June 19, 2018
Note From Rochelle
We had an artsy weekend at my house. We went to a book signing, wandered around an art festival and took in a concert. Each event elevated my mood and inspired me to work on my own writing.
Although I’m a firm believer in taking artist dates, I tend to choose work over play. But this weekend reminded me that connecting to the world around us—and especially delving into the work of other artists—is an essential part of the writing life. Getting out of the house and into the world to immerse ourselves in art and nature can renew and refresh us. Your assignment: go on an artist’s date. Whether you visit the Zoo, take in a gallery show, or simply walk in the woods—you will be inspired.
Today I’m delighted to welcome Liam Callanan to the blog. He and his family took an amazing artist’s outing—which led to his brand new novel, Paris by the Book.
Writers@Work: An Interview with Liam Callanan
By Rochelle Melander
Congrats on your new novel. Can you tell our readers a little about it?
My novel is about a young family from Milwaukee’s East Side who wake up one day to discover that Robert—husband, father, writer—has disappeared. Various clues eventually lead the police to think that he’s dead, likely drowned in Lake Michigan.
But other, admittedly more fanciful clues—including an unfinished manuscript set in Paris—lead Leah, his wife, and Daphne and Ellie, his teenage daughters, to believe that he’s in France. And so they go, even if it’s more for distraction than anything else. When they get to Paris, though, a series of events makes them question everything they’ve believed up to this point.
As I’ve gone around with the book, I’ve heard it called a mystery, a love story, a family novel, a travel adventure. To which I say: yes.
According to your website, you took an amazing trip to Paris with your family—and your kids got to be your tour guides! Can you talk a little about that trip? And….did the book idea (and writing) come before or after the trip?
My girls and I cooked up a trip to Paris wherein they would serve as the guides based on children’s books they loved, principally Ludwig Bemelmans’s Madeline and Albert Lamorisse’s Red Balloon (which was originally a film). As we traversed Paris from one end to the other, books in hand, my girls became fascinated with how everything they saw synchronized—and did not—with what they’d read. It got me to thinking about how so many people worldwide, particularly readers, are constantly engaged in spinning this myth of Paris—how Paris, to a degree, relies on us to do that. It’s part of its magic, all that spinning everywhere. And it can leave you a little wobbly.
Indeed, our last day in Paris, a woman offered to sell us her English language bookstore. It was in the heart of the Marais. She was half-joking, but we took her half-seriously. We eventually said no. But in this novel, I effectively say yes…
I love how you mapped out Madeline’s Paris and the Red Balloon’s Paris. I know you also consulted Google maps when you wrote The Cloud Atlas. How does playing with maps and exploring geography inspire you when you’re writing a book?
Maps are where this novel started. In the pages of the Red Balloon, you can quite clearly make out street signs, and if you enter those names into Google Maps, Streetview will take you to the very same corner. I was, and am, endlessly fascinated by this. I’m a spatial thinker. My first question about a new city is, where am I? Where are the landmarks? Where am I going? Where’s home? I love exploring.
You juggle family and teaching and writing! What has helped you keep a regular writing schedule?
Ironically, what’s helped me stay regular with my schedule is being flexible. Some days I write at my desk, other days I write at Starbucks waiting for soccer practice to end. I’m patient with myself on a daily basis but stricter on a weekly basis. Most of all, my amazing family makes time for me—especially when I’m at the end of a project and need hours upon hours, they—especially my sainted wife—help me figure out how to find the time.
What are you reading now?
I just finished J. Courtney Sullivan’s novel Saints for All Occasions and loved it. It’s a master class in creating rounded characters and crafting a plot like a Swiss watchmaker. I’m finishing She Read to Us in The Late Afternoons: A Life in Novels by Kathleen Hill. It’s a memoir, but as the title suggests, one with a unique concept. I love it, too, and not just because her story takes us around the world, from New York to Nigeria to…of course, France. Next up is the Devil’s Half Mile by Paddy Hirsch and The Sisters Chase by Sarah Healy.
About the author. Liam Callanan is a novelist, teacher and journalist. He’s the 2017 winner of the Hunt Prize, and his first novel, The Cloud Atlas, was a finalist for an Edgar Award. His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Slate, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The San Francisco Chronicle, and he’s recorded numerous essays for public radio. He’s also taught for the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, and lives in Wisconsin with his wife and daughters.