A Flash Interview with Visiting Author Liam Callanan

by Emily Sinclair

When I graduated from my MFA program, Liam Callanan told me the story of his own last days in his MFA program: He brought his completed manuscript to his advisor and set it on her desk. She patted it and said, “This is great.” And then pushed it aside and asked, “Now what will you do?” That story gave me the courage, the week after my graduation, to begin again, with a blank page.

I’m delighted that Liam’s coming to Denver for two events—a class at Lighthouse on Friday Oct. 30th on strong beginnings that captivate readers,  and a reading from LISTEN, his new collection of stories, at Book Bar on Thursday, Oct. 29th at 7:00 PM.

Liam Callanan is the author of the novels THE CLOUD ATLAS and ALL SAINTS, and the newly published short story collection, LISTEN. A regular contributor to local and national public radio, Liam has also written for the Wall Street Journal, The Awl, Esquire, Commonweal, the New York Times Book Review, Slate, and numerous other publications. In addition, he’s on the faculty and former chair of the English department of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and a faculty member at The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

LISTENI was in two of your classes at Warren Wilson, and both times, we studied short stories: John Cheever’s and Alice Mattison’s IN CASE WE’RE SEPARATED, a collection of linked stories. You are teaching a class at Lighthouse on short story beginnings. Yet, you’ve written two novels in addition to your new story collection, LISTEN. Do you have a preference for stories versus novels? Do you feel more comfortable with one form?

I'm going to cheat with my answer to this question and say yes to both. The truth is that, at this point in my life, I find novels easier to write than stories, and stories easier to read than novels. The "at this point in my life" part is key: I have kids of various shapes and sizes at home and my day is quite fractured as a result—my work stretches, both writing and reading, are quite elastic, and sometimes collapse completely. Usually, statements like that are preface to, "so that's why I work in short stories; it's all my mind can manage"—and for me, that's true, but, as I said, on the reading end of things. I like being able to dip in and out of a book in the too brief time I have to read each day.

But writing short stories—I find that much more difficult than writing novels. And writing poetry more difficult still. Concision is such a challenge—a noble challenge. But I'm a sad adherent to the maxim—which I'd long sourced to Twain but the internet now tells me is Pascal's—"I didn't have time to write a short letter so I wrote a long one." It’s easier right now for me to write long instead of short. (Even, or especially, when writing letters—or the modern day equivalent, emails.)

On the positive side of things, I like the space a novel affords to really inhabit a place and dwell in a scene. I so admire writers, like Lauren Groff, TC Boyle, or Adam Johnson, who so easily, smoothly, and regularly move between stories and novels.

In the classroom, though, I prefer short stories above all—they fit so well on the table, they reward close reading so ably.

You teach at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and in the MFA program for Writers at Warren Wilson, and you write a great deal—the books mentioned above, and numerous articles for magazines and newspapers. What’s the relationship between your teaching and your writing? How do they inform each other? Have you ever taught something and then thought, That’s exactly what I needed for my own work?

I once asked this of a writer visiting Milwaukee—the really amazing and adventurous poet CD Wright. Why do you teach? And she said, "students, they bring us the news." And that's definitely part of it. Not just news on what's new and different and fresh from the front lines of humanity, but also news from the front lines of what it means to study writing. In other words, teaching forever reminds me that I'm forever a student, too. I definitely have a few tricks and truths that I'm happy to share, but I also like students to know that I'm right there with them, shoulder to shoulder at the writing desk.

‘Students, they bring us the news,’ will stay with me! Your Lighthouse class is on beginnings, which feel easier to me than endings. Do you have a way of thinking about beginnings and endings and the relationship between the two?

Absolutely. When I start drafting, I always begin with the first line. But when I ultimately finish a story, that first line has almost always burned away. It's only when I finish a piece that I know how I need to open it. That's what I want to look at in my workshop—how we can, essentially, backsolve for x, figure out where we needed to start to get where we're going.

(I know the answer to this, so you can’t fake it.) Have you ever dressed up like John Cheever for a day? What did that feel like? 

[caption id="attachment_7097" align="alignright" width="113"]EPSON scanner image Aren't we all walking fictions?[/caption]

Oh, no—I dressed like a Cheever character—suit and tie—not like the man himself, who was much more partial to sweaters than I've ever been.

Oh, right. My mistake.

It really was interesting, though, to sit in a class of writers armored like that—because a J. Press suit is armor, mine’s going on 25 years old—and see how the clothes do, to an unsettling degree, make you: if not internally, than externally. Those students looked at me much differently that day. It was something like respect mixed with horror—'this guy in a suit? I can't trust a word he's saying.' And: 'hmm, but he is wearing a tie—he must be some kind of successful.'

What I find more interesting sartorially are the stories of Cheever putting on suit and tie everyday, going down the elevator with his briefcase like all the other Cheever characters in his building, but when they all exited, he went down to the basement and wrote in his apartment's storage room or cage. I'm not sure what I like more—that he worked in the basement, that he dressed for it, that he was, essentially, a walking fiction to his neighbors before he wrote fiction out of sight.

Sad to say—I don't have a tie packed for Denver. But I'll bow to popular demand.

When you plan a class, do you have a particular kind of student in mind?

I love teaching, but I especially love working with fellow writer-parents. Or parent-writers. I really get their multitasking and occasionally beleaguered minds. And how difficult it is to write about the imperilments of children when you can't not think about your own kids being in peril.  God help us when my kids are old enough to read my stuff. (Oops: I forgot that they're old enough to Google this interview! Girls: go back to bed. Daddy'll be home soon.)

liam-callananLiam Callanan is the author of The Cloud Atlas (Delacorte, 2004; Dial, 2005), All Saints (Delacorte, 2007; Dial, 2008), and Listen (Four Way, 2015). He serves in the English department of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and was previously its chair, as well as coordinator of its Ph.D. program in creative writing. He has regularly contributed to local and national public radio, and is possibly the only person now living (but consult your own Venn diagram) who has written for all of the following: the Wall Street Journal (on zeppelins, jetpacks, and touring Paris and Greece with children's books), The Awl, Medium, Commonweal, Esquire.com (on swimming and flying), Slate, the New York Times Book Review, the Times’ op-ed page, the Washington Post Magazine, Forbes FYI, Good Housekeeping, Parents, Milwaukee Magazine and elsewhere.

His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in a variety of literary journals, including Gulf Coast, the New Haven Review, Tinge (where his story was named one of the Millions Writers Award Notable Stories of 2011 by storySouth), the Writers’ Chronicle, Blackbird, Crab Orchard Review, Southern Indiana Review, Caketrain, failbetter and Phoebe. Liam is also the creator and co-executive producer of the Poetry Everywhere animated film series.

Callanan's workshop Now Open: Starting Strong with Character, Action, and Rhythm in the Contemporary Short Story is on Friday, 10/30/2015, from 4:00 to 6:30 PM.