The Conscious Interview of Ian Weir

Of Ian Weir, I will only say this: if you haven’t yet read Will Star­ling, I envy you the thrill of read­ing it for the first time. It’s a book I wish I could wipe my mem­o­ry of, so I could dis­cov­er it again and again.

Ian Weir is a play­wright, screen­writer and nov­el­ist. He has writ­ten more than a dozen plays, has writ­ten exten­sive­ly for tele­vi­sion (most recent­ly serv­ing as creator/executive pro­duc­er of Arc­tic Air), and has won two Gem­in­is, four Leos, and a Writ­ers’ Guild of Cana­da Screen­writ­ing Award. His nov­el Daniel O’Thunder was short­list­ed for the Ethel Wil­son Fic­tion Prize, Cana­di­an Authors Asso­ci­a­tion Award for Fic­tion, Amazon.Ca First Nov­el Award,  and Com­mon­wealth Writ­ers’ Prize. His new nov­el, Will Star­ling—a rib­ald tale of med­i­cine, love, and grave robbery—is one of the finest nov­els of 2014.

How did the idea for Will Star­ling come about?

The idea began—more or less—with a han­ker­ing to write a goth­ic-hued thriller set against the back­drop of the rise of Mod­ern Sci­en­tif­ic Surgery in the ear­ly nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. My dad was a sur­geon, which cer­tain­ly had some­thing fun­da­men­tal to do with that han­ker­ing. As for the char­ac­ter of Will Star­ling him­self? Well, he came into exis­tence because the nov­el was lying on the page like a dead mack­er­el on a plank until he did. I wrote (and rewrote) the first hun­dred pages of a ver­sion that was main­ly from the point of view of an aspir­ing actor. I chucked that ver­sion and tried again, with pret­ty much the same result. Dead mack­er­el. But in the sec­ond ver­sion there was a minor char­ac­ter named Will Star­ling, who assist­ed a sur­geon. I start­ed play­ing around with a chap­ter writ­ten in Will’s own voice, and he proceeded—to my great relief—to take over the whole enter­prise.

What draws you to the genre of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion (for lack of a more accu­rate term)?

I love world-build­ing, as a cre­ative process. I’m also very much drawn to the way in which an his­tor­i­cal peri­od can be angled as a reflec­tive mir­ror for our own era. But bot­tom line? His­tor­i­cal fic­tion just engages my fan­cy, for rea­sons that I don’t think I could ever quite define. And one of the great perks of writ­ing nov­els is the free­dom to tell exact­ly the sort of sto­ry that you per­son­al­ly would most love to read—or at any rate to make the attempt to the best of your abil­i­ty. In the screen world, you’re often more of a sub­con­trac­tor than an archi­tect. And even when you’re the archi­tect, you’re behold­en to stake­hold­ers and their imper­a­tives, both finan­cial and cre­ative.

Was grave rob­bing as preva­lent as you imply?

Yep, it absolute­ly was. Or at least, it absolute­ly was in the UK, and in Lon­don in par­tic­u­lar. Until the pas­sage of the Anato­my Act of 1832, sur­geons and anatomists in Lon­don had almost no legal access to human cadav­ers for research pur­pos­es. The Anato­my Act solved the problem—and put the res­ur­rec­tion men large­ly out of business—by (more or less) mak­ing it legal to dis­sect the bod­ies of poor peo­ple. Once they were dead, of course.

Fron­tispiece to Franken­stein (1831)

As you state in your acknowl­edge­ments, Will Star­ling owes a great debt to Mary Shelley’s Franken­stein. This is not to imply that your nov­el is sci­ence fic­tion, but it is cer­tain­ly fic­tion with sci­en­tif­ic lean­ings. Were you ever tempt­ed to push into full-on sci-fi? Would you con­sid­er doing so in the future?

For me, the fun (and the chal­lenge) actu­al­ly lay in doing the oppo­site. There’s noth­ing that hap­pens in the novel—especially the real­ly out­landish stuff—that doesn’t have a basis in the his­tor­i­cal record. The sci­ence-based stuff is gen­uine­ly fac­tu­al.

Will tells the sto­ry, but he often digress­es to scenes he had no part of. As he states, he is “Your Wery Umble Nar­ra­tor, who is telling you this sto­ry, from evi­dence puz­zled togeth­er and long pon­dered.” How reli­able a nar­ra­tor is Will?

