An Interview with Author Liam Callanan

Posted: March 13, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Liam Callanan
Liam Callanan

Mason alumnus Liam Callanan, MFA ’01, will be on the Fairfax Campus next week to conduct a workshop with graduate students in Mason’s Creative Writing Program and give a reading of his work.

Callanan is the author of “The Cloud Atlas” (2004) and “All Saints” (2007). He teaches and coordinates the PhD program in creative writing at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

He has regularly contributed to local and national public radio and has written for, Slate, the New York Times Book Review, the Times’ op-ed page, the Washington Post Magazine, Forbes FYI, Good Housekeeping, Parents and a number of international publications. His short fiction has appeared in literary journals such as the Writers’ Chronicle, Crab Orchard Review, Southern Indiana Review, Caketrain, Failbetter and Phoebe.

The reading will take place on Monday, March 17, in Research I, Room 163, at 7:30 p.m.

You write both fiction and nonfiction, and now I understand that you might have a connection to poetry. Is this true?

Shh! I can’t go around saying I’m into poetry — what will people think? The truth is, of course, that I love reading and listening to poetry. I think what you’re referring to is the Poetry Everywhere project, an adventure I conceived while riding the Milwaukee county bus system and seeing the video monitors they have onboard. The monitors show a mix of programs and ads, and I thought, why not poetry, too?

I called them; they were interested. Then I found a wonderful filmmaker, Brad Lichtenstein, some great poets and, very fortunately, some ardent believers at the Poetry Foundation that this could work. The result is about 15 animated poems, ranging from Wis?awa Szymborska to Matthea Harvey and many wonderful people in between. They’ll air initially on specially equipped mass-transit systems around the country as well as on the web, and from there, who knows. We’re in talks with television networks and movie theater chains. It’s exciting.

On a somewhat smaller scale, we’re doing something else with poetry here in Milwaukee, picking up on a trend to introduce poems into restaurants during National Poetry Month. During April, select restaurants will hand diners cards with poems on them as part of an “Eat Local: Read Local” campaign.

Where do your ideas, from both kinds of writing, come from?

Reading. I read constantly, maybe even ceaselessly. I know that I can’t read in bed, for example. When I do, I never fall asleep (and I marvel at people who do — that seems akin, to me, to falling asleep while waterskiing).

How do you decide when an idea is a keeper? For example, I have heard you say that your second novel was about something else until the protagonist of “All Saints” showed up. Then it was all about her. What happened to the other pages of the manuscript?

The other pages, they’re right here in my laptop. One of my favorite mantras of [Mason alumnus and former Heritage Chair in Writing] Dick Bausch, who was at Mason when I was there, was that, “there’s no such thing as wasted work.” I’ve found that to be true. If, to write a novel about a woman who teaches at a Catholic high school in Southern California, I had to write a hundred or so pages about a TV anchor in Utah, then that’s what I had to do.

“The Cloud Atlas” was the same way. It started in Monterey, California, with a Japanese soldier landing in a balloon at a boys school. Needless to say, the novel turned out differently.

A topic of great interest to current Mason students is how people go about being a writer in real life. You have written before about your penchant for writing in cafes. How do you balance family, full-time work and writing?

I’m not entirely sure. I do think back to life as an undergraduate, though, when I was unmarried, childless, and a dining hall took care of cooking for me (and cleaning up after) three times a day. I remember thinking that I was impossibly, wildly busy and there was no way my days could accommodate a single additional responsibility.

Fast-forward to now, and I have three daughters at home, one of whom isn’t yet a year, and a loving spouse who also has a busy job — and I’ve just started coordinating a creative writing program where I average about 6,000 incoming e-mails a semester — and the car didn’t start this morning. Anyway, I try to panic less and write more. Which is to say, some days, no writing gets done. Other days, when time opens up, I write a lot, and fast.

What one piece of advice do you wish someone had given to you when you began writing?

To go a tiny bit easier on myself. There are so many people out there who don’t want you to write. There’s no reason to add yourself to their chorus.

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