Interview: D.W. Wilson, Once You Break A Knuckle

When he was a creative-writing undergrad at the University of Victoria, D.W. Wilson came up with some fairly strict rules about how to write a sentence.

“I would cut out every single use of an-ing verb,” the 26-year-old tells the Georgia Straight from his current home in London, England. “Word repetition I watch for, repetition of sound I watch for. I try to end my sentences on heavy vowels.” He’s also got two full pages of specific words he doesn’t like: up, back, something, smile.

This in itself isn’t all that unusual. Most aspiring writers have a manifesto or two carved into their notebooks’ title pages, many of them with an equally minimalist bent.

What is unusual, then, is that Wilson has actually managed to stick to those self-imposed rules—all the way up to the publication of his debut story collection, the highly anticipated Once You Break a Knuckle. Set in the small B.C. town of Invermere, nestled in the Kootenay Valley, these 12 linked stories depict a world of tradesmen, ongoing parent-child rivalries, and a community so forcibly tight-knit its citizens can’t help but know each other’s histories in intimate detail.

Wilson was born and raised in Invermere, leaving town only at age 19 to study at UVic. His father was and is an RCMP sergeant, which came with its fair share of occupational hazards, even for Wilson: if you can’t beat up the local cop, you can at least pick on his kid. He may have physically left Invermere behind, but the town resonates even more strongly for the fiction writer in Wilson, now that he’s gone.

“When I was in the valley, I couldn’t write about the valley at all,” he says. “And when I was in Victoria, I couldn’t write about the Island at all. I have a hard time writing about where I am, basically. I don’t have the distance or the perspective that I want and need.”

That unique brand of expat nostalgia gets worked out in the stories, too. A recurring father-son duo—the elder a grizzled RCMP officer, the younger flirting with fiction-writing and a life out west—are, Wilson says, “a pretty close representation” of him and his own dad. (Whether Wilson’s father also refers to his fists as “Six Months in the Hospital” and “Instant Death”, as does the fictional John Crease, remains to be seen.)

Yet Wilson says he’s not out to caricature or vilify the kinds of people he grew up with. On the contrary, he specifically set out to write stories that the folks in Invermere would like to read.

“In a certain way,” he says, “I didn’t get away from the valley. If I’d stayed, I’d be an electrician. Now I’m writing about electricians.”

And with no small amount of success, either. Wilson was the recipient of this year’s lucrative BBC National Short Story Award, and is the youngest winner in the prize’s history. Here in Canada, three of his stories were nominated for a National Magazine Award this past spring. All of those pieces appear in Knuckle.

Up next for Wilson is a novel, Ballistics, which is also set in Invermere and draws upon some of the same subject matter, albeit on a larger canvas. He’s maintaining those sentence-writing rules, too: in the most recent draft alone, he was able to lop off an extra 5,000 words.

Wilson laughs and admits the manuscript of Ballistics is actually overdue; Penguin Canada bought the novel and Knuckle in a package deal almost exactly a year ago. “Everyone is on my back, don’t worry,” he says. “My girlfriend, my agent, my editor, you name it.

“I haven’t quite finished with it,” he adds, and for a minute it’s not clear whether he’s talking about the manuscript or Invermere, or both.

Hamish Hamilton, 256 pp, $32, hardcover

(interview originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, October 20, 2011)

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