Friday, January 30, 2009

An Interview with Liam Callanan

Liam Callanan received his MFA from George Mason in 2001. Since then, he's had a couple books published, The Cloud Atlas (Delacorte 2004) and All Saints (Delacorte 2007). He directs the graduate creative writing program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Aside from writing, a recent project of his is the Poetry Everywhere animated film series, which he created and co-produces.

The following is an email interview that took place over the past six months. 

Thanks, Liam, for taking the time to answer the questions.

First of all, because it's new and exciting, I'm interested to hear you talk a little about this good-looking project, Poetry Everywhere. I took a while to watch several of the videos online at the PBS site, and I wanted to know how you became involved as a producer. How did the project start up? What's its status right now? Goals for the future? Or maybe could you walk me through production of a video, from its genesis and composition to final placement online or on air or on one of many public buses in the city? I think it's great that so many different groups are working together on this (big and small) and it's admirable that UW-M students (I hope I assumed correctly) can participate in such a thing. Reminds me a little of the work going on over at Ninth Letter, you know?

Poetry Everywhere? It's a fair question, given that the guy behind it all is a novelist. But I'm also a bus rider, and therein lies the story. (A cliche I've always liked, mostly for that verb.)

I live, write, teach and ride buses in Milwaukee, now, and so became an eyewitness to a gradual revolution in transit, which is the proliferation of onboard video screens. They give out route information, but they also provide programming. It seemed to me to be a perfect place to air some poetry, so I gave them a call. The programmers said, great, but it has to be more visually exciting than a guy at a mike in front of a drape -- there's a lot of competition for one's attention aboard a bus -- and so I found a wonderful filmmaker here at UW Milwaukee, Brad Lichtenstein. He drew up a budget, and I went looking for money, and found it at the Poetry Foundation, the publishers of Poetry magazine. They turned out to be an amazing sponsor, not only coming through with financial resources, but great ideas.

Back on campus, we brought in an animation professor, Tim Decker, ex-Fox, ex-Disney, who convened a class of undergraduates. We recorded a number of contemporary poets -- some famous, many not -- and then let the students have at it.

I love the poems, I love my colleagues, but I don't really have a verb for how I feel about the students and what they did. I'm still in awe. We definitely pushed them -- don't feel compelled to be literal in your interpretation; do include every word onscreen (a must for the noisy bus environment) but not in boring closed-caption style. They delivered these works of art that not only amplified the poems, but were something wholly new.

Do you know of any similar programs, such as Poetry Everywhere, that are happening in other cities? Or is there any possibility that your program might eventually expand?

Other than the Poetry in Motion program in NYC -- those print placards, which I understand are being cut back -- I'm not aware of any such programs. But there are definitely other people doing videos of poems, or "video poems," and Shanghai has a Starbucks-sponsored soap opera airing on its metro screens. So yes, expansion is in our future! One of the most gratifying aspects of this program is when other cities contact us about getting involved -- it's a great inversion, poetry driving the mass transit agenda. Who knew literature was so green?

Well, I suppose the poets always did.

Talking about Poetry Everywhere has made me wonder about everything else you're up to, and I'm trying to count how many things you've got going on that I know of: your wife and children, promoting the two novels and hopefully working on a third book(?), teaching undergraduate and graduate classes, directing the Creative Writing Program at UW-Milwaukee, Poetry Everywhere, the occasional literary journal publication, etc. Anything else I'm leaving out?

I'm curious as to how you manage your time, and specifically, when do you have a chance to write? Do you have a current writing project to work on? If so, would you like to share anything about the project?

I think you've got a fairly complete census there. We also have a few more community media/Poetry Everywhere projects in the pipeline, but they don't take up too much of my time yet.

I don't really know how I manage my time. It manages me. I take advantage of every last electronic convenience available to me and insist my students do the same; that helps.

The important part, the writing part -- well, in grad school, I was all about writing every day. Now it's more like every week. Then comes summer, and things get better. Kind of. I also feel like that if I just look hard enough -- in the sock drawer somewhere, or maybe down in the basement, I'll find all this spare time I didn't know I had. I don't know. I feel like it got left behind in the move to Wisconsin.

I've talked a little bit with some of the people I'm working with here at Houston, who've gone through the PhD program at the university, about the PhD vs MFA issue, and I'm curious what you think about it. Is there a difference between the two as far as their purposes? Does the PhD 'defeat' the MFA when it comes to finding 'jobs'? Is that even something worth considering or is it all about the writing? I ask this because one of my friends here suggested that some might think of the PhD as a last ditch attempt...Frankly, I am a little confused; I get anxious when I think about these matters, so I wonder, would you be able to offer an opinion on the whole thing? What's the worth of a PhD in Creative Writing today versus an MFA?

