Ian Williams explores race, class and identity in his debut novel, Reproduction

The award-winning poet and author discusses how he wrote his first novel.
Ian Williams is the author of Reproduction. (Sinisa Jolic, CBC)

Ian Williams is a Vancouver-based poet, fiction writer and academic from Brampton, Ont. Reproduction, a love story revolving around race, class and identity, follows the connected lives of Felicia, a teen from an island nation, and Edgar, the lazy heir of a wealthy German family. 

Reproduction is Williams's debut novel, following his Griffin Poetry Prize-nominated poetry collection Personals and the short fiction collection Not Anyone's Anything

Reproduction won the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Williams talked to CBC Books about how he wrote Reproduction.

A ripple effect

"It's about a number of different lives and people and the ripple effect that happens.

"I wanted to write a book that would reproduce itself and I went about that a few different ways. When I'm writing poetry, I print my poems up and stick them on the wall — and I sort of wallpaper my place. When I'm writing prose, there's a bit more back and forth involved.

"I wanted the book to have a soft impression of people's lives, like a thumbprint. Edgar would always press his thumb into Felicia's forehead as a gesture. And I wanted the book just feel like pressing someone lovingly on the forehead."

How the book came together

"It took about six years to write this book, although it's hard to say, exactly, when a novel starts. It gets divided and becomes something else. I know writers who are very careful about their prose — every sentence has to be just perfect before they move on to the next one. I'm not that kind of writer. It's like a story dump that needs to happen for the first draft or so for me.

"A lot of my writing lives electronically. There comes a point where I step back, get large sheets of paper and draw the plot and stick that on the wall. I need to see the overall shape of things. I was a resident at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity at one point and I decided to toss out a big chunk of the book. I typed like mad and rewrote the whole thing and broke it up into 24 sections. I laid on a table and took a photo, which helped me to see everything all at the same time.

I wanted the book to have a soft impression of people's lives, like a thumbprint.- Ian Williams

"The second draft is still kind of figuring out if the parts are there. The work really begins once I have all of the material. Then there's the shaping of the material and the squeezing and probing of it. It takes a couple of drafts to get the story out." 

Ian Williams on his first novel, Reproduction

Going with the flow

"The writing process changed with the job. When I was working in academia in Ontario, that job was so demanding that I really found it really hard to write. I then worked and lived in Calgary for a year and all I would do is write; I would go to the gym in the morning and get to writing right after that.

"But I write prose on a laptop. Poetry I start off by hand, I type it up, it's short and easy. I can't write longform. There are difficult moments in the book that I did start by hand. But I'm not precious about modes of input. Some people get quill pens, fountain inks and stuff like that. None of that for me!"

Ian Williams's comments have been edited for length and clarity.