Books·My Life in Books

6 books that inspired Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Ian Williams

The Vancouver-based author on the books that shaped his life and career.
Ian Williams is a Brampton, Ont.-raised poet and writer. (Justin Morris)

When Ian Williams won the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2019 for his debut novel Reproduction, he joined a select group of black Canadian writers who had previously accomplished the feat — including Esi Edugyan (Washington Black in 2018 and Half-Blood Blues in 2011), André Alexis (Fifteen Dogs in 2015) and Austin Clarke (The Polished Hoe in 2002).

Reproduction examines race, class, gender and geography through the story of Felicia and her teenage son Army. After they move into a basement apartment, they bond with the house's owner and his two children. But strange gifts from Army's wealthy, absent father begin to arrive at their doorstep, inviting new tensions into the makeshift family's lives. 

Williams's previous books include the 2012 poetry collection Personals, which was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize and the Robert Kroetsch Poetry Book Award, and the 2011 short story collection Not Anyone's Anything

During Black History Month, Williams shared with CBC Books the books that have shaped his life and career.

Power Politics by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is an Ottawa-born poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, inventor, teacher and environmental activist. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press, House of Anansi Press)

"Power Politics is my all-time favourite collection of poetry. I have gifted or urged this book on more people than I can count. Barbed, spiked, armoured, it's a modern take on the love poem. It's full of zingers and one liners. Meanings reverse themselves over the course of a line break. You can feel its influence on my collection, Personals. I wish we could be a boxed set: Power Politics Personals.

I have gifted or urged this book on more people than I can count.- Ian Williams

"But during my teen years, before I read Power Politics, I was all into Atwood's The Circle Game, the first book I bought with my own money and read to tatters. And before The Circle Game, I was gaga for Gary Geddes's Twentieth Century Poetry and Poetics, an anthology from one of my mother's university courses that I read during the lonely evenings." 

The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot 

Thomas Stearns Eliot was a poet, essayist, publisher, playwright and critic. (Faber & Faber, Chris Bacon/AFP via Getty Images)

"The Waste Land is arguably the most monumental poetic achievement of the 20th century. It's a notoriously erudite poem, difficult to the point of being incomprehensible. It's the kind of poem that needs to be taught to you by a bespectacled professor in a chilly room. And, fortunately, the University of Toronto had both. It took about a month of my undergrad life to unwrap the poem, line by line, reference by reference. 

The Waste Land is arguably the most monumental poetic achievement of the twentieth century.- Ian Williams

"Nothing builds literary confidence like sticking with difficulty. And there's appropriate difficulty at each stage of one's reading life. In my teens difficulty meant the gymnastics of e. e. cummings. In my twenties, it was Eliot's The Waste Land. In my thirties, James Joyce's Ulysses. Eventually the dissonant reverberations of difficult texts resolve into harmony."

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace was an American writer and university professor. (Back Bay Books, davidfosterwallacebooks.com)

"I resisted all the hype of David Foster Wallace for a long time then I caved and gave him about a paragraph of my time and it was like introducing a flame to a combustible substance. In my twenties and thirties, I found him to be terrific company — brainy, anxious, troubled David Foster Wallace. He's not for everybody all the time. But he possesses such an enormous tonal range from pop slang to academese that at some point you can't help but get caught in his trawl net.

Few writers can shift the gravitational field of literature with each of their projects the way DFW did.- Ian Williams

"A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again includes meaty essays about tennis, TV, baton twirling at a Midwest fair, and, most famously, cruise ships. Few writers can shift the gravitational field of literature with each of their projects the way DFW did. He's a virtuosic, monumental talent, with something more than a brain in his noggin. Steampunk machinery maybe. 

"I think he's the child of Virginia Woolf."

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis 

Lydia Davis is an American short story writer, novelist, essayist and translator. (Will Oliver/AFP via Getty Images, Picador)

"Lydia Davis writes tiny stories. If a novel is to a watermelon what an Alice Munro story is to a grapefruit, then a Lydia Davis story is a cherry tomato. 

"The strangeness of Lydia Davis arises from her reliably perfect sentences. They are so perfect grammatically that they read like translations — translations from mind English into textbook English. They seem to be wearing white shirts, buttoned to the neck, as obsessed with exactness as the narrators of the stories. 

If a novel is to a watermelon what an Alice Munro story is to a grapefruit, then a Lydia Davis story is a cherry tomato.- Ian Williams

"If Lydia Davis rode shotgun, she'd spend the trip pinching the tuning dial through each town for a clear channel of music."

Don't Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine 

Claudia Rankine is a Jamaican-born poet, essayist, playwright and editor. (Dominik Bindl/Getty Images, Graywolf Press)

"Rankine's Citizen gets a lot of play. It's the book that launched her into literary stardom, not just poetic twinkling. Where one expects anger or strong feeling in her books, one gets detachment, clarity, and restraint. In Don't Let Me Be Lonely, she never slips into solipsism, although the material scrapes one's insides raw. How can an author handle problematic personal and socio-political material with such control? 

In Don't Let Me Be Lonely, she never slips into solipsism, although the material scrapes one's insides raw.- Ian Williams

"Incidentally, both Claudia Rankine and David Foster Wallace taught at the same institution. Imagine being a student and going from her class in the morning to his in the afternoon."

On Beauty by Zadie Smith 

Zadie Smith is an English novelist, essayist, and short-story writer. (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for International Center of Photography, Penguin Canada)

"Zadie Smith's On Beauty delivers a master class in everything you need to write a novel: how to pitch dialogue, how to draw characters, how to let them live out the consequences of their decisions, how to construct a scene, how and when to use humour, how to create tension, how to keep settings from becoming inert, how to balance voice and plot, how to be simultaneously objective, benevolent, and indifferent, how to write within the novel tradition, and how to go off and do your thang."

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