Oh, he’s about as reli­able as any oth­er high­ly imag­i­na­tive and essen­tial­ly dam­aged young man who is try­ing obses­sive­ly to fit the events of his life into a nar­ra­tive that will make sense of who he is and What It All Means. I don’t mean that flip­pant­ly, either.

I’m always inter­est­ed in char­ac­ter names, and you’ve got some doozies here: Diony­sus Ather­ton, Jem­my Cheese, Janet Friend­ly, Augus­tus Rec­ti­tude, an orphan named Female Child. The set­ting lends itself to such monikers, but did you have a process to arrive at these won­der­ful hon­orifics?

A cou­ple of those names—Augustus Rec­ti­tude and Female Child—were plucked direct­ly from a list of inmates at the Foundling Hos­pi­tal in Coram’s Fields, where the gov­er­nors had remark­able taste in nomen­cla­ture. But I con­fess I ago­nize over names, for the most part. Basi­cal­ly, I sel­dom know a character’s “real” name until I come to know the char­ac­ter, and it usu­al­ly takes sev­er­al drafts for that. Oh, and I’ve had a sur­pris­ing num­ber of peo­ple ask me if Will Starling’s name was inspired by Clarice Star­ling in Silence of the Lambs. As far as I know—allowing for the vagaries of the subconscious—I actu­al­ly bor­rowed the sur­name from the cov­er of a won­der­ful­ly ghast­ly col­lec­tion of ear­ly nine­teenth cen­tu­ry sur­gi­cal sketch­es by the “sur­gi­cal artist” Sir Charles Bell, one of the edi­tors of which was a man named Cap­tain P.H. Star­ling. [A Sur­gi­cal Artist at War: the Paint­ings and Sketch­es of Sir Charles Bell 1809 – 1815]

The rich tapes­try of Eng­lish slang you’ve employed is fas­ci­nat­ing;

  • is the slang accu­rate?
  • was there ever a point when you thought the lan­guage was get­ting away from you?
  • were you ever tempt­ed to add a glos­sary?
  • do you think Will Star­ling could break the world record for Most Oblique Euphemisms for Gen­i­talia in a Nov­el?

Thanks. And yes, the slang is all accu­rate. Or pret­ty much so, any­way. I’ll con­fess that some of the lin­go is bor­rowed from a slight­ly lat­er period—y’know, mid-Vic­to­ri­an rather than Regency. I’ve also tak­en some lib­er­ties with pro­fan­i­ty. (For instance, fuck as a verb was absolute­ly in use in 1816, but its emer­gence as an all-pur­pose intensifier—the Swiss Army knife of expletives—didn’t come about until more like the 1870s.) I was nev­er tempt­ed to add a glos­sary to the book itself, although I did com­pile a kind of inter­nal glos­sary for the ben­e­fit of the proof­read­er. It’s the sounds of the words that mat­ters more than the lit­er­al mean­ing, and I’m hope­ful that the gist of the slang terms is clear enough from the con­text.

As for a world record for oblique euphemisms? Well, I was raised in a fam­i­ly in which “bum” was con­sid­ered pro­fane. Polite lit­tle boys said “bottom”—or, ide­al­ly, “sit-upon.” Seri­ous­ly. This last­ed until I was, oh, about sev­en.

Your pro­fes­sion­al life sweeps most of the lit­er­ary arts; from a stand­point of utter jeal­ousy, why are you set on mak­ing the rest of us look bad?

Just between the two of us, I’m always a bit wor­ried about that very fine line between Renais­sance Man and jack-of-all-trades. But bless you for tak­ing the kind­est view.

It’s left open-end­ed, but between you and me and the Inter­net; did Diony­sus man­age to raise the dead?

Yes. As far as I’m con­cerned, Diony­sus did indeed man­age to raise the dead—according to the best def­i­n­i­tion of “dead” that was avail­able to a sur­geon at the time.

What does Ian Weir read, when he finds the time?

Wide­ly and promiscuously—and with an increas­ing­ly des­per­ate sense that more Absolute­ly Must Read books are being pub­lished each year than I could ever hope to read in a sin­gle life­time.

Do you have any hol­i­day rec­om­men­da­tions?

Buy books. And buy them at inde­pen­dent book­stores.

What’s next for Ian Weir?

I’m work­ing on a stage play—a kind of goth­ic thriller set against the back­drop of the TV/film indus­try. And I’m work­ing on a new nov­el. It’s his­tor­i­cal and West­ern themed.

Up next: The Sub­con­scious Inter­view!