There is a difference between the degrees; I used to think there wasn't. I've certainly become a convert to the notion of the creative writing PhD, which is good, because although I hold an MFA myself, I'm now the coordinator of the country's oldest creative writing PhD programs.

It's not necessarily that one route is better than the other; as I've come to discover, they're different, and thus should appeal to different people with different goals. An MFA is a great degree for someone who wants time to write, people to write with, and would like to have a publishable manuscript in three years, or at least be on a trajectory toward same. A PhD is good for someone who wants time to write but who also is very interested in, and committed to, teaching in a college or university. The PhD we offer at UWM really isn't any different from a 'standard' PhD in English; our students go through all the same theory and pedagogy and lit courses, pass the same foreign language requirement, write the same scholarly papers--and creative work-- along the way. The difference is at the end, when they write creative dissertations -- novels or poetry collections -- instead of a scholarly tome. The whole process takes longer; 4-6 years.

Initially, I was startled by how successful our students were getting jobs. Not because they weren't great -- of course they're great, Go Panthers! -- but because our PhDs were/are able to get tenure-track jobs without books, whereas an MFA needs to have published at least one book before getting a similar position.

Now that you've brought up the idea of having a published book, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how your first book, The Cloud Atlas, went from MFA thesis to publication.

When I finished my MFA thesis, I of course thought I had written a novel. And I remember Susan Shreve, my director, smiling sweetly and patting it and saying, "Lovely. Now, if you want to make this into a book...." I had similar conversations with the other members of my committee, Beverly Lowry and Steve Goodwin, and all of them had wise things to say. I recall Susan pointing out that I'd somehow written an entire novel without any female characters -- legacy of my attending an all-boys high school, I suppose -- and when I added a female protagonist, suddenly, the novel came alive. Beverly pointed out that
I'd spent vast expanses of the novel inside quotation marks -- I'd basically written a 17-hour play -- and Steve noted that I'd made my protagonist a bomb disposal sergeant but never showed him defusing a bomb.

Small things, perhaps, in the retelling, but in actuality, all huge -- and hugely helpful. There would be no novel without those meetings I had that last month of school.

I wound up rewriting the first 100 pages, and adding about 200 more on the back. The thesis and the novel definitely resemble each other, but they're different books. The editor who eventually acquired the book also had comments, but they didn't require as dramatic a rethinking of the narrative as had the earlier round.

For about a dozen years -- starting before Mason -- I'd taught a continuing education course at Georgetown, a writing workshop from 8-10 at night. (Among my students: CNN's Campbell Brown.) It was a rough time slot for all concerned, and some semesters I wondered why I fought my way in and out of Georgetown every night to do it, but when it came time to send out the book, I remembered that one of my students, Nani Power, had gone on to a successful writing career. I contacted her, asked if she'd look at my book. She did, and passed it to her agent, Wendy Sherman, who called not long after.

Some people hear this story and think, "lucky dog -- he got his first novel published lickety-split." (Actually, no one's ever said 'lickety-split' to me, and here I thought, as a child anyway, I'd hear the word all the time when I grew up.)

It's true, that part, the very last part, went relatively fast. But these people didn't see the decade before...

And finally, what advice, if any, do you have for Mason MFA students about to graduate or recently graduated from the program?

Advice? Hmm. To myself: be more prompt in replying to e-mails. To my fellow Patriots? I'll venture out on a limb -- ah, there's the cracking sound; let me start to bounce a bit -- and say, ease up on the blogs.

Not THIS blog, of course, but any blog or news source that causes you undue anxiety. One thing that we never talked about in MFAland that I think crucial to consider is how we, as authors, need to serve as good caretakers of our mental (and, sure, physical) well-being. Sounds like obvious advice, but I don't think a lot of people follow it. Say you'd set yourself and your laptop up on a pretty park bench to get some writing done. Then, about five feet away, a crew starts jackhammering the sidewalk. How long would you stay? How much writing would you get done if you did?

To me, reading about who got what deal with what agent, or who won this prize or even who has advice on how to enter this or that contest -- that's noise I have to avoid.

But again: that's me, to the extent I know myself. Other writers I know thrive on the latest buzz, and really do use it to their career advantage. They know where to submit, now, whom to call tomorrow and where to post their news.

Really, it all gets back to what my Mason profs said, back in the day: do your work. (With the occasional time-out, of course, to correspond with your alma mater's fiction blog.)


That's all, everyone. Thanks for reading. If you have a chance to attend AWP this year, Liam will be participating in a panel called 'Don't Stand So Close to Me: Controlling Narrative Distance' at noon on Thursday the 12th.

Also, if you haven't yet, please check out the interview that David Heath conducted with Andrew Wingfield.