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Ian Williams. Photo courtesy of John Jones
Ian Williams. Photo courtesy of John Jones

The Lives of Others

Learning to sew or wield a chainsaw is all in a day's work for writer Ian Williams

Ian Williams is learning to sew. But the poet and short story writer isn’t planning a career as a tailor; he’s developing the main character in his first novel. “The first part is about a woman who is sewing her own wedding dress,” he explains. “And something really terrible happens . . . ”

Diving into a character to the extent of learning her profession is a clue to how Williams creates the vivid characters and intimate, intense stories that won him, with Not Anyone’s Anything (2011), the Danuta Gleed Literary Award for a best first English-language short story collection. “When I attempt to venture beyond my imagination and ground the character in a real experience, I find that I can develop a more authentic, complex character.”

For Not Anyone’s Anything, he cut down trees in New Hampshire with a chainsaw and audited Korean classes at U of T. The resulting stories leave readers rattled and transformed, and garnered Williams not just the $10,000 Gleed prize but inclusion on CBC’s 2012 list of 10 Writers to Watch.

Williams (BSc 2000 VIC, MA 2001, PhD 2005) first planned to become a psychiatrist. But an English professor in his first year, Julia Reibetanz, inspired him so deeply that he changed his major to English, then went on to do his two graduate degrees in English. “She was almost mythical to me,” he says. “When I read poems in my head the voice that I hear is often her voice.” (Williams has also published two books of poetry, Personals and You Know Who You Are.)

Williams uses devices such as music and flashcards; one story comprises two different narratives, running parallel to each other across the pages. And indeed, he says, for him “50 per cent of writing is a technical challenge” – which includes plot and drama as well as creating a “fresh, 21st-century form.” But equally as important are characters with a “heart condition” – a quality of deep, intimate identity.

“It’s not just emotion; not just packing a story full of anger or happiness,” Williams explains. “It’s to replicate that quality you can sometimes experience when you’re just falling asleep, when you’re somewhere in between consciousnesses . . .  completely set apart, the only person in the universe. I try to get that level of truest privacy in a character.”

The search for that “truest privacy” is what, in the case of his novel-in-progress, sends Williams to the sewing machine. “I learned what a dart was a month ago.”

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