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!