I first met Liam Callanan at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2004. As the recipient of one of the prestigious conference fellowships, he gave a memorable reading from his first novel, The Cloud Atlas (Delacorte Press, 2004), that was so emotionally gripping it silenced the packed auditorium—not an easy feat given the natural chattiness of wine-fueled writers. The Cloud Atlas, which the New York Times Book Review called “equal parts history, memory, and vision quest,” is also unforgettable. Set in past and present Alaska, the novel tells the story of missionary Louis Belk, who as a soldier in 1944 was sent to find and dispose of the infamous Japanese “balloon bombs” terrifying a traumatized post-war people. In conflict with a brutal superior officer, Belk finds searing connection with a Yup’ik Eskimo woman who claims she can see his future.
For the many of us who are devoted fans of Liam Callanan, a certain other novel that almost shares the title of The Cloud Atlas is known merely as “that other book.” And in true Liam style of generosity and humor, he wrote a post for The Awl about the slightly challenging situation that develops when a mega-blockbuster novel-then-movie steals your title, and why more of us authors should perhaps proactively pursue this route.
Liam’s next novel, All Saints (Delacorte Press, 2007), is set in Southern California where he grew up, and tackles how people struggle with religious faith in today’s world—as well as how we can forge human connection in love and friendship amid harrowing losses. Private high school teacher Emily Hamilton is a vulnerable, brilliant, funny mess: on page one of the novel she tells us that “in the fiftieth year of my life, thirty-four years after leaving my father’s house, ten years into a career of teaching children who were, on the whole, quite fortunate, I did something I had never, ever done before: I kissed a boy.” All Saints is a literary work of voice, a notable hallmark of so much of Liam’s fiction. We are absolutely captivated not just by Emily the character, but by the way she tells her own story—the rhythms, anecdotes, and insights that build what she knows and doesn’t know about her own life.
Maybe in part because of his dedication to the art of conversation, and his skill at listening, Liam is a natural teacher. A professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he’s been the chair of the English Department, he’s known for his generous and careful attention to his students’ work, and for cracking them up in class. Writers know how rare it is to get a critique from someone who finds a way to gently point out all the problems in the text but with enthusiasm for the project as a whole. Liam has this gift, and I should know, since he’s read an early draft of nearly everything I’ve published (as well as several things I haven’t).
In his latest work, a short story collection, readers will find a dozen tales that span decades and several continents but remain true to the preoccupations of his previous books: the half-life of past mistakes, the fraught legacy of family, and how love almost always saves us. Except when it doesn’t. An animated conversationalist who can segue from favorite Alice Munro stories to Milwaukee’s best windows to the time he guest-starred on a Chinese game show (true story), Liam’s newest is appropriately titled Listen, which makes sense to me. I can’t wait for you to hear these stories.
[To read Callanan talk about the differences between story collections and novels, comedy, and much more, click here.]