiar anxiety that folks of the suburbs have in terms of their relations to the big nearby city.”
So, as with many fictional characters, the inhabitants of Reproduction needed to form in their own unique ways in Williams’ imagination. Young Felicia is our entry into the novel, a funny, headstrong, religious but ultimately pragmatic teen. She is an endearing creation, but not one that came easily, Williams says.
“She was tough, because she is such an introvert or at least somebody you don’t see a lot in novels,” he says. “She came very reluctantly. Army came with a big voice in my head. Edgar came gripping his wrists. Oliver and the others had linchpins. Felicia came initially as a suggestion. I knew Army had a mother, but she was in the shadows and she was like ‘Don’t write about me,’ that kind of attitude, like ‘I don’t need to be upfront.’ She was this support worker kind of attitude and I just needed patience for her to come alive and reveal herself. It sounds so hokey when we writers talk about characters revealing themselves and whatnot, but it does require a kind of patience and letting go of what she needed to be.”
By the time Williams was working on Reproduction in Calgary, he was already an established poet and short story writer. His 2011 collection of experimental short stories, Not Anyone’s Anything, won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award for the best first collection of short fiction in Canada. His 2012 poetry collection, Personals, was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. Both were published by Calgary’s Freehand Books.
So Williams, who currently teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia, doesn’t have an overly reverent view of the novel as the ultimate form of creative writing. He is working on a followup to his debut, called Disappointment, which is made up of expanded strands and ideas that didn’t make it into his first novel but is not a sequel or directly related to the characters in Reproduction. He is also putting the finishing touches on a new collection of poetry.
“Sometimes writers of all stripes have this ambition, that the goal is to write a novel,” he says. “It’s like everything is a preparation for a novel, just like everything is preparation for a feature-length film. But, no, I think each genre is its own end point. The novel isn’t a thing to aspire to. A short story is complete and perfect in itself and a poem or collection of poems is the same thing. The novel just gets a lot of attention in our culture.”