Born and raised Calgarian Deborah Willis was recently named the University of Calgary’s writer-in-residence. At only 30 years old, Willis is one of the younger writers to be selected. While only having one published book, a collection of short stories titled Vanishing and Other Stories, she has written for The Walrus, Grain, Prism International and other publications. She has also worked as a reporter, horseback riding instructor and a bookseller.
Upon first seeing her short biography when Willis was announced as the 2012–13 writer-in-residence, I was skeptical that she could fill the position as well as previous writers. The Calgary Distinguished Writers Program, which offers the writer-in-residence program, allows emerging Canadian writers a 10-month residency that enables those chosen to focus on their writing. In addition to focusing on her writing, Willis must also allow time for consultations with local writers and give back to the community through public readings. Her young age and small bibliography hinted at inexperience, but after reading Vanishing, it is clear that Willis is definitely deserving of this position.
Willis was only 27 years old when Vanishing was published, but her short stories are distilled and aged like fine wine. The collection explores the comings and goings of people in our lives, and the effect one’s absence can have on an individual. Her economic use of words and playing on the fluidity of linguistic meanings allow each story to have a full, round flavour of emotional depth. You can’t idly read one story and move on — each narrative begs to be examined and felt. This kind of depth conveys experience far beyond Willis’s years.
It is always a joy to read stories set where you live — it helps to make them feel more real. Willis’s stories are set in Alberta, wandering through Calgary, Edmonton, prairie farms and rural towns. It’s difficult to encompass so many different settings while still coming off as authentic, but Willis accomplishes this by including realistic personalities and descriptions for her characters: a farmer worries about the weather and how it affects both his stock and his wife and a young adult escapes his own anxieties by riding the orange-floored C-Train lines. Somehow Willis manages to instil a fully rounded and developed identity into a 20-page story without it seeming rushed.
Part of what creates this emotional depth is each story’s authentic honesty. Each story seems to hold a piece of Willis herself: the title story features the absence of a writer and a daughter who becomes a bookseller, another speaks of a girl who rides horses. Even in the stories that do not seem to contain direct references to Willis’s life or the biography listed on her website, the stories have a sense of a genuine person, of an honest experience, of meeting a stranger who is eager to share intimate details about his or her life. Not only does this genuine quality hook the reader’s attention, but also allows the reader to identify with the very human narrators, either through action or emotion.
In just 14 short stories, Willis manages to entertain, embarrass and engage the reader on an achingly deep level. Within Vanishing lies stories that are both comforting and frightening to read, if only because the stories touch you more than you could have ever thought. Willis is an up-and-coming author to keep an eye on, and her collection should be included in any contemporary Canadian literature